Rescue numbers were up in July with a total of 42 sick or injured birds receiving help. Swans took the brunt of it with 18 having to be rescued and another two that I released. We managed to save most of those swans, however 3 had a particularly torrid time.
The first story in this report features a good deal of carnage, so brace yourself.
Mayhem on the Pitch
A very distressing sight greeted me upon arrival at Robina cricket ground early one Sunday morning. The oval is surrounded by a waist-high chain link fence. I could see two dead swan out on the grass and a third which was alive but in a bad way.
Above right, the injured swan with one of the dead at left in background
The caller confirmed the two were dead and so I delayed inspecting them to focus on securing the live bird as quickly as possible. She was struggling to walk but did manage to get airborne. Thankfully she couldn’t gain the altitude needed to cross the fence.
Poor thing was traumatised. I’ve never seen a swan so upset. I placed her in the transport box then went to inspect the bodies.
One creature was unmarked with no signs of injury. The other had its head chewed off and part of its backside had been eaten out.
My first thought was multiple dog attack. But a missing head is typical fox. The amount of bird eaten suggested there was only one attacker. I wondered at how one animal could wreak such havoc.
I suspect the birds had flown in and landed on the oval late in the day. There was virtually no way out except by air. At some point during the night Mr Fox must have spotted them, cut off from the water and thought he’d try his luck. Normally a healthy swan is too big for a fox to tackle, but with all three contained inside the perimeter fence the advantage was his. Blinded by darkness and with barely enough room to take off he would have pursued the panicked birds as they dashed around crashing into the fence. He caught the first one and feasted. The second bird appeared to have dropped dead from fright (above left).
The only survivor was staggering around utterly traumatised.
I rushed that bird to hospital, naming her Muffy. I wished her well, then handed her over to staff.
Sadly Muffy didn’t make it either. She died two days later. No obvious injuries. Apparently she just never got over the trauma.
If you’re wondering how a fox could be in Robina, let me tell you they’re everywhere. Not in big numbers in the inner suburbs, but still quite enough to cause trouble.
Help from the Rozzers
It was a happier outcome for a gull spotted by patrons breakfasting at a restaurant on the Labrador foreshore. They could see the gull tethered and struggling on the roof of a party pontoon boat moored about 80m offshore.
At the time I was scoffing a muffin in Main Beach, not too far away. My immediate dilemma was the legality of boarding someone else’s boat. I had a very good reason of course, but it’s still trespass. I try not to cross that line because if things go wrong it could jeopardise the entire rescue service.
So, I called the cops. They have ‘power of entry’. Plus, I’d get a free boat ride. Yeehaaa.
The Water Police base was only 2k’s away on SeaWorld Drive. With Shannon at the helm and Mick as crew we jumped aboard their big, gutsy inflatable and headed for Labrador, 2k’s north.
Turned out the bird wasn’t lashed to the pontoon’s roof by fishing line but had become entangled in streamers tied to the roof for the purpose of scaring gulls away. That’d worked real well … not!
We pulled alongside the vessel then clambered onto the gunwale. I grabbed the gull (struggling on the roof, pic above left) as Mick wielded a knife to cut it free. Back aboard the police boat we carefully cut a tight knot of streamer from the bird’s leg before releasing it unharmed.
This was a good team effort. From the time I took the call in Main Beach to the point of releasing the gull was little more than 30 minutes. Not bad at all thanks to the quick response by water police who’ve always been very helpful.
Pelis, Pelis Everywhere
There was some good pelican saves during July.
Garth and Margaret from the Trash Cat (volunteer waterways clean-up vessel) spotted a hooked peli on their morning walk at Paradise Point. They called immediately and were advised to keep the bird in sight. That’s the most important thing. I can only catch a bird if I know where it is. Even if it strays from the original location I can usually find a way to get to it, as long as someone has it in sight.
Garth went one better. He found a big snapper frame discarded by a fisherman. By picking off tiny pieces of flesh and throwing them to the peli he managed to keep it close for the 25 minutes it took me to get there.
I’d bought two frozen mullet which defrosted in a bucket of hot water during the drive. The peli was standoffish but the tasty mullet helped attract it into range for a net shot. That was the easy part. The dodgy bit was carrying the entangled bird across unstable rocks covered in sharp oysters. One slip would have been ugly.
Turned out to be two hooks, both big; one in the bird’s jaw and another had almost pierced its breathing tube. That’s the big tube at the bottom of a pelican’s pouch (just below my little finger).
Both hooks were rusty meaning they’d been in for a while, but fortunately the barbs were easily nipped off and the shanks backed out. As there was no sign of infection the pelican was released immediately.
VMR to the Rescue
Another lucky peli, called in from waters just south of Tipplers Resort on South Stradbroke Island, was caught with the help of Volunteer Marine Rescue, Southport.
The caller had noticed fishing line coming from the pelican’s wing as it approached their boat. The line appeared to go down and around the bird’s leg.
Getting to South Stradbroke Island is quite a journey and requires a long boat trip. It’s much more difficult than rescuing a gull off Labrador.
I confess that I toyed with the idea of leaving this bird knowing that a small hook in a pelican’s wing is not usually a problem. My reluctance was consolidated when the caller said they couldn’t stay and keep an eye on the bird, meaning I’d have to make the long trip blind, not knowing whether there’d even be a bird to catch when I arrived. I persisted with questions as I weighed the pros and cons. Lucky, because the caller eventually revealed that they’d watched the bird swim to a nearby beach and saw it struggling to walk. That was an immediate game changer. I was instantly on the phone to VMR Southport requesting a boat and a crew.
Ten minutes later I arrived at the VMR base alongside SeaWorld and found skipper Dave with crew members Helen and Jamie ready to go.
We drove the 20k’s north through heavy weekend boat traffic. Would the bird still be there, that was the question?
Upon arrival I quickly spotted two pelicans on the shoreline. Through binocs I could see that one was our bird. Thank you God! (I take back everything I said about You and Your flock of crimson ibises in the last report).
Dave nudged the big vessel onto the shore. I jumped from the bow and walked along the beach towards the peli; ready to set a snare. Wasn’t needed. The pelican showed great interest in my bucket of fish scraps and came hopping over. Draping fish across my hand I entered the water and offered it to him. At first he was umm, arh, umm, before finally taking the plunge and grabbing my hand. That was the best decision he made all day.
Back on the boat we discovered a very serious wrap of braid around the creature’s leg (at left). He was not far off being fully lame. Our first move was nip off those wraps of line. As circulation flooded back into his lame foot movement returned within minutes. Then we set about disentangling fishing line running through his feathers, eventually tracing it back to a large hook in the leading edge of his wing. The hook was old and deeply embedded so I left it for the vets.
Helen named the bird Cedric. He was the sweetest creature and sat happily on my lap for the entire bumpy boat ride back to base. He was so relaxed that I was tempted to let go of his beak, but skipper Dave was seated immediately in front and probably would have got bitten Nothing worse than having to force your pelican to disgorge the skipper 🙂
Cedric spent a week in Currumbin Wildlife Hospital before being released, safe and well.
During the trip back to the VMR base I was reminded of a pelican that had turned up lame at the Charis Seafood’s lunchtime pelican feed about a month earlier. Staff delayed calling me for hours. Slack and indifferent. By then it was too late and I couldn’t find the peli. Worried, I began a lengthy search by boat the following morning which also failed to locate the bird.
I was dark about this. Lameness is nearly always the result of an embedded fish hook or an entanglement, meaning the bird was in real trouble. Unless located and caught it would die.
(From left. Jamie, Helen holding Cedric and Skipper Dave)
Thinking back it’s likely the bird seen by Charis staff was Cedric. He’d probably dropped into the feed for the day then flown straight back to Straddie. That’s why I couldn’t find him locally. I shudder when I think it’s often only the one caller phoning to get help for an injured bird, yet the beach at Stradbroke was brimming with people. Hadn’t they seen Cedric limping? Still, one caller is all it takes.
