Auckland: Winging their way back

By Jenny Chamberlain

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Takahe in their quarantine enclosure on Tiritiri Matangi. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Takahe in their quarantine enclosure on Tiritiri Matangi. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

Birds were here first - millions of them. Before humans arrived the isthmus and offshore islands rang with bird song. Auckland's concrete, tarseal and grass were once a habitat of sub-tropical kauri forests,
shrublands, wetlands and rocky outcrops - an untouched bird paradise for 80 million years.

In the forests, tui, bellbirds, saddlebacks, kaka, parakeets, kokako, huia and piopio sang by day, while kiwi, kakapo, morepork and owlet-nightjars called at night. Giant moa - 170kg flightless herbivores
- browsed the trees and kiwi, weka and tiny flightless wrens searched the forest floor for insects.

Auckland's wetlands harboured takahe and fernbird, along with musk duck, flightless goose, bittern and crakes.

Lagoons and estuaries were alive with waders; lakes and ponds held ducks, grebes and shags.

Harbour coastlines and the shores of the Gulf's forested islands were havens for more species of seabird than any other country: large colonies of petrels - which shared burrows with tuatara - several species of shag, gulls, terns and herons, stilts, godwits and plovers.

Millions of years of isolation allowed this unrivalled diversity of species to evolve unmolested by mammals. The only predators were birds themselves: the giant eagle, the adzebill, goshawk, harrier
and falcon.

It took humans, and the predators they brought, just 800 years to decimate the ancient ecosystem.

Moa fell prey to the snares of early Polynesian voyagers; geese, adzebills and Haast's eagle were gone by 1400; the stiff-tailed duck, musk duck, Forbes' harrier, snipe, rail, New Zealand coot, long-billed wren, stout-legged wren and New Zealand raven followed swiftly to oblivion. Polynesians brought kuri and pacific rats; Europeans imported norway rats, pigs, cats, possums, ship rats, ferrets, stoats and weasels.

European settlers axed and burnt the forests and replaced birdland with farmland.

The laughing owl was extinct by 1914 and the huia by the mid-1920s. The last report of an endemic kokako calling in the Waitakere Ranges was in 1932.

The North Island lost 50 per cent of its native birds and these days surviving original populations cling to life in fragments of their former territories.

It was the creation of Tiritiri Matangi - Auckland's singing island sanctuary - that slowed the region's seemingly inexorable slide into avian oblivion.

In 1971 when the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park Board took over Tiri's 220 hectares of bare grass, small pockets of natural cover grew in a gully or two and a few bellbirds, tui and penguins clung on. Tiri was a microcosm of the bird-bereft mainland.

Enter John Craig, then a University of Auckland zoology lecturer who from 1975 took research students regularly to Tiri to study its few birds.

Following the island's redesignation in 1978 as a public access scientific reserve, Craig devised a scheme that sounded improbable
- to rapidly replant the island as an offshore haven for birdlife.

In the face of criticism - purists thought natural regeneration would do the job - a fast artificial reforestation began. Between 1984 and 1994, hundreds of mums, dads, kids and conservation volunteers planted more than 280,000 native trees on Tiri.

The forest burgeoned, pests were blitzed and today Tiri bursts with more than 84 species of bird, including kiwi, takahe, kokako, saddlebacks and stitchbirds, all alive and singing within sight of
the Sky Tower.

So many birds breed on Tiri they spill on to the mainland. Thanks to Tiri, Shakespeare Regional Park has good populations of kakariki, the little red-crowned parakeet previously absent for decades.

Tawharanui Open Sanctuary, north of Auckland, rings with Tiri's overspill bellbirds, also absent from the mainland for many decades.

Where Tiri led, other island schemes followed. Hauraki Gulf island eco-restorations include the Motuihe Island Restoration Project covering
the island's 179ha, 18 of which are coastal forest. Motuihe is pest-free and has kereru, tui and fantails, New Zealand dotterels,
oystercatchers, gulls and terns. In 2005, 20 saddlebacks were translocated there from Tiri.

Young, planted forest now covers most of Motuora Island's 80ha and the Motuora Restoration Society is spearheading an extensive species reintroduction plan.

Both Motutapu and Rangitoto islands are pest-free and, aided by volunteers, support healthy birdlife.

