I’ve always looked after wildlife. My dad was a bushman, but before he went to war he was a certified horticulturalist. As a WW1 veteran when he came back he looked for work but it was hard to find. He travelled up and down the coast over 22 years, often living in the bush and taking odd jobs. When he settled in Nambucca Heads he married my mum and weekends we were out in the bush looking for spiders, orchids, native flowers and other little creatures – and he often took animals home that were injured.

He saw what other people didn’t see, and I adored him.
I still find it amazing that you can put in the tiniest of seeds and it just blossoms up into this beautiful tree of some sort and then along come the creatures that are dependent on that kind of tree. It’s hugely satisfying. It’s the same with Dodo, who was a really special bird.

So, early in December 2018, FAWNA which is the Mid North NSW Coast licensed wildlife rescue hotline, was called about an “Albatross” sitting on a rock at Lake Cathie surf beach, a beach where there are often lots of dogs out with their owners.

A walker recognised this bird was in trouble and he stayed to protect it from the dogs. When the FAWNA rescuer arrived together they managed to catch the bird. It was unable to fly but pretty fast on its feet. It was a busy holiday time and this most unusual bird and its rescuers attracted much interest from bystanders.

It turned out the bird was starving, dehydrated and exhausted and a long way from home. So it was brought to me. It weighed 3.5kg and it was a Southern Giant-Petrel, probably 6-7 years old. An adult would have mottled head feathering and ashy-grey neck feathers but this one an immature bird – dark in colour all over. Giant-Petrels are a bit like an Albatross but they have an unusual tube-nosed bill and hunchback appearance. Of the two Giant-Petrel species, one breeds and feeds on the Northern part of the Antarctic Convergence and the other on the South.

We weren’t sure if it was a male or female, but we though of it as ‘him’ – we called him Dodo and he walked just like Donald Duck.

He just learned the game so quickly – he knew when I was coming with the food bin and I’d throw a sardine up in the air and he’d catch it and spin it round so it was head first. He had mullet offal for lunch and fresh whole mullet pieces mid-afternoon.

The thing with those big guys is they don’t know any fear of humans because they haven’t had the bad luck of experiencing what humans normally do. So, once they’ve settled down after a couple of days the trust is there. He could have taken my fingers off but he never did. He would come over with his wings up to greet me. The intelligence of them is the thing that amazes me.

There are a lot of burials too. But that’s what we do – everything we pick up is sick – that’s why we pick it up. So when you get a win with something like Dodo who was so far from home, it’s pretty good.

After a week Dodo became verbal, flapping his wings – it was nearly time to go home to the oceans. The kind folk at Fisheries NSW agreed to take Dodo out to sea on the 12th December to the Cod Grounds Marine Park east from Laurieton, not far from where he was found needing help 10 days earlier. We set up his box with lots of airholes and foam for his feet, which aren’t used to hard surfaces. When they got there he came to his door and had a look, went back into the box and ate all the sardines I’d packed for him. Then he walked out, and flew. We really hope he continues his journey south back to his natural breeding and feeding grounds in the Antarctic.

I won’t forget Dodo. Making eye contact with him was just wonderful. It’s just like when I plant some seeds and then a tree grows and suddenly I get this burst of beautiful flowers – it’s that same inner contentment, that you can’t buy and no one can give to you.

Dad and I used to ride out on a bike, on old pushbikes, go bush as far as he could ride, and I used to look up at his crippled-up body and what he could do with it. He learned that’s where peace is. And I have the same philosophy. That is where the peace is.

By June Le Pla OAM, as told to Meredith Ryan, FAWNA president, and Gretchen Miller.

*Thanks to Fisheries NSW help, and to Port Fresh Seafoods who provided fresh mullet offal daily. It was a collaborative effort to help this beautiful pelagic bird.

Audio produced by Gretchen Miller, sound engineering by Judy Rapley. Recorded by Cameron Marshall, ABC Port Macquarie.

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