Friday, December 16, 2011

Last day with chicks

When it’s your last day at SANCCOB, many times you can request where you’d like to spend your day. Some people choose to work with the ICU birds, some choose to hang with the adults in Pen 2. Me? After working with them for a few days, I’ve totally fallen in love with the chicks. And that is where I got to spend my last day!


As usual at SANCCOB, the day started off with the tube feeding, medications and setting up chick living space for the day. Then things got a bit more chaotic! The SANCCOB veterinarian did her rounds throughout all the pens, weighing birds, looking at their overall appearance, checking their medical charts, adjusting medication and treatment plans. It’s something that’s done frequently and allows the staff to grade the medical condition of the birds.

Checking the health of the birds

Weighing birds. This one weighs 2.0 kilograms

After a close examination, birds from different areas got upgraded! Birds from the ICU came to the chicks area, some of the chicks went to Pen 2 with the big birds. And the two chick pens, the stronger birds and the smaller/”baldies,” were combined into one. Birds were being moved everywhere! And while that is good for the birds, it takes the staff and volunteers a while to sort out who went where and to make changes to medications and treatments that each individual bird receives. But eventually everything was sorted out and things went back to the regularly scheduled program!

Updating paperwork to track moving birds

It was a great last day that capped off a great last week. It’s nice to watch the chicks get bigger (one gained 500 grams in five days), become stronger and start to freely take fish from your hand during feeding time! And to know that the most of these birds were abandoned by hungry parents and have an excellent chance of being returned to the wild thanks to SANCCOB is awesome!

Feeding time

The day passed quickly as the schedule of feedings (my favorite part of the day) and tube feeding was complimented by swimming and resting time. Soon it was time for the last tube feeding of the day. Three of us worked together to make sure all of the birds got the nutrition that they needed. After feeding everyone and making sure all the birds were settled for the night, it was time to clean my oilskins for the last time. It was hard to process that it was my last time caring for the birds and I’m sure it will hit me tomorrow when I don’t have to go to work. But in the meantime, it’s off to download some more pictures and think about what lies ahead.

Tubing team! I'm the one in orange

Learn more about the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB and their Penguin Chick Bolstering Project.

Follow the adventures of Jo's co-worker, Paul! Aquarium penguin biologist Paul Leonard is also in South Africa to study and care for African penguins in the Southern Hemisphere! Read about his experience on the Penguin Blog

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rockie the Rockhopper!

Every workplace has its own cast of characters. The office jokester, the person who has the inside scoop, the workaholic, the guy who always offers to help, the person who manages to jam the copy machine every time. And at SANCCOB? The office character is 12-inches tall, demands three fish a day and honks if her demands aren’t met. Yup, it’s Rockie, the Northern rockhopper penguin!

The star takes a dip in the pool

Though SANCCOB rehabilitates mostly African penguins, they do on occasion get rockhopper penguins that have been found on local beaches. Rockhoppers are not normally found in South Africa. However, the Northern rockhopper does occur on a group of islands to the south. It is from these islands that folks theorize that the rockhoppers may come from. If they catch an ocean current and take a left instead of a right, they can end up in Cape Town.

It’s hard to say what Rockie’s origins are (and she doesn’t like to talk about the past) but the SANCCOB crew does know a little bit about her. She was admitted to SANCCOB in early 2009 after she was found on a beach near Cape Agulhas. She was able to be rehabilitated and is now approximately 4 years old (though she doesn’t like to talk about her age either). Her feathers are a bit ragged right now-she is getting ready to molt her feathers sometime in January!

A bad feather day?

Because she was rehabilitated at the center and there isn’t a way to release her back home, Rockie found a permanent home at SANCCOB. She is part of the resident population but she earns her keep! Rockie has been acclimated to people so that she can participate in educational programs! If school groups come to SANCCOB, Rockie is the star of the show. She is able to show the class how a penguin eats, how they walk and what they even sound like!

The star of the show!

Rockie is also a favorite penguin at SANCCOB. Many times she will be left to roam the hallways, a good way for her to get some exercise as she hops from area to area. You never know—you may be walking to tea break and find her directing traffic! But watch out as you are going through the swinging doors, you may run into a rockhopper!

Directing traffic

Penguins have the right of way!

As cute as she is, Rockie is a reminder of great rehabilitation and educational work that SANCCOB is involved in. She also is a reminder that, as with the African penguin, Northern rockhoppers are listed as endangered and are facing major issues, such as oil spills and over fishing, in the wild. Groups like SANCCOB are doing their part but we all need to do our part to make sure these animals are around for a long time. Want to know how to help out? Check out the Aquarium’s Live Blue page to see how simple things we do in our own lives can make a big impact on the lives of others. Rockie will thank you!

Have you done your part to live blue?

Learn more about the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB and their Penguin Chick Bolstering Project.