Waiheke Island's 373ha Whakanewha Regional Park opened in 2007 and has a wetland habitat supporting bittern, banded rail, spotless crake and
New Zealand dotterels.

A nationally significant population of endangered dotterels nest on a sandspit near the middle of the beach where they are protected by members of the Dotterel Guardian Charitable Trust. It members fence sand
dunes against dogs, poison and trap predators and encourage residents to bell cats.

Waiheke also has the privately owned and predator-free Fenwick Reserve where 100 bellbirds were released in May 2010.

Across Auckland's mainland and over its boundaries, eco-restoration projects are proliferating. Rivers, streams, bush pockets, wetlands, parks and reserves big and small have dedicated volunteer groups who band together at weekends to pull and fell weeds, plant natives and trap and poison the predators.

Much of this work is in Auckland's 26 regional parks, covering more than 40,000ha. ARC officers, community volunteers, the Department of Conservation, Landcare Research and Forest and Bird, have jointly established some of New Zealand's most successful conservation programmes.

Tawharanui Regional Park, a joint ARC and volunteer venture, is a 588ha mainland island model and New Zealand's first multipurpose open sanctuary.

At Tawharanui, farming, public recreation and conservation coexist behind a 2.5 km pest-proof fence which protects the tip of the peninsula from mammalian predators.

Previously banished birds reintroduced to the sanctuary include kakariki, whiteheads, robins, brown teal and North Island brown kiwi - the first known breeding kiwi on the Auckland mainland in six decades.

Bellbirds, kaka and grey-faced petrels have returned to Tawharanui and are breeding too.

Tawharanui is the blueprint for a new 555ha mainland sanctuary being created at Shakespear Regional Park on the Whangaparaoa peninsula. A 1.75 km predator-proof fence is due for completion in June 2011. It will let the public in but exclude 10 pest nasties: mice, ship rats, norway rats, weasels, stoats, ferrets, cats, possums, rabbits and hedghogs.

There is no fence around the Waitakere Ranges' standout ecorestoration
project Ark In the Park where 1100ha of largely pest-free forest are a haven of native flora and fauna including successfully re-introduced populations of whiteheads, North Island robins and stitchbirds.

Ark In The Park's mainland island status is achieved by continuous volunteer-run predator-control, based on a grid of bait stations spaced at 50 metre intervals on lines 100 metres apart. Rats, mice, possums and
mustelids are minimised allowing native birdlife to flourish.

The Ark is also protected by an 800ha buffer zone of private land where owners control pests too.

Six King Country kokako were released in the Ark in 2009 and in June 2010 two kokako from Tiri joined them.

At 20ha, Waiatarua Reserve in Meadowbank, is tiny by comparison but claims to be New Zealand's biggest urban wetland restoration project.

This huge, bird-rich stormwater treatment system - a network of drains,
weirs, bunds and sediment traps - is staunchly protected by the Waiatarua Protection Society which plants natives and controls pests.

Tahuna Torea Nature Reserve, Glendowie is a 25ha sandbank extending into the Tamaki Estuary from which dogs are banned and where shorebirds and seabirds abound. Forest and Bird volunteers conduct clean-ups, control weeds and maintain the tracks.

Forest and Bird's Tuff Crater project on the North Shore, Sustainable
Paremoremo, the Uruamo Ecological Society chaired by Tiri champion Mel Galbraith, which is establishing the Waitemata Coastal Sanctuary on Kauri Point in Birkenhead, locals caring for shorebirds at Karekare and
Omaha . . . the list goes on.

To Auckland natural environment adviser and former Tawharanui project manager Jo Ritchie, Auckland's conservation future lies in large multi-purpose sanctuaries where people can have a first-hand conservation experience while camping, swimming or surfing.

All the same, she points out, "It's never too small. It's about having stepping stones across the region. That's what [Forest and Bird's] Northwest Wildlink is all about - trying to create a natural living landscape. Every Aucklander can make a difference. Kaka move from Little Barrier, kereru fly round the region looking for food. They don't mind if the puriri they land on is fruiting in someone's backyard or in Ark In The Park. Planting natives in their backyard is as significant as being as an Ark volunteer."

Jenny Chamberlain is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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