By Brian McDonald
Oh, hey buddy, how’re you doing? Enjoying the wedding? Wait up, let me tell you a story.
One of our Kapiti-Wellington team lives near me and offered me a lift home. As I’m not a huge fan of my evening commute, I gratefully accepted. Always take a lift from a ranger. I can’t stress this enough; you end up having a weird time more often than not.
Mel, who was on wildlife standby for the week, said she’d had a call about an injured albatross in the car park of a care home in Silverstream, Upper Hutt (called in by Tom who was working there for the day), and did I want to come along. I said that wasn’t a sentence I’d ever expected to hear, but yes I absolutely did want to come along.
And so, dear reader, I went along.
We stopped off at Silverstream New World for a cardboard box big enough to hold a medium-sized albatross. This request deeply confused the store worker until he realised we were DOC, and to his credit he came back with a good sized box. Well done for rising to the occasion mate; I hope that was the weirdest thing someone said to you that day.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the eponymous Mariner kills the bird despite its leading the crew to safety, bringing unending stillness to the sea and stranding their ship. As penance, his crewmates make him wear the corpse of the dead bird (disclaimer: please do not attempt to wear or make others wear an albatross). When I thought an albatross was the size of a big seagull, this seemed weird but bearable and hey, it was the 1800s.
Friends, after getting up close and personal with an upset albatross, I can tell you it’d have to be one heck of a gull.
Arriving at Silverstream aged care home, I was confronted by the reality of an albatross. Mollymawk wingspans are between 1.8m and 2.5m, so that’s a big seagull. This one wasn’t huge, and couldn’t flap much due to the wing injury, but it was still pretty sizeable.
Speaking of, the wing was sticking up at an abrupt angle, and can’t have been fun for the bird. Which led to the main task of the day, and the associated conundrum; how the heck do we get Flappy Bird XL here into the Twisties box so kindly donated by the good folk at the New World?
Once again, a sentence I never expected to say.
After lining the box with towels, Mel tasked me with distracting the bird’s powerful beak with another rolled-up towel, while she used yet another towel to secure it. Douglas Adams’ famous line from The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that a towel is “about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have” clearly applies to rangers too! This part was, however, terrifying; the albatross beak is long, large, and easily capable of severing a digit. I feared this giant seabird, and quite like having all my fingers attached to my skinny hand, not to mention that it was Mel wearing the only set of gloves and holding the net.
Once netted, our feathered friend was not pleased, but didn’t protest too much and we (mostly Mel) wrangled around and into the box. Immediately, he started to chew his way out, alarmingly close to my fingers. Again, I’m not keen on losing a thumb to an angry seabird, so we reinforced the cardboard with a plastic tub that thankfully fit nice and snug, carefully maneuvered the whole apparatus into the car, and drove to The Nest in rush hour traffic.
The Nest Te Kōhanga is Wellington Zoo’s animal hospital and centre for native wildlife; when a large native animal is injured in and around the capital, this is where DOC brings them. The team at The Nest treat hundreds of sick and injured native wildlife patients each year, and it’s a huge contribution to saving animals in the wild.
The traffic wasn’t great; this was rush hour in the CBD now, and we sat in the car, as idle as a painted car upon a painted SH1. Traffic, traffic, everywhere, as the bird rustled in the back. Traffic, traffic, everywhere, but we were soon back on track.
The staff at The Nest handled the bird much more assertively and professionally than I did, probably because they’re trained wildlife vets and not a comms advisor who once did a couple of modules in ecology. This was not their first albatross rodeo; one vet held our feathered casualty securely while another gave some (presumably welcome) painkillers. Weighing the bird was a team effort from both the experts, before transferring him to a more spacious cage than the cardboard box to await blood tests and x-ray.
Pain eased, but still imprisoned for his own good, we awaited news of his condition. In the meantime, we went and checked on the leopard seal making a spectacle of itself/peacefully snoozing on the Oriental Bay beach while people cooed from behind DOC yellow tape. But that’s another story.
The albatross, as of time of writing, is still alive and flapping. The wing had a “soft tissue injury on the left carpus” – i.e. hurt wing – but apparently is improving nicely. We found it at the right time, as it was pretty dehydrated and a little starving, but the team is hopeful he’ll be soaring the skies again soon. Shout out to Tom Ricketts who called it in to the 0800 DOCHOT line for us to come collect; literally can’t do this work without people like you.
What have I learned? First off, intellectually knowing an albatross is big and actually having one try to nibble you in person are two very different things. I also found out I’m a little scared of birds that can de-finger me, but that’s probably for the best, and you really can’t blame an animal for being freaked out. And, obviously, a good ranger always knows where their towel is.
I also learned a ton about Salvin’s albatross, because now that I’ve met one I wanted to know more. These birds are considered to be Nationally Critical and, since their population is naturally quite small, they’re really susceptible to issues like bycatch or climate. You can find out more, like I did, on the DOC website here.
Most importantly of all, I saw firsthand that people do care about our native species. We’re thankful for the call, the people in the aged care home were thankful for us coming out, the people at the beach loved hearing more about leopard seals while keeping a respectful distance, and the Wellington Zoo staff jumped at the chance to help the albatross.
In ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the wedding guest leaves “a sadder, wiser man”. And I’d say that’s half-true here; I’m wiser, but this is definitely a happy ending.