Tiritiri Matangi

Birds on Tiri
Gannets; kokako; takahe; bellbird

On each of my previous trips to Auckland, I have been urged to go to Tiritiri Matangi, an island in the Hauraki Gulf which is now an open wildlife sanctuary. It is a day trip from Auckland, so I didn’t have time on previous rushed trips. But yesterday we made it.

The ferry leaves the quay in Auckland at 9:00 and takes an hour and a quarter (or a bit longer if the sea is rough, as it was yesterday morning). As we arrived at the jetty on the island and disembarked, the rain poured down, and it seemed like a miserable day was in store. But before the ranger had arrived to address us, the rain stopped, and we had blue skies and sunshine for our entire time on the island.

It has been occupied by humans, and farmed (and fought over) for about 700 years. By the 20th century, the tree cover had almost entirely gone, the native birds had mostly left or died out, and the land swarmed with rats. It was decided to try to make it a habitat for threatened endemic birds; so the Department of Conservation took it over, a poison drop cleared it of rats, and the slow work of restitution began.

Trees on Tiri
Ti kouka (cabbage tree); kowhai

A plantation was set up, and 300000 trees (almost all bred from seeds of trees on the island) were planted in ten years. Then birds were re-introduced. The trees provided food for many of the birds, but some of them required holes in mature trees for nesting sites; these will not be available for a long time, so in the interim nest-boxes have been provided. The birds are never threatened by humans, and so are remarkably tame, especially the takahe (related to swamphens, but the size of a small turkey).

There is an interesting story here. Apparently the Australian swamphen reached New Zealand twice, millennia apart. The first arrivals evolved to be large and flightless (because of the absence of predators); the Maori called them takahe. The second arrivals were unable to breed with them and form a different species, the pukako. The latter are very common, but the former were thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered in Fiordland. Some of these were brought to Tiri, where they thrive, and attempt to steal visitors’ lunches.

Our guide for the morning, Steve, was excellent; he was happy to go at our pace, spotted birds that we hadn’t (and occasionally vice versa), and told us many interesting stories about the birds and the island, as we walked up the Wattle Trail (so-called because a few Australian wattle trees provide food for the birds when nothing else is available).

After lunch we took ourselves on a walk, and on the Kawerau Track had a most wonderful experience. We sat on a seat near two bird feeders, and a huge flock of bellbirds entertained us with their ringing song, for a quarter of an hour or so, accompanied by a single tui.

Back on the beach, we looked up to the hill, and three huge birds with very large wingspan came soaring over, scarcely moving or even twitching a wing feather. They shouldn’t have been albatross, which are not seen around here, but I can’t help thinking they were; I was so much reminded of an experience on the Otago peninsula when, after a long wait, I saw a single albatross fly over the hill.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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