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Nurturing our Natives

24 August 2018
Nurturing our Natives

Karen Saunders’ love of birds started at a very young age. As a four-year-old, she lived on a farm and recalls sharing a special moment with a falcon that started a deep love and respect for its species.

“It looked at me and I could just feel its eyes bore into my soul. It was like it was looking inside me,” she says. Ever since then, Karen has been captivated. She spent her childhood rescuing injured birds and nursing them back to health. But despite caring for birds from a young age, it wasn’t until two years ago that Karen turned her passion into a full-time pursuit.

With the possibility of redundancy looming before her, a neighbour asked Karen: “What would you do if you could do anything in the world?” The answer was immediately clear – she wanted to work with birds as a full-time venture.

Karen set about making her dream a reality. She enrolled in a bird rescue 101 course to learn the ropes. There and then, she decided she would start her own bird rescue centre. “That day changed my life,” says Karen. “It was the beginning of this wonderful and challenging vocation.”

Native Bird Rescue - Waiheke Island founder Karen Saunders
Native Bird Rescue - Waiheke Island founder Karen Saunders

The beginning

Armed with her learning, Karen founded Native Bird Rescue – Waiheke Island, a small volunteer-driven bird rescue centre. The past two years have been a huge learning curve for her. At the beginning, she needed a lot of support from local bird experts. Now, she’s an expert in her own right.

Along with a team of volunteers, including avian wildlife veterinarian Bryan Gartrell, Karen works to rescue and rehabilitate sick, injured or orphaned birds.

They’re well known around the island and will often have calls from members of the public to rescue a bird in need, or have injured birds brought to them. It’s not an easy job – during the busy months, Karen works 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Fortunately, she has the support of the community, as well as a dedicated team of volunteers. They rally behind the centre and assist in many different ways, helping to build aviaries for the birds, and lending a helping hand during the busy summer months.

The stories that stand out

Native Bird Rescue – Waiheke Island sees kereru, gulls, gannets, morepork, and many more native birds come into its care. But for Karen there are certain rescue cases that stand out.

One of these is Jimi the kaka. It was night-time when Karen received a call from a member of the public, who had sighted a bird with a badly broken wing. Karen hot-footed it to Jimi’s rescue, and discovered the poor bird was in a bad way. It was clear he needed surgery, so Jimi was taken to Auckland Zoo’s veterinary hospital. Jimi underwent multiple surgeries to repair the fracture that was close to his joint. It was touch and go for a while, but miraculously he pulled through.

Jimi’s surgical recovery took ten weeks and he was then sent to Native Bird Rescue’s centre for many more weeks of rehabilitation. As part of his recovery, Jimi underwent physiotherapy, which involved flying around the aviary to build up his strength. Eventually, Jimi was ready to be released back into the Waiheke bush. For Karen, this is one of the best parts of the job – releasing a bird, one who has come so close to death, back into the wild.

Jimi the Kaka.
Jimi the Kaka.

A tale of two lovebirds

Tickle and Roimata were brought to the Native Bird Rescue centre at the beginning of the year – two of approximately 38 blue penguins that arrived at the centre this summer.

“Roimata was rescued and came into our care in mid-January. At a mere 306 g she was only a third of her ideal weight. She was close to death from starvation,” Karen recalls.

Another young weak penguin, Tickle, was brought in a month later, and the male and female birds bonded. After two months of rehabilitation and care, it was time for Tickle to be released. Due to the bond between the two, Tickle was reluctant to leave, swimming around the cage and talking to Roimata. Karen removed Roimata from the cage and put her back in her travelling container – only then did Tickle decide it was time to go.

Ten days later at the same beach, Tickle came swimming over to the cage. It was decided to bring him back into care and give him a thorough check to see how he had been coping back in the wild. Unfortunately, Tickle had lost weight and was sent to Auckland Zoo’s veterinary hospital for tests. He returned with a clean bill of health – now it was time to help him gain weight and have another attempt at release. After another two months of rehabilitation and care, Tickle and Roimata, along with two other penguins, Taitei and Pingu, became part of a ‘soft-release’ programme. This was the first of its kind for little blue penguins in New Zealand.

Karen and a centre volunteer examine a juvenile gannet.
Karen and a centre volunteer examine a juvenile gannet.

Back to the wild

The soft-release programme involves a covered, gated enclosure. Fresh water and fish are provided every day, and the penguins are unable to leave until their temporary home becomes imprinted. All going well, after seven to ten days, the gate is left open, enabling the penguins to leave of their own free will. Normally used for other bird species, it was decided this softrelease programme was the right option to give the penguins the best possible chance of successfully returning to the wild.

“The penguins were not physically fit to swim long distances to find food, so the soft release means we can support them as they adapt to being in the wild,” says Karen.

The penguins’ enclosure was set up above a private bay, several metres up the bank from the rocks. This gave easy access to the water when it was time for the gate to be left open. While Taitei and Pingu left almost immediately, Tickle remained for a few more days until he decided he was ready to leave. Roimata, however, was hesitant. “With the programme, we were able to give her the option to integrate into the wild. Sadly, it didn’t work out – she was reluctant to leave her enclosure even after a week,” says Karen.

After discussions with the zoo team and the Department of Conservation, Roimata was transferred to Auckland Zoo to join the penguin colony there – and hopefully find a new love interest. “But at least this way we gave her a chance. If we’d just released her and left her on her own, she would have died,” Karen notes.

Roimata and Tickle

The centre's future

With hundreds of successful rescues under her belt, Karen’s not done yet. The next plan is to expand the Native Bird Rescue – Waiheke Island headquarters. Currently the centre operates out of her house, but thanks to some much-appreciated funding, they are halfway to their goal of a new dedicated centre.

The long-term vision is to move to a purpose-built space which will have a special viewing area, where visitors can watch the birds being cared for and learn more about the importance of caring for our environment and our diverse native species.

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