8,500 miles away, wildlife rehabilitation students explore New Zealand

January 25, 2017

By Nina Mastandrea

Nine-hundred miles off the East Coast of Australia and 600 miles south of Fiji, are the islands that comprise the fascinating country of New Zealand.

Known largely for its biodiversity, it makes sense as to why students from the wildlife rehabilitation program made the 8,500-mile journey for the third year.

Over the course of 27 days, 19 students and three leaders including Director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center Nina Fischesser, studied the country’s diverse culture and wildlife.

Discover New Zealand and learn what it was like touring kiwi-country in this travel log featuring diary entries by the students who experienced it all first-hand.

The journey has been segmented by several major “stops” along their journey. Match the number on the map of New Zealand to read about those days’ events. 

Journal entries have been edited for clarity and brevity. Photos courtesy of Samantha Croft ’18 and the wildlife rehabilitation students.

1. Arrived in Auckland, New Zealand (December 12)

Located on New Zealand’s North Island, Auckland is the largest populated city in the country–a home for approximately 1.5 million people or 32 percent of the countries’ population, according to the New Zealand Official Tourism and Travel Guide website.

The group made the long flight before landing in Auckland’s airport and settling into their Airbnb.

Once settled in, Fischesser and her group set off to their first adventure on the agenda: The gannet colony. 

2. Exploring the Gannet Colony in Muriwai Beach and the Cascades 

A one-hour drive west from Auckland in Muriwai Beach sits approximately 1,200 pairs of gannets–a major visitor attraction especially between August until March. The birds gather during the eight-month-long period to mate and raise their young.


Nina Fischesser: “What a perfect day! . . . We were able to watch the parents sitting on the chick while the other mate goes out to find fish to feed. When the parent returns to the nest the pair do a sort of dance with their beaks, and it’s lovely to see birds operating in their normal life. Our life at the center is so focused on broken and orphaned animals that to see this is a delight and substantiates our purpose in rehabilitating individual wildlife.”

On the same day, Fischesser and her students explored the falls and wildlife encased in the northern part of Waitakere Ranges Regional Park named the “Cascades Falls.”


3. The Whangarei Native Bird Recovery 

A few days later, the group traveled about two-hours north to visit the northernmost New Zealand city of Whangarei.

First established in 1992, the award-winning Native Bird Recovery Center cares for, and rehabilitates about 1,200 birds each year, according to the center’s website.

“The center takes in all injured birds, both native and non-native, and where possible, nurses the birds back to health for release into the wild,” according the website. “More than 60 percent of the birds that are brought into the center are successfully released again.” 


Brandi Clark: We made our way to the center where we met Robert Webb. He was an ex-truck driver who now dedicates his life to rehabilitating most bird species [alongside his wife, Robyn Webb]. He is able to possess permits for kiwis because he uses them to educate the local children. He brought out “Sparky” the kiwi who lost his leg and is non-releasable. He was soooooo adorable. After coming home, I went to write in my journal and realized how lucky we all are to be in another country together learning about beautiful native animals that are not found anywhere else in the world. I never thought I would have a chance to experience this part of life and now that I am I am truly grateful.”

4. Māori Village Tour and the Hot Natural Springs

Having already spent some time with native birds, it was time to shift focus towards the culture and history of New Zealand.

The group traveled south to Rotorua, a town known for its natural hot springs and the Māori culture.

The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. The aboriginal group first settled on the islands of New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages sometime around 1250 C.E.

At the Tamaki Māori Village, performers teach visitors many elements of the Māori way including the war dance (video below)

While in the area, the wildlife group explored the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, home of the hot natural springs. 

In addition to bathing, the locals use the underground thermal steam from the springs to cook their food. Corn is placed in mesh bags and dipped into the over 500-degree water until it is done (shown below)


5. Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Center

The group made one of its final major stops on the North Island of New Zealand at the Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Center in Mount Bruce.

The center is the home of “Manukura”, one of the few, pure-white kiwi birds born in captivity, according the center’s website. Manukura is considered “taonga” (a blessing) by local Māori and her name means “of chiefly status.”

The center is also home to longfin eels. During their visit, students were able to care for the eels and feed them. 

Elizabeth Heis: “Once the girl in charge of the eel feeding arrived, she asked for volunteers and she picked me! Needless to say, I kinda freaked out a little. She gave Tariana and I leg waders to put on, large serving spoons and a small bucket that had mushed up kiwi food leftovers such as the Ox heart and veggies. Tariana and I then made our way into the water and started to feed the eels. The eels have really poor eye sight so they kept running into our legs and getting stuck between our legs. I found out they have teeth as well that, I think, would be comparable to catfish teeth that are similar to really rough sand paper.”


6. Christmas in Golden Bay

Before students and their leaders could enjoy their Christmas festivities on the shores of Golden Bay, the group traveled by ferry across the dividing channel between the North Island and the South Island. 

The Golden Bay is a shallow bay located in the northwest corner of the South Island. The first known European explorer, Abel Tasman, anchored in Golden Bay in 1642. 

