If South East Asia’s birds are the circus performers of the bird kingdom, New Zealand’s birds are thelead vocalists.
Our beloved national symbol, the flightless kiwi, are the late-night loving pop stars, screaming and shouting their way through the evening.
Another of our iconic native birds, the tui, are incredible mimics, earning them a reputation as the karaoke superstars. With two voice boxes, the tui has dramatic range and volume.
The gentle kokako are the folk singers, with their haunting and memorable lyrics.
No trip to New Zealand is complete without the opportunity to hear these amazing musicians. Sadly, it might not be as easy as you imagine to experience the show.
These days, the New Zealand bush is often eerily quiet.
Anyone unaware of our natural history would be forgiven for thinking it had always been this way.
New Zealand has no poisonous snakes, no large native land mammals, the world’s best example of a living dinosaur (the tuatara) and a multitude of flightless (and near flightless) birds. Originally, the country had no threatening predators and, as a series of isolated islands, this ancient world was kept alive and intact.
Our native wildlife is a living example of what the world would have been like millions of years ago, prompting acclaimed British naturalist Dr David Bellamy to nickname New Zealand “Moa’s Ark”.
Unfortunately, our lack of carnivorous predators didn’t serve New Zealand’s environment well when humans first landed. The arrival of the first settlers spelt the end for many of our birds, forced into extinction by loss of habitat and never before seen animals such as dogs, cats, rats and goats brought onshore by the early pioneers.
Many once common species are now endangered and only found on off shore islands. Visitors are surprised to learn that even the famous kiwi has a hard time surviving in the wilderness without protection.
But it’s not all bad news.
In the last 50 years, New Zealanders have become more committed to returning the bush to its former glory.
The first step was to establish conservation havens on off-shore islands such as Kapiti Island in Wellington, Mercury Islands off Coromandel and Little Barrier Island in Auckland.
Most of these islands are difficult, if not impossible, to visit especially if you’re on a tight travel schedule.
Tiritiri Matangi (or Tiri as she’s known to locals) is an exception to the rule. Accessible to anyone with the inclination to go, the island is reached by boat in just 45 minutes from Auckland’s Downtown Wharf.
The Department of Conservation manages the island with the help of a strong volunteer network and there are strict quarantine regulations that must be adhered to. All bags are checked for pests and predators and no food can be brought on to the island without being packaged in airtight containers.
Thanks to the hard work of the teams who’ve toiled on Tiri, many breeding pairs of endangered birds have been released into forests on the mainland.
When we visited the island, we were amazed. It wasn’t just what we saw, but more what we heard.
The bush was alive with song.
Thankfully we’d been told it was possible to stay overnight on the island in the Department of Conservation bunkhouse. This was a real treat. We were able to enjoy two unhurried days on the island rather than just a few hours catching glimpses of wildlife.
During our time on the island, we encountered the endangered stitchbird, kokako, saddleback, little spotted kiwi, red crowned parakeet, North Island robin, takahe and brown teal.
We also enjoyed the songs of more common New Zealand birds – tui, whitehead, pukeko, bellbird, fantail, morepork, kereru and silvereye are in abundance across the island.
There were three particular highlights for me - listening to my favourite native bird, the kokako, sing her haunting chorus, hearing the cry of the kiwi after dark and the opportunity to observe several family groups of the extremely rare takahe.
For many years, scientists believed the takahe was extinct but a few birds were discovered in Fiordland in 1948. Since this time, Department of Conservation staff have worked tirelessly to encourage the remaining birds to breed.
The introduction of this endangered bird on Tiri has been a huge success – several Takahe families now exist on the island and breeding pairs have been successfully transferred to other parts of the country.
It’s hard to believe that such a fantastic conservation programme exists so close to New Zealand’s largest city.
The opportunity to experience such endangered species up close and personal was incredible – and I was reminded that there’s truly nothing more beautiful than meeting something rare and uncommon.
Tiritiri Matangi facts:
Walking time: choose between short 30 minute walks and longer hikes covering the entire island (taking around 4 -5 hours).
Required Fitness: DoC recommend a reasonable level of fitness; most tracks are easy but steep in parts.
Hut fees: $25 per night, per adult
Ferry tickets: $66 per person from downtown Auckland
Guided walks: strongly recommended for first time visitors, there are two guided walks available covering two separate tracks. Experienced volunteer guides will help you identify local wildlife and explain the history of the sanctuary; a nominal fee is charged.
Tiritiri Matangi is located in the Hauraki Gulf, 45 minutes by boat from Auckland’s downtown wharf. Ferry bookings can be made at the ticket office located on the wharf or online. Advance bookings are recommended during the Summer months (December – February). Do check the schedule if you’re travelling in off-peak season as the ferry may not run every day.
Top Tip: If you have time, it’s possible to stay overnight on the island if you book in advance through DoC. This will give you the opportunity to experience the nocturnal kiwi that inhabit the island and allow you more time to explore the wonderful walking tracks around the island.