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Capetown Seabirds

Studying Wildlife Management - What do students do after a Wildlife Course?


The following text is an extract from a newsletter written by:

Frances Bell
Wildlife Student
ACS Distance Education

Please note any opinions expressed in the document are solely those of the author and are therefore independent from ACS Distance Education, its employees or affiliates.


Capetown, July 2013

So I found myself thinking today – as I sometimes do – about how I got to where I am.  As John Lennon said, and as I’m fond of quoting, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  I figured, when I left home to start this African adventure, on three years working with lion and tiger babies.  I never dreamed I’d end up on the other side of the country, doing something completely different.


Where I am is SANCCOB, a seabird and penguin rehab facility in Capetown.  Yep, I’m back to being the crazy Bird Woman!  Where to start to tell you all about it, so it’s not an incoherent mess…. Every time I think I’m not making progress, I wind up telling someone about what I’ve been doing since I got here, and I realise just how much I’ve learned, how much more there is still to learn, and how much difference I’ve made in the lives of individual animals.


I signed up for a proper internship this time, 12 months worth of training on handling penguins and other seabirds, with a fair chunk of that time dedicated to managing penguin eggs and raising teeny tiny little penguin chicks.  And I do mean teeny tiny… the smallest hatchling I’ve had was 56 grams.  Awwww, cute!  I have a mentor, and between her, the volunteer co-ordinator, and my official training plan, I’m getting a very thorough grounding in all aspects of chick and egg management, and in advanced rehab procedures with the bigger chicks and adults.  It’s so important for the survival of the African Penguin, which is an endangered species.  So I’ve actually got a lot of my bucket list items rolled into this internship – I’ve always wanted to work with an endangered species, always wanted advanced skills, and always wanted to do the kind of rehab and animal management work that not everyone gets the opportunity to do.


… getting to Capetown wasn’t without its drama…. I got to Port Elizabeth airport to catch a plane, only to find that the company had gone bust two days earlier and all flights with that carrier were suspended.  Luckily there were seats available on another airline - at about 3 times the price, mind you! – so I was still able to fly the same day.  Praise be for travel insurance….  What was nice was that my Garden Route travel buddy was flying with me so I had someone to “vent” to.  My lift was waiting for me at the airport … and I got to my accommodation safely.

Ah, the accommodation… now there’s a book in itself.  I’ve not yet decided whether it should be a comedy or a thriller but I’m sure I’ll write it one day!  At first it didn’t seem so bad, despite the close to 100 cats, 4 dogs and lack of space in my bedroom.  As time went on I moved to another room where I was able to spread out a bit, but by then cracks had begun to appear…. the food

went from bad to worse with it mostly being little more than home-made junk food, despite the almost R5000 a month I paid in rent.  One day I was given week old pasta for lunch that was starting to bubble; and then there was the famous Battle of Samp and Beans where they tried to insist I  eat the poor man’s staple of maize and kidney beans for a week solid, and I flatly refused.  BTW, I won that one… The kitchen closed at 10pm so if you were thirsty and needed a cup of tea or a glass of water after that, bad luck; privacy was non-existent as was peace and quiet, which meant that study was difficult if not sometimes impossible; I had to negotiate 6 doors and bad weather to get to the loo in the middle of the night …  …  I had a couple of “respite stays” in the form of short house-sitting stints for various staff at SANCCOB, and have now got myself a couple of nice long term house-sitting assignments that will take me up to the end of my internship.  So no, I will never have to go back!  I find myself missing the cats sometimes – there were some who were regular visitors to my room, and most of the cats there were desperate to get some one-on-one attention.  I feel for all of them and for any other human victims who end up there. 

SANCCOB is not the place for fashionistas.  Standard attire is oilskins and wellies, or crocs.  Heaven forbid – crocs!  I swore I wouldn’t be seen dead in a pair and started off wearing wellies, but if you’ve got to get into the pool to retrieve birds who’d rather be swimming, you soon get fed up with squelching around for the rest of the day.  Crocs are a fashion disaster but they’re comfortable and practical.  The other thing is that you can’t wear jeans under oilskins – too uncomfortable – so most of the girls come to work wearing leggings.  Another fashion disaster… particularly since not everyone is the right shape to get away with leggings!  Even in CRU the standard is leggings and a t-shirt, and we have a blue two-piece uniform that we put on over that.  …


My first few days with SANCCOB at the beginning of November were a little confusing until I got used to routines, and came to grips with what was expected of me.  I spent the first few days doing basic things like working in “general” where all the food prep, clean up and laundry gets done.  Also spent a day cleaning mats and crates – mountains of it to be done every day.  I admit I got a bit frustrated during the first week, I know how important it is to know how the centre runs and to be able to do all those tasks, but I was raring to start handling and certainly let my mentor know about it.  Which is most unlike me.  In fact it’s fair to say that since I’ve been in South Africa I’m not the same person I was – these days I’m not afraid to actually ask for what I want and 9 times out of 10, I get it!   It took a little while to break into the cliques here, but after about 3 months I truly began to feel that I was part of the SANCCOB “family” and had something valuable to contribute.   I had a lovely birthday card from the SANCCOB staff – it was a picture of 031, the first penguin hatchling I raised, and the first bird of the current season to be released.  Can’t top that….


The learning curve here was very steep to begin with, and there’s still more for me to know.  The training plan I’m working to is quite comprehensive and covers everything from feeding penguins to managing and training short-term volunteers.  I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an expert, but I’ve learned a lot about penguin and other seabird rganiza, and am starting to develop an intuition about what might be wrong when things go pear-shaped.


Within the first month I’d spent about two weeks “downstairs” in the main centre, a week up in the Chick Rearing Unit, and a week in bed with viral pneumonia.  Not content with getting pneumonia once, I proceeded to get it a second time – well, I’d already had it in one lung so I had to even things up by getting it in the other one!   I caught it early enough that I was able to just take antibiotics and stay in bed at my accommodation rather than have to go into hospital.  It’s not cheap to be sick here in South Africa and I have no intention of it ever happening again.  I blame the poor nutrition for getting sick in the first place – I’ve been vegetarian for 9 years now and hardly had as much as a sniffle because when I’m feeding myself, I make sure my diet is properly balanced. 


During that first month I learned how to handle, feed and tube penguins.  The tubing was a doddle – my prior experience in rehabbing birds came in handy there.  Feeding was a bit of a challenge simply because African Penguins are feisty little dudes and until you get used to it, it’s quite a feat to wrangle a wriggly penguin and convince it that dead sardines are actually food!


By the end of my second month I’d been well and truly thrown into the deep end with the Chick Rearing Unit or CRU as we call it.   I was supposed to have 3 months in the main centre first, but all of our Chick Rearing interns left at the beginning of December which left – me!  SANCCOB runs a Chick Bolstering Program in association with other rganizations, which means that we get the abandoned eggs and chicks that would once have just been left to die.  It’s fiddly, intense and painstaking work but I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent up there.  I’ve seen loads of eggs hatch – I’ve managed over 100 of them now – and it never gets old seeing that velvety little baby make its first appearance in the real world.  Managing the eggs is fiddly and painstaking as well – they have to be weighed and turned manually once a day; they have to be candled at least once a week to check development; temperature and humidity has to be kept constant; and then they have to be moved as soon as they “pip” or make the first crack in the shell, so that they can hatch in appropriately humid conditions.  Hygiene is hugely important as well, as it’s very easy for the chicks to catch bacterial infections through the shell.  I don’t think I’ve ever washed my hands so often in my life!


My first exposure to the chicks was with what we call the Christmas chicks – these are chicks who are abandoned if they’re not quite fledged when the parents go into moult during November, and come in to us for care so they don’t starve to death.  Typically they’re bigger – anywhere between 500g and 1.5kg.  Techniques for handling the chicks are different from handling the adults – they’re more delicate and easily damaged so you have to be much more gentle with them. There’s nothing so cute as a 500g chick all wrapped up in a towel ready to be fed!  Imprinting can be a problem and we’ve had several chicks who just look up at you with “I love you” eyes and talk non-stop as soon as they hear people moving around.  In fact one of my Christmas chicks, little 619, had to be released twice… once he was out in the colony he was too friendly with people, so back he came.  We managed to get him properly wilded before we attempted release a second time.  The chicks are very, very cute – the bigger ones develop a secondary down which is super fluffly, and they’re just adorable.  I’ve decided that the proper term for these guys is “flufflies” – I’ve miss-spelt “fluffy“ so often that anything else just doesn’t seem right now. 