Jenna Glaski: “It’s Christmas Eve in New Zealand and we stayed in Golden Bay in a small, quaint town. Nina arranged an amazing adventure for us that day! We went to Hack n’ Stay Horse Stables where we got to split up into groups based on our riding experience and all got to go on a two-hour trail ride through the forest or the “bush” as New Zealanders call it, that led to a beach. We were all in our glory and having so much fun. The trail winded up and down through farmlands and wooded areas but no matter where we were the view was absolutely amazing. At one point we came to a field and let our horse graze on the grass and get some water and we were all admiring the beautiful view that was around us. Mountains covered in vibrant green trees and not a single cloud in the sky, it couldn’t get much better for us at that point. While taking a break there I got to see a Harrier hawk soar to a nearby tree and that was my first time getting an up close view of one of them. The harrier hawk is one of the few raptors of New Zealand, smaller than a Red-Tailed hawk, but bigger than a Broad-Winged hawk that we work with every day in our Rehabilitation center at Lees-McRae. He was beautiful and set the scene for the rest of our ride. For many of us it was a check off our bucket lists. It was the most surreal and beautiful experience for us."

On Christmas day morning, students gathered for a secret Santa exchange.

Jolene Fox: “We were told to wait inside because there was a surprise for us. So we waited for around ten minutes before being told to go outside. Not only did we have our secret Santa gifts and special penguin gifts from Brandi, but each of us also received a stocking filled with goodies from home. We have been in New Zealand for a good amount of time. So how was Nina able to hide these stockings this entire time? Well it turns out that there was a green duffel with a note saying, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” taped on it that always stayed in the back of the van. Everyone had a lot of fun going through their stockings, and I even received a letter with words from each of my family members that was greatly appreciated.”

7. Franz Josef Glacier

On the way down the west coast from Golden Bay, the group paused a moment to explore the Hokitika Gorge in Kokatahi. Its main characteristics are the vivid turquoise water surrounded by lush greenery. 

A few days and an almost eight-hour drive later, the group arrived in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the home of the Franz Josef Glacier located on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. 

Though the glacier advances and retreats based on warming and cooling cycles, and was advancing up until 2008, since then, the glacier has gone into a very rapid phase of retreat–mostly due to the effects of global warming.

By the year 2100, under mean climate warming, the glacier will retreat five kilometers and lose 38 percent of its mass, according to a scientific journal written by Department of Geography at the University of Canterbury Senior Research Fellow, Brian Anderson.

“On a global scale, the magnitude of the retreat is at the upper end of the range calculated for other, similar sized, glaciers,” Anderson said. 

8. The Yellow Eyed Penguins

Before ending their month-long trip, the group made one last stop on their journey: The Penguin Place Conservation Reserve in Dunedin–a city located on the Southeast coast of the South Island.

The reserve is the home of the yellow eyed penguin, one of the most endangered penguin species on earth, according to the reserve's website. 

Brandi Clark: “The day began around 9 a.m., and so we set off towards the Yellowed Eyed Rehabilitation Centre and colony. We met Rosalie and she began explaining penguin behavior. One thing I remember her saying is how she initially treats them upon arrival to her facility. She went into detail about particular trauma areas and how you can tell what kind of predator they were attacked by. She said when a barracuda attacks, they have a long nose with sharp teeth and the penguins have teeth marks on the lower part of their body and deep tissue wounds on their feet. She also mentioned that it usually wouldn't be a seal that attacks them because penguins can’t escape a seal. She also mentioned that yellow eyes are prone to fungal infections, so she gives them a dose of ivermectin. You can diagnose if their throat is red and inflamed as opposed to greyish–which is normal. We then headed toward the back of the Centre to let Dr. Bolt exam a juvenile yellow eyed that was unable to stand. I was next to him when he had him or her in his arms and I asked if he wanted me to hold while he examined. I couldn't believe that I had a chance to hold an endangered baby yellow eyed penguin. I felt so honored to be able to experience and help this animal. I watched as Dr. Bolt checked the leg for luxations, dislocations and fractures. I hope the best for that little yellow eye. He or she has no idea how much of a difference they made in my life. It just makes me want to be a veterinarian even more.”


9. Christchurch to leave for home (January 7)

After a month-long journey across New Zealand it was time to finally fly home to the states. The group traveled north to Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island. Established in 1856, Christchurch is the oldest city in New Zealand. 

Fischesser said that the trip, just like its predecessors, was a trip of a lifetime and one that she, along with her students, will remember forever.

Over the course of the trip, students had to work together to ensure the trip went smoothly, she said.

And because of that, students came home with a new understanding of themselves and one another–bonds that will last a lifetime. 

“It was such a powerful experience,” she said.

From the yellow eyed penguins to the glaciers, almost every student had a favorite highlight from the trip. But one thing was for certain, Fischesser said, “no one wanted to leave!” 


Media Contact:

Nina Mastandrea  |  Content Manager
Tel: 828.898.8729  |  Email: mastandrean@lmc.edu