By Jodi Bryant
It's 1am and Robert Webb is keeping an eye on the screen in his Glenbervie home. He's watching a kiwi try to hatch and it's clear it's having a bit of trouble.
Jumping in his car, he drives the 13km across town where he begins peeling the shell away from the hatchling. After weighing and measuring the chick, he places him in a warm bed before returning home to his own.
The next morning, his email is flooded.
"The funny thing is, I'll have a number of emails from around the world from people who were watching it happen live."
A normal bedtime for Robert and his wife Robyn is 2am. They have devoted their lives for the past few decades to rescuing, caring for and rehabilitating over 1,300 birds each year.
Robert was a heavy haul truck driver and, on the way to Auckland, would spot injured Harrier Hawks on the side of the road, so would stop and put them in his cab.
"I'd take him home and go see some of the local vets and they would show me different things to do with the birds," he recalls.
Then a couple of traffic accidents put an end to his driving career so, deciding he 'may as well do something useful', threw his efforts into creating a bird recovery haven.
Wife Robyn joined him and the pair have voluntarily run the award-winning Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre, along with a small team of volunteers, since 1992.
"We've either got to be totally dedicated or bloody silly," he laughs. "I think it's a bit of both."
Up to 1,300 birds from 200 different breeds come into the centre each year – some via free courier - from areas within Puhoi to Cape Reinga and both coasts and it's not just the natives – every wild bird is taken in, from sparrows, to albatross, to kiwi.
"We get about 20 a day – Wood Pigeons and Harrier Hawks are the most common. The Wood Pigeons get drunk on guava berries and fly into windows and the Harriers get hit on the road."
Then, of course, there's the bait pinchers who've managed to get themselves hooked and are brought in with the baited hook still attached.
And there are repeat patients; Robert recalls a wood pigeon, which had flown into a house window in Maunu, which they banded and released. Twelve years later, the same bird came in again, having hit the house next door.
Spring is the busiest time at the centre when baby birds are easy target for cats. But it's not just cats that are the main culprit. Dogs and humans are two of the most common.
"The way we look at it is, birds were here before we were. We're the predators so we should do what we can to look after them. They were quite happy before we came along and started constructing modern buildings with all these windows for them to fly into. The birds have to put up with a hell of a lot."
As for dogs, they are the biggest problem for the Kiwi population, with many owners ignorant as to their dogs' capabilities. The centre receives around 12 injured Kiwi a year, usually from a combination of dogs, traps and vehicles, and hatches up to ten in the hatching facility, before releasing them onto Matakohe-Limestone Island at around six weeks.
"A fresh Kiwi egg will take about 75 days to hatch. We have a special light that we shine on the egg so we can see what's inside it. After about four or five days, you can see a little red dot and that's the embryo," Robert explains. "Towards the end, you can hear the kiwi inside the egg calling."
Robert explains that, once the Kiwi lays her egg, she will not stick around to incubate it. Instead the male usually takes on this role but 'He will roll it out of the nest if he can't be bothered'.
Many do not survive and he encourages those who find a Kiwi egg to bring it into the centre.
The centre has a high success rate – around 75 of the 80 Wood Pigeons per year are released and about 55 of the 70 Harrier Hawks.
"If visitors come here and there's not many birds to see then that's good because that means the birds are out there where they should be."
However, there are some permanent residents – the talking tui and Sparky the Kiwi, who has been hand-raised since discovered in a gin trap as a baby and had his leg amputated. Now 13, and accustomed to daylight and being handled, he has become an ambassador for wildlife conservation and the only 'flying' Kiwi in the world as he accompanies Robert around New Zealand visiting schools and organisations for educational purposes.
"He takes to flying no problem at all. As soon as we take off, he curls up in the carry box on my knee. Sometimes, in between flights, I'll take him out on this grass verge outside Auckland Airport so he can have a feed of worms. He loves his worms – he'll eat 300 worms a day - and, of course, people driving past – well they see him and nearly have a fit," laughs Robert.
"I saw this joker walk across the road and he was looking over and he stood there watching so I called out and said: 'You can come have a look if you want' so he came over and said he couldn't believe his eyes and no one else would believe it either. I said: 'Well, they're gonna think you've finally popped your cork so you better give me your phone and I'll take a photo'."
The team also host up to 6,000 local school children who visit the centre each year as part of its hands-on education programmes teaching how human impact disrupts the environmental balance.
With camera monitors set up to watch from their home and taking the odd feathered patient home, it's a job that's 24/7 but Robert's not complaining.
"I used to bump into some of my old fellow drivers and they'd ask what I was doing with myself now. I used to have them on and say: "Well, I work at a place where I can take home a different bird every night and I don't get into trouble." You could see them really thinking what sort of job I've got and I could just imagine them thinking 'Where the hell could I find a wife like that?'!"
Now in their late sixties and early 70s, the couple have no plans to give up their 24-hour, seven-day a week service.
"I'll never leave here until they take me out in a box. It's been 17 years since we've been on holiday and it's certainly not for the money," Robert laughs. "We do this because we feel we've got a responsibility for the wild birds. When Robyn and I started this centre we had to learn to speak up for the birds and could not see the reason for putting a bird to sleep because he had one leg when he could be used for educational reasons.
"When you see a bird fly away, you realise you've done something well in life."