Martha Watkins-Gilkes: a tale of two ducklings

Bridget van Dongen discovers how a duckling rescue in Antigua helped make a community safer for wildlife

One of the ducklings shows its amazingly coloured wing feathers. Photograph by Martha Watkins-GilkesThe ducklings get their first swim in their deeper “pond”. Photograph by Martha Watkins-GilkesThe four ducklings as they were discovered covered in oil. Photograph by Martha Watkins-GilkesThe grown ducks after they were released to a pond on Long Island. Photograph by Martha Watkins-GilkesThe two surviving ducklings, still a little oil-covered but growing feathers. Photograph by Martha Watkins-Gilkes

Early last June, an employee at the West Indies Oil compound in Antigua noticed a disturbance at the pond where the company stored waste oil. Investigating, he found four baby ducklings, covered in black oil, struggling in the thick sludge. Thinking quickly, he gathered them up and brought them to a vet, who contacted the local “bird lady.”

An American who has lived in the Caribbean for nearly forty years, Martha Watkins-Gilkes is well known in diving and conservation circles — she’s won awards worldwide for her environmental work, including recognition from the United Nations Environment Programme. She has also written three books on diving in the Caribbean. In Antigua, she gained the “bird lady” moniker after some schoolchildren brought her a nest of baby birds that had fallen out of a tree — she managed to rear those fledglings by looking after them 24/7, carrying them around to all her social events, until they were old enough for release into the wild.

But the ducklings were a tougher challenge. Watkins-Gilkes struggled valiantly to clean the little creatures. “They were so tiny, and had been preening to try and remove the oil, so had ingested a lot of the toxic muck,” she says. She knew it was probably hopeless, yet she contacted TriState Bird Rescue, an organisation in the United States that helped clean birds after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “They suggested I use vegetable oil and Dawn liquid soap to bathe them,” she remembers, which she did, very carefully, managing to remove only a small amount of the sticky oil.

Despairing of the ducklings’ chances, Watkins-Gilkes put them in a box with an old towel and left them to sleep. They were totally exhausted from their struggle in the oil sludge, and were too exhausted to eat or drink anything.

The next morning, one of the little ones had died — the one Watkins-Gilkes had thought looked the healthiest. The other three, on the other hand, were eating and drinking quite happily, splashing about in their water dish, trying to get their feathers clean. At first Watkins-Gilkes wasn’t sure what to feed them. Someone suggested mealworms, someone else said puppy chow softened in water. After consultation with TriState Bird Rescue, she settled on baby chick feed — but since no pet stores in Antigua stock it, she had to buy a fifty-pound bag from a local farm supply store. And she named the ducklings Winken, Blinken, and Nod — the latter, the runt, because of his tendency to nod off constantly.

Nine days later, Watkins-Gilkes woke up to find that Nod had died. She was devastated. “It is a sad Sunday morn on this, the 10th day of trying to help the little oiled ducklings,” she wrote on Facebook. “During the night the little runt died. It was heartbreaking to find him this early morn. I guess his tiny body could not fight the wrongs heaped on him during this terrible ordeal.”

She went on: “We noticed yesterday he spent much time alone and not with the other two ducklings. I guess he knew something. All due to the carelessness of man. I am heartbroken.”

Yet Watkins-Gilkes soldiered on, bathing the two remaining ducklings every few days when they seemed a little stronger. But visits from the vet weren’t very encouraging — “I kept being told they could still die from all the oil they had taken in while they were trying to clean themselves.”

Instead, the two remaining ducklings started to thrive. Every day they got stronger. Watkins-Gilkes set up a living environment for them, with natural vegetation and a shallow “pond” for them to splash around in, all in her spare bathroom’s shower. She caught tadpoles and small fish, so they could learn to feed themselves.

Five weeks after they were found in the sludge pond, the remaining two little ducklings were amazingly transformed. Healthy and happy, they got their first proper swim after Watkins-Gilkes made a deeper “pond” for them. She tentatively identified them as White-cheeked Pintails, and looked forward to releasing them into the wild. After another month, Winken and Blinken grew too large for her bathroom, so Watkins-Gilkes built a “duck room” in her outdoor slat house, ensuring no rats could get in.

The fully-grown ducks were finally released in August, at a pond on Long Island, where there is a small colony of White-cheeked Pintails. (Recorded by the Antiguan film company HAMA Productions, the release will eventually be the subject of a TV documentary.) But the story wasn’t over: two days later, Watkins-Gilkes returned to check on the ducks, and they quite happily came up to greet her. And there was another twist to this happy ending: after the ducklings’ rescue, according to CEO Joe Fernandez of West Indies Oil, the company removed the waste oil pond to avoid any similar situations. Sometimes one person’s small good deed can start a chain reaction, and make a bigger difference than anyone can predict.