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A Unique Island Bird Sanctuary in New Zealand

Janie & Geoff

A Visit to New Zealand's Tiritiri Matangi Island Bird Sanctuary

When you're in Auckland, New Zealand, with a good day to spare, this trip is well worth the time. New Zealand has some of the rarest animals on the planet, and what the Department of Conservation (DOC) have done with Tiritiri Matangi Island ("Tiri" to the locals) and other bird sanctuaries is really impressive. It's an opportunity to see New Zealand as it must have been before human beings settled there.

Short History Lesson

It is important to understand that prior to homo sapiens setting foot on New Zealand, there were no mammals except for the bat. No snakes either. Therefore, the insects, birds and reptilian life in New Zealand (as in Australia) are unique. Instead of rabbits and moles, New Zealand developed flightless birds to fossick around in the shrubbery and grasslands. Although I'm not sure if there were grasslands before the British took over.

Then the Polynesians arrived from Hawaii, bringing dogs, pigs, rats, and probably fleas too. The dogs killed kiwi birds and other flightless birds, the rats ate bird eggs, the pigs uprooted stuff but this was all pretty harmless compared to what happened when the Maori (as they became) hunted moas to extinction in pursuit of sustenance. They also hunted the huia to extinction (this was a native bird who had a large white feather in it's plumage that was much prized as clothing decoration).

When the English colonials arrived, they brought cats, who went feral and hunted even more bird species to extinction, including a flightless wren. There is a poignant account from a ship in the 1860s of the ship's cat being seen pouncing after a small brown bird who ran and skipped along the ground, not flying. The English also brought cattle and sheep, clearing most of the bush land in New Zealand, destroying animal habitats, and replacing a diversity of native wildlife with a diversity of sheep breeds (Romney, Dorset, Suffolk etc.).

Tiritiri Matangi Island Bird Sanctuary

Fortunately New Zealand encompasses many islands close to its coastline, and several of these have been put to use as sanctuaries to re-establish endangered species of birds and other animals. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) first clears these islands of all mammals - rats, possums, feral cats, mice. Then they replant native trees, shrubs and plants where the land has been cleared. When the bush land has been restored to a certain level, they bring in the endangered species. A DOC residence is also set up on the island to tag birds and monitor progress. The birds are doing great. DOC has given up tagging some species because they are so numerous on the island now.

From Auckland, you take a charter boat to the Tiritiri Matangi Island Bird Sanctuary (Tiri). We were met at the ferry landing by DOC staff and volunteers, and on that day a blushing young tall blond DOC new hire gave us the welcome speech, stumbling in his delivery, assisted by a more experienced staffer. Our little group was assigned a guide, a volunteer and then the rest of the DOC members wandered off. We were the only ferry that day to go to the island.

Tiri is known for its takahes, and used to be the home of Old Blue, a famous takahe. The takahe (pronounce all 3 syllables) is a flightless bird that hasn't changed in about 80 million years as far as they know. It's about the size of a turkey, with black, bright blue and green plumage, orange beak and big three-toed feet. It has a truly prehistoric aspect. They eat grass, although the ones on Tiri have discovered that schoolchildren bring lunches and often terrify young conservationists by lunging for sandwiches held too low.

One takahe in the wild

One takahe in the wild

The "Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand", officially endorsed by the New Zealand Ornithological Society, describes the bird thus: "TAKAHE (Notornis) Porphyrio mantelli. 63 cm, 3 kg. Like an enormous pukeko. Flightless." At this point you realize that unless you are from New Zealand and know what a pukeko looks like, this description is not very helpful. Fortunately there are illustrations, and the pukeko (an abundant native purple swamp hen) is also a member of the swamphens and coots family and shown on the same page. New Zealanders give pukekos the same respect shown to possums, who are also known as "road mink", so that gives you some idea of how precious they are to the average New Zealander (i.e. not at all).

By the way, the New Zealand possum is nothing like the North American possum. They look like a brown tree shrew the size of a large cat with a fat tail and have ravaged the native bush. They are nearly single-handedly responsible for putting Kiwis on the endangered list. The New Zealand government has all sorts of incentives to create industries and crafts using possum, the most successful of which has been high-end woolen knits of possum fur spun with merino wool, marketed as "merino mink". I own a merino mink sweater and it is warmer than fur.

There are about 200 takahes in all of NZ and therefore in the whole world, and Tiri has a colony of 20, minus Old Blue. Old Blue and his pal were the original bachelor takahe inhabitants of Tiri until DOC brought in a female of the species to try and boost the population. Old Blue lost out on love, his bachelor friend abandoned him and retreated to the highlands with the lady takahe, and Old Blue consoled himself by hanging out at the beach, greeting tourists, posing for cameras and generally stalking humans through the many paths and boardwalks of Tiri Island before dying last year of an infection from a cut in his foot. All Auckland mourned his passing.

You have to stay strictly on the trails and boardwalks, but these take you through a variety of bush, grassland and hilltop, all well established with native plant types, and you don't miss out on any scenery. You see the rugged coastline below you, the pohutukawa trees (you have to practice a lot to pronounce this right) getting ready to bloom at the edge of the beaches, and then glancing up you see the modern city of Auckland across the water, in the distance, through the haze. (OK, it was more than haze, it was pouring rain and if not for the engrained Vancouverite habit of never leaving home without Gore-Tex, we would have been soaked.) We walked on the periphery of small valleys where birds flew from one side to the other at eye level. We walked under forests of huge native trees. Our guide said that it was proof that you didn't need huge tracts of native bush to support birds, just a mammal-free zone.

