Trip Report: Tiritiri Matangi Island (New Zealand), August 8-9, 1998

Ken Blackshaw, Waipu Cove, Northland, New Zealand;

A trip to Tiritiri Matangi -- what an interesting idea. As a temporary resident Yank here in New Zealand, I had to try and figure out where it was, and what it was. Just a chance telephone conversation to a number I'd pulled out of the Whangarei newspaper resulted in this opportunity to take a trip, sponsored by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (OSNZ).

For those of you across the world, Tiritiri (for short) is about 20 miles to the north-northeast of Auckland, out in the Hauraki Gulf. It is an 'open' sanctuary; that is, there is relatively unrestricted access for the public to visit. The island is about one mile by three and was farmed until the 1970's when the Department of Conservation took over its control. Since then, there has been a massive replanting program to restore native (NZ) vegetation and also a program to eliminate mice, rats, possums and any other factors that might reduce the chance of successful reintroduction of NZ birdlife. Why are NZ birds so fragile anyway?

Before man arrived on these islands, there were no mammals present, other than a species of bat that flew over from Australia. There are no snakes. The only predators with which NZ birds had to concern themselves were other birds. Consequently, many of them naturally nest on the ground or in rather exposed places. Also, the need for flight was greatly reduced. Some species, notably the kiwi, became completely flightless. Other species found it unnecessary to fly other than for short distances. The Kokako, for instance, exhibits almost a flying squirrel flight inventory, scrambling to the top of one tree before gliding down to the lower part of another. So when man arrived, with his rats, mice, stoats, ferrets, possums, not to mention, feral cats and dogs, most of the native species quickly became very rare or extinct, almost before it was realized that harm was being done.

Islands like Tiritiri Matangi provide wonderful opportunities to reintroduce individual species that still can be found, and then allow them to increase population in an environment that simulates the way things used to be. For years, I'd been seeing pictures of birds like Saddlebacks, and Stitchbirds in my books, with little hope of actually seeing them. It was sort of like looking at pictures of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Carolina Parakeets in the U.S. guides.

I remember visiting the bird sanctuary down in 1995 at Mount Hope on New Zealand's North Island, where a sad, lonely Takahe plodded around, just a vestige of the original population. Takahes are big, heavy, relatives of the Moorhen who have lost the power to fly. They are the size of large chickens and move with a ponderous singularity, seemingly oblivious to anything except the next stem of grass on which they love to chew. They were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in 1948, living in a remote area of the southwest part of the South Island. This is one of the species that has been reintroduced on Tiritiri, and it was thrilling to be able to see them in the wild, doing their own thing again. There are about 20 on the island now, and their fate seems secure as long as predators can be kept away.

And so the trip began as our group caught the 'Tiri Cat' from Gulf Harbor at the end of the Wangaparoa Peninsula for the half-hour cruise out to the island. As we forged out through the waves, we went through large flocks of shearwaters, identified as Fluttering by the various NZ bird gurus on board. There may have been other species, but the boat was not tarrying, and one moment the air and water were filled with birds, the next, they were quickly vanishing astern as we neared the island.

The group had arranged for us to spend Saturday night in the old lighthouse keeper's quarters, and we were met at the pier by Ray and Barbara Walter, the managers and only permanent residents of this island sanctuary. A 'bucket brigade' quickly transported all our baggage up to a waiting trolley, which rolled on tracks back to the end of the dock. Then they were transferred one more time to a trailer, which carried them up the hill. We all hiked up the hill, and the level of Kiwi fitness immediately impressed me. I was certainly at the younger end of the age spectrum and consider myself pretty fit. These folks leapt up the 250 foot hill as I stepped along behind, assuming their initial burst of energy would subside and I would catch up. But no, I ended up almost last, walking with some people who had bad backs and hips.

Up at the top, reunited with our things, we received a quick briefing on the rules of habitation from Barbara. Then we had a quick 'tea' and it was time to go out and see birds.

The Takahes seemed almost too easy to see. They are getting close attention from the sanctuary managers. All of them are color banded and have names, some English, some Maori. It was interesting to see Takahes and Pukekos together and compare size, shape, and behavior.

Down the trail I was immediately confronted with some scolding sounds. I must confess, I'm not a passive birder. I love to spshhhhhh and squeak and do the various things that bring birds into close interaction with the watchers. This proved unpopular with several members of this expedition. "You don't need to do that here, Kenneth. The birds will come in all by themselves." I felt like apologizing for the agitated group of Whiteheads and Saddlebacks I had conjured around me. As an aside, the names of these two species make one think of unpleasant skin conditions, but nevertheless, they are quite charming birds -- the Whiteheads behaving like Tufted Titmice and the Saddlebacks a bit like Catbirds.

