A day at Tauranga's Wildlife Rescue Centre
Published: Sun, 16 Oct 2011
The Wildlife Rescue Centre and – in particular – its post mortem tent really drives home just what an effect the oil spill has had on Tauranga wildlife.
As of Sunday afternoon, 1018 deceased birds had been collected from the beaches and brought to be processed at the centre.
Work is underway on more pools and enclosures, as those that have survived are rehabilitated in preparation for release.
So far 130 little blue penguins have been brought in to the centre alive – 55 of which have been completely cleaned. Just one little blue penguin has died as a result of the oil.
Meanwhile, 28 dotterels have been captured as a pre-emptive measure and will be kept at the centre until it is safe to release them, chief vet Brett Gartrell says. Though when that will be, no one is sure.
Of the oiled birds at the centre, the youngest patients are three little blue penguins that are less than a week old. Mum and dad were both found “100 percent covered in oil”, bird rehab manager Bill Smith says. The birds will be hand reared then released into the wild when they’re strong enough to fend for themselves.
It’s not known yet just what the long-term effect of the oil spill will be on the birds.
Every bird – dead or alive – that arrives at the centre is processed at the Intake Tent.
Records of where and when the birds are found are taken for re-release purposes.
The birds are also given a superficial decontamination – removing oil from eyes etc – and a blood sample is taken. The oil can make the birds anaemic, so the blood sample allows the vets to monitor this, as well as any other toxic effects the oil might have on them.
The help here is a mixture of volunteers, wildlife experts and vets.
“We’re combining national expertise, with local help,” says Dr Gartrell.
More than 130 birds have arrived at the centre so far, which now has the ability to treat up to 500 birds. The majority of the birds currently in the centre are little blue penguins.
Four seals are also currently in the centre, three of which will be released in the next few days.
It takes around 1000L of water to wash each oil-covered bird – and most of them aren’t happy about it.
We stood in the washing area as a number of birds went through various stages of the cleaning process, squawking and wriggling about.
Dr Gartrell explained that it is probably not very comfortable for them, but it’s vital that those washing the birds make sure they get all the oil out.
Canola oil is used to lift the fuel out of the birds’ feathers and coat, followed by a complete wash with detergent and water – which is warmed to 41 degrees Celsius – and a rinse.
The whole process takes between 30 – 40 minutes.
Cleaned bird room
Once washed, the birds are taken to the cleaned bird room, where they are placed in crates under warm lamps to dry off and “have a snooze”.
I asked how they keep the families together. Little blue penguins are very social, so keeping them together with their families isn’t really an issue, Dr Gartrell says.
“They’re quite happy to snuggle up with one another and have a snooze.”
We were also lucky enough to meet the centre’s youngest patients here; three little blue penguins that are less than a week old – still snuggled up together in the beanie they were brought in.
“The woman who found them left me a message this morning; she wants the beanie back,” bird rehab manager Bill Smith said. “She reckons it’s a lucky hat now.”
The little blue penguins are taken to the swimming pool three to four times a day.
This encourages them to preen and restore waterproofing in their coats.
It’s hard to tear yourself away from the pool and the little penguins seem to love the attention; ducking and diving – even popping up on the ledge from time to time to get a closer look at all the camera lenses pointed at them.
“This is where we bring workers who are looking a bit stressed,” says Dr Gartrell. “It’s impossible to frown when you’re watching these guys.”
The stench in the post-mortem tent is overwhelming – and the sight is heartbreaking.
Birds that have succumbed to the oil are placed in plastic crates here for sorting and identification.
Some are covered in so much oil that it is near impossible to identify their species, says Dr Susan Waugh – a Senior Curator for Natural Environment at Te Papa.
A crate behind me is proof of this; marked “don’t know”, it is filled with three or four birds coated in thick, black oil.
Dr Waugh is part of the group of experts whose job it is to identify the species of each bird that is brought in, count them and store them.
The birds range from “fully oiled, to just a few drops”, she explains.
We are shown a wandering albatross – covered in so much oil, it is barely recognisable as the majestic, white-winged bird it once was.
“It’s a widespread issue,” Dr Waugh says. “And the knock-on effects are likely to be felt for decades.”
It’s hard to put a figure on exactly how many birds have died or which species is worst hit, she says.
Hundreds of diving shearwater have been brought in but for the black petrel – with such a small population – the death of a dozen could have a big impact, Dr Waugh says.
“Plus, we don’t know how many will just die out at sea.”
So far, the wind has been bringing the birds on shore.
Plight of marine life devastating for helpers
IAIN McGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
The little animal lies limp, before being taken away to a coolstore to wait its turn.
Flies hover above the rows of white bins that fill the area, each containing a bird – drowned or smothered by sticky black sludge.
On the floor, the contorted corpse of an albatross is being prepared for a post-mortem exam.
"No bird could survive anything like that level of oil coverage," expert Sandy Bartel says. "And there are hundreds as bad as this."
Te Papa's former bird curator is speaking from the autopsy tent at the National Oiled Wildlife Recovery Unit, where each bird has to be identified, catalogued and kept.
Now retired, Bartle volunteered to travel to Tauranga. He holds up a black mess, turning its head gently.
"This is a fluttering shearwater I think, but I'm struggling to identify it, it's so badly coated." The bird is just one of nearly 1000 found dead and taken to the centre.
"It's devastating," Te Papa senior curator Susan Waugh says. "And it's not just about the Bay of Plenty. Other birds fly into the area to feed and they get trapped too. It's not a localised problem. We're going to have some significant population issues ahead."
World Wildlife Fund marine biologist Bob Zuur said there were also 110 birds – mainly little blue penguins – that needed to recover from repeated washes before they could be released. He says the penguins' situation is complicated.
"If we find an oiled penguin on its nest and collect it for cleaning, you could save its life, but it will probably mean its clutch won't be reared this season. But if you leave it, it might die and the clutch would die anyway."
Although some seals had died, three live seals at the centre are likely be released in the next few days.