View of Auckland Bay from Tiri Island

View of Auckland Bay from Tiri Island

The other great thing about Tiri is that the birds are not afraid of you. Prudent, but not frightened. They don't come up to greet you, and the forest goes quiet sometimes as you walk through into a clearing, but if you keep walking through and stay on the path, birdlife starts up again, and many congregate at a safe distance out of curiosity.

Bird Spotting

The noise level in the bushes is unbelievable: whistles, screeches, calls. You see lots and lots of tuis, also known as the Parson Bird for its black plumage - black with a blue/green/purple sheen and two white curly throat tufts. The tui is not endangered; it's very adaptable, and is a wonderful aviator. It flies so fast, sometimes all you see is a blur and all you hear is the whirring and a soft flap of wings. It's also the bully of the bird kingdom and squabbles constantly. It has a lovely liquid melody and occasionally sounds like a rusty gate squeaking.

We also got a rare sighting of the kokako - bluish grey with long legs and claws. They remind me of a large cardinal. They can fly but don't seem to bother much with it, preferring to leap around in trees. There were two of them in a bush, feeding themselves by systematically strip mining leaves with one foot while hanging on to the branch with the other. They are apparently the pigs of the bird world, eating anything and everything including wattle seeds, which our guide says all the other birds totally refuse to touch. They make a mewing sound followed by a series of mournful booming calls.

You can hear the bellbirds, but they are very hard to spot. They also have a lovely liquid song, and unlike the tui, they don't make clicking or wheezing noises. We saw quite a few saddlebacks - black with an orange-brown patch across the back - and lots of fantails. The fantails are peacock wannabes who are actually sparrows with big tails. Actually, they are lovely little things, very curious and easy to spot with their black and white fan of tail feathers. We also saw many whiteheads; small birds with grayish-white head and underbellies, all looking very busy and purposeful. It was spring in New Zealand, so I guess purposeful involves homemaking.

Once, along a forest path, we saw a pair of red-crowned parakeets scratching around in the dirt. They were bright green with crimson heads and very shy. They looked very exotic. That is one of the amazing things about New Zealand, birds that look tropical and exotic to us just fly around wherever there is some bush. My mother-in-law's back yard has a good stand of native trees and bush, and in the dawns and dusks, you can see crimson rosellas and tuis perching in the trees or having a bath in her roof gutters. Up in the alpine regions, where we used to go skiing, a large native mountain parrot called the kea absolutely thrives. They are the size of chickens, bright green with an orange underside to their wings, so you see flashes of orange as they zoom by. Keas are very intelligent and playful, and especially like to remove the rubber seals around car windows with their strong beaks. But I digress from Tiri.

And yes, we saw takahe. There were two of them wandering around on their own in the grasses, and a cluster of four beside the old lighthouse, tearing up the lawn. They look like something out of a book on prehistoric natural history, which they are.

Two takahe on the lawn

Two takahe on the lawn

But the BEST the absolute BEST were the little spotted penguin houses. On a path through the bush right beside the beach, there are little rectangular wooden lids with handles, sitting on what look like stone cairns. If you lift up the lid and look down, you see a sheet of Plexiglas set into the stone over the nest of a little spotted penguin, complete with little spotted penguin on grassy nest warming up her eggs. DOC built about six of these rocky caves (that we could see) with a small tunneled entry point facing the sea, and the little spotted penguins swim in, take a liking to a tunnel and take up residence during nesting season. They seem to have gotten quite used to people lifting up the lids and peering in on their egg-sitting.

At lunchtime, we followed our guide to the DOC hospitality area. The old Tiri lighthouse is still there, and the lighthouse keeper's house is now the residence for the senior DOC staff member. There is a large shack of a gift shop and a covered lunching area where they dispense as many cups of free tea as you wish to drink. The rule is, bring your own lunch and take all trash out with you.

The walls are lined with information about DOC's ongoing projects and we saw to our horror that there is a campaign to protect Canada geese. Geoff and I stated our case that Canada geese were not endangered in the northern hemisphere and too many geese destroy park lawns. But I think that DOC staffers are all indiscriminately protective of animals and we didn't get very far.

Logistics

Tiritiri Matangi Island is 22 hectares in size, 4 km off the coast of Auckland. It's about a one hour ferry ride from the city. For $35 NZ you get the round trip ferry ride plus a brief guided walk by DOC staff or a volunteer from the Friends of Tiritiri Trust. Book in advance, as they only take a limited number of people each day on this guided walk. In my books, this is much better value than paying $15 to go up the Auckland Skytower, which was built by Harrah's to sit like a large hypodermic syringe over their casino.

The other DOC sanctuaries in NZ are Kapiti Island (a name worth remembering, look for Kapiti brand cheeses, they are stunning), Aroha Island, Stewart Island and Chatham Island.

Resources

www.doc.govt.nz: New Zealand Department of Conservation - Tiritiri Matangi Island

www.tiritirimatangi.org.nz: Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi

www.nzbirds.com: New Zealand Birds

www.newzealand.com: Tourism New Zealand, government tourist site


See Janie & Geoff's Slow Travel Member page.

© Janie & Geoff, 2005

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