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

Published
June 18, 2019
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At 10 pm we went down to Hobbs Beach and I saw a little blue penguin. This is the world’s smallest species of penguin. It was high tide and the penguin was just sitting on the track, which was almost deserted at night. There are breeding boxes for the little blue penguins beside the track, so you can often see the penguins there too.

And then I saw tuatara for the first time: two of them.

The tuatara is a cat-eyed nocturnal reptile that looks like a lizard — but isn’t!

Although the tuatara looks like a lizard, the resemblance is really only skin-deep, and there are lots of differences underneath. In fact, tuatara are the last survivors of a group of reptiles called rynchocephalia which evolved in the Triassic era, before the evolution of mammals and at about the same time as the very earliest dinosaurs.

One of the tuatara’s most unusual characteristics (for a reptile) is the ability to remain active in the cold. In this respect it is unlike most reptiles, and actually more like a mammal. The ability to run around not just in the dark but in the cold means the tuatara can hunt on chilly nights as well as warm ones. And, thrive as a nocturnal hunter in cool parts of New Zealand as well as warmer districts.

Across the rest of the world the role of night-time hunter on land has generally fallen to furry, four-footed mammals such as cats, stoats and weasels. Which are, to be fair, better adapted to such a role than any reptile, including the tuatara.

But there were no ground-living mammals in New Zealand until recently, only a couple of species of bat. And so the tuatara survived in New Zealand for millions of years; as did the kiwi.

Getting back to our own night-time hunt, the DOC people waited for the moon to set around 4 am and shone their red torches into the miserable darkness before the dawn. But they didn’t see any kiwi at all!

The birds of the day

I’d seen most of the other birds and could identify them. Here’s a video I made of a korimako. This is a very musical species, also known as the bellbird:

A brief glimpse of the korimako, with a few bars of its song

Many New Zealand songbirds feed on nectar. However, the habitat on Tiritiri Matangi isn’t rich enough for nectar-feeding birds to thrive and produce large numbers of young without supplementation.

So, there are a lot of artificial nectar stations on the island. The artificial feeding stations dispense a mixture of water and raw sugar, which contains many micronutrients absent from the refined sugar and thus approximates the nectar found in flowers. Diluted honey might be closer to the real thing, but it would obviously be a lot more expensive. The raw sugar used on Tiritiri Matangi is donated by Chelsea Sugar, who have an informative page on the subject.

SoTM also sell nectar feeders to the public to nourish native birds in their back gardens, thus bolstering the conservation effort. Most of these back gardens are in the city. Ironically, there are often a lot more birds in the modern city, with all its gardens, parks and trees, than in modern farmscapes: which are often more environmentally ‘industrial’ than the city, not the least bit like an eighteenth-century landscape painting anymore. Though they must keep a lookout for housecats, the pros of city life still tend to outweigh the cons for birds today.

You normally see a lot of the birds around the feeders on Tiritiri Matangi, though they aren’t always there. Here’s a video of bellbirds and hihi around a feeder, with the yellow stripe of the male hihi (‘sunray’) clearly visible on several individuals.

The last time I was over, in the summer of 2011/12, I saw lots of takahē; but this time I only saw six. A lot of them had been moved to other sanctuaries, which is a good idea.

Takahē are a heavier, flightless relative of the pūkeko: a bird well capable of flight, with an international range that extends from Indonesia to New Zealand via Papua-New Guinea and Australia. Internationally, the pūkeko is known as the Australasian swamp-hen. Adults of both species are blue with a red bill and an extension of the bill that covers their foreheads, but the takahē is much larger and more robust.

In terms of physical proportions, the takahē is a turkey to the pūkeko’s hen. It also tends to live on more solid ground, as it would sink into any swamp.

Takahē were thought to be extinct for a long time, but a population was rediscovered in the late 1940s, west of Lake Te Anau in the South Island. They are slowly coming back from the brink and are now a fairly common sight in bird sanctuaries across New Zealand. In the following video, I show some pūkeko, then pan to a pīwakawaka or fantail, a common insect-eater that uses a large, fan-like tail to manoeuvre in flight, and then jump to scenes of takahē, which look like pūkeko who have become too fat to fly; which is, in some ways, what they are.

Tiritiri Matangi is now an important breeding centre for hihi and other endangered species. According to a recent news story, which includes a cute photo of some of the latest baby hihi,

“There are now hihi populations at seven pest-free sites: Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington, Kapiti Island Nature Reserve, Bushy Park Sanctuary north of Whanganui, Rotokare Scenic Reserve in Taranaki, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari in Waikato, Tiritiri Matangi Scientific Island Reserve and Te Hauturu ō Toi /Little Barrier Island Nature Reserve.”

