Bird Bonanza

After the dawn chorus on Tiritiri Matangi, M and I helped carry the benches up the path to a trailer and, with our little group and guide, continued up the hill to the visitor center. Now that the sun was up, we could appreciate the scenery: none of the trees were too tall since the forest is relatively new, but the undergrowth was dense. From the undergrowth, we heard a clicking noise, which our guide identified as the secretive fernbird. M managed to spot it but it quickly disappeared. More tuis and parakeets flew overhead.

After 15 minutes we reached the top of the hill, the site of an old lighthouse and, of most interest to us, the visitor center. Inside was a welcome spread of tea, coffee and snacks, and we relaxed for a bit. There was entertainment too, in the form a tui feeding station immediately outside. Tuis flew back and forth from the feeders, squabbling with each other even though there was more than enough to go around. They were too busy to notice us, only a few feet away.

Tuis feeding, and for once not arguing.
Tui glamour shot.

We wandered around the grassy area and the lighthouse, which we learned had been imported in pieces from England, and admired the view back towards Auckland. After about an hour, our guide rounded up our little group and we started the second part of our tour.

We started up a grassy hill, which was deliberately left unplanted in order to leave food for the pukekos and the island’s rarest bird, the takahe. Only ten of these large birds live on Tiritiri Matangi, out of only hundreds in the world. They pull up grass and nibble on the roots, so some of the original grazing land was perfect for them. We didn’t see any on the hill, but did spot a few brown quails before we headed back into the forest.

Once back under the tree cover, we began to hear and see many more birds. We soon discovered that any rustling on the forest floor was likely to be a saddleback, or tieke.

A noisy saddleback, digging in the leaf litter.

We’d seen these birds on Rangitoto but hadn’t appreciated how rare they were: since they prefer feeding on the ground and aren’t keen fliers, they are extinct on the mainland where they’re easy pickings for mammals. Here on Tiritiri Matangi, though, they seemed fairly common so hopefully one day they can return.

On our walk, we stopped every hundred yards or so for our guide to tell us about the history of the island and the plants and birds found on it. He pointed out many more tuis, whiteheads, and robins in the undergrowth; the robins were especially friendly:

A North Island robin.

We had to look up to see the next rarest bird on the island: the kokako. Besides their song, these birds are notable for evolving to be like the squirrels of New Zealand: their long legs let them bound through the treetops in search of berries. Another group spotted this guy munching away high up in a tree and eagerly pointed it out to us:

A beautiful kokako, snacking on a berry.

From the combination of leg bands, our guide determined the name of this kokako, which we of course promptly forgot. He finished his berry and disappeared surprisingly quickly into other trees.

Further along the path, we came across feeding stations for the bellbirds and the rare stitchird. These stations help increase the population, though by the number of bellbirds flocking around they don’t necessarily need the help. We spent a while watching them flit in and out, with some tuis hanging around, jealous that they were too big to get into the feeders. One of the bellbirds had a curious white mask, as if he’d stuck his head in something or gotten pooped on. We tried to get a picture, but they were so fast that it was hard to catch any individual.

One of the many bellbirds.

The stitchbirds were more shy, but still managed to get into the feeders around the energetic bellbirds. The males are brightly colored while the females are duller, and they make a very high-pitched twitter that led to their Maori name, hihi. Since it also sounds vaguely like a sewing machine, their song also led to the English name stitchbird.

A male stitchbird.

The stitchbird is also helped on the island by many nesting boxes mounted on trees: since most of the trees are young, they don’t have holes in their trunks for the birds.

Not all of the trees were planted in the 1980s, though. Leaving the feeding stations, we entered a large grove of older trees, ones that escaped the logging when the island was turned into grazing land. This area is home to the rifleman, a very tiny green bird native to New Zealand, but sadly we didn’t spot any of them. Our guide reassured us, saying that he’d only seen them there about three times in the last year. We rested on some built-in benches (the trails are very well-maintained by the volunteers) and enjoyed the peace and quiet.

One of the oldest trees on the island.
The forest has come back with a vengeance here.

We’d been walking for quite a while and it was almost noon, when the ferry would take people back to the mainland. Our group headed down the hill and walked along the shore, passing something very special on the way to the wharf.

Ugly, but they work.

These constructions are man-made penguin nests; if we lifted a wooden door on the top, we could see a penguin chick through a window! Its parents, full-grown little blue penguins or kororas, were out fishing in the Hauraki Gulf and the chick seemed scared of us peeking in the top. Things could be worse, little chick: penguins have been known to walk all the way up to the lighthouse to make their nests, but these boxes are a quick waddle away from the beach. We left the chick in peace, partly to not stress it and partly because the ferry had arrived.

The noon ferry at the wharf.

M and I were not done with the island yet, though! We decided to catch the 3:00 PM ferry instead and headed up the same path that we had walked up in the dark. Our goal was the lighthouse so that we could eat some lunch, but of course we made a few stops along the way to watch the birds. We joined up with another tour group, who were all chilling on a bench watching birds take baths in the water troughs. They were taking it slow up the path and we were tempted to blast past them in our quest for food, but we’re lucky we didn’t. The guide had stopped to talk about a tree or something, but M spotted something moving about on the ground. It was much bigger than a saddleback or even a pukeko, and as we realized what it was, M excitedly notified the rest of the group, “It’s a taheka! A tahake! A … big pukeko thing!”

A rare takahe, strutting its stuff.

Everyone else figured out what we meant when the takahe wandered out onto the path and looked at us hopefully. The volunteers feed them pellets to supplement their diet and this lady (again, name forgotten), once we figured out we didn’t have any, retreated back into the forest. The guide was very excited and said that the takahes rarely ventured down here; she must have been preparing to nest. M and I were happy that we hadn’t bailed early and got to see this awesome bird.

After lunch, we set off on the path along the north side of the island. The track was a bit quieter but we still saw quite a few other people. We also saw more of many of the island’s birds, including the stitchbirds and quails, and even heard another fernbird. It was very relaxing to take it at our own pace.

Boats off the north side of the island.

Soon, though, we had to head back towards the ferry, which involved hiking up the steep center hill of the island and retracing some of our previous steps. We were rewarded by some good views of birds that we’d seen briefly, but hadn’t managed to get pictures of:

Sleepy pigeons.

These New Zealand pigeons, or kereru, were adorably snoozing together; in fact, we didn’t see any pigeons that weren’t fat and sleeping on the entire island. We were even happier to get a clear view of a red-crowned parakeet, or kakariki. These guys live on the mainland but not in the city, and had evaded us for most of the day. Luckily this guy was more interested in berries than us:

Peeking out over some berries.
What a cutie!

Exhausted after ten hours on the island, we boarded the ferry and drove the forty minutes back to Auckland, stopping for some sustaining Burger Fuel on the way home.

It was amazing to see all these native NZ birds in the wild, fat and happy and safe from human-introduced predators. Hopefully in the future more preserves like this island can be established, and some of these species can be re-introduced to the mainland. We’ll have to visit Tiritiri Matangi again, though probably not with such an early start!


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