Speaking of Charis Seafoods
You may remember last month I said I’d write to Leeanne Enoch, Minister in charge of DES (Dept. of Environment and Sciences), asking her to intervene over the Dept.’s delay in making arrangements for supervision to protect pelicans at the lunchtime feed.
Anywhere between 30 and 130 birds arrive at the feed daily for a free handout of fish frames. Many days, especially during weekends and summer school holidays, the pelicans are subjected to some pretty awful treatment when they approach the shoreline. Tourists feed them hot chips; kids throw sand at them and sometimes rocks. Bird’s come ashore in anticipation of food and are chased mercilessly.
I wrote to the Minister because my recent letters to DES about this behaviour and my demands for urgent action, dating back to late November of last year, go unanswered and no action has yet been taken.
The response I got from the Minister’s representative was probably the most dismissive I’ve ever received from a politician … and that really is saying something! Basically they told me that everything was being handled by DES in accordance with the regulations and any decision about protection for the pelicans would be made clear to Charis Seafoods in due course. In otherwords they saw no place for me in the conversation.
I’ll reply to the Minister shortly and be assured my response will be stinging. Her party is due to contest a State election mid-next year. Those of us who care about wildlife and the environment don’t want, nor can we afford, people in office who cover for the inadequacies of Dept.’s under their control instead of addressing genuine problems. Unless we break that cycle Australia will retain the unenviable title … ‘Extinction Nation’.
Everyone Loves a Swimming Pool
Nurse Rene sent me this pic of the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital waterbird’s pool. This is where birds in recovery await clearance for release.
Turns out all these residents are ‘my’ birds, except for one pelican.
Pelis from left are Cedric (from the VMR story above). Richard, a ‘Mexican’ from across the border in Tweed. Finally there’s Rinso who was on his last legs when I netted him in Southlake Robina. Rinso is whiter than most pelicans, hence the name.
The two swans are Miss Pringle on the left and Petal. The Pacific black duck in the left foreground is Plum Sauce. I caught him in upper Coomera just after the school hols, suffering from a nasty fish hook in the face.
In hospital they call him Plum. That’s because Dr. Fumi, who is Asian, was mortified when she read the name I’d written on his admission sheet. She even called to ask, ‘did I know how delicious that was?’ ‘Well yeah Foom’, I answered, ‘I do, but we’re not planning on eating him!’. ‘No of course not’, she said, ‘but I still can’t bring myself to call him that name, so it will have to be Plum’.
Naming fiascos aside I’m happy to report that little Plum (Sauce) is doing very well.
Can’t Keep a Good Bird Down
Have you noticed the proliferation of Facebook pages devoted to ‘Our Favourite Bird’?
I mean, I’ve always thought of them as Aussie Icons, but their recent popularity has exceeded even my wildest expectations.
While most FB pages make ‘tongue in beak’ comments about ibis, I’m proud that for 15 years Wild Bird Rescues has pursued a relentless agenda to save their toes. Dunno how many toes I’ve saved but with your help this service has caught at least 700 ibis over the years, rescuing them from fishing line strangulation which usually maims or kills. I reckon we must’ve saved at least 2000 ibis toes. Surely Guinness would be interested in that?
In fact I just read that ‘our bird’ was so revered in ancient Egypt that people convicted of killing a sacred ibis (yes, that’s their official name) were given the death penalty. Not good enough for ’em I reckon!
You might enjoy a Facebook page called ‘I am Not a Bin Chicken’. Their catch cry is … ‘Love me or hate me. I am not a bin chicken. I am a survivor’. Not the least bit surprised to learn that ibis penned that hit for Destiny’s Child.
