Time-lapse: The St Helena Bird Whisperer
SAMMI CHERRETT, 37, PUTTY HILL | Sharon Henry
Time-Lapse on the blog is a series of short story features designed to capture segments of time, life and culture through stories told by the people of St Helena.
“When I first arrived here I was working at the Marine Department. One day somebody brought in this little tiny Fairy Tern chick in a box. It was going to be put to sleep because there was nobody to look after it. So I took the chick home. His name was Jon Bon Jovi because he was freaking out until Jon Bon Jovi came on the radio and he calmed down.
“I raised him, he fledged and left and five days later he came back and he was like a proper bird.
“The second year I took four home, they were Fairy Tern chicks that people found and took into the Marine Department or the National Trust. Unfortunately, only two made it that year.
“Last year/season, I reckon I had about 14-15 birds. It seems the main Fairy Tern breeding season runs from November to February. The success rate that year wasn’t great unfortunately.”
Learning More About White Tern Nutrition
“It was really frustrating. I was managing to keep them alive for 6 – 8 weeks and then a couple would just randomly die. I had a chat with Cat [Catherine] the Vet and we came up with a couple of reasons including a vitamin/mineral deficiency.
“In the wild the parent birds feed little fry or squid to the chicks. I can’t get those here. It’s just not feasible. The best I can do is mackerel and bait fish.
“I managed to contact the Hawaii Wildlife Centre who recommended a seabird vitamin supplement. Now unfortunately it comes in packets of 4,000 tablets for about £100 and they only last a year. I just wanted to buy a small packet to see if it worked. I contacted Al Dove of the Georgia Aquarium who comes here for whale shark research and he put me in touch with their nutritionist. She sent me a load of supplements for free, DHL’ed them in, which was really, really cool.”
The Bird Whisperer Gets Higher Survival Rate
“They arrived January this year. So since November last year I had 23 Fairy Terns, the first five didn’t have this supplement but since then it seems to have made a massive difference. My success rate the previous year was 30%, at the minute I’m up to about 55% fledge rate which is kind of pretty high, 25-30% in captivity is considered a good rate.
“So we’re doing something right.”
“The other thing that’s changed this year is the Hawaii Wildlife Center gave me this formula on how much fish a bird should be having so that they are not under or over fed.”
The Cutest Thing Ever – All Kids Love Teddy Bears
“I’ve also sort of upped-my-game and bought these little heat pads for the chicks, until they can regulate their own body heat, and I bought them teddy bears. The chicks nuzzle in and sleep on them. So there were these tiny birds, flopped out on the belly of a teddy bear, asleep! They’re so cute when they’re like that.
“These changes have gone two ways, it made the survival rate of the babies massively increase but also, it’s made some of them quite clingy!
“We’ve discovered the best way of feeding them is, imagine a bird on a tree, the parent then kind of flies in and feeds them from tweezer-like beaks. So like you do with kids, we feed them like, ‘here comes the birdie!’ And the chicks actually take the fish because its more natural to what their parents would do. If you put it on the floor or wave it around they don’t eat. If you fly in, they eat it!”
Surrogate Parent Rehabilitating Fairy Tern Chicks
“In all honesty I wasn’t ‘into’ birds when I first came out here, but now I have a totally new respect. They are so much more intelligent than people make out, they learn really quickly. They have their own personalities.
“When they lose the grey fluff I put them down to two feeds a day. When I want them to think about leaving it’s down to one feed to encourage them to go.
“I have thought about ringing them but there has to be an approved ringer to put on them. The birds I’ve had in the past that have gone, they’ve not come back. Which means, trying to stay positive, it’s that they are adults, are absolutely fine and the call of nature has got them. I do worry about them though. Did I set them up right? I suppose like any parent; did I give them the right life skills… it’s ridiculous!
“I totally understand empty nest syndrome now!”
Flying The Nest – Into The Wild
“There was a time this year when I was up at 6 in the morning chopping up fish for 11 birds, weighing it out, putting the supplement on; I was like, why am I doing this? But then, the last few weeks when I let a load go and to see them flying up around the house, there was one doing air-display type movements, ducking and diving and there was another who found some wild bird friends… it was so nice to see.
“In all honesty those birds should be dead, they would not have survived. So now as pathetic as some of them are, they have a chance to be birds and when you see them socialising with other wild birds, it’s all worth it.”