Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Curiosity finally got the better of the 20 year old American Avocet. As he stepped closer to check me out, I scooped the long legged avian up in my hands. It was time to weigh the shorebird and take a fecal sample so that we could see if he was ready to be introduced to the rest of the Aquarium’s wetland birds. Known as Abe, the Avocet is the newest arrival to the Shorebird Sanctuary exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific. One of my favorite duties on my weekend husbandry shift, besides working with our wonderful marine mammals, is helping with the feeding and treatment of any shorebird that might be in quarantine, freeing up an aviculturist to attend to exhibit birds.
When Abe was given a clean bill of health and placed into the exhibit, located on the upper level next to the skates and ray touch tank, he was immediately adopted by the two resident Black-Necked Stilts, Oscar and G.G. as part of their flock. Stilts and Avocets share the same habitat in the wild and because they are of the same scientific family group, Recurvirostridae, also share some of the same body features such as long skinny legs and thin, pointy beaks. The black and white stilts have a helmet pattern on their heads while the avocet, though sharing a bit of the black and white pattern on its wings and belly, has a reddish-white head and a slight upturn to his beak. In the nearby wetlands of Bolsa Chica, you can often see these two species together wading through the marsh, swiping their beaks through the surface of the water from side to side foraging for food. The exhibit’s two Stilts and the Avocet form a tight flock. Aquarium aviculturist Jenna relayed the anecdote that when she had to pick up Abe for a checkup, G.G. charged forward and put up quite a racket. It was as if the Stilt was saying, “What are you doing with my buddy!?”
Abe’s other neighbors in the exhibit are Mara the Killdeer, J.J. the Snowy Plover, Petey and Rover the Black-Bellied Plovers, and Sebastian and Ruby the Ruddy Ducks. Each bird has its own unique personality and clique. One example is that J.J. the tiny Snowy Plover likes to hang around Mara the Killdeer despite their difference in size. Oscar the Stilt, who’s been at the Aquarium a month longer than I have, pretty much runs the land portion of the exhibit keeping the other birds in line while Sebastian the Ruddy Duck takes charge of the water part.
Another quarantined bird that I’ve had the opportunity to work with recently is a wild Snowy Egret that the Aquarium is currently helping to rehabilitate. You might recall that fellow blogger, Corinne, shared the story about how Andrew, one of our graphic designers, found the bird in distress in the harbor of Catalina Landing. On the Egret’s first few days in treatment, the bird had to be assist fed and given medications. This allowed me to use some of the skills that I’ve acquired in the care and treatment of wild shore and sea birds as a graduate of the California State Oiled Wildlife Care Network Advanced Supervisor training course. The network is a team of various organizations and facilities that respond to oil spills to help treat any animals that might be affected. While treating an Egret, you always have to be conscious of the bird’s strong pointy beak. Egrets feed by using their long necks like a spring and their beaks as a pointy pair of chop sticks to make lighting strikes on small fish and other prey that they find as they wade through the water. They also use their beaks in defense and a strike from their sharp points could be quite painful. One unique behavior that I’ve seen Snowy Egrets exhibit in the wild is their habit of holding one of their strikingly yellow feet out in front of their bodies like a tentative step and then swirling the mud around by vibrating their claws to stir up prey. I’ve also seen them use an ambush technique where they stand patiently with their beaks half submerged in the water with only their eyes showing just above the surface. When a fish comes by they can immediately strike without causing a splash that might throw off their aim or alert the prey. For the Egret that is rehabilitating at the Aquarium, foraging for fish is a lot easier. Now with a lot more energy than when he was first brought in weeks ago, he watches from his perch up high as a staff member places a pan of water in his holding pen. After he sees that they’ve exited the pen, he flies down and waits. As fish is tossed into the pan from the doorway he hurries over to pluck the silversides and capelin from the water. The Snowy Egret would have died without the intervention of the Aquarium’s staff, but with the TLC treatment we’re giving him, he’s getting much stronger and healthier. As he continues through the next stage of his rehabilitation he should move closer toward a complete recovery.
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