Securing a shared future for wildlife and people

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Lord Howe Island

Some of Taronga’s Keepers are currently enjoying a sea change, working with the Lord Howe Island Board to care for two local bird species, the Lord Howe Island Woodhen and Lord Howe Island Currawong.  

This is part of a trial for a larger project which the Lord Howe Island Board will undertake in 2015 to eradicate rodents from the picturesque World Heritage listed island.

Our very experienced bird keepers will be living on the island for a short period of time to manage small populations of these local birds in human care before they’re released back into the wild.  This is to trial methods to help ensure the safety of these birds in the future as the Board undertakes work to protect native wildlife on the island. 

Our keepers on the island are very skilled with international experience. They’re experts at settling birds into aviaries and managing birds so they can successfully return to the wild. Our main priority during this project is to provide exemplary care to these amazing Lord Howe Island birds. 

Working with these birds and on Lord Howe Island is an experience that our keepers will not forget in a hurry.  Their workplace is so beautiful it almost hurts your eyes! We thought you’d like to hear about their island adventures through their weekly blog.

Week 3  

Lord Howe Island Stick Insect on Taronga Zoo uniform

All of the Lord Howe Woodhens seem to be content in their aviary and they are all getting along together fine.  It seems that on average they have been steadily gaining weight which is not a great concern however we are being very careful to monitor their diet to ensure they are in optimum health.  It’s interesting to note that the diets are formulated using many years of bird keeping experience and reviewed regularly by the vets at the Zoo.  The vets have a computer program that can compare the breakdown of the wild diet with the diet that we feed out to ensure that the diet is custom made and perfect for them.This week I’m happy to report that everything is still going well on Lord Howe Island.  All the birds are in fine health, it’s great to see our months and years of planning has paid off and methodology that we have used to look after the birds has come off without a hitch. 

The Currawongs have settled into their routine well also.  We have found that they have become very inquisitive in their new homes, much more inquisitive than I had imagined that they would be.  We have started making enrichment toys for them to play with out of plastic plant pots and other things that we have found lying around our area.  They seem to appreciate the new additions to their aviaries and spend a great deal of time investigating them and trying to pull them apart.  This keeps their minds and bodies mentally and physically active.

It fascinates me how much the island is alive with so much natural “stuff” happening all of the time.  Every day I see something new or have a conversation with someone who lives here about the animals that they have living in their backyards.   For instance today we found a native gecko in our sink that we had to relocate into the bush before washing up, and yesterday I had a conversation with a complete stranger in the street who wanted to show me photos of, and tell me about the endangered land snail that she had seen in her backyard that morning.  Most of the people here have a great passion for their island home and the natural inhabitants that they share it with, which is a great contrast to a lot of folk who live in the city and take nature very much for granted.

During the week we also started looking after the islands population of critically endangered phasmids. Thought to be extinct by 1930, a small population of 24 individuals was found on the island in 2001. It was so uplifting to listen to the pride that the Lord Howe Island Board staff who had been taking care of them demonstrated as they showed us their husbandry routine.  They have a great passion for ensuring that they keep these wonderful insects safe so that maybe one day they can be re-released back onto the island.  It’s a big responsibility for us and we look forward to caring for them for the rest of our stay here.

Week 2

Bird Identifier Bands

The last week or so has been great and all the birds are doing well. 

After only spending a week or so with the Woodhens it is so easy to see why the locals are so attached to them. Quite a few in the group have revealed  a bit of personality.  My favourite is one that I call “little old Blue”  She is one of the smallest of the group, and has distinct markings on her head that indicate that she is an older bird, small white feathers appear behind their eyes at around seven years of age.  We’ve been keeping a close eye on her because she seemed to have lost a bit of weight in the initial period, I was quite worried at first but then we found out that the weight she lost had put her down to about the same weight that she had been during one of the past surveys of the Woodhen population.  It seems that living around the waste treatment plant where she was collected from has given her an excessively fatty diet.  

It’s a great thing that the rangers and Lord Howe Island Board staff are able to do surveys each year and capture and count the birds. They keep accurate records of each individual and know who’s  who because of their unique band combinations.  All of the birds get two bands on each leg.  On the left is a year colour and a metal band with an individual ID number and on the right leg is a unique combination of colours which make it possible to ID birds just by sight.  “Little old blue” got her name because her band combination is green over light blue and light blue over metal, so we know she is an older bird because light blue was the year colour for 2008, so she’s at least five years old but most likely was 1 to 2 years old when banded so that makes her at least six or seven.

One of the Currawongs came in with a crusty discharge around its nostrils and has developed a bit of a sneeze, we have been regularly catching up with Frances our Taronga Zoo Vet and she has prescribed a course of medication that we can put in the bird’s food.  Seems to be clearing up nicely and all of the other Currawongs are doing nicely as well.

This week I participated in the Island information workshop days that were held at the Museum.  It was a chance for the islanders to come and talk to experts that the Board had brought over about the rodent baiting that will happen in 2015.  It was great to hear from doctors, toxicologists and other experts that had been involved in this type of project before and listen to their experiences.  It was also a chance for the locals to find out about how we were taking care of their precious birds and great for me to let them know that all is well.

Fishing on a Day Off

On a sadder note we said goodbye to one of the Taronga Keepers, Nick over the last weekend. He was only on Lord Howe Island for a month but it was time for him to go back to Sydney.  Nick made a big difference to our home away from home, always found the good in every difficult situation, and had a nice smile to go with his great advice.  I’m glad to have shared this time with him.

The Lord Howe lifestyle is very easy to get used to, maybe a little too easy, I’m sure I’ll miss it when I go home.  There is always things to do, fishing, swimming, fishing, bushwalking, fishing, bike riding, fishing.  Oh and did I mention fishing????  I have done so much fishing and its so much fun, many of the fish I have thrown back but we’ve had some great meals too.  On my next daysoff I’m going to borrow a kayak and go paddling over to the small island in the western side of the island.  Its called Turtle Island and apparently you can see some of the native geckos there.  And of course I’ll be taking a fishing rod.  



Week 1

Arriving at the airport was a little nerve wracking, none of us were sure we would make the 14kg weight limit.  Its hard to fit all you think you will need for a three month trip into a bag that weighs only 14kg.  The Lady at the check in counter was great though, she was very patient as we all shuffled our belongings around into different bags to pass through.

Coming into LHI was such a great experience, the flight was about 2 1/2 hours of clear blue sky.  Coming into land was amazing, as the island looks so beautiful, very lush and green and the water is so clear and blue.

After we arrived at the airport, we were driven around the island for a bit so that we could get our bearings etc.  It was a little confusing to try and get all of the information stuck in my head all at once. We saw the aviaries, moved into the house and got ourselves settled, looking forward to a couple of months of Island living.

Nice start to the first full day here, very clear and sunny again, apparently it has bucketed down over the last couple of weeks but I'm very happy that it’s been fine for us.  In the back of my mind I'm thinking of the weather for the future though.  I noticed yesterday that the soil in the aviary dome was very heavy and clay'y, with a bit of rain it would be very boggy.

All week we worked on cleaning our workspace, organising our equipment and office space etc. We started by unpacking all of our gear and assembling one of the hospital cages and other jobs started included owl-proofing the dome, and putting rain protection on the top of the currawong aviaries, fitting  perching and filling the woodhen pen with leaf litter and other ‘furniture’ for the birds.  It was all hard, strenuous work but very rewarding in the end.

The commute to work each day is great. The 5 minute walk along the narrow forest tracks is definitely an improvement on Sydney traffic, although I’ll have to shamefully admit we got lost the first couple of times to and from work.

Francis, our Taronga vet, arrived on Sunday afternoon and came to the house for dinner.  She brought us some chocolate that was very well appreciated, as luxuries can be pricey..

It was very exciting on the first Monday that birds started arriving into our care.

Sprina and Nick went to help catch birds; Christian went to drive them back and forth and Francis and I stayed to get the birds settled in when they came back. 

The first four birds came around 10.30 am:  two singles and a pair and other birds came in dribs and drabs throughout the day.  I could immediately see how the islanders get so attached to these wonderfull little birds.  To be perfectly honest they are not the prettiest little things but they have so much character.

Lord Howe

The next day all of us started early and checked birds -   all ok.  Nick, Christian and I went to help catch the rest and Sprina stayed to care for the birds that we had and process any more that came in.  One family of four birds was caught and a pair (total six) for the day, making a total 20 birds in all.

The birds settled very quickly into their new home.  They very quickly adapted to their new diet and sorted themselves out.  Saw a little chasing but generally very short bursts.  Birds quickly settled, bathed, ate, and preened.  Most confrontations between birds were solved with no physical contact.  Birds sat in a stare down until one of the birds turned or a third one came through and interfered.  Initially there was some jumping and throwing their feet out and pulling at tail feathers but only on a few ocassions. 

The currawongs arrived in a similar manner. We got a couple on the first day then the rest on the second.  They quickly settled, looking through the roof of the aviary at the sky, some of them occasionally testing the shadecloth roof put in under the birdmesh. All the birds are doing very well and  most of them have so far adapted very well to their new routines and food, but as always there is always a couple of laggers that we are keeping a close eye on.

After such a long time planning, it’s all a little surreal that it’s actually happening now, everything has gone better than anticipated and we are really happy with the progress so far.  All the people have been great and very welcoming, living here is quite a change to what we’re all used to but it’s been fun to learn how everything runs over here in this beautiful wonderland.

By Michael, Taronga Zoo Bird Keeper

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