This Christmas, the Herald is profiling 12 charities chosen to get a $12,000 grant from Auckland Airport as part of its 12 Days of Christmas giving programme – now in its twelfth year. The $144,000 comes from generous travellers who donate money in globes throughout the airport.

The summer of 2018 was a bad one for little blue penguins.

Thousands of chicks washed up along the shore in a mass die-off caused by the La Nina weather pattern.

Warm surface water made fish retreat to colder waters too deep for the chicks to dive.

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Most starved to death, but the ones that came ashore on Waiheke Island had a better chance of survival thanks to its unique Native Bird Rescue.

The small team of volunteers offers a 24-hour rescue response and rehabilitation service for native birds, is one of 12 charities to get $12,000 from Auckland Airport as part of its 12 Days of Christmas programme.

Four little blue penguins in a travelling bin on their way to rehab. Photo / Supplied
Four little blue penguins in a travelling bin on their way to rehab. Photo / Supplied

Native Bird Rescue founder Karen Saunders says its team saved nine of the 41 little blue penguins washed ashore on Waiheke that month.

"That was a really high rate of return compared to anywhere else. Most were so emaciated they died on the way here or within an hour of arriving. It was pretty awful.

"So pulling them through was a very long, slow, gentle procedure," she says.

The penguins start with hydration therapy to make sure their organs pull through.

Then they're fed fish slurries with 5 per cent food until they build up to solids.

The next step is physio.

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"You can't release them straight away. It would be like getting a human who hasn't moved for three months to run a marathon. They've got to build their muscle tone and stamina back up," Saunders says.

Veterinarian Jess and Dr Bryan Gartrell examine a ruru. Photo / Supplied
Veterinarian Jess and Dr Bryan Gartrell examine a ruru. Photo / Supplied

The penguins do circuits in a fibreglass tub, walking up a ramp, diving in and swimming back. Their first taste of the sea is in an extra-large dog cage the team has adapted for penguin rehab. "We take it down to the beach on whichever side of the island's calm and put the cage in the water.

"At first they can only swim for five minutes before they get tired and cold and hop up on the little shelf we built," she says. Once they can do 20 minutes a day, they're close to release.

For four penguins, the team built a fenced nesting enclosure where they fed them for 10 days before opening the gates. Three made it back to the wild but one stayed behind even though her mate had left.

"We think she had brain damage from malnutrition. She was the lightest. She's gone to live at Auckland Zoo where she recently laid eggs. She's an advocacy bird now."

Penguins doing physio on ramp with Karen Saunders. Photo / Supplied
Penguins doing physio on ramp with Karen Saunders. Photo / Supplied

Native Bird Rescue is lucky that one of New Zealand's more experienced zoological veterinarians, Dr Bryan Gartrell, lives on Waiheke.

The native bird enthusiast chairs the trust and volunteers his time. The team has a high success rate with the protected avian species it rescues, from fantails and tūī, to ruru and shags.

"Once we get them through that first 24 hours, we have an 88 per cent success rate back to the wild," Saunders says. Volunteers come from all walks of life and for some the nurturing involved with rehabilitating birds becomes a healing process for them too.

Penguins swim inside the purpose-built rehabilitation cage with a volunteer. Photo / Supplied
Penguins swim inside the purpose-built rehabilitation cage with a volunteer. Photo / Supplied

Auckland Airport's general manager of corporate services, Mary-Liz Tuck, says the $12,000 will go on an electric van big enough to take the penguin rehabilitation cage to the beach.

"We are encouraged that local Waiheke bird and wildlife will be better supported in times of distress and illness."

Yesterday: Just Move Trust