The Sydney Comedy Festival had a show in May called, ‘Your City, Our Bins’ which claimed amongst other things to, ‘bravely champion the rights of ibis’. They made the point that ibis don’t like to be called bin chickens and prefer to be knows as ‘Refuse Egrets’.
Another FB page, ‘Silly Ibises Peforming Unusual Activities’, asks the important questions like, ‘do ibis do it on the first date?’ Naturally I avoid anything of a sexual nature concerning ‘our bird’ because that’s just too creepy. However, for the record, 88% of followers said YES which begs the question, how do they know?. Even creepier.
It’s pretty clear that ibis are here to stay and Wild Bird Rescues and its supporters are here to look after them (so suck on that you ibis haters!)
I had big hopes the pair of rare and precious beach-stone curlews, which spent so much time this winter on the mid-north side of Curlew Island, would nest. (CI is 300m due east of the Grand Hotel on the Labrador foreshore) They haven’t nested there for many years.
However, all hopes were dashed one morning when a guy pulled in in his boat and let his dog loose. I was in the area and so shot over in my dinghy and explained that the endangered birds were 150m down the beach to his left and asked if he’d mind running his dog to the right. He seemed accepting of this but a few minutes later, while I was on the Labrador foreshore waiting to pick up Lyn Wright, the custodian and tireless campaigner for Federation Walk leading to The Spit, I looked back to the island and the guy was nowhere to be seen. There was only one place he could be. Yep, you guessed it.
Lyn and I pulled into the island 15 minutes later and … no curlews. Instead we found foot and paw prints leading straight to where the birds had been standing only half an hour earlier. What a sad thing. They’d both flown and to my knowledge haven’t been back to the island since.
More dog walkers appeared over the next few days but the coup de gras came when a group of tents sprung up for a night or two during school holidays right where the curlews roost. Those campers must have been hardy souls because the area transforms into a swarm of midges come sundown. Didn’t stop them from wrecking the place though. They cut down branches and chopped trees then dug two fire pits which they left full of empties and aluminium trays.
I think most people scratch their head over the antics of those who spend time in a place they obviously enjoy and then trash it before leaving. I don’t get it.
On a brighter note . A couple of weeks later Jenna from SeaWorld sent me a pic from her phone showing a beach-stone curlew foraging on the flats at low tide outside their hospital (below). Beaudy! That beach is fairly inaccessible to the public and not a spot where people typically pull in by boat. No doubt the BSC is fully aware of all that too, which is why he was there.
My guess is the bird is one of the kids born to the pair on Curlew Island 5 years ago. Meaning it’s either Yuki or Whiskers.
I headed up to SeaWorld by boat the next day and sure enough there he was tucked into some scrub (at right), but still on full alert for intruders, as they always are. I remained 50m offshore so as not to disturb him.
I say ‘him’ but I don’t know what gender. If I’d been able to observe the bird while it was foraging I might have got a look at his toes. Yuki had the right toe on his left foot amputated in hospital after becoming entangled in fishing line.
This BSC remained on the flats off SeaWorld for a week or so but seems to have moved on. It’s the close proximity to Curlew Island, literally only 400m across the channel, that makes me think the bird was born in the area and returns, probably quite regularly. Just another reason why Curlew Island is so worthy of protection.
Cathy from Robina wrote to me in distress saying …
‘Hi Rowley, I live on Kuringai Park, Robina and am quite concerned about the swans here. I saw a man, who I approached, but he could not speak English. He had seven fishing lines along the lake front all spread out without any chance of seeing if he had tangled a swan. He knew this was unacceptable, but continued. We had two swans in the lake an adult and a fairly advanced cygnet, which disappeared after 2 days’.
I replied saying this problem has haunted all swans in fresh water lakes on the Goldie since long before I began rescuing. I explained the fisher was only one line over his limit and that he was permitted under current fishing rules to set six fishing lines strung out as far as he liked along the bank and walk away and right out of sight, if he wanted. No fisher can control six lines even if holding them all in his hands.
