The Dawn Chorus

One of the places that was always on our must-visit list was Tiritiri Matangi, a small island north of Auckland that is home to some of New Zealand’s rarest birds. It is unique in that it’s a scientific reserve that is also open to the public. Like many places in New Zealand, it used to be empty grazing land, but a concerted effort in the 1980s by volunteers filled the island (well, most of it) with over 300,000 planted trees. Now, Tiritiri Matangi is a sanctuary for the likes of kiwi, saddlebacks, and more.

I visited the website a while back (here) and discovered that in early October, they ran two special tours: the ferry left the dock at 5:00 AM in order to arrive on the island in time for the dawn chorus. The dawn chorus is a universal natural phenomenon where, right before dawn, all the songbirds in the forest wake up and begin singing. One would think that it’d be advantageous for each bird species to sing at different times, so that they could hear each other better, but no, they all sing at once. When Europeans first came to New Zealand, they noted the especially loud dawn chorus, but deforestation and the introduction of predators have silenced most of the forests. Tiritiri Matangi is one of the few places where it can still be heard in all its glory.

Of course, the main thing about the dawn chorus is that you have to wake up before dawn. Though M complained a bit, and had to be dragged out of bed at 3:00 AM on the day, he surprisingly agreed to go on one of these tours. The ferry left from Gulf Harbour, which is a 40-minute drive north of Auckland, so we had to get up very early in order to make it. Being the more awake one, I drove in the dark on the way there; the roads were nearly deserted but we did encounter some people clearly heading home from a night on the town.

We reached the dock just as they began boarding and huddled on the top deck in the dark for the twenty-minute trip to the island. Surprisingly, the small ferry was nearly full, probably around 100 people, including a group of guides. The guides tried to make an announcement about the tour plans, but the boat’s engines were too loud. It didn’t matter too much; once we docked, under a nearly full moon, they sorted us into groups of ten, led by a guide. M and I had realized far too late that we hadn’t brought a flashlight (or torch if you will), but our guide helpfully illuminated the path into the forest. We hiked slowly in the darkness for about 15 minutes, thankful that the path was wide and paved, until we reached a straight section that had narrow wooden benches along it. Many of the other visitors were already seated, so we made ourselves as comfortable as possible. The guides kindly offered extra jackets, but the night was warm enough (if we had gone a week earlier, it would have been raining!). We settled in and waited for the birds to start singing.

The first sound to break the silence was a single tui, honking and warbling as they do. M and I were a bit taken aback; after all, we could easily hear these birds at home. The tui was soon joined, though, by other tuis and higher-pitched tweets that the guide identified as North Island robins and whiteheads, which are sparrow-sized birds with, of course, white heads. Soon, a chorus of bellbirds started up and we heard how these birds got their name: all singing together, they sounded like church bells in the distance. The most melodious bird was the kokako, a rare bird that is said to have the one of the most beautiful and haunting song in the world. It sounded like a flute and sang two notes back and forth, with another one singing in duet. All this noise was punctuated by tuis and squawking parakeets flapping overhead. I’m sure more types of birds than these were singing as well, but birdsong identification is difficult and everyone, including the guides, were quiet as we listened to the performance. The sun slowly rose (or so it seemed as we were under the forest canopy) and the birds eventually quieted to the usual forest chatter.

We were not exactly sure what to expect from the dawn chorus, but it really blew us away. Usually, birdsong in the forest is like music playing at the grocery store: you pretty much tune it out unless there’s something really obnoxious playing. However, the dawn chorus was like going to the symphony: sure, it helped that we were there specifically to hear the songs, but the song itself was so much more powerful and full of life. It was an incredible experience, but not one that we’re going to repeat anytime soon as M definitely needs his beauty rest!

Of course, our Tiritiri Matangi trip did not end there, as we actually wanted to see the birds making all this noise. Next up, pictures!

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