Two Shearwaters’ journey back to freedom

September 13, 2016 12:09 pm

Throughout spring and summer we often receive phone calls from people who are concerned about baby birds they find. It’s mostly sparrow fledglings, for which the answer is always the same: leave them where they are, baby sparrows are better off in nature, with their parents, not with people. Occasionally we get something else, like a swift. They often fall to the ground and, unlike sparrows, need to be hand-reared. But still, swifts, are quite common.

So it was quite surprising when on the 1st of May, I got a phone call from somebody who rescued a baby bird from the sea, at Blue Grotto. I was admittedly, quite confused – it was the last day of monitoring the spring migration, had not had a proper night of sleep in a month – and it caught me by surprise! There is only a handful of species breeding in Malta, and of these even fewer close to the sea. I thought it might have been a Yellow-legged Gull from Filfla – where the species is happily breeding after years of absence – or perhaps just a pigeon, since the species often uses the cliffs as their nesting grounds.

I really wasn’t expecting a Yelkouan Shearwater, one of the three seabird species in Malta and the most threatened bird in the country, but that is definitely what I found when I got to Blue Grotto. Its beak is the only distinctive feature in a bird that otherwise just looks like a ball of grey fluff, and the little tiny tubes on its beak clearly identify it as a member of Procellaridae, the “storm birds”.

The family who found it dried it with a towel, and then placed it in the shade as they waited for our
arrival. The chick was tiny – comfortably fitting in my hand and was too young to be scared by people.  Shearwaters don’t really interact with people in their life history and therefore innate fear of humans is not part of their behaviour. As I drove back to the office the chick sat on the passenger’s side while I thought what to do with it – it’s the first time a shearwater chick is rescued in Malta, and I have no idea what to do.

1. Baħar a few days old (Photo by BirdLife Malta)First thing, water. It’s a hot day, the bird has been out of its nest in a burrow for a few hours, it’s very likely it’s dehydrated. I fill up a small plastic syringe and give the tiny bird some water. Now it was time to start to think about a longer-term plan. I started going through online archives of scientific research looking for instructions, but it quickly became clear that nobody has hand-reared a Yelkouan Shearwater before. What I do find is some solid guidelines developed in a translocation project for Fluttering Shearwaters, a similar species from New Zealand, which has been the target of very aggressive, very hands-on conservation work aimed at counteracting the damage caused by predatory invasive rats. Rats are able to wipe out entire colonies of seabirds, and New Zealand has been extremely innovative in developing control programmes to get rid of invasive rats and protect their disappearing native species.

So I go through the detailed guidelines, and I figure out that the best food for a baby shearwater is, guess what? Tinned sardines! Just mix them in water and give them to the chick with a syringe and a feeding tube. Sounds easy enough. And indeed, the chick responded very well to the feeding and was not bothered by having a plastic tube inserted in its beak – the procedure is remarkably similar to what actually happens in the wild. I was very happy with the way things go when I feed the chick for the first time – everything goes smoothly, and then it sneezes fishy oil all over my face! And people think conservation is a glamorous job…

A few days pass, with the chick spending most of its time sleeping in its cardboard box, hidden in the pretend burrow made with crumpled newspapers. It starts gaining weight, but its down doesn’t look too good. There were some flakes around its neck in its down when I first got it, but the down began to thin and the skin underneath it seemed to be flaking more. This could have been due to a number of things – stress, some micronutrient missing from its current diet, a bug. I spoke with our vet and we decided to treat it as stress and opted to reduce any contact to the very essential, and use a mild antibiotic cream on the skin around its face and neck.

