'Tossed by the Wind': The rare and remarkable creatures of Tiritiri Matangi (Part One)

June 6, 2019
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Map data ©2019 Google.The location of Tiritiri Matangi Island (ringed by red ellipse) in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf.

THE fenced-off ‘mainland island’ of Maungatautari, the Sanctuary Mountain of my last post, isn’t typical of New Zealand conservation. More common are offshore islands or islands on lakes, where the water helps to keep out the pests.

One such island is Tiritiri Matangi, which dots the ‘i’ of the lengthy, suburban, Whangaparaoa peninsula north of Auckland. It's a high-value scientific reserve with many creatures that really are rare and remarkable roaming around, creatures such as the kiwi and the tuatara. And yet it's open to the public. You can even stay overnight. Tripadvisor has awarded Tiritiri Matangi its coveted Certificate of Excellence and also currently rates the island #2 out of 208 things to do in central Auckland, as of the time of writing.

In other words the second thing you should do, once you’ve made it to downtown Auckland, is catch the ferry to the island (it takes a bit over an hour to get there).

A more detailed map of the island. Source: New Zealand Department of Conservation, 2017. Crown copyright reserved.
A track sign mentioning some of the localities I visited.

Tiritiri Matangi means ‘The Meeting Place of the Winds’, or in other words, a place that is tossed or buffeted by the winds; a good name for just about any offshore island, I would think.

The island is in a strategic location in the Hauraki Gulf, the seaway that leads to Auckland’s main harbour. It has supported a lighthouse since New Year’s Day, 1865. For most of the time since that date it has also supported harbour defences on its high points, while the land below was farmed.

All kinds of secret things happened in those days, in ways that we don’t know much about even now. To support the development of a powerful underwater weapon called a tsunami bomb, a cousin to the better-known bouncing bomband earthquake bomb, thousands of test explosions were carried out near Tiritiri Matangi and at another site in New Caledonia. Volunteer folklore has it that a significant colony of bats was wiped out on Tiritiri Matangi by one of these explosions or perhaps by several of them. This was undoubtedly a low point for the island’s ecology, not to mention the fish.

A Lancaster bomber of 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron dropping an earthquake bomb on the Arnsberg Viaduct in March 1945. Something similar may have destroyed Tiritiri Matangi’s rumoured batcave, if it ever existed.Source: Imperial War Museum, Photograph CH15375, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

These days, however, there are no more farmers, and the military legions are long gone as well. The lighthouse is still there. But otherwise, the island now serves quite a different purpose.

Namely, it is the site of a remarkable, community-driven, reafforestation and wildlife-conservation effort.

In the 1970s, a group of Aucklanders started lobbying for Tiritiri Matangi to be turned into a nature reserve and replanted with native ‘bush’ (i.e., forest). According to a history page run by the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi (SoTM), the modern-day guardians of the island,

[Tiritiri Matangi] was a popular picnic spot for boaties who walked up to the lighthouse area, but aside from old cliffside pohutukawa, protected by decree of a far-sighted Crown Lands ranger in 1908, little of its primordial character survived.

(I’ve added a link to explains what pohutukawa are.)

Uniquely, the activists proposed that Tiritiri Matangi should become a scientific reserve of the highest value, with really rare and endangered species, and yet that it should also be accessible to the public so that they could see “conservation in action.”

There is an older and larger island reserve further out in the Hauraki Gulf, called Hauturu or Little Barrier Island. But Hauturu / Little Barrier has long been closed to the general public. The champions of the new reserve at Tiritiri Matangi wanted to create something more accessible that would create community buy-in. The fact that it was closer to the city also helped.

The idea was that Tiritiri Matangi would be an ‘open sanctuary’, unlike Hauturu, which was closed.

An official plan for the island’s reforestation was published by the Department of Lands and Survey in 1982. Over the ten years from 1984 until 1994, thousands of volunteers planted 280,000 trees on the island. In 1988, SoTM was established, and in 1997 the second major official plan for the island, produced by the Department of Conservation, set the stage for its transformation into an open scientific wildlife refuge.

The precedent set by Tiritiri Matangi has since inspired a number of other open sanctuaries, including Maungatautari, which my last post was about, and Zealandia in Wellington.

Tiritiri Matangi now gets 30,000 visitors a year, a number bulked up by regular school tours. “Conservation in action,” indeed!

A whiteboard in the island’s education centre

Tiritiri Matangi was originally the name of one of the pā, or fortified villages, built on the island by its last Māori inhabitants, who belonged to an Auckland iwi —the Māori word for a large tribe or clan — called Te Kawerau ā Maki, or Kawerau for short.

In the early nineteenth century the Kawerau, who also lived in other parts of Auckland, abandoned the island because it was vulnerable to raids from other tribes that had gained possession of European muskets. This was a very disturbed time in the history of New Zealand, or Aotearoa as the country is known in Māori. Life on Tiritiri Matangi during the time of the so-called ‘musked wars’ would have been a bit like being a monk on Lindisfarne or Iona in the time of the Vikings.

After the inter-tribal wars had died down, the Kawerau were dismayed to find that a new band of musket-wielding interlopers — the British — had taken possession of the island in order to install a lighthouse and harbour defences. By the time the the Kawerau contested their loss the lighthouse had already been built and they were unsuccessful in getting the island back.

A surprising amount of this warts-and-all history is packed into the following three and a half minute video produced by New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage / Manatū Taonga. The low-pitched birdsong at the start of the video is the call of the elusive kōkako, one of the birds that is recovering on the island:

My Visits

I spent a week on the island as a voluntary New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) warden in the summer of 2011–2012. (In New Zealand, Christmas and New Year are in the middle of summer.) And I’d been to the island before that. So I wasn’t new to Tiritiri Matangi when I decided to go back this year toward the end May, or in other words a few days before the onset of winter.

I enjoyed helping out, that summer. But there’s nothing like being a guest and being left to your own devices. They have about sixteen bunks for the public on Tiritiri Matangi and it gets very busy during the summer, which is great for fundraising and everything. On the other hand, I was after more of a quiet time, now that I was on holiday myself! Which is partly also why I decided to go in May, which is definitely the off-season.

Currently, the island has two wardens who do one week on and one week off, and one educator, plus an excellent group of volunteers who help with other things such as looking after the shop. They have a guided tour which costs five dollars and takes you up most of the tracks that have the birdlife.

I decided to go during the week, in the hope that the island would be even less busy. There were about eighty people who went over on the ferry, mostly schoolchildren, but only two guests staying on the island on my first night. No camping is allowed on the island, by the way. If you aren’t booked into the formal accommodation you have to go back on the ferry. Here’s a picture of me down by the Tiritiri Matangi wharf, which is pretty basic.

The ferry arrives at about 10–30 or 11 and there were a lot of schoolchildren every time, so I didn’t want to do the tour. I decided that the best thing to do was to avoid the schoolchildren and go up to the Tiritiri Matangi lighthouse, a tremendously historic piece of industrial heritage by New Zealand standards, designed in 1861 and first illuminated on New Year’s Day, 1865. Made from cast-iron prefabricated panels, it must have been a very modern structure by the standards of its day.

The Tiritiri Matangi lighthouse and adjoining structures, including a signal tower built in 1912

Here’s an aerial photograph of the wider complex, which includes the residential bunk-house as one of the buildings, Wharf Road, the beginnings of the Ridge Track, the gift shop and the education centre. Everything on the island pretty much fans out from this point. You can see the shadow of the lighthouse; the signal tower is just to its right.

Aerial photograph of the lighthouse complex at Tiritiri Matangi Island. Imagery ©2019 CNES/Airbus, Map data ©MapData Sciences Pty Ltd, PSMA, Google. North at top.

In many old photos the lighthouse looks dark. It used to be painted red, a colour that comes out nearly black on many old-fashioned photographic emulsions. In 1947 its colour was changed to white, presumably because this was, by that stage, thought to make it look more conspicuous.

Though mostly concerned with the island’s ecology, SoTM also want to establish a museum around the lighthouse: a museum dedicated to lighthouse technology as opposed to natural things. This will broaden the range of attractions on the island and pull in a wider range of visitors. They also want to re-open public access to the lighthouse itself. People used to be able to go inside the lighthouse, but the Ministry of Transport closed it to the public in 1995, in what may well have been a fit of excessive bureaucratic risk-aversion.

In 2004, the New Zealand Herald published a good article by the scholar Robin Kearns, which made the point that just as the island is an open sanctuary in ecological terms, accessible to the public, so its industrial, lighthouse heritage should be too.

Tiritiri Matangi is ideal for a lighthouse technology musem, as it retains a full lighthouse complex of the kind that used to be seen in many places a hundred yeras ago. The complex includes a Titanic-era signals tower, from which Morse code would have crackled forth across the South Pacific from some improbable apparatus. There would have been a whole team of people on-site, not just the lighthouse keeper and his family. In other places such ancillary buildings are long gone with the march of time and automation, leaving nothing but the (automated) lighthouse itself. But at Tiritiri Matangi, everything’s still there.

Fortunately for my holiday purposes, the weather was still warm and humid at the end of May 2019, even though winter was only a few days away. It was overcast, but I was still able to get some amazing views over the sea, which the low, wintery sun made all the more dramatic. As you can see winter, or almost-winter, is still very green in these parts.

The other guest to arrive with me that night was a wonderful German researcher studying juvenile hihi, or stitchbird, a species that was once extinct outside of Little Barrier Island or Hauturu, the Hauraki Gulf’s remotest and least accessible island sanctuary.

These days, Tiritiri Matangi is an important hihi hatchery. In fact, 2019 was a record year for hihi babies on the island, with over 250 fledged.

The male hihi has a mostly black head, neck and shoulders as if it is wearing a mediaeval executioner’s hood, and a greyish-brown body. A yellow stripe in between makes a striking, wasp-like contrast to the bird’s black ‘hood’.

The Māori word hihi refers to things that are long and straight, and often means ‘ray’ in the sense of a beam of light.

As such, the hihi gets its name from its yellow stripe. This didn’t cause old-time Māori to think of wasps, as New Zealand native wasps tend to be black all over. Instead, the stripe reminded Māori of a sunbeam; perhaps, even , of the emergence of a low, westering sun beneath a black cloud just before it sets.

An engraving of the extinct North Island subspecies of hihi, perhaps the most common type in its day, that shows the male ‘sunray’ with particular clarity. Surviving hihi sourced from Little Barrier Island are similar though not exactly the same. From A History of the Birds of New Zealand (2nd edn 1887/88) by Sir Walter Lawry Buller, illustration by John Gerrard Keulemans (1842–1912). Public domain image via and Wikimedia Commons.

Less poetically, though just as interestingly , the hihi is the only known species of bird that copulates face-to-face; that is, as opposed to the method employed by all other birds whereby the male climbs on top of the female and does his business as fast as possible before falling off.

The night hunters

On my second night I managed to see a little spotted kiwi at the Ridge Track. A group of four marine-conservation DOC people had come over from Long Bay and other areas on the mainland to look for kiwi; two were leaving as they were on short term contracts and this was their send-off.

The Little Spotted Kiwi, historic engraving also by Keulemans, from G. D. Rowley's Ornithological Miscellany via and Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image.

Kiwi are omnivores, feeding on anything that is small and nutritious. Unusually for a bird, they rely heavily on smell, sniffing out their food at ground level with nostrils at the tips of their long, probing beaks. They have powerful claws, which they use to demolish old tree stumps and rotting logs to get at the grubs inside.

There are five living species of kiwi, of much the same shape but of different sizes and colourations. The little spotted kiwi I saw is the smallest. The largest is the southern brown kiwi or tokoeka, which is divided further into two subspecies of slightly differing sizes.

Kiwi are also strictly nocturnal, apart from the largest and boldest subspecies of all, the Stewart Island tokoeka, which can often be encountered in broad daylight on the southernmost of New Zealand’s three main islands, Stewart Island, known to southern Māori as Rakiura.

Rakiura means ‘blushing skies’, a name that probably derives either from the polar aurora that is often seen over Stewart Island even though it is only 47 degrees south, or from its short summer nights, not long enough for the biggest of all kiwi to gather the food its needs in darkness.

Basically, the kiwi is a bird that evolved to play the role of a hedgehog or an anteater, in a land where there were no four-footed mammals till they were introduced in the boats of the Māori and later colonists. With the hedgehog’s combination of keen smell and poor eyesight, the kiwi shuffles and snuffles along in search of its food, making lots of sneezy noises along with the more deliberate, piercing cries by which the kiwi find each other in the dark.

The kiwi is a most un-typical bird, in other words; considerably more un-typical than the hihi, which is only unusual in terms of how it procreates itself. Even there, the kiwi shows itself to be just as peculiar, laying an egg so gigantic, at 20% of the mother’s weight — a human baby is only 5% of its mother’s weight — that some think the kiwi was once the size of a cassowary, later shrinking down while its eggs did not.

Kiwi tend to feed on the verge of clearings rather than deep bush, which means they are often found close to tracks or even wandering along tracks, just like in the Stewart Island video. They also forage near beaches, such as Hobbs Beach on Tiritiri Matangi.

When I was on Tiritiri Matangi this May, the moon was three-quarters full and that meant that, even after sundown, it was supposedly still too bright for the species of kiwi that were on the island — species shyer than the Stewart Island tokoeka — to be out and about.

Still, I had a presentiment that if I went on the Ridge Track, I would see a kiwi even in the moonlight. I was with another woman who came over on the boat from Auckland that day, an accountant named Claire. And sure enough, we did see our little spotted kiwi at about half-past-seven or eight o’clock in the evening.

In the hut you could get red cellophane to fit over a normal torch so that it won’t dazzle or spook nocturnal animals, which generally can’t see anything in that part of the spectrum. We’d fitted the cellophane beforehand, and followed the kiwi we had discovered under the evening moon with our red torch for ten minutes, keeping a prescribed distance back (there is a regulation about this).

I was satisfied but Claire wanted to see more kiwi. We didn’t, however.

To be continued . . .

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