Tiritiri Matangi: Little piece of bird heaven

By Cate Foster

Spring is the perfect time to enjoy the conservation success story that is Tiritiri Matangi Island, finds Cate Foster.

The endangered hihi (stitchbird) on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
The endangered hihi (stitchbird) on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

There's a whale breaching in the bay, Rangitoto Island on the horizon and tui squabbling in the kowhai around us, while the tall red sails of a former America's Cup boat round the headland below.

It seems like a quintessential New Zealand moment, and we're only an hour by boat from Auckland's CBD.

Tiritiri Matangi Island, or "looking in the wind" as the name translates loosely, is synonymous with conservation.

It is hard to imagine that only 30 years ago the idea of active reforestation of a degraded landscape was as controversial as it was unknown. The wisdom of the time was to remove grazing stock and allow the empty land to regenerate.

But, as John Craig and Neil Mitchell from the University of Auckland pointed out, this would take many lifetimes, and if we wanted our children to understand the need for conservation, we needed to have a working model sooner rather than later.

Eventually, the concept of Tiritiri Matangi as a scientific and nature reserve took shape, with millions of hours given by hundreds of volunteers to plant the hundreds of thousands of native trees that now cover the island. Pests were removed, and fragile species of birdlife introduced.

On a glorious day in early spring I find Tiri has come into its own.

I picked this time of year to come as I knew from a similarly timed visit to Eden Garden in Epsom how excited the tui become when the kowhai is in full bloom, and I wasn't let down. Before we even got off the boat the sound of birdsong was everywhere. So this is what it was like when the early settlers arrived, I mused. I'd read how journal entries from early missionaries commented on New Zealand's vociferous birdsong.

I thought I could even detect a bellbird, until Alison, my knowledgeable volunteer guide up the Kowhai Trail, reminded me how good tui are at mimicry.

We saw stitchbirds, or hihi, which poetically translates to "flash of sunshine", rifleman, (or titipounamu, "little piece of jade"), brown teal (pateke) and of course the takahe.

Unfortunately, Greg, the famous Mr Blue's successor, passed into bird heaven a few weeks ago at an advanced age, but a new takahe family now scuffed and scuttled at the foot of the lighthouse.

We ate our packed lunches in the much improved Visitors' Centre, carefully packed away every scrap of rubbish, and wandered off to do our own thing.

For me this meant a quiet walk on my own down the Kawerau track toward the beach and ferry at the foot of the hill.

Though I can never thank volunteers like Alison enough for their selfless time and devotion to the cause of educating visitors like myself, it was this walk that sticks in my mind. With no sound around me except birdsong I wandered and wondered, and felt closer to my fifth generation roots than ever before.

Sitting silently on a shady seat I had the pleasure of watching a pair of breeding takahe mosey past only metres away, engrossed in the business of being birds.

Back on the ferry I feasted on my glimpse of the whale, but as we unloaded at the dock at Gulf Harbour about 50 dolphins decided to put on a show just the other side of the sea wall.

It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

SHOP FOR A SONG

Short of ideas for Christmas pressies? Come to Tiri for the day, enjoy everything the island has to offer and buy your gifts at the (reasonably priced) gift shop.

If you spend more than $50 you get a free guided walk thrown in.

This fundraising initiative runs until December 23 and all profits go toward funding the conservation and education work on the island.

Getting there: Tiritiri Matangi is an open sanctuary and a scientific reserve so is subject to stringent bio-security measures.

Check-in is 30 minutes prior to departure to allow time for briefings and feet cleaning.

The ferry trip takes one hour from the CBD, or 15 minutes from Gulf Harbour. Boats leave Wednesday to Sunday, 9am from the CBD, 9.50am from Gulf Harbour.

Adults $66, children (aged 5-15) $35 from CBD; or $49 and $29 from Gulf Harbour.

See 360discovery.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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