The real work with the wee chickies starts when they hatch.  They have to be kept warm for the first two weeks as they can’t thermo-regulate.  They also have to be fed every 3 hours from 6am to 9pm till they reach 1 kilo in weight.  Not only that, but their formula varies in strength and amount as they grow and works on a percentage of body weight, so they have to be weighed before you can do anything with them for the day.  Their bedding has to be changed at every feed and they have to have tums and bums cleaned at every feed; hands have to be washed or gloves changed between handling each individual bird as well.  Shifts get crazy… at one point, when the only ones qualified to work in CRU were myself and two of the staff members, I was working 16 hour shifts, starting at 5.30am and finishing anywhere around 10.30 to 11pm,  and usually did that for 5 or 6 days straight.  Once we got a couple more interns trained up, we were able to go to 16 hour shifts but do 1 day on, 1 day off.  What we do now is either a morning or an afternoon/evening shift, with the morning shift going from 5.30am to 2.30, and the afternoon shift going from 1.30 to 9.30 or 10pm, depending on how long it takes to clean up after a feed and on how many birds need a final feed at 9pm.  Everything in CRU is kept separate from the rest of the centre including laundry and making formula.  We usually have the luxury of having someone to handle our laundry for us, and lately we’ve had so many volunteers that we’ve also recruited extra people to do the cleaning.  Hygiene is crucial and my biggest challenge has been to get ordinary volunteers to realise that a sloppy cleaning job just isn’t good enough.


The chicks usually stay up in CRU until they reach around 2 kilos – but that can vary according to when they lose their fluffy down and start getting what we call their “blue” feathers.  These feathers are the ones that become waterproof so that the birds can go to sea and fish for themselves, until they come ashore about a year later to moult into their adult plumage.  Once they leave CRU they go into our Intensive Care Unit – which is actually less intensive than CRU – until they’re waterproof enough to start swimming.  We have a series of pens through which the birds rotate until they reach our pre-release pen, where they gradually build up to 3 1-hour swims a day, are off any medication, fluids and formula, and are big enough to fend for themselves.  It’s not always as straightforward as this – respiratory problems do occur and if we get a bird who takes a long time to recover from an infection, we also get problems with bumblefoot which comes from being on a damp artificial surface for too prolonged a period.


I’ve been in CRU for most of my time here – about 7 and a half months all up.  Well – hand-rearing is my favourite thing, and it’s such a privilege to raise these little babies.  It’s not without its problems – we’ve had some nasty infections which we’re still battling to get rid of, and I don’t need to tell you that it can be heartbreaking to see chicks go downhill and die within a matter of hours.   To counter that, it’s a wonderful feeling to find out that a chick that’s been raised from the stage of being an egg has finally been released to go forth and hopefully start making little penguins of its own in a few years time.  I’m now officially supposed to be downstairs again to finish the rest of my internship with the bigger birds, but we’ve had a few manpower issues, with one of our interns unexpectedly pulling the pin – so last week I was back “home” in CRU with loads of little babies hatching.  I’m rostered onto a few more shifts in August as well so I won’t have to go through chick withdrawals just yet! 


As well as the penguin eggs, we’ve got a load of Hartlaub gull eggs in at the moment.  They’re much smaller than the penguin eggs and the chicks are the most gorgeous spotted balls of fluff I’ve ever seen.  I have trouble understanding how anyone can not find birds fascinating, and I defy anyone to say they don’t like birds once they see how beautiful and how perfect all these chicks are.  Every single one of these birds has their own little personality and it’s impossible not to fall in love with them all – even the ones who are downright mean!

I’ve done loads of training down in the main centre.  I’ve been taught how to properly handle the flighted seabirds, anything from tiny baby Hartlaub gulls right up to giant petrels and pelicans.  We had a Shy Albatross in a couple of months ago but I was in CRU at the time so didn’t get to work with him.  We have mostly Hartlaub and Kelp gulls come through the main centre, but we also get Cape cormorants, White-breasted cormorants and occasionally, the endangered Banks cormorant.  The Cape cormorant has the most stunning cobalt blue eyes and I still hope to get a really good photo.  My worst injury was from a Cape cormorant…I was getting one of them out of the nebuliser and juggling the nebuliser lid, the lid of the transport crate AND the bird.  Even though I had a proper hold on the bird I just had him too close to my face while I was moving him and whammo – bite to the upper lip.  At least it’s almost symmetrical and you can hardly see the scar – and I’m glad I was wearing my glasses at the time, as birds like the cormorant are notorious for going straight for the eyes.  Guess that’ll teach me to ask for help!  Other species we’ve had include a couple of species of tern, a couple of Corys shearwaters and quite a lot of gannets, both chicks and adults.  I’ve learned how to handle, feed, tube and medicate almost all of them and am looking forward to whatever new species will come in between now and the end of my internship.


Paperwork, proper record keeping, is hugely important so every volunteer and intern also gets taught how to do this meticulously.   Each bird has its own card which follows it through from admission to release, and proper record keeping entails entering every detail of its care every day – including how much fish it should have, how much it actually ate, what medication it’s on and what day of treatment it’s on.  Then if there are any additional notes they also get written down.  The birds are vet checked and weighed at least once a week as well – more often if they’ve already got health problems. There’s a strict admission protocol that has to be followed so that nothing is missed when the bird is admitted.  I’ve done the basics of admission procedures here, but have yet to go through the advanced work that sometimes needs to be done.


In addition to the basic bird work, I’ve also been taught how to hold penguins for having their blood taken.  Not as easy as it sounds – if you think wrangling a penguin to feed it is a challenge, you ought to try holding one still to have a needle stuck in its foot!  I’ve been taught how to centrifuge the blood samples and then to take the necessary readings of red and white blood cells, and serum levels.  I’ve been taught how to do blood smears as well – ahem! – which clever clogs managed to turn out perfect blood smears on the first attempt??  Oh yeah, that would be me… sorry but I’m still so tickled with myself over that, that I just have to crow a bit!  Just today I got trained on taking blood samples – not as simple as it sounds, as the blood vessels in the penguins feet aren’t visible and you have to work “blind”.  I also got taught how to test and grade the penguins for release and for increasing their swim times.  The process itself is fairly easy but again, it’s wrangling the penguins that takes some getting used to!  Testing and grading involves checking their feathers after they’ve had a swim to see if they’re totally waterproof, and are candidates for release. Now that I can do blood smears, the next stage is to learn how to  stain the smears so our vet can look for parasites and any other nasties.  I’ve also yet to be taught how to wash oiled birds – something I’m both looking forward to and dreading at the same time.  I need to know how to do it so that if there’s an oil spill anywhere in the world, I can put my hand up and genuinely say I’ve got the skills to help in a really meaningful way.


So far I’ve been in charge of every section of the centre except for admissions. I’ve also trained CRU interns and volunteers, the next thing I guess will be training my fair share of the regular turnover of 6-week volunteers.  As usual I’m not content with just settling for what’s on my training plan – so I’ve asked to be involved in extra tasks.  I’ve built a good working relationship with Nola, our onsite vet – I’ve also house-sat for her – so if I want to do extras I just ask her and so far, she’s always said yes.   She’s letting me do post mortems on anything that’s not a penguin so I’m finally getting some practice from those avian necropsy workshops I did back at home.  She’s even begun to let me open up penguins for her.  I try to observe her doing a post mortem whenever I can to pick up a few tips and improve my technique, and learn a bit about taking samples for histology should I ever need to.  I’ve done post mortems on 5 different species of bird now and it’s fascinating to see the differences between them.  We had a penguin the other day with a severe case of aspergilla which is a nasty fungal infection, and Nola came to get me so I could have a look.  I wish I’d had my camera with me – yes I know it sounds a bit ghoulish, but it really is useful as a tool to build up my knowledge base.


Aside from that, I’m going to be working with Nola on one of her research projects.  I asked for one of my own as I’ve collected all the egg and chick data whilst I was up in CRU, but because we’ve had something going through there and affecting many of the chicks, my data will be skewed and not useful in terms of research.  Shame – I’m still hoping to do something with egg weights and rate of hatching though.  In the meantime I can’t wait to see what Nola has in mind to help her with!


Bites and bruises are all part of working with the penguins.  Understandably, wild adults don’t take kindly to being handled and there’s not a day goes by where I don’t get one of them attacking me.  You can’t be too precious about working with these birds – you’ve just got to get in there and do it.  Hanging back not only increases the risk of being bitten, but it puts extra stress on the bird as well.  Most of the volunteers here don’t take too long to realise that you just have to go for it – but we get the odd one or two who are still faffing around towards the end of their stay, and that’s extremely frustrating.  The last thing you need as a pen supervisor when you’re flat out with 50-odd birds, is for your helpers to be squeamish about handling.  As someone once said – feel the fear and do it anyway!


I’ve seen quite a few volunteers come and go, and formed great friendships with some of them as well as some of the other interns.  What always makes me smile is that a great number of them, on seeing me do anything with the birds for the first time, ask me if I’m a vet… I wish!! 


The other thing I’ve done is go on a couple of releases.  I’ve had to stipulate that I can only go to beach releases, since boats and I disagree violently.  The first time I went was on one of my days off and I thought I was going to be the