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Tiritiri Matangi, a natural jewel in the Hauraki Gulf

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.

 

Tui, Tiritiri Matangi

 

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 weer 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.

 

Wetapunga, Tiritiri Matangi

 

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.


Pied Shag, Tiritiri Matangi

 

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…

Auckland and into New Zealand’s Northland

Leaving Sydney for the next part of our adventure, we flew to Auckland where we were met with wonderful sunshine and blue skies having left Sydney in a rain cloud. The views over the city as we came in to land were pretty spectacular too with the harbour bridge and Auckland Museum easy to pick out, even from this altitude.

 

 

We were greeted by our friends who we hadn’t seen for some time. We stayed with them the first night and caught up on life the universe and everything before setting out the following morning in our hire car. They had kindly given us the keys to the family beach house, known locally as a bach, in Mangawhai – we were heading to the Northland!

We headed out via Kumeu where we stopped to pick up sushi and a few bits and pieces for the road, then we took a short detour to find The Hunting Lodge vineyard which had been recommended to us and I got to taste some of their lovely wine as I wasn’t driving. The journey northwards seemed to take no time at all despite the odd stop for a leg stretch when we spotted something interesting like a nature reserve or viewpoint.

Having arrived at the bach by lunchtime we decided to make the most of our time there and take a short drive out for an afternoon exploring. We headed up the coast through the small town of Waipu and headed out to Waipu Caves to see whether we might find some glowworms. Having not done any research about this first, we found that in order to get to the glowworms you need to be proper kitted out, which we weren’t. Nevertheless, we had a bit of a wander around and found a few things of interest. The first was lots of this unusual flower which we have since discovered to be an introduced species, Tradescantia fluminensis. It may not be native but it was very attractive in the dappled shade by the entrance to the cave.

 

Tradescantia fluminensis, Waipu Caves

 

Making our way back towards the coast we stopped for a quick photo just outside Waipu, the view over Bream Bay was too good not to capture!

 

Bream Bay

 

We continued on past the town of Mangawhai to Te Arai beach on the other side of town. We found we had the whole beach to ourselves and it was lovely.

 

Te Arai beach

 

There were Variable Oystercatchers and New Zealand Dotterel foraging along the tideline but I had left my long lens in the car so we contented ourselves with watching their antics. Returning to the car we came across a rather lovely male California Quail singing from a sandy hummock on the edge of the carpark. I managed to get my camera out and snap a few photos – I was particularly amused that he closed his eyes as he reached the peak of each song.

 

 

Making our way back towards our bach, we decided to investigate the area a little more and spent a little time sitting watching the waders feeding in the harbour before heading back for the evening.

We had been given a heads up that there was a native bird called a Tui calling from the New Zealand Christmas tree outside the house. Sure enough, it was there and loud as you like but try as I might, it was not wanting to be photographed. Instead, I photographed a Silver Gull in the last light as it sat on the lamp post at the end of the drive.

 

 

The following morning, we were woken bright and early by the Tui. Needless to say it was less exciting at this point than it had been on our arrival! We hadn’t made any plans for the day but decided to head north and see if we could get up to the Bay of Islands. We spent an enjoyable day exploring the winding roads of the Northland, ate a delicious lunch in the restaurant of a vineyard that we stumbled upon, were taken by surprise when an Australasian Bittern wandered across the road in front of us, missed last closing of another glow-worm cave that was more accessible and stopped briefly to take in Whangerei falls on the way home. But in all of this, I barely took a photo with the exception of this pair of endemic Paradise Shelduck in a field beside the road.

 

Paradise Shelduck

 

The next day began in the same fashion, the Tui was rapidly losing his appeal with his solo dawn chorus. We had been more organised for today and arranged to go on a Glass Bottom Boat tour at Goat Island. After a short drive, we were waiting on the beach beneath a Pohutukawa or New Zealand Christmas tree, so called because they flower in December. It was not yet December but they were just beginning to flower here and we could only imagine how spectacular they must look in full bloom.

 

Pohutukawa on the beach

 

 

Goat Island was not very large but the waters around it are a marine reserve and the island itself provides a sanctuary for birds no doubt as it is thickly wooded on the shore side.

 

Goat Island

 

It wasn’t long before our craft arrived, complete with slightly eccentric captain. The shallow draft allowed it to pull right up to the beach and we boarded from there.

 

Glass Bottom Boat, Goat Island

 

We were soon out on the water watching all manner of fish such as Eagle Rays, Moki and Snapper.

 

 

There was so much to see from the fish to reef, so many types of seaweed, sponges and urchins. All that was beneath the waves but there was plenty above too. The captain took us to the far side of the island where the rock had been eroded by the rolling tides and a number of sea caves and arches had formed. This was the largest.

Sea cave, Goat Island

 

Above it on the rocks were some Southern Black Backed Gulls and nearby, a nesting colony of Silver Gulls with young. The chicks were tricky to spot and well camouflaged, if you look closely there are at least two in this photo…

 

 

On closer inspection, we found that another group of birds lower on the rocky shore was a small flock of White Fronted Terns.

 

 

We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the boat and despite his loud character, our captain proved very knowledgeable and helpful in pointing out all the different species. All too soon though, we were back on dry land. We went for a short walk before climbing in the car and exploring a bit more round the local area. We stopped in Matakana for a lovely lunch before heading back to enjoy the beaches round the bach a bit more.