Follow the adventures of Jo's co-worker, Paul! Aquarium penguin biologist Paul Leonard is also in South Africa to study and care for African penguins in the Southern Hemisphere! Read about his experience on the Penguin Blog

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Day of Penguins at the Two Oceans Aquarium

As an educator, I’m always looking for new ways to talk about our penguin exhibit to Aquarium visitors. It’s one of the reasons I came to South Africa—to see how other institutions teach about penguins. Fortunately for me there is an aquarium right in Cape Town so off I went to visit!

Welcome to the Two Oceans Aquarium!

The Two Oceans Aquarium is named after the unique position of South Africa. (Not the first Aquarium employee to go to this aquarium and blog about it!)  Both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet here so South Africa has a pretty diverse ocean habitat right outside it’s back door. The Two Oceans Aquarium does a great job at featuring different animals from these two oceans: colorful tropical fish, cold water kelp and even sand tiger sharks can be found. But I came for the penguins.

I was fortunate enough to have met the Director of Education Russell Stevens while he was here in Boston last summer. He and his staff were able to show me around and talk about what sorts of programming they do with their penguin exhibit! Two Oceans have rockhopper penguins as well as African penguins on exhibit, similar to the New England Aquarium, so it was nice to see some familiar beaks. The staff was so warm and accommodating and before I knew it, I was helping with feeding time.

Friendly "Young Biologist" volunteers helped answer my questions

In order to feed the penguins back in Boston, the staff and volunteers need to don wetsuits to stay warm inside the cold water. Here in Cape Town, the penguins are featured on a beach habitat so no wetsuits required! I was able to shadow Anna during her food preparations and feeding within the exhibit. Just like home, each penguin has a name and as each bird gets feed a sardine, it’s marked down on a sheet for easy record keeping. As Anna had her hands full making sure that all of the birds got fed, it was my job to make sure that the fish were accounted for.

Food prep

Data collection

We made our way from the African birds to the rockhoppers who were more than happy to visit the fish bucket. Nikki the rockhopper even paid Anna a visit once she was done feeding, or maybe Nikki just wanted his spot back on the rock!

Putting me to work

Anna (the person) and Nikki (the rockhopper)

It was a great day at the aquarium. I met some amazing people, shared ideas on how to get the message out there that penguins need our help and even worked in the exhibit. Aquariums are important places to share details about these animals but also to show people how they can make changes in their own behavior that can make positive changes for the oceans. The African penguin is endangered and needs all the help they can get. And the Two Oceans Aquarium is doing their part to make sure that the information gets passed along. So thank you to everyone that made my day a great one. All the best to Two Oceans folks—and if you are ever in Boston, make sure to drop by!

All lined up for lunch

Empty bucket means well-fed rockhoppers!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Oil Gannet Washed!

Good news keeps rolling in from SANCCOB. I recently posted that the badly oiled gannet had recovered enough to be washed for the first time.

Before cleaning

Most of the oil had been removed from his feathers but as the process is stressful, the SANCCOB crew had to leave the rest of the oil for another day. They needed to wait until the gannet regained his strength and then try to remove the rest of the oil.

Only few hours after posting that information, I received news that they would be cleaning the gannet again! He had recovered nicely from the first washing and the SANCCOB crew were ready to have another go at the oil. Good news indeed! Everyone sprung into action making sure that the cleaning stations were set up. Hot and cold rinsing water, washing tubs and cleaning solutions were organized and they were ready to go.

Washing station

After getting a good grip on the bird (they have extremely long, pointed beaks), the staff lowered the bird down into the warm sudsy water. The cleaning solutions that SANCCOB uses is a concoction of different soaps, emulsifiers and canola oil, of all things, to help lift the oil off the bird while being careful not to damage the feathers. The staff even used toothbrushes to get to those delicate areas such as the head.

Into the bath

Scrub a dub dub, there's a gannet in the tub!

After a couple of washings, the gannet was left to dry out in a separate pen with the help of a nice heat lamp. After a few hours, he was as good as new. Or certainly close to it! Not bad for a bird who was pretty close to death once upon a time. He’s now hanging out with a new gannet that has come into the center and hopefully will make a full recovery over the next few weeks. I won’t be here to see the gannet released but it’s been awesome to see his progress to this point. Another remarkable job by the remarkable people at SANCCOB!

After first cleaning

After final cleaning-he's the bird standing up!

Learn more about the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB and their Penguin Chick Bolstering Project.

Follow the adventures of Jo's co-worker, Paul! Aquarium penguin biologist Paul Leonard is also in South Africa to study and care for African penguins in the Southern Hemisphere! Read about his experience on the Penguin Blog

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Good news update!

Hi everyone! I wanted to give you an update on a couple of good news items from South Africa!