Thirty hihi were about to be shifted to Rotokare when I was there this May.

The only bird I hadn’t seen was a kōkako, another musical species. I finally saw a pair of kōkako on the Wattle Track, but they were too deep in the bush for me to take a photo. Still, I heard their peculiar, low song. I was told that there were eighteen pairs but that they avoid the visitors. I had the same experience on the Kawerau Track, described in this information panel:

Kōkako are called the ‘squirrels’ and sometimes even the ‘monkeys’ of the New Zealand forest: disdaining to fly (though they can) and preferring to clamber about instead. They are very agile climbers. All you normally see of a kōkako is a shadow, something moving across the tree canopy without taking to the air, concealed by the leaves and the limbs.

So, the kōkako were too elusive for me to see much of them or get any pictures. Instead, here’s a short 2010 episode of a nature programme called ‘Meet the Locals’ in which kōkako are shown close-up at another refuge, referred to in the video as Mt Bruce and now called Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre, near Wellington.

Episode of ‘Meet the Locals’, a co-production of DOC and the now-closed public television station TV6, about kōkako; placed on Youtube by BushTellyTV by permission

It was much the same with the saddlebacks, or tīeke, which hide in the undergrowth. Though, I had better luck than with the kōkako and did eventually manage to video one or two tīeke that had come out into the open beside a path.

Tīeke / saddlebacks beside a path, showing the distinctive ‘saddle’

It’s easy to confuse hihi, tīeke and korimako with each other. The female stitchbird looks like a juvenile saddleback, and often gets confused with the bellbird as well.

One bird I didn’t see at all was the tiny fernbird or mātātā, a bird that played the ecological role of the mouse before four-footed mammals came to New Zealand. I heard some fernbirds but didn’t see them. Though small they are feeble flyers and hardly ever take to the air, preferring to hide and scurry about on the edges of things just like real mice.

As you can see there are many non-mammals that have adopted mammal-like roles in New Zealand: the kōkako as an avian squirrel, the fernbird as an avian mouse, the kiwi as an avian hedgehog, and the tuatara as a sort of reptilian weasel.

I saw the sunrise and I got great photos of Hauturu/Little Barrier Island and of Aotea, or Great Barrier Island.

Sunrise from the East Coast Track on Tiritiri Matangi Island

Then I saw the sun set in the west, and got some equally great photos of the wharf, Gulf Harbour and parts of downtown Auckland City!

One of the best things was that I had cellphone reception so I could continue working. And they have gas cooking. The wardens do a great job of looking after guests, but there was no wifi. Also, you do need to bring your own sleeping bag, however. All in all, it was a good time away, and I enjoyed it.

Some final tips

Tripadvisor says that coming to Tiritiri Matangi is one of the top things to do in Auckland and has awarded the island its Certificate of Excellence. Well, that’s really interesting.

They take your packs up to the bunkhouse by trailer when you arrive by ferry, and when the ferry returns, they will take your pack down. And on the ferry, you can buy food such as sandwiches and muffins. But beware, the store on Tiritiri Matangi does not sell any food whatsoever. Along with souvenirs, they sell drinks and that’s it. They have a policy of not selling food.

Instead, the emphasis is on providing an educational area for children, with lots of seating. School parties bring their own lunches.

SoTM have plans for a new field centre. This field centre will have eleven two-bed units for visitors and two two-bedroom family units, but still with shared cooking. There will be three self-contained units for staff. The complex will be on Wharf Road.

People joke that it’s only a matter of time till Tiritiri Matangi gets a genetically revived moa — moa are several species of giant flightless birds that died out about 500 years ago — and until a safety plan is developed for Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle to have ever existed, which used to eat the moa (‘nuff said!) and died out at about the same time.

The bird population of Tiritiri Matangi is thought to include perhaps several hundred fernbirds — to the extent that they can be counted, which is, not really — as well more definite numbers of less elusive species recorded on the Tiritiri Matangi website.

Along with the tuatara, lizards are being fostered on the island as well. The burning of the bush to create farmland reduced the numbers of many lizards, as did introduced predators and pests such as cats and rats. There are five species of lizard on the island altogether: copper, moko and shore skinks, and Raukawa and Duvaucel’s geckos, the last of which is the largest New Zealand lizard. Though, it’s thought there were ten species originally.

(There are, of course, no snakes on the island nor anywhere else in New Zealand, bar the odd occasional visiting sea snake.)

There are also a lot of signs on the island that point out rare bugs and plants.

The website for the ferry is here, And the page for booking accommodation is here (it actually refers to you to a DOC page plus a couple of phone numbers).

Lastly, there’s a chapter on Tiritiri Matangi island in my book A Maverick New Zealand Way.

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