Written by Forest & Bird
Forest & Bird’s Seabird Conservation Advocate Karen Baird is used to seeing petrels and shearwaters skimming over the waves at sea, rather than having to identify their dead bodies encased in black tar-like lumps of oil.
New Zealand Dotterel is in breeding plumage. The future local breeding population along the Bay of Plenty is uncertain. © Neil Fitzgerald
Karen has been working in conservation for around 25 years and has never before been involved in a similar operation to the Bay of Plenty oil spill disaster.
Since the disaster unfolded, some of her work has been at the Oiled Wildlife Response Centre in Mt Maunganui, identifying dead birds that have been washed ashore in the Bay of Plenty. “When you start doing this work, it is really shocking, they don’t look like birds, they are totally covered in oil.”
“They are brought into the centre in bags and you might find half a dozen stuck together in a tar-like mess.”
But Karen realises the identification work she and other scientists have been doing is essential to try to gauge the impact of the Rena oil spill and its likely long-term effects. “From a conservation point of view, it is important to have an idea of how many birds of a particular species died, especially for some of the more endangered ones,” she said.
“We know where the breeding colonies are, so it will be important to check the colonies of some of the worst affected species.”
The impact of the oil spill is likely to be felt well into the future.
“Many birds from the species that are breeding locally will lose this breeding season and there is the potential to lose next season as well, because some surviving birds are likely to remain in poor health or have damaged breeding ability.”
The dead birds brought into the Oiled Wildlife Response Centre are the tip of the iceberg. “Most of the birds that get covered in oil probably sink and disappear from sight forever,” she said. By late Thursday, more than 900 dead birds had been identified, comprising 23 species. These included 458 diving petrels, 198 fluttering shearwaters, 92 Buller’s Shearwaters, 38 White-faced Storm Petrels and 20 Little Blue Penguins.
Many are likely to have died by drowning, while others probably were killed by cold after the protective waterproof coating on their feathers was stripped away by the fuel oil. Among the victims of the spill, there have been some surprises. The species have included mottled petrels, blue petrels and Antarctic Prions, which are rarely found in the Bay of Plenty area. The response centre was treating around 100 live birds Friday, and looking after three penguin chicks and three seals.
There were also 13 unharmed New Zealand Dotterels being held in a temporary aviary after being taken off their beaches after the oil pollution spread east along the Bay of Plenty coast. New Zealand Dotterels are endangered, with around only 1,500 birds known to exist, and some of their main habitats are found along the Bay of Plenty coast.