Mercury Bay optometrist, Brett Howes, had a pretty unique appointment on Thursday last week when he was called in to examine a Little Blue Penguin found on Matarangi Beach disoriented and seemingly blind.
The tiny bird was found on the Tuesday after Labour Weekend by a couple walking along the beach and was taken to Kuaotunu Bird Rescue for examination. “The two people saw the penguin coming out of the water during the day and it is very unusual to see them on land at that time which suggested there was something wrong,” said Annemieke Kregting, who’s running the centre. “They described how he was disoriented and walking around in circles.”
Examining the fledgling, Annemieke and volunteer, Dr Sue Grieg, were both concerned about what they discovered. “He was in a reasonable condition,” Annemieke said. “He was a bit underweight , but there were no signs of any injury, it was exactly what you would want to see in a bird of this size.” However, the hugely dilated pupils and the penguin’s inability to react to any light or movement in front of his eyes was troubling.
“His pupils were absolutely huge when he came in, they have decreased quite a lot since then, but he is still not responding to any visual stimulation,” Annemieke shared with Brett before the patient was brought out for his eye exam.
The penguin, estimated to be around four to six months old, was a little sleepy when he first came out of his temporary home in the centre’s dedicated room for native birds, but quickly sprang into action when given the opportunity to gulp down some fish. “He is eating well, we have him on a short course of anti-inflammatories just in case there is anything going on that we cannot see, but there is just nothing obvious that would explain what is going on here,” Annemieke added.
In the end it was a brief and reasonably stress-free time under the optometrist’s scope, with Brett concluding the penguin’s eyes were unlikely to be the cause of the problem. “So what I’m looking at is the retina and right through to the back of the eye to see if there is anything amiss and there is nothing,” he said. “It looks perfectly fine. There is no sign of any eye injury and that being the case, my best guess at this stage is he has suffered a thump or a bang to the head, or potentially has had a little stroke, although given his age I would say that is less likely.”
Brett said it is was very common in birds for systemic issues, a wider health problem, to impact the eyes. He also described how the extensive dilation is normal for penguins, essentially exposing parts of the eye that enable them to see when in the water. The pupil then restricts again to enable them to see on land. “I think if it is an injury, as this is a young penguin and otherwise in good health, there is a strong possibility that he will recover,” he said. “I think there is a good chance we will see the pupils continue to reduce in size and then the eyesight will improve.”
On that positive note, the Little Blue Penguin, fresh from his consultation and with a full tummy, was returned to his nesting box for some well-earned peace and quiet.
Although hopeful that the patient will recover sufficient sight to return to the wild, Annemieke decided, given the likelihood that an injury had been suffered, that some specialist vet care was appropriate. “Green Bay Bird Rescue in Auckland will be taking the penguin,” she said. “They have wildlife vets on site.”
The penguin will be monitored for a few weeks to see if his sight improves and this will determine what happens next in terms of his future. “It would be cruel to just release him if he cannot see,” Annemieke said. “He would have no idea where he was going and no ability to defend himself, so we will just have to wait and see.”
Annemieke also thanked Brett for coming to assist. “We are really lucky to have such fantastic support from our local community, ” she said.