I explained that WBR had a campaign underway to reduce the number of fishing lines allowed in all waters to a max of 2 per person and require that fishers stay with their lines at all times. This would greatly reduce the high incidence of hookings among waterbirds and the huge cost of catching and repairing injured birds, not to mention the suffering.
Cathy has joined our campaign and written to the Director-General of Fisheries, Dr. Beth Woods, asking her to change the laws immediately. I’m about to formulate my regular monthly letter to the good Director just so she knows that pressure will remain until she does something about these outdated and destructive laws.
You can help. Even if you’ve written before please do so again and remind Dr. Woods that we need change now. Be a squeaky wheel.
Send your complaint to the Director-General, Dept. of Agriculture and Fisheries QLD, Dr. Beth Woods firstname.lastname@example.org. CC it to The Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries QLD, Mark Furner email@example.com and also to recreational fisheries officer Tony Ham firstname.lastname@example.org
A Lucky Escape
I haven’t had to catch a beak-entangled darter for some time, not since that horror run last year when I rescued 6 in as many weeks!
Usually I only rescue 2 or 3 entangled darter a year, but even that’s too many.
You may remember that a darter’s ‘Achilles heel’ is the serrations inside the last half of its beak.
The bird uses its sharp beak to spear fish underwater: the serrations helping to retain the catch. Problem is those serrations retain everything else too. I’ve cut plastic mesh bags off a darter’s beak; kids sox, stockings, fishing line of all types (esp braid); fluffy mattress like material … you name it. Once a material gets trapped in those serrations it locks the beak shut and the bird can’t eat, slowly starving over the next couple of weeks. It becomes a race against time and is hectic for the rescuer, not to mention the bird!
I felt dread when the call came in about a darter with fluffy material on its beak standing on a lake-side fence surrounding a property in a gated community in Southport. ‘Oh no, here we go again’. I don’t mind the effort it takes to catch them but I hate the stress and responsibility I feel knowing the bird will die if I can’t. At least the bird’s location was close by. I knew the caretaking at the complex having rescued several swans in that lake over the years. He’s always been helpful.
(Darter above is not the bird in this story but was suffering from a very similar entanglement. It took 3 days to catch him and remove that fatal cotton wad)
The caller on this day had the bird in sight. I was there within 15 minutes. Darter are very standoffish and won’t allow anyone near but this bird seemed fairly relaxed standing just 10m away on the fence, separated by a narrow canal. I couldn’t tell what material was around its beak but there was plenty of it. Hopefully I could hit the bird with one net shot. What a relief that would be.
It wasn’t to be. The shot went wide and the bird took off. Darter fly well and can hold their breath underwater for several minutes after which time they usually pop up 100m away. That’s what this bird did. Those abilities make them extremely difficult to catch, however a rescuer does have one advantage; namely that darter choose a couple of sunny spots where they always return and dry their feathers between fishing trips. If I could identify those places I’d be in with a chance. (Pic above features our WBR inflatable kayak, a super handy vessel for this type of rescue)
Two days later, while inspecting the shoreline from my kayak, I came across him standing on the same fence just a bit further along. I tethered the boat and called to the homeowners asking them to go inside and hide while a shot a net at their house. (Luckily most people are good sports and care about wildlife in trouble!). Paddling slowly I made my move towards the bird and took the shot from 9m out: a good range.
It was a cracking shot and the net smothered him completely as it draped over the fence, then I watched in horror as he wriggled and dropped out the bottom before I could grab him.
Things were going from bad to worse. Two scary nets blasts directly at a bird which already avoids people meant I really had my work cut out for me.
Two days later I was out in the kayak hunting for the darter again. It was late and there was no sign, then just before dusk I spotted him hauling out onto a rock wall to dry his feathers. He took one look at me and did a double take, so I stayed well back. That’s when I saw his beak. There was nothing on it. I checked through binocs before snapping some pics.
Oh, happy days. In my experience darter are NEVER able to remove an entanglement from their beak so this bird (at right) was exceptionally lucky. His feathers did look a bit manky though. Probably old, but still a beautiful creature.