Further down the trail there were Bellbirds almost everywhere. Their vocalizations are quite wonderful, extremely liquid and loud. The call for which they are named, a three or four note bell-like sequence is their morning call. When you go out in the early a.m., it is like being surrounded by a bell-ringing chorus.

We hiked all the way down back to the beach. On a pond near the beach we found a Brown Teal. This is a native NZ species that was reintroduced to the island in 1987. The comment was that although they occupy most ponds and wet places on the island, they are quite difficult to see. I considered myself lucky.

We journeyed farther down the beach and then followed a trail north along the shore. Several of the birders stopped and lifted up little rectangular plates from the top of what looked like stone cairns. What they were, were artificial Blue Penguin burrows that were set up so the inhabitant could be observed while on the nest. No one was home when we went by, but I was fascinated that such pains had been taken to invade their privacy.

By 1:15 we had to be back up near the lighthouse in order to do our work detail. This is an interesting concept that could be copied in the U.S. In order to get permission to stay the night, we were expected to help out with this island project. What it meant on this particular Saturday was that all 15 of us were led back down the hill again, armed with various types of picks, shovels, and pruning apparatus. We worked for an hour or so, repairing one of the walking trails that had slipped down the hillside a bit during a recent heavy rain. Again I was amazed by the way my Kiwi friends applied themselves vigorously to the task at hand. The trail was certainly in a lot better shape when we got done.

Then it was back to the birding. I was still trying to fully understand the full inventory of unusual birds available to be seen here. The Stitchbird, named for his sewing machine-like call, was also a pleasant surprise, much more colorful than the illustrations in my Falla, Sibson, & Turbott bird guide. I'm noticing that several species of NZ birds seem unexpectedly colorful, perhaps it's because it is coming onto spring and birds are molting into peak plumage.

However, one species seemed to be avoiding me -- the Kokako. There were only six on the island, three having been brought in in 1997 and four more in 1998. I guess one of them didn't make it. I realize that list ethics in the U.S. wouldn't allow me to count these birds, but what they heck -- I'm in New Zealand. Still, these are rather different and unusual birds, and I was anxious to see how they appeared.

During the afternoon, the wind started to pick up, blowing close to 40 mph from the east. It sounded quite intimidating blowing through the tall trees behind our quarters, but the good news is that most of the birding spots were quite sheltered from these blasts.

After supper, we headed out into the gloom. It had clouded up but the full moon diffused enough light through the clouds so that we could get along for the most part, without torches (read flashlights). Almost immediately I heard a strident whistling call that reminded me of a spring peeper at home on Nantucket. Kiwi! My birding cohorts proclaimed and off we went, following the call. But all we could do was follow it. Kiwis live in burrows and only come out at night. They are extremely shy. One of our party had one come thumping down the path at him later on in the evening, but he's the only one that actually saw this New Zealand symbol.

Our mission this dark evening was to find the Gray-faced Petrels that are nesting on the northeast corner of the island. This involved heading back down that hill again and along the beach and back up a hill on the other end of the island. Along the way, we checked out the penguin burrows again and were rewarded to find a lovely Blue Penguin stretched out on her belly, flippers neatly tucked in at her sides. Whether she was incubating or just resting, we couldn't tell.

As we walked along the beach, I started to hear a warhoop sound up ahead of us. Graham, up ahead of me commented, "Sounds like people trying to call in Gray-faced Petrels." Our leader had earlier told me that the petrels responded to an Indian warhoop, but I wasn't sure what the NZ version of an Indian warhoop would sound like. When we got to the top of the ridge, there was a group of birders standing there hooting away at high pitch while clapping their hands to their lips. Yes -- this was the Indian warhoop I remembered doing as a child. Amazingly, the air was full of petrels. They made a high pitched squeak as they went by.

For you non-birders, petrels are part of a family of sea birds that only come to land to nest. The rest of the year, they are well out to sea. So this was a fantastic opportunity to see a bird close up that is normally just a speck in your binoculars. These petrels would actually land on the ground and shuffle up to us through the tree roots. Why the warhoops work to call them in is quite a mystery, but it works quite well. Feeling I was unnecessarily disturbing these land-stranded sea-faring creatures, I disengaged myself from the group once I'd seen the birds, and left the birders happily hooting into the darkness.

