NEW ZEALAND - There is no 'good' time for an oil spill to happen. But for the little blue penguins of Mount Maunganui this is breeding season, and the timing of the Rena oil spill in the Bay of Plenty could not have been much worse.
Locals put the number of breeding pairs of little blue penguins in this area at around 200 to 300; and the population now has the full attention of a team from Maritime New Zealand's National Oiled Wildlife Recovery unit, monitoring their burrows daily to help the birds survive this environmental disaster.
Whilst these nocturnal penguins may not appreciate such close attention as they incubate their eggs, the monitoring is critical. The penguins come ashore during the evening to find their burrows, and many are becoming oiled crossing rocks covered in thick tar-like oil.
"If a penguin becomes oiled and tries to preen itself, it can swallow the oil and become very sick. If we find a bird that is heavily oiled, we collect it and take it back to the wildlife recovery centre to be cleaned and rehabilitated," explained WWF-New Zealand Marine Programme Manager Rebecca Bird, one of 140 field staff working as part of Maritime New Zealand's oiled wildlife recovery efforts.
Around 120 little blue penguins have been rescued from the mount so far, and their chances of survival are comparatively good - penguins are some of the most resilient birds in recovering from oil spills. But Rebecca and the team are facing a tough choice - removing an oiled bird will give it a chance of survival, but its clutch is unlikely to survive.
"We checked on the pair of little blue penguins in the 'window nest' a couple of nights ago, and the mate was oiled so we had to take him away to the recovery centre to be looked after. Then the next night we found the other penguin was oiled and had to take her away. We hope that the birds we recover will be rehabilitated successfully, but it's heartbreaking to know that saving them means their clutch won't be reared," said Rebecca.
In an effort to save the clutch, the team placed the eggs with another pair of penguins, but sadly the adoptive pair rejected the eggs.
"We evaluate them if they're not bad, if they've got no oil on them and the area they're coming in has got no oil around, then we twink them and mark them and let them go and check on them the next night and if they are covered in oil we call a team in and they get taken back to the base to get cleaned up and looked after," said Julia, a little blue penguin researcher and part of the penguin recovery team.
Local conservation volunteer Dave Richards, who has worked tirelessly leading one of the oiled wildlife response unit's penguin recovery teams, said some of the penguins who had lost their mate were abandoning their nests.
"They stay on their nests until they figure out their mate isn't coming back and eventually they'll go and feed."
Speaking on Friday 21 October from Rabbit Island, one of the offshore islands where the penguins nest, Dave said they had been 'inundated with oiled penguins' last night. It was the first time the team has been out to the island: "We were expecting the worst and we found 24 oiled penguins, seven dead, just in the landing bay. It's not so good out here. We're staying here for another day and night, and we're expecting two more team members which will be good.
"I never thought - it's a relatively small amount of oil - and it's already had such a devastating impact on the penguins." said Dave. "It's just heartbreaking."
It's a phrase that has been uttered by field staff countless times since the Rena ploughed into the Astrolabe Reef over two weeks ago - the numbers of dead birds are continuing to climb, 268 live birds are being cared for at the National Oiled Wildlife Recovery Unit, and the total dead will never be known.
But 'heartening' is another word that also comes to mind at the efforts of people like Dave, Rebecca and Julia, saving animals affected by this disaster.
"We can all see this year's crop of youngsters is going to be much lower," said Dave. "But, the good thing is that mum and dad are being saved and they'll be released when it's safe for them and they can get back to doing what penguins do, having more babies."
Littlest of little blue penguins at greatest risk: WWF field report, 21 October 2011, WWF