Tūturuatu Telegraph: Wildbase – a kaitiaki at the heart of tūturuatu recovery 

Department of Conservation —  01/11/2022

The shore plover is a bird in need of urgent PR. With just 250 individuals left in the wild on several predator-free islands, it is one of the world’s rarest shore birds, facing issues related to real estate, genetics and a pandemic. Through collaboration and cooperation with tangata whenua, tchakat henu, community groups, and other stakeholders, the DOC-led Shore Plover Recovery Programme aims to turn the tide on this bird’s fate. The ‘Tūturuatu Telegraph’ takes a closer look at what it takes to bring this unique species back from the brink of extinction.

When there’s fewer than 300 tūturuatu on the planet, it’s hard to know what’s ‘normal’ about them. For example, do they only like rocky shelf platforms and  associated food, or is it just that the one island on which they survived for 120 years featured this habitat?

DOC’s Shore Plover Recovery Programme is supported by a variety of organisations that undertake research and perform on-the-ground management to help us learn more. Wildbase Hospital and Recovery, a not-for-profit organisation connected to Massey University, operates at the centre of this network. Wildlife veterinarian Brett Gartrell has been instrumental to the programme, so we took the chance to ‘talk tūturuatu’ with him.

📷: Brett holding a juvenile tūturuatu

What exactly does Wildbase do?

Being the only wildlife hospital attached to a university, we see Wildbase as a national point of expertise. We provide veterinary support to conservation programmes in New Zealand and build capability by training veterinarians, nurses and scientists on how to handle and perform diagnostic tests on native wildlife. The work we do with shore plover is a good example of the four services Wildbase offers – veterinary, pathology, research and husbandry advice.

📷: Wildbase Hospital in Palmerston North

Most people know us for our veterinary work with sick and injured birds. An example is the juvenile female shore plover that, when released onto Waikawa Island in June, couldn’t fly above a metre. Our team undertook a ‘work-up’ on her, which is essentially a range of diagnostic tests, and discovered that her shoulder joint had previously been dislocated and healed in such a way that she had limited flight. As she has no pain in her shoulder, we advised she would be best suited to the captive breeding programme.

Our pathology service provides post-mortems. This is an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death. We perform this on both wild and captive birds to help address management issues.

Our third branch, research, is supported by Massey University and enables us to build off our veterinary and pathology services to expand on the issues facing shore plover. It’s also where our work with the University of Canterbury genetics team kicks in, to tackle the issue of avian pox virus that adversely affects captive-bred shore plovers.

Lastly, we provide husbandry and health advice to threatened species programmes. For example, in the early 2000s, shore plover were getting sores on their feet which we discovered was caused by walking on the concrete edges of the aviaries. The facilities now cover these areas with river stone gravel and the birds walk through salt-water trays to get to their food. These changes have reduced the frequency and severity of the problem.

📷: Shore plover aviary at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust

What type of expertise do you have in your team and how is it set up?

When I started, 20 years ago, a few pathologists were trying to diagnose why shore plover were dying in captivity. At the time, we didn’t have a wildlife hospital or clinical service, so I initiated the clinical side.  Since then, we have built up a team of vets, nurses and a pathologist that work within wildlife health. We also have several academic researchers. We see about 500 ‘patients’ a year through the hospital and do a similar number of post-mortems on threatened native species. This helps us understand the issues they face.  

Our team is largely funded through the Oiled Wildlife Response Programme which responds to oil spills in New Zealand, and return as many affected birds back to the wild as possible. We also have a contract with Maritime New Zealand, while the Wildlife Hospital is funded entirely by donations and sponsorship.

What are the complexities of working with shore plover?

Shore plover don’t like being in hospital! They are easily stressed, and sometimes do worse in hospital than they do in an aviary. We carefully consider whether we bring them in for intensive intervention or manage them in their captive breeding setting.

We keep them for the minimum time required, but if they need to stay longer than a week, we replicate a system we use in oil spills for dotterels: a well-ventilated 1.5m fruit crate with bird netting on top.  It’s partially covered so that they have a shelter to retreat to when they’ve had enough of us. To replicate a natural setting, we give them a tray of sand with sand hoppers to forage for.

Because there are so few of them, we don’t have references about what is normal in the species which is why it’s so important keep both hospital and post-mortem records. Our work with other shorebird species informs us and we are gradually building our knowledge on shore plover so we can do more for them in the future.

Pox virus is a huge problem for captive-bred shore plover. How does Wildbase assist?

The avian pox virus is spread by mosquitoes. When the mosquito breaks through a bird’s skin the virus causes an infection and they get a little lesion or tumour, like a cancer. Most birds mount a response within five to seven days as their immune system recognises the cells as abnormal; the lesions dry up and fall off and the virus is kicked out at the same time.

With shore plovers, their immune system doesn’t seem to recognise the virus, so the infection grows. While some shore plovers recover in a matter of weeks, others are affected for months. We think the population bottlenecks they have experienced has reduced their gene diversity to mount a healthy response.

Brett Gartrell giving a shore plover an avian pox virus vaccine.
📷: Stephanie Galla

Currently, captive-breeding facilities have insect-proof aviaries to prevent juveniles from contracting the virus. Once released to the wild they are vulnerable.  My work is focused on developing ways to give shore plover some immunity while they’re in captivity so that they can cope with infection when released into the wild.

Until recently, we’ve struggled to get the birds to respond to the vaccine for the same reasons they failed to respond to the infection. This changed when eggs from wild birds were brought into the programme in 2020, adding genetic diversity. Reassuringly, some of these birds responded better to the vaccine so we know the wild population contains genes to protect the birds against pox virus. This gives me hope that once these birds are fully integrated into the captive-bred population, we will be able to vaccinate the birds and get rid of the mosquito-proof aviaries.

Our Massey laboratory team is measuring the individual antibody response of each bird to vaccination to identify which birds have the right genes. We hand this data over to the genetics team at the University of Canterbury who make pairing decisions from there. It’s great team collaboration, bringing together different pieces of the puzzle to build a stronger and healthier shore plover population.

What about husbandry issues like diet?

The current feed of captive shore plover is good enough for them to breed and live on, but we know we haven’t got it quite right yet as wild shore plover have better feather condition, skin strength and colour. I am working with nutritionists at Massey University to evaluate the diet and improve the mix.

In the wild they eat a lot of sand hoppers, but we can’t Uber Eats for that! I’m hoping to get some funding and a research assistant to find out what shore plover are feeding on in the wild so that we can understand, for example, the fatty acid ratios. But when developing the feed, we also take into consideration the requirements of a captive setting. The feed can’t go rancid or get bacterially contaminated, and it must be able to be produced cost-effectively and fed out safely. When we get it right, it follows that we should see an improvement in their immunity to pox virus too.

Last question, what do you love about shore plover?

The best thing about shore plover is they don’t know they are endangered, so they act like complete idiots and get themselves into all sorts of trouble. They are fabulous characters, and the planet would be poorer for their absence.

Wildbase Hospital and Recovery is not-for-profit and relies on donations and sponsorship to care for sick and injured birds. If you would like to donate, please visit their website.

One response to Tūturuatu Telegraph: Wildbase – a kaitiaki at the heart of tūturuatu recovery 

    Peter Hallinan 01/11/2022 at 5:57 pm

    Great article and valuable information which gives me hope for both the shore plover and homo sapiens…