Welcome back to Pen 2

Today I spent time in Pen 2—the pen that both Paul and I got to experience fairly early in our SANCCOB experience. It’s where I learned to handle birds and managed to get my fair share of new bruises. But there was no time for a reunion as it was a busy day in Pen 2. Another release day was here!

Release day!

Nine more African penguins were released today! I wasn’t able to attend the release because I was working in Pen 2 but I was able to help get the birds ready for their departure from SANCCOB. As before, many of the birds had measurements taken, some had metal tags put on for future identification in the wild and all got a bright pink spot that identified them as birds that has been released. It was a lot of work to get the squirmy birds to sit still long enough for all this to happen but well worth it. After we were done, five boxes of penguins left SANCCOB headed for the waters near Robben Island. Awesome!

Putting on the metal ID tag

ID tag on

Another good news update involves the oiled gannet that I had mentioned in previous posts here and here. He continues to improve every day, so much so that they washed him for the first time! Washing oil off of a bird is a stressful process and SANCCOB only does it when they know the bird can handle it. The gannet had improved to the point where it was a good idea, so we got a-scrubbing. Because he is a large bird, the process takes extra long and during the process the SANCCOB folks noticed he was getting a bit tired. So though a lot of the oil is gone, he will be washed again in the future to remove the rest. But a great step forward for the gannet…hopefully a step towards release!

Before washing

After washing!

So good news coming from SANCCOB recently! It’s an awesome feeling to help these birds and even better feeling when all of the hard work pays off!

See? I do work here!

Learn more about the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB and their Chick Bolstering Project.

Follow the adventures of Jo's co-worker, Paul! Aquarium penguin biologist Paul Leonard is also in South Africa to study and care for African penguins in the Southern Hemisphere! Read about his experience on the Penguin Blog

Monday, December 5, 2011

More Chicks!

It’s Monday and the start of another work week. Only this is my last work week at SANCCOB and for once in my life I wish that every day was Monday simply so the week won’t end! I can’t believe that three weeks have gone by already.

Thanks for hanging with us today!

Today I found myself back with the African penguin chicks that belong to the chick bolstering project. These are the birds that are healthy enough to be out of ICU but aren’t large enough or strong enough to hang with the big boys. Since I’ve worked there last, more chicks have arrived so the larger chick group has been broken up into two smaller groups. There are the larger chicks and then my group—the smaller birds and ones that have lost feathers…or the “baldies”.

My assignment for today

Before we could begin the regimen of feeding, cleaning, tube feeding, swimming and more cleaning, all of our birds had undergo their weekly blood draws. It sounds horrible but it’s a simple blood draw similar to the finger prick you get at the doctor’s office. A small blood sample is taken and then tested for things like blood cell counts, protein levels and examined for traces of parasites or diseases, such as malaria. Fortunately for the birds, the people that hold them and the people that have to get the blood sample, the whole process is done once a week on Monday mornings.

Blood samples

Next patient please

After we got a blood sample from the birds, it was on to swimming and feeding. Some of the birds would get a bit chilly after a short swim, but that’s because they don’t have any feathers! In the pen we have birds that have all or just about all of their waterproof feathers, some that still have a big patch of downy feathers and then some that have only a few feathers at all. (You can learn more about the stages of molting with these posts about the penguins back in Boston.) These are the “baldies”  and are bald due to a condition called feather loss disorder. The folks at SANCCOB and elsewhere are trying to figure out what is causing this particular affliction. Though it looks pretty devastating, the chicks do grow their feathers back in a couple of weeks and look good as new!

Waterproof feathers

Downy feathers

"Baldie" with feather loss disorder

In addition to seeing the blood draws for the first time and spending some time with the “baldies”, today was also my first day tube feeding. Talk about high pressure! Many of the chicks need additional hydration and nutrition throughout the day and tube feeding them is a big part of the SANCCOB daily schedule. So today was my day to learn. Wow. I thought feeding was intense-it’s got nothing on tubing! But after some patient mentoring by one of the experienced volunteers and a bit of practice, I managed to give a few penguin chicks their penguin Gatorade!

Feedings, learning to tube feed, making sure penguins swam okay, cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning. Needless to say I’m a bit tired after my manic Monday filled with African penguin chicks.  Unfortunately, I won’t have any more manic Mondays but still have a few precious days at SANCCOB left. I’m so thankful for everything that I’ve been able to see so far and know that the my last few days at SANCCOB will be filled with new things to learn!

Learn more about the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB and their Chick Bolstering Project.

Follow the adventures of Jo's co-worker, Paul! Aquarium penguin biologist Paul Leonard is also in South Africa to study and care for African penguins in the Southern Hemisphere! Read about his experience on the Penguin Blog

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sardines in Hout Bay

People are always surprised to find out that there is a penguin species that can be found in Africa. Even though air temperatures can get pretty warm, on the western side of South Africa the cold ocean currents come up from the deep Atlantic Ocean. It brings up lots of nutrients which means lots of plankton, small fish, medium fish, etc. This means food for penguins! One type of fish that the African penguin eats is sardines, or pilchards. There are lots of other animals that like to eat sardines, too! This was pretty evident when I took a side trip the other day to the harbor in Hout Bay!