It was a tense few days but after a while, thankfully, a few tiny new feathers began to come up with a healthy layer of skin under it. Phew! That is, coincidentally, the day the phone rings again. It’s Carmel, the boatman who ferries our seabirds team to Filfla every summer when it’s time to ring the little Storm Petrels that breed on the island…And he has another baby shearwater! 3-carmel-a-few-weeks-old-photo-by-birdlife-malta

We send a rescue team out immediately and the new chick quickly goes through the procedure – weighed, hydrated, and fed. I do not like naming wild animals when they are in my care or the object of my studies, but in this case it will get confusing with two shearwater chicks. I call the first one Baħar, meaning ‘sea’ in Maltese, and the second one Carmel – the boatman was really proud of the rescue, showing some attachment to the chick, so we asked if we could name it after him.

Carmel – the chick, not the boatman – was larger and older than Baħar. It is, however, tremendously underweight. No fat reserves at all and very little muscle. Carmel was hungry so I proceed to feed him with fatty, oily fish. Even if it is older, it had no problem with the new feeding procedure, and it quickly gained a lot of weight, with up to 27 grams a day in the first few days, against Baħar’s average weight gain of five. I take that as a good sign, as well as a clue on the reason why these chicks were outside of the nest.

I had been thinking that it was odd that we never got chicks before, what is happening that brings chicks in the water? We thought about burrows collapsing into the sea, maybe an attempt of the chicks to escape predation by a rat, but the most likely option is that, for some reason, the chicks have been abandoned by their parents, very likely after they died while feeding at sea.

Carmel’s discovery – an older, extremely underweight chick – supports this hypothesis. There is no way to be certain with this little amount of data, obviously, but my interpretation is that the parents died, causing Carmel – and, likely, Baħar as well – to starve to the point its instincts kicked in and pushed it out of the burrow. This is, after all, what would normally happen later on, when the parents abandon their ready-to-fledge chicks in order for them to get hungry enough that they decide to jump off the cliff and learn how to fly.

The following days start to merge into each other. Their squeaking accompanies every waking moment, everything smells like fish, and there’s soft grey down everywhere. I start integrating their diet with whole whitebait fish, which the chicks are able to swallow very easily. And then, the first adult feathers start to show up, peeking out of the down. The two chicks slowly start changing – the down falls off, a sleek coat of grey feathers under it but they still act … childishly, constantly begging for food. It takes more than two months for them to reach fledging wing length and weight. By then, we had prepared two wooden nest boxes down the cliffs, both fitted with a camera and a little gate that will stop them from wandering around in their first few days.

The second phase be2-bahar-growing-stronger-everyday-photo-by-birdlife-maltagins and I have a plan: we bring the chicks down the cliffs, place them in the nest boxes, and only feed them every couple of days. After a few days we will open the nest boxes, allowing them to explore the surrounding area, and then to go back to the box they should have by then imprinted on. After a week, we will stop feeding them, again mimicking the process as it happens in nature – the chicks, by then ready to fly, will get hungry enough that they will make the jump, fledge, and learn how to fish at sea.

After placing the chicks in their new home in the cliffs, we continued to monitor and feed them. The cave is quiet, except for the waves crashing against the cliff and the cries of the other shearwaters all around. Everytime one of us goes down to feed them, they respond to human voices by squeaking very loudly. This is not some form of imprinting and they are not attached to their handlers – they simply know that they have to beg 4-carmel-a-few-days-before-the-release-photo-by-birdlife-maltafor food, exactly as they would with their parents.

It was an intense few weeks but everything was pointing in the right direction. Baħar and Carmel were growing and the camera records them crawling out of the boxes to exercise their wings. The fledging day is coming!

It was a windy day when I go down the cliffs for the last time. The waves are roaring under me, the spray reaches me as they crash against the cliff. I make my way to the cave and call the chicks – no response. The boxes are empty. Perfectly on schedule, they fledged, reaching the other birds at sea. They will only come back in a few years, when they will be ready to find a mate and have their own chicks. Maybe we’ll find them again, maybe we won’t – the unique rings fitted on their legs identify them, but looking for a shearwater on a cliff is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. But they fledged, that is what matters – we did everything we could. Now it’s their turn to learn how to ride the winds and find their way at sea.

By Nick Piludu, BirdLife Malta Conservation Officer