Up close with New Zealand’s endangered birds
WORDS: KRISTI FOSTER
An island ahead of its time: re-created as an island sanctuary for New Zealand’s wildlife, Tiritiri Matangi has become a paradise for people.
I waited, frozen in the moonlight, careful not to shift the red circle of light from my head torch – or even to exhale – in case I gave myself away and alerted my pursuer. There, in the middle of regenerating forest, not 10 metres from the start of the track, I was being stalked by a snuffling, snorting and utterly oblivious little spotted kiwi.
I watched as the bird circled me in an erratic gait, stopping every few seconds to sniff the air, before tottering up to my right foot, stretching out its neck and nudging the tip of its long, inquisitive beak into my right leg, as if I were an especially pungent piece of rotting wood.
I’d come to Tiritiri Matangi Island as a volunteer with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) to experience one of the world’s most successful conservation projects first hand and witness the country’s native wildlife up close. I never expected New Zealand’s threatened birds to be experiencing me.
Rebuilding an ecosystem
Tiritiri Matangi (meaning ‘tossed by the wind’) is an island ahead of its time, at once a glimpse into New Zealand’s past and a window on its potential future. Originally cloaked in lush coastal forest, the 220-hectare island was initially partly cleared through seasonal Māori occupation and later converted to pasture through European agriculture. Like mainland New Zealand, where introduced rats, stoats and possums have devastated wildlife that evolved without any mammalian predators, Tiritiri Matangi’s birds and reptiles stood little chance in rat-infested fields, and either declined or fled.
When a recreational reserve replaced a farming lease on ‘Tiritiri’ in 1971, two young researchers proposed an unheard-of plan: to replant the Island’s forests and make it a scientific reserve and open sanctuary where wildlife, research and tourism could coexist. Since 1984, DOC and non-profit community conservation organisation, the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi, have united thousands of volunteers to eradicate pests, plant nearly 300,000 native trees and successfully re-introduce 11 of New Zealand’s endangered birds, three reptile species and one insect to the Island.
Today Tiritiri’s lush forests are home not only to the nocturnal kiwi pukupuku (little spotted kiwi), but the tīeke (below image; North Island saddleback), hihi (stitchbird) and kākāriki (red-crowned parakeet); the inquisitive, lunch-stealing and incredibly rare takahē; and the wētā punga (giant weta), one of New Zealand’s largest insects, among many other species.
A paradise for people and nature
By the end of the one hour and 20-minute cruise from Auckland to Tiritiri Matangi, I felt an invigorating shift from fast-paced city life to ancient, other-worldly nature, where earbuds are replaced by rare birdsong. In a single day this magical place draws local families, university groups and international photographers on pilgrimages to see species found nowhere else in the world.
As a DOC volunteer, I worked six hour days in exchange for one week’s accommodation in the island’s bunkhouse, which I shared with researchers and visitors staying overnight. I was lucky enough to volunteer alongside one of the island’s guides, Sophie, who knew Tiritiri’s secrets inside-out. After a few days of maintaining trails, preparing sugar water feeders and scrubbing solar panels, I could recognise the tīeke/saddleback’s jerky call (Sophie compared it to a stubborn car engine), the korimako/bellbird’s clear chime, the tūī’s (see below image) noisy cry, and the rich, hauntingly beautiful song of the very rare kōkako, supposedly the most beautiful birdsong in the world.
Like all forests, Tiritiri Matangi’s secrets are best discovered with patience (or better, an experienced guide); but the regenerating vegetation creates a rare opportunity to see New Zealand’s birds almost eye-to-eye. Once I glanced up to find a kereru/New Zealand pigeon staring back at me not a metre away; another time, I followed the toppling antics of a fuzz-covered pāteke duckling (brown teal), one of the rarest ducks in the world.
Besides Tiritiri’s world-famous dawn chorus, the biggest advantage of staying overnight is spotlighting – arming oneself with a head torch covered with red cellophane and playing nocturnal wildlife detective. On the same night that the kiwi pukupuku stalked my leg, I stumbled across two kororā/little penguins bouncing from bush to bush like kamikaze kids playing hide-and-seek. You can also glimpse ruru/little owls, see bioluminescence at Hobbs Beach and, if you’re lucky, spot tuatara, one of the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs and is now confined to New Zealand’s offshore islands.
Next generation conservation
Tiritiri, which was brought back to life by scientists and citizens alike, now helps create future conservation ambassadors. Through their educational program, the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi aim to give all children in New Zealand the opportunity to experience nature and learn how communities can help conserve it. They offer reduced-fare programs for students from year one to 13 and their Growing Minds programme, launched in 2013, gives students from lower decile schools the chance to visit on sponsored trips.
DOC Ranger Dave Jenkins, who was completing a nine-year post on Tiritiri when I volunteered, says that the Island’s conservation success reaches far beyond its shores, as other projects have gained inspiration and ideas from revegetation and predator eradication on Tiritiri. “For all those people that said, “It can’t be done” it gave us the ability to say, “Yes, it can” – it’s proof of what can be achieved.”
Visiting New Zealand’s first island restoration project in person, you can’t help but be moved. One morning, while Sophie and I were filling water troughs for the birds, we found ourselves metres away from a pair of North Island kōkako, bounding from tree to tree in an intricate courtship ritual. Listening to their calls echo through the forest, it dawned on me just how extraordinary this moment was; this was one of only 1,400 kokako pairs in the world, up from less than 350 pairs in the 1990s .
For a second their enchanting song transported me to the forests of ancient New Zealand, where its one-of-a-kind wildlife did not know the peril of people, agriculture and exotic predators. Because that’s exactly what Tiri is: part reclaimed history, part living, breathing proof of what New Zealand could be with the right combination of vision and willpower. Between the lush regenerating forest, the birdsong that pulses through the air, and the passion and determination of Tiritiri’s human champions, this island feels alive.
If you have one day: a 90-minute tour with one of the island’s knowledgeable volunteer guides ($10), the Kawarau Track and its 800 to 1000-year-old pōhutukawa tree (below image), a swim at Hobbs Beach and the view from atop Coronary Hill.
If you stay overnight: spotlighting for nocturnal wildlife, Tiritiri’s world-famous dawn chorus (from late August through to December), The Arches (at low tide) and Northeast Bay.
For general New Zealand travel info: www.newzealand.com
Images: courtesy © Kristi Foster and Jonathan Saunders
Trained as a conservation biologist (previously geologist), Kristi has worked across four continents to promote projects that benefit people and nature. From the National Autonomous University in Mexico, to the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya, Fauna & Flora International in the UK, Ecotourism Australia and Crees Foundation in the Peruvian Amazon, Kristi’s passion for sustainability has inspired her to communicate tourism as a tool for conservation and development. With travel to 23 countries and counting, she is always discovering new adventures that benefit people and planet.
Join us on Our Planet Travel’s eco adventure: