Saturday, May 14th, was the Global Big Day 2016. This event is put on by eBird, a website by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where anyone can record their bird sightings and add to a global database for scientific analysis. The goal of their Global Big Day is for people from around the world to record as many birds as possible. Last year over 6,000 bird species (out of 10,000 total) were counted in 24 hours, and this year we wanted to be part of this event. Instead of going for quantity, we decided to aim for quality: New Zealand birds that are found nowhere else. Around Auckland, the major place to go for rare birds is the island reserve of Tiritiri Matangi. We went there over a year ago and were looking forward to going back.
Unlike last time, the ferry left at the reasonable hour of 9:00 a.m. from the main terminal in central Auckland. We caught the bus downtown and boarded the ferry with quite a few other visitors. The trip was about 70 minutes, with one stop at Gulf Harbour right before arriving at Tiritiri Matangi. The boat was big enough that I had no issues and we spent most of the voyage looking for birds on the deck. We spotted fluttering shearwaters and gannets flying about, but the highlight was a glimpse of a rare reef heron off of the pier at Gulf Harbour. Just after 10 a.m., we arrived on the island.
Though New Zealand is well into autumn, the weather was beautiful: sunny but not too warm. We disembarked from the ferry and had to wait around until the ranger gave an introductory talk. While I recorded the birds we’d seen on the boat trip on the eBird app, the ranger implored us to turn off our phones and enjoy the nature. Sorry, I had to!
After the talk, we went the opposite way to most people, along the shore towards Hobbs Beach. We saw a little blue penguin chick, mostly grown, sitting in a man-made nesting box before getting to the main beach.
We wandered on the beach, looking at the gulls on the offshore rocks and examining bird footprints on the beach. The first uniquely New Zealand bird we saw was a North Island saddleback poking around in the seaweed. The saddleback is an endemic bird that, due to its habit of foraging on the ground, is now only found in reserves on the North Island, out of reach of cats and other predators.
We left the beach and started walking up into the forest. Looking back towards the sea, we saw a pod of dolphins frolicking offshore right next to the ferry, which was of course now empty.
Farther into the forest, we heard a shy fernbird along with the forest chorus of bellbirds and tuis. Then a smooth, flute-like song started up: it was a kokako, a large grey wattlebird (the same family as the saddleback) which is said to have the most beautiful birdsong in the world. A guided tour group caught up to us and the volunteer guide told us that it was a pair of kokakos singing back and forth to each other. Though they sounded close by, the thick forest meant that we couldn’t spot them.
We climbed deep into the forest, where flocks of whiteheads (small birds identical to the yellowheads of the South Island except with white heads, of course), the occasional red-crowned parakeet and stitchbirds flew about in the trees. I heard a high-pitched peeping and caught a very quick glimpse of a rifleman, tiny green birds that were recently introduced to the island. Their calls are so high that M couldn’t hear them at all!
The most activity was concentrated around the sugar water feeders. Bellbirds, calling constantly to each other, flitted in and out of the boxes and swooped around overhead. They were just taking advantage as these feeders are meant for the stitchbirds, bigger birds with striped wings.
Stitchbirds, or hihi, are a rare endemic species that is not closely related to any other species. They are only found in reserves off of the North Island, but unlike the saddleback, is struggling to establish populations without human intervention (hence the feeders). The males are brightly coloured and have cute white ear tufts above their eyes.
We finally reached the top of the ridge and the end of the forest trail. The tour group caught up with us again as I was hunting for another rifleman, poking my head in a bush. I’m sure I looked a little crazy, talking about a bird that no one else could hear or see!
As we walked along, a parakeet flew across the path, startling us. When we looked down to start walking again, we (luckily) spotted a small family of brown quails taking a dust bath in the middle of the trail. As we couldn’t move forward without disturbing them, we simply watched them wiggle around in the dust together.
The tour group, which was not far behind, watched the quails with us and eventually moved forward. The quail family just moved down the path, running slightly ahead of the group until they ducked into the forest.
We walked ahead of the group only to stop again for a lone takahe grazing in a small field. The guide said the takahe was a female who had been abandoned several times by her mates.
The guide said that takahe life is like a soap opera, mixing and matching partners often. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their small population is growing only slowly, not helped by the fact that they are bad, often inattentive parents.
We left the takahe in peace, continuing up and over an exposed grassy hill to finally reach the lighthouse area. We were starving so we had our sandwiches and free tea from the visitor centre. It was nice to sit down for a bit after walking around for three hours! To support the island and the birds, I got a cute New Zealand-made reusable coffee mug from the shop:
After our belated lunch, we had about two hours left. We’d planned to go to the far end of the island, but wouldn’t have had enough time to get back to the ferry with our slow pace. Instead, we wandered around the lighthouse and visitor centre area, watching the tuis at a feeder. The bully tuis chased away the smaller bellbirds (and each other) when they tried to get near.
We walked up to the lighthouse, which is over 100 years old and still being used.
Off of the main track, we saw a family of takahe poking around the ranger’s house. The young one was the only chick hatched this year and they conveniently lived around the lighthouse, making them easy to spot.
With these three, we’d now seen almost half of the takahe on the island. Ten takahe live on Tiritiri Matangi out of a global population of about 100 birds.
After watching the family for a bit, it was time to start walking back down the hill to the ferry. The bush here was more dry and scrubby than on the other forest path, but we still saw many of the usual suspects: bellbirds, tuis, and saddlebacks.
The track was busy as many other people were heading to the ferry, naturally, but we tried to space ourselves out so that the birds weren’t scared away by people directly in front of us.
This strategy paid off when we spotted two kokako munching on berries in a nearby tree. One kokako immediately scurried away, hopping though the branches like a squirrel, but the other lingered close to the path. We pointed it out to the people coming up behind us, who were just as thrilled as us to see this unique New Zealand species.
The kokako was a nice last bird to see on our big day. We reached the ferry with enough time to spare to go see the penguin chick in its box again. On the ferry ride back, we watched the seabirds, including a large flock of white-fronted terns and some diving gannets, but didn’t see the reef heron again. Mostly we enjoyed the lovely sunset views on our cruise back to Auckland.
Overall, we saw a total of 29 species: this isn’t a high count but the ones we did see could not have been seen anywhere else. Globally, over 5,000 species have been seen so far, and the big day isn’t over in many parts of the world. It was fun to be noticeably better at birding than we were last year and to be part of a global effort.