Back at Te Arai beach, I took my camera with me and made the most of the empty beach once more to get some lovely shots of the Variable Oystercatchers foraging.

Variable Oystercatcher

 

There was also a New Zealand Dotterel on the beach and although I managed a grab shot it wasn’t quite so confiding as the Oystercatchers and so it isn’t nearly as sharp as I’d like. Still, I thought I’d share it as these little waders are an endangered endemic species and not a common sight.

 

 

The following day saw us returning to Auckland via a very special island, Tiritiri Matangi. I took so many photos there and it was such a wonderful place that I decided to write a separate blog piece for it so that will be the next post. In the meantime though I still have a few tales to tell from the rest of our time on North Island and so I’ll continue…

We spent the day after exploring the Waitakere Ranges on the western side of the island. Our first stop was at Bethel’s beach where, contrary to earlier in the week, we found the sand to be black or at the least a dark brown. Of course, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a contrasting shot to that at Hyam’s beach (see my previous post if you haven’t already!) so here are my pudgy little feet in the darkest patch I could find!

 

 

We arrived to a little cloud but decided to have a wander and make the most of the tide being out. We walked round to the far side of a large rocky outcrop and up the dunes to where we had a good view back at the beach.

 

Bethel's Beach

 

Walking on up the dunes, we found ourselves at a great viewpoint overlooking O’Neil Bay and we sat for a while watching kids play at the water’s edge, dogs fetching a frisbee out of the surf and a bunch of surfers taking on the biggest of the waves. It was a little surreal though that beside us on top of a native flax plant, sat a singing male British Yellowhammer, just one of the introduced species on the island.

 

O'Neil Bay

 

There was lots of lovely Hare’s Tail grass here although that isn’t native either. I’m rather fond of this grass and enjoy finding it in its native Mediterranean habitat.

 

 

Walking back to the car, the sun had come out a little and we were staggered how quickly the sand had warmed up. We did fantastic impressions of those desert-dwelling lizards that run in quick bursts over the hot sand before standing on alternate legs to cool their feet! There were a mass of lovely lupines flowering on the dune backs by the car park. I discovered afterwards that these are also introduced. It seems we humans have a lot to answer for here…

 

Yellow Bush Lupine

 

Our next stop was a brief one at Piha beach jut along the coast where another introduced plant was growing all over the edge of the beach, Gazanias.

 

 

The large yellow daisy flowers made for an impressive sight but knowing that they aren’t native makes it less pretty somehow and I couldn’t help but wonder what native flowers they were replacing.

We did soon find a native flower though, a slightly unusual one at that. It is not uncommon but not something that we Brits see terribly often. This is the flower of the Mahoe tree and it grows directly from the branches beneath the leaves.

 

We found this tree growing beside a wonderful viewpoint from where you could see the entire of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf beyond. The light was too hazy to make a good photograph but we spent a while taking it all in before heading home to our friends.

The following day we had managed to get ourselves booked on a wine tasting tour of the island of Waiheke out in the Hauraki Gulf. Our friends kindly gave us a lift to the ferry terminal in Auckland Harbour and we set out for a truly touristy day. We were met on the island by a small bus and taken round 4 different vineyards and an olive farm where we ate and drank delicious wares before being put back on the ferry home. It wasn’t really a day for much photography but I did take a couple to share. We had a lovely lunch at Stony Ridge Vineyard…

 

…and had time for a stroll along the shoreline before catching the ferry back to Auckland. Waiheke certainly seemed an idyllic place to live and we found some amazing wines there which we wished we could bring back to the UK.

 

Waiheke harbour

 

The next day was our last in New Zealand and we decided to make the most of it by taking a ferry across the bay into the city. It was definitely worth it for the views of the skyline as we came down the harbour.

 

Auckland skyline

 

We did quite a bit of walking, first strolling down the harbour front from the Ferry Building (here’s the view looking back the way we had come).

 

Auckland harbour front and ferry building

 

Then visiting the Auckland Museum. This was a wonderful place and we thoroughly enjoyed it. There was so much to see and take in, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition was there and so we visited that too as we hadn’t managed to get to the one in London. There was lots of information about the wonderful native species of New Zealand and some fascinating insights into Maori culture too. One of my favourite parts of that aspect was a Maori meeting house which you could enter called a Hotonui. It was a wonderful piece of culture and art all rolled into one with incredible craftsmanship having gone into its creation.

 

 

We enjoyed our walk out from the museum through some lovely park land and back down the hill into the city again. We stopped for a sushi lunch before heading back to the ferry so that we could pack. The ferry journey back was just as good with a particularly good view of the harbour bridge having passed beneath it.

 

 

The last impression made on us though was the astonishing number of South Island Pied Oystercatchers sitting on the little harbour wall in Hobsonville ferry terminal. Among them was the odd Southern hemisphere subspecies of Black Winged Stilt too. It was a fascinating idea that so many beautiful wading birds could thrive in such a busy harbour area. Perhaps Auckland Harbour could teach us some lessons about living alongside wildlife?

 

Our final day coming to an end, we packed up and headed out to the airport for our late night flight to the last stop on our adventure, Singapore. I’ll be writing about that part soon too… watch this space!