In the Hauraki Gulf off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand, lies the island of Tiritiri Matangi. In my last post I told you of our adventure on the mainland but now I’m going to explain why I saved this natural jewel so that it could have a post of its own. We had a wonderful time exploring Auckland and the Northland, albeit far too short a stop, but the highlight by far was this tiny island just offshore. Sure, there’s plenty of wildlife to see on the mainland too but 90% of it seems to be non-native species. This is absolutely not the case on Tiritiri Matangi. It is a scientific reserve, meaning that every animal there is monitored and while you might see the odd non-native bird that has flown across from the mainland, these are minimal here and the native species are protected in this predator free zone. It is one big conservation project and an exciting one at that.
We spent just one day here but it was extraordinary from start to finish. We began by catching the ferry from Gulf Harbour having had our bag checked for stowaway Skinks and cleaned every last bit of mud off our boots. We had already been given clear instructions that we needed to take everything we would require with us in terms of food and drink, that it must be in a sealed container and that we must take with us every last scrap of rubbish so we were well prepared.
The ferry docked on the island and we were given a short briefing by the warden before being allowed to set off and explore. We headed left from the pier and out towards Hobbs beach. The first bit of wildlife we saw were Little Penguins in nest boxes just a stones throw from where we had come ashore. These tiny penguins certainly live up to their name and are the smallest penguin in the world. They are found all around the coast of New Zealand and nest in burrows just above the beach. Here on Tiritiri Matangi though, a few special nest boxes have been installed where visitors can get a look at them in their burrows without causing too much disturbance. The light wasn’t good enough for a photograph but for me just seeing them was enough, as I’d never seen a wild penguin before and they were amazing!
We had a nice view from here as the ferry pulled out to leave too and the extinct volcano of Rangitoto was visible in the distance beyond the pier.
On round the corner a Tui flew low overhead and landed in a bush beside the path. This would be the first of many for the day but I snapped a photo despite the few twigs in the way and it marked a good start to the day’s wildlife watching. It also showed off the strange tuft of white feathers below their chin rather well.
I turned around to find a small butterfly had landed nearby too. It was a little worn but as we hadn’t seen any butterflies to date I was still quite happy to photograph it.
It reminded me of the Small Copper butterflies that we get at home and indeed it is a relative. There are quite a few in this area though and they are very similar to the untrained eye so I’ve yet to be able to narrow it down further than that. Anyhow, I came to move on and found to my horror that in my haste to get my camera out to photograph the Tui, I’d put my camera bag on an ant nest! Now the angry ants were swarming all over it… d’oh! With some help from my lovely husband we managed to get rid of them without doing too much damage and we were soon back on track and enjoying the scenery.
Quite a few people had opted to go for a guided walk but we had decided to take our own route at our own pace as we have found that when there are only two of you it is often easier to see things as they don’t hear you coming. Of course you then have to work out what things are on your own but that’s all part of the fun. I mention this now because we had been watching a Whitehead, one of the translocated endemic birds that is part of the conservation programme on Tiritiri Matangi, when a guided group came through and unintentionally disturbed it. It was a shame and I didn’t get a shot of it as a result but it had been nice to see (in case you’re wondering, it looked like it sounded, brownish grey with a white head!).
We moved on before the group had fully caught us up and had a great few minutes enjoying a nice view of a Sacred Kingfisher in the top of a tree above the beach. The path then cut uphill, climbing above the bay to give us a great view back over Hobbs beach.
It really seemed an idyllic place and the sunshine only added to the beauty, making the turquoise sea seem to glow around us. The Pohutukawa trees were beginning to flower here too which enhanced the scenery even more.
As we climbed the slope we came level with the top of one of the Pohutukawa trees and in it, we found a Bellbird feeding.
A nearby Tui became interested that we had stopped and peered at us to see what we were up to.
Walking on through the woodland, we saw another Whitehead and a Stitchbird though here the canopy was so thick that photography wasn’t an option. I did manage a shot of a Rifleman, New Zealand’s smallest bird. It wasn’t great due to low light levels but it captures the essence of these tiny birds perfectly to my mind. They reminded me of a cross between a wren and a tree creeper with their habit of running up and down tree trunks in search of insect prey.
Further on, we came to an open section of grassland where we stumbled upon a family of really special birds, Takahe. These incredible birds are a member of the rail family but are significantly larger and thicker set than most others of their type. They were thought to have gone extinct until a small population was discovered in a remote valley in the Fjordlands of South Island in 1948. Their numbers are still low and they are an important part of the conservation story on Tiritiri Matangi where a number of adults have been released and have bred.
We bumped into a pair with a nearly fully grown juvenile and enjoyed their presence as they walked across the track in front of us and foraged in the undergrowth. The whole time they were calling to one another with surprisingly small, soft peeps.
It was an absolute delight to see these majestic and rare birds, and a real privilege for them to allow us such a close insight into their behaviour.
We soon reached the most northerly tip of the island where we stopped to enjoy our picnic lunch overlooking the Hauraki Gulf below. Walking on, we passed a small reservoir where we saw an endemic Brown Teal skulking in the reeds at the water’s edge. There were also a couple of North Island Saddlebacks which are a member of the wattlebird family like those we saw in Australia. They were a lovely colour, glossy black with a vivid chestnut saddle and rump and sporting two small red wattles at the base of their beak. They didn’t hang around long enough for a decent photo but again, it was great to see them.