Hout Bay and harbor

Hout Bay is on the western side of the Cape Peninsula, not to far from Cape Town. The small harbor is a working harbor with lots of fishing boats, small tourist attractions and a small stretch of beach. When I visited, it wasn’t the best beach day for tanning but it was pretty busy anyway. After taking a closer look, I was amazed to see people fishing from the beach. Not with a fishing rod but just by wading into the water and scooping up fish. Sardines!


A school of sardines had come into the harbor and the fishing frenzy was on. People were just throwing nets into the water and pulling up fish. But it wasn’t just people doing some fishing. There was a huge flock of seabirds that were hunting as well as a big group of Cape fur seals. Right off the beach! It was pretty neat to watch the seals hunt for their food, with the younger pups playing with the fish before they ate it. It was quite the feeding frenzy just inside that little harbor with fish scales flying everywhere!

Toss the net overboard, pull up some fish

Huge flock of sea gulls and Cape fur seals

Seals with full bellies

While it was a great thing to watch and see the Cape fur seals up close (not to be confused with the Northern fur seals we have at the Aquarium!), it was a poignant reminder that sardines, and other fish, is a huge commodity in South Africa. Lots of animals, including people and the African penguin, rely on them for food. With overfishing being a problem in this country (and many others) penguins are having a harder time finding food and therefore abandoning their chicks before they are ready.

Fortunately SANCCOB is there to help those chicks get back on their feet and there are sustainable seafood programs in South Africa. Is it enough to ensure the sardines are there for the future and to stop the decline of the African penguin population? I don’t know. I hope so…it was a pretty cool thing to watch birds, people and seals all share in the same bounty and let’s keep our fingers crossed that it can continue for many generations to come.

Fishing from the beach. Will it continue?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Intensive Care

Thank you ICU!

Over the past few days, I’ve had the opportunity to work in SANCCOB’s intensive care unit. Just as in human medicine, the ICU is where the most critical patients are cared for. Here the patients are closely monitored, many times given medications and fluids on a more regular basis and health indicators are constantly evaluated.

So what qualifies a patient for ICU care at SANCCOB? It differs for each individual. When a bird first comes to the center, they are given a health evaluation. Vital signs, physical condition and blood work are examined over the first few days. Medications may be prescribed and care plans can be set in motion. If a bird is thought to be “out of the woods” then they may join another group of birds outside of ICU. If not, they can remain in ICU until they are better.

Admissions card and health record

Lots of different medications for different treatments

There are currently a number of birds under ICU’s care. The oiled gannet is still here being stabilized before his feathers can be washed. However, he’s progressing well enough to spend some time outside in a prepared space. It’s been good to see him stretch out his wings and become more alert as time goes on.

Oiled gannet looking more alert and with room to stretch

There are also a number of African penguins in ICU, ranging in age from chicks to adults. Many of the chicks are underweight, being abandoned by parents who couldn’t find enough food for themselves. To help them gain weight, they are given formula (those fishy milkshakes I’ve talked about before) as many as three times a day. The formula is given to the chick through a tube that goes down their throat. It takes a lot of training and practice but the experienced staff and volunteers make it look easy: tube goes in, formula gets delivered, and penguin gets a tummy full of goodness.

Is it lunch time yet?

Tubing a penguin to give it formula

Lunch service complete

Other patient issues include mobility and paralysis issues. A Hartlaub’s gull is having problems flying and an African penguin has partial paralysis and is unable to stand normally. To help strengthen his muscles and to get him upright, the staff created a bucket and towel contraption to help with his therapy. The bird also gets physical therapy treatments—a few bicycle kicks and lunges are good for anyone’s health.

Hartlaub's gull resting

Bucket training for strengthening muscles and sitting up straight

As cute as a picture of a penguin in a bucket can be, it‘s a tough job in ICU. The standard of care is excellent and sick birds are able to pull through. Just today they upgraded a number of patients out of ICU to other pens. However, it’s the nature of a rescue hospital that things can turn very quickly and though SANCCOB does everything they can, animals will pass away. It’s always hard when it happens but the dedicated SANCCOB crew knows there is work to be done. Life goes on…and with it hopes that other ICU patients will make it through.

Learn more about the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, or SANCCOB and their Chick Bolstering Project.

Follow the adventures of Jo's co-worker, Paul! Aquarium penguin biologist Paul Leonard is also in South Africa to study and care for African penguins in the Southern Hemisphere! Read about his experience on the Penguin Blog.