The team of Te Papa bird specialists is continuing to help at the wildlife recovery centre in Tauranga as both live and dead oiled birds continue to come ashore 3 weeks after the grounding of the M.V. Rena.
Our job is primarily to make sure that dead birds are correctly identified and, working with Massey University vets, to make an assessment about whether or not they are victims of the oil spill.
The biggest surprise during the last week was finding a dead Chatham Island albatross – a rare species confined to nesting on a single island in the Chatham group. After careful examination, we determined that it was a breeding female but it was not oiled, so its death was probably a natural event unrelated to the grounding of the Rena.
While more than a thousand dead birds were recovered in the first 2 weeks after the grounding, the number found during the last week has now, fortunately, dropped to about 20 per day. While nearly all the live oiled birds found have been little penguins, the most common dead birds (of the approximately 1,300 examined) continue to be petrels – in particular diving petrels, which make up about half of those found. The next most common victims are two species that only breed in New Zealand: fluttering shearwater (about 20%) and Buller’s shearwater (about 10%).
These little penguins are recuperating in a purpose-built swimming pool. Filmed by A. Tennyson, Te Papa
We also examined a dead northern giant petrel that had eaten a lot of milk powder, which we suspect caused its death. Giant petrels are the size of small albatrosses and are well known for their scavenging habits. Many of the containers onboard the Rena contain milk powder, so this may be another unexpected danger for birds resulting from the grounding.
As salvors continue to battle to remove the remaining oil and stabilise the wrecked Rena, we don’t know how much more oil (and milk powder) is going to end up in the sea. It will be difficult to determine the impacts on seabird populations but the information that we are gathering will be a crucial part of this.
By Alan Tennyson, Curator Natural Environment