Of course, it wasn’t just bird life that we were here to see, fascinating as it was. Tiritiri Matangi as a whole was a supremely beautiful place and much of the flora was new to us too. We particularly admired a flowering shrubby tree called Ngaio. It had leaves reminiscent of laurel or perhaps oleander but small white flowers with delicate purple spotting and strangely hairy petals.
I mentioned earlier that we saw plenty more Tui as we continued our day. In fact I would go as far as to say they and the Bellbirds were probably the most common birds on the island and we saw them seemingly every few hundred yards at least. I took a number of images but the next glade we stepped into proved the best in photographic terms as there were a couple of Tui which posed wonderfully for me. The first seemed quite reserved but showed of the iridescence of their plumage which, much like a magpie, seems almost black at first glance.
The second was more raucous and much more like the Tui we had come to know and resent at the bach for waking us up so early every morning!
To me, this image perfectly sums up my lasting memory of a Tui!
There were also a couple of Bellbirds hopping about in the clearing and so I took the opportunity to photograph them too. The first sat atop a dead flower stalk of New Zealand Flax.
The next sang from the branches of a small tree with intriguing seed pods.
Funnily enough, they didn’t seem to me the most attractive of the birds we had seen that day and yet their song was lovely and really did ring, bell-like, through the woodland.
Continuing our circular route of the island, we came across another butterfly in a grassy meadow area. It was another copper and much fresher than the last but whether it was the same species I wasn’t sure and so I photographed it too.
Just around the corner we had a lovely close encounter with a smaller relative of the Takahe, a Pukeko. We had seen these on the mainland but not managed a photo. This individual was much more obliging. My husband could never remember their name though and had taken to calling them “potatoes” because it was apparently easier. It certainly confused a few people when he announced that we had seen potatoes wandering around the island!
The next bird which we were particularly pleased to see was the endemic Red-Crowned Parakeet. This rare little parakeet was the first bird to be introduced to Tiritiri Matangi in the 1970’s and today the population there is thriving. This individual was feeding on New Zealand Flax seeds.
Unfortunately the image is not as sharp as I’d like as the stem was waving around rather in the breeze and I was more excited to watch them than take photos. We were also a little conscious of the time as we needed to make sure we didn’t miss the ferry back. We cut inland for the last stretch of our walk and just off the main track we found another different bird. This time not an endemic species but a non-native, the Brown Quail which hails originally from Australia. They were introduced to both North and South Island but now only remain in the North and have made their own way to Tiritiri Matangi. They, like many game birds, were quite shy, skulking in the undergrowth. We had had a brief glimpse of a pair in the Snowy Mountains and so it was nice to have a better view of them here and to manage a photo too.
Having made a circuit of the majority of the island by now, we headed up the hill to the small gift shop and visitor centre next to the picturesque lighthouse. While sitting in the shade here having a drink we had a nice view of a New Zealand Pigeon, quite a large bird with a striking green and white colouring. I chose a t-shirt with a design combining the traditional fern and these lovely birds as a souvenir to take home, the money going directly to the conservation of Tiritiri Matangi.
Not wanting to rush too much, we set off down the hill towards the pier to catch the ferry back. The path here led through a different type of woodland, full of spiky native Cordylines. As the path wound downhill we had a lovely parting view of the lighthouse at the top of the hill.
In the trees here we found more Brown Quail and a feeding station where a couple of Stitchbirds were coming down. Although not ideal as a photography point, this was my chance to get at least a record of these charming little birds and in the end they were almost too close!
A short distance further on our attention was caught by some other visitors taking photos beside the path. We didn’t need to get much closer to see the subject of their images, a female Wetapunga, one of the largest insects on earth. They are also endangered and have been wiped out on the mainland by predators. The first were released on Tiritiri Matangi in 2011 and they can take 3 years to mature enough to breed so to see one here was particularly special. It was staggering too, given its size, just how well it blended into its surroundings and this made it tricky to photograph – I’m not sure that I managed to fit the entire length of its antennae in either. To give you an idea of scale, the tree trunk on which it sits has a diameter of approximately 2-3 inches.
Returning to the pier, we waited a few minutes for the ferry to dock and enjoyed watching a couple of Pied Shag on some small rocks just off the island while it did so.
The journey back was as pleasant as the one out with plenty of seabirds to watch and chatter with other passengers about the wonderful day we’d had on Tiritiri Matangi. There really was something special about this island in the Hauraki Gulf and everyone on the ferry seemed to agree. Tiritiri Matangi had captured the hearts and imaginations of us all and we were thrilled to have spent a day exploring its woods, meadows and glades, watching some of New Zealand’s rarest species, taking in the spectacular scenery and soaking up the sunshine.
Just one last footnote before I finish. You will notice that the vast majority of birds I photographed are ringed, particularly those less common species. This is all a part of the conservation work being undertaken on the island. They are not captive birds but they are closely monitored to ensure their health and to secure their breeding population, as many of these species are now largely confined to outlying islands like Tiritiri Matangi where introduced predators are not such a problem. Of course, the more that is known about these birds, the better they can be protected and their lineage conserved for future generations to enjoy. Who knows, one day you might not have to travel to an island like Tiritiri Matangi to see them – wouldn’t it be amazing if they could be safely reintroduced to a predator free mainland?! It may be a pipe dream for now but what a dream to chase…