Animal Care Supervisor of Birds and the Artificial Nest Development Project Coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Kevin Graham, guest blogs on ZooHoo!
After spending a day at the African penguin artificial nest manufacturing facility, it was time to head to Addo South African National Parks (SANParks) to meet the Marine Ranger team. This entailed an arduous drive along a pitted dirt road to the departure point for the helicopter that would ferry all of us across the ocean to our first penguin colony, Bird Island.
The artificial nests destined for this round of installation on Bird Island had arrived the day before, or at least most of them had. As is often the case, the reality of a situation doesn’t always match up with the plan that was put into place.
The group arrived at the “helipad,” a flat clearing in the middle of the massive sand dunes that’s used to land the helicopter and sling equipment over to the island. The artificial nest team members met the Addo SANParks Section Ranger, the island Colony Manager and a team of marine rangers and other local staff for a rules briefing. Bird Island is a destination that very few people have the opportunity to visit – it’s not accessible to the public at any time, and in normal circumstances the only people lucky enough to spend time on it are either rangers or field researchers that have received authorization. Our strong working relationship with Addo SANParks over the years allowed the nest project to do something that is extremely rare – bring a large team of non-locals to the island to work.
With all of the gear, supplies and equipment ready, we had nothing left to do but eagerly await the arrival of the helicopter. The pilot has worked closely with Addo SANParks for quite a long time and is extremely helpful with access to the island. The only ways to get to Bird Island are via helicopter or by a boat trip that can range from two to five hours each way, depending on water conditions.
Several flights would be needed to transport the nests and the remaining supplies to the island, with the weight slung in a cargo net beneath the helicopter. The maximum weight capacity for the airlift on a calm day is only about 550 kilograms, the equivalent of 37 completed nests. We had 300 nests ready to be transported, in addition to the necessary supplies to survive four days on an island with little in the way of amenities. We estimated that we’d need approximately 10 trips across to carry all of the people, supplies, nests, and equipment.
The forecasted calm weather gradually turned into high winds after a couple trips across the ocean, which caused excessive air turbulence. This meant that fewer nests moved per airlift. The wind also didn’t cooperate on the next couple of days, so the remaining nests weren’t able to be transported until Friday, Feb. 22. Unfortunately, this was the last day the artificial nest group was slated to be on the island. On the plus side, the Marine Ranger team from Addo SANParks was trained in the assembly method for the nests and are familiar with the process of placing the nests correctly.
Members of the artificial nest team worked from early morning to the end of the day on any and every task that needed to be accomplished during our four-day stay on Bird Island. This included assembling the 35-pound artificial nests, carrying them into the colony from the boat house on the far end of the island, updating and maintaining the precision electronics used to monitor the nests, cleaning up marine debris, surveying for sick and/or injured birds, removing the older, ineffective nests from many years ago, GPS tagging of the new nests, and documenting the work. With the help of the dedicated Marine Ranger team from Addo SANParks, the nests were assembled and moved into place for the penguins to begin using. Since we had the equipment and knowledge, the nest team members also were able to work on the desalination plant for the island, which had been broken and unusable recently.
In the long run, the four days of work went off mostly without a hitch, and everything that was intended to be finished was accomplished.
And, if you’re wondering if all of this is worthwhile… within 24 hours of the new nests being put into place, the occupancy rate was already 57%. In a massive surprise to all of us, one overly ambitious hen even laid an egg in a new nest less than half a day after it was placed. The feeling of awe is overwhelming, watching her look for somewhere she could safely incubate her egg and potentially raise a chick. It’s even more so when we realize we’ll provide thousands of birds this same opportunity of safely raising their offspring during the course of the project.
And on that note, we’ll be leaving Port Elizabeth to head to the Western Cape, where we’ll work in several more colonies. But first: a very long, very hot shower for us to wash about three inches of dirt away.