Cover Your Mullet
Make no mistake wildlife rescue can be dangerous; very dangerous, especially for the inexperienced male rescuer going out the first time, brimming with confidence and determined to do good.
A particular risk for this demographic is the swan rescue.
A newbie might approach the banks of a lake with confidence hoping to locate a hooked bird said to be in the area.
Swans are easy to attract with food and so that’s what he does. Scattering food all around they soon arrive. Moving into ankle deep water, scanning the pack of expectant faces immediately in front, he may fail to spot the injured bird. Maybe it’s further out? Raising binoculars he zooms in on swans swimming just offshore; his gaze going from one bird to another looking for that tell-tale glint of a hook, or the shiny sparkle of fishing line.
This is when it can all go pear shaped.
Swans are not patient birds, especially when it comes to food. They’ve swum over for the tucker. They’re not interested in floating around waiting on some Bozo who’s holding ‘their snack’ just out of reach while he stares into some mysterious device, completely ignoring ‘their needs’. That won’t do. So, it’s only a matter of time before one inches a little closer and attempts to grab the rescuers attention by administering a sharp peck on his willy. Whether it’s the height of a swan’s head that facilitates such a debilitating strike, or deliberate intention by the bird, or just a lucky shot, I’m not sure. What I can tell you is that it never fails to do the trick.
The rescuer, henceforth referred to as ‘the victim’, will instantly lurch backwards before gathering his senses and stumbling towards the beach. Having reached a point of relative safety he’ll conduct a quick review of his commitment to wildlife rescue. ‘Jesus, nobody told me about this’!
Sadly, what I’ve described is ‘best case scenario’. If during the course of that heinous attack the evil creature, henceforth known as ‘the assailant’, gets lucky and snags a ‘bonus’ gooly during the strike, the trauma rises to a whole new level; something akin to national emergency, at least from ‘the victims’ point of view.
Several things happen at once. Firstly, the hips jerk violently backwards while the upper body jerks forward; the knees buckle and he goes down, losing his grip on binoculars, car keys, mobile phone and worst of all the food he’s holding: food the ‘the assailants’ rightfully consider to be theirs. As he hits the water they attack, red beaks flashing, splashing and gnashing all trying to get their fair share of the tucker. It’s not unlike one of those piranha feeding frenzies you see on the Discovery Channel.
Landing in cold water does bring ‘the victim’ to his senses. He’ll scramble to recover the thousand dollars’ worth of electronics and fine optics which by now are almost certainly cactus. If luck is on his side (it hasn’t been so far) he’ll at least stumble ashore with his car keys.
Understandably he’s now harbouring a growing desire for revenge. Forget about it. No hope of identifying the perpetrator. That bird has long ago melded back into the pack and become invisible. All ‘the victim’ sees is a collection of red beaks staring at him from the water, expecting more food. Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
That’s not the end of it for our newbie. Oh no, not by a long shot.
Safely on the beach his next move will be to glance around hoping there were no witnesses. Any he discovers will likely be convulsed. But the real peril will be any person holding a camera. If they got it all on film he’ll be an internet sensation before he even gets home, and for all the wrong reasons.
Now, in the interests of honest disclosure I confess to never having been on the receiving end of a ‘level two’ attack, as just described. ‘Level one’, oh yeah, and let me tell you I’ve grown as a human being because of it. 🙂
These have been just a handful of the 42 stories from July. Thank you for supporting Wild Bird Rescues. This service has been in a good position financially for some time but I notice the coffers are dwindling so I’m about to commence a donations drive; something I haven’t had to do for a whole twelve months. Donations help with costs. No wages are paid in this service. If you can help it would be much appreciated. www.wildbirdrescues.com.au/donations
Thanks always to our patron Jim Downs and to Liz and Paul on the Donations Committee.
Until next time
Pres. Wild Bird Rescues GOLD COAST