Early the next morning, after a semi-restful night up on my top bunk, it was time to go out and enjoy the dawn chorus. I was also quite anxious to find a Kokako. The chorus was amazing as dawn choruses often are. It is a mystical experience to be out there in the semi-darkness with all these birds singing their heads off around you. I kept talking to people who had seen Kokakos. "Yes, they are up on the ridge trail." "Oh, we saw them down next to the sitting area where the birdbaths are."

I decided the best way to do it was to just camp in an area where they'd been seen. I had wonderful looks at Red-crowned Parakeets, and Tui's, but the Kokako was still a mystery. Finally I climbed, Kokako-less, back up to the cabin for some coffee and to pack up my gear for our 3:30 departure. Then I went out one more (and last) time to see if I could find this jay-sized bird. As I walked along the ridge trail, I could see a dark bird ahead on the side of the trail. I thought to myself, what is a Tui doing down on the ground like that, but when I got my binoculars on the culprit, I could see the solid gray appearance and the black pattern around the eyes and beak. Oh my goodness, it was a Kokako. This rather leggy bird and his mate were busy ripping the leaves off some branches that had fallen off a nearby tree. They bounded back into the brush as I approached, but I sat down along the side of the trail and had a wonderful fifteen minutes or so, watching them pop in and out of the vegetation. As this was happening, a big old Takahe stomped round and round me, pulling up some grass here and there. They are meaty-looking, rather trusting birds, and it's easy to see how they might become dinner for someone not environmentally inclined. It was a magic time to be out in nature, and a wonderful ending for this trip into New Zealand wonderland.

The boat showed up right on time, and we reversed the process for getting all our bags and equipment back onto the boat. Things were just a bit lighter now since much of what we brought over was food. We also packed all our trash off with us to be disposed of on the mainland. I watched Tiritiri Matangi grow smaller behind us through the spray and then suddenly disappear as we swung around the head of land and into glitzy Gulf Harbor. The boats there would look right at home in the summer Nantucket marina, and they were in stark contrast to the natural world we'd just left. Back to the real world. The Saddlebacks and Stitchbirds must stay behind where it is safe.

Bird list for Tiritiri Matangi, August 8, and 9, 1998.

Common Name                 Latin name                   Number

Little Spotted Kiwi         Apteryx owenii                 3 (heard)
Fluttering Shearwater       Puffinus tenuirostris        300 (in the channel)
Gray-faced Petrel           Pterodroma macroptera          5
Blue Penguin                Eudyptula minor                2
Australian Gannet           Sula serrator                 10
Black Shag                  Phalacrocorax carbo            6
Pied Shag                   Phalacrocorax varius           6
White-faced Heron           Ardea novaehollandiae          2
Paradise Shelduck           Tadorna variegata              2
Brown Teal                  Anas chlorotis                 1
Harrier                     Circus approximans             2
Brown Quail                 Synoicus ypsilophorus          8
Pukeko                      Porphyrio melanotus           10
Takahe                      Notornis mantelli              8
Spur-winged Plover          Lobibyx novaehollandiae        4
Southern Black-backed Gull  Larus dominicanus             25
Red-billed Gull             Larus scopulinus              15
Caspian Tern                Hydroprogne caspia             6
White-fronted Tern          Sterna striata                35
New Zealand Kingfisher      Halcyon sancta                 2
Skylark                     Alauda arvensis                4
Welcome Swallow             Hirundo neoxena               20
Fantail                     Rhipidura fuliginosa          50
Red-crowned Parakeet        Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae   35
North Island Robin          Petroica australis             6
Grey Warbler                Gerygone igata                12
Song Thrush                 Turdus philomelos              5
Blackbird                   Turdus merula                  8
Stitchbird                  Notiomystis cincta            15
Bellbird                    Anthornis melanura            40
Tui                         Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae 15
Silvereye                   Zosterops lateralis            8
Goldfinch                   Carduelis carduelis            4
Chaffinch                   Fringilla coelebs              4
Yellowhammer                Emberiza citrinella            6
House Sparrow               Passer domesticus             12
Myna                        Acridotheres tristis           4
White-backed Magpie         Gymnorhina hypoleuca           2
Saddleback                  Philesturnus carunculatus     35
Kokako                      Callaeas cinerea               5

Total Species: 40

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; August 20, 1998