Pacific
23 Jan 2018

Saluting the Nature's Heroes who help dazed seabirds

A volunteer network of 75 individuals on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti care for and release grounded and injured seabirds

A rescued Tahiti Petrel is released © SOP Manu
A rescued Tahiti Petrel is released © SOP Manu
By Nick Langley

The Groupe des sauveteurs des oiseaux marins is a volunteer network of 75 individuals on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, who care for and release grounded and injured seabirds, mostly petrels. Most of the 'sauveteurs' are members of the BirdLife Partner SOP Manu, which coordinates their work, and which has nominated the group as Nature's Heroes for 2017.

Petrels and shearwaters nest on the steep inland slopes of the volcanic high islands of French Polynesia. They dig burrows in loose soil, or nest at ground level in crevices between rocks. The SOP Manu volunteers most often find themselves dealing with the Tahiti petrel (Pseudobulweria rostrata), which breeds across French Polynesia and beyond.

When the fledglings take flight for the first time, they are often disorientated by the lights of the ever-growing urbanised areas nearby.

As on other islands across the world, the main threats to these ground-nesting species are introduced mammal predators, especially rats, feral cats, dogs and pigs that eat the eggs and young. But over the last 20 years, another danger has been identified on Tahiti: light pollution. When the fledglings take flight for the first time, they are often disorientated by the lights of the ever-growing urbanised areas nearby. Some fall to the ground and are unable to take off again, leaving them at risk of starving to death, or being eaten by cats or dogs. Others suffer potentially fatal injuries from collisions with buildings or fences.

Tahitian girl brings in a Brown Noddy for care by the 'sauveteurs' © Denise Koenig_SOP Manu

Most uninjured birds only need a little help to resume their journeys out to sea. Although they struggle to take off on their own from a flat, hard surface, they usually take to the air quite easily if released on the sea. And that's where the volunteers of the Groupe des sauveteurs des oiseaux marins step in.

Members of the public who find grounded birds while on their way home from a night out, or as they set out for work in the morning, ring the dedicated SOS Petrels hotline. The phone is answered by a volunteer day or night, weekends and holidays included. Although the birds come down at night, they may not be found until later in the day. The hotline operator then either calls the nearest volunteer, or asks the caller to take the bird to one of the islands veterinary surgeries, where a volunteer will collect it later. Most of the veterinarians of Tahiti -and Moorea, Raiatea and Bora Bora -are part of the network, and take care of the birds, and if necessary treat their injuries, for no charge.

Tahiti Petrel rescue-training session ©Jean Kape/SOP Manu

On Tahiti there appears to be a peak of breeding activity between March and July, with young birds fledging from July to October. The parents spend the day out at sea fishing, returning to their nests at night to feed their young. After some ten weeks, the fledgling petrels, unaccompanied by their parents, launch themselves from the nesting slopes in preparation for spending their adolescent years at sea.

Fallen fledgling juvenile petrels can be found almost anywhere there are lights, in roads and on rooftops, in private gardens and public spaces. Before the birds are released, they are inspected, weighed and measured, providing valuable data about petrel health and demographics.

The birds are often thirsty, sometimes hungry or their plumage may need its waterproofing restored by rest and preening. “Sometimes they are exhausted, or too young (still fluffy), or injured, in which case, they are placed with host families who will take care of them and feed them as long as necessary before releasing them”, explains SOP MANU's biologist, Thomas Ghestemme.

The volunteers, who are SOP MANU members from all walks of life, including young, working age and retired people, are organised in four zones, in the East, West, North and South of Tahiti. Each zone has a coordinator, usually someone able to devote more time to the work, and with a higher level of training. There are coordinators and volunteers on other islands, including Moorea, Tetiaroa, Raiatea, Tahuata, Bora Bora, Hiva Oa and Rapa, for a total of 84 people and rising across French Polynesia.

In 2012, the first year of operation, the number of confirmed cases of grounded Tahiti Petrels rose from 10 to 100, but the coordinators knew that this was the tip of the iceberg. To raise awareness of the plight of the petrels, posters, flyers and stickers were designed and distributed, articles were published in newspapers, short documentaries broadcast on radio and television, and presentations given in schools. As public knowledge of the network grew, so did the number of reports. By 2017, the volunteers were responding to calls about 400 stranded birds per year.

 “People who call the SOS Petrels hotline are generally very friendly, very demanding of information of all kinds,” says SOP MANU's Monique Franc de Ferrière. “When we come to pick it up' it is not uncommon for the member of the public who just saved a wild bird to want to know much more about it. We talk about the actions of the association, the environmental problems that challenge the country, in addition to everything about the bird just rescued. All this contributes to the awareness of the petrels, and the strengthening of the rescue network, because people who have collected a bird talk about this experience with their relatives, and sometimes ask to enter the network themselves.” Conferences and meetings are organised, where people can learn how to release petrels safely.

The network has built up information about the “worst” lights on the island -those that cause most problems for petrels. “We inform people about the danger of these lights and encourage them to turn them off at night, at least during the flight of juveniles. We point out that they can save money on their electricity bill!” adds Robert Luta, SOP Manu’s President. “

 

In places where it is impossible to turn off these lights, like hotels, airports, and seaports, we train the personnel to provide ‘first aid’ to the birds, and call the hotline as soon as possible. We are all working with town halls and other administrators to find ways of making lights less dangerous, but the volunteers will probably remain essential for a very long time.”