Tiritiri Matangi isn't just for the birds, as Elisabeth Easther discovers on a visit to the island's wildlife sanctuary
The week before our expedition to the island of Tiritiri Matangi had been a foul weathered thing - rain, wind, cold and all round unpleasantness. But what luck - on Sunday the wind died down, the skies cleared and our gang of intrepid explorers boarded the 360 Discovery Ferry. We were headed to the renowned island sanctuary in search of wildlife and for the children to become Kiwi Rangers. This fun new initiative launches on the island this weekend and sets children tasks and challenges. When they complete a set of challenges, they earn a young ranger's badge that they can treasure forever. Programmes like this are already operating in 10 South Island locations but Tiri is the only place you can do it in the North.
The voyage alone was enough to lighten our hearts. Taking a left at North Head, leaving Rangitoto in our wake, we made a sea-line for Gulf Harbour to pick up a few extra bods and 15 minutes later we disembarked at Tiri.
We were a crowd of outdoorsy sorts, ranging in age from about 1 to 80. Before hitting the bush, Dave the Ranger instructed us keep to the tracks, take all our rubbish off the island and, on no account were we to feed the birds, as that would modify their natural behaviour. One former islander, a takahe called Greg, was a terrible scrounger and also the world's roundest takahe, until he died. I'd hate to be responsible for something like that.
Guide Julie handed the kids their Kiwi Ranger booklets and off we headed. Mere minutes from the wharf, we peeked into the nesting boxes of little blue penguins. We had a good look at one scrumptious infant, and smelt him too, pungent little chap that he was. He looked up at us through his rock and perspex pod (nature needs a helping hand from time to time) and his little beak clacked in what I think was a smile, secure in the knowledge we meant him no harm. It made me come over all clucky.
And that was just the beginning of our outstanding avian encounter. Walking the lovingly maintained DoC tracks we saw, and heard, fantails, North Island robins, stitchbirds, kereru, saddlebacks, bellbirds, even a red crown parakeet, all of which kept the kids busy, ticking things off in their Ranger booklets.
Keeping to the track and trying not to overtake Julie, we identified trees, plants and birdcalls.
Some years earlier, Julie had visited Tiri to plant trees. Immediately she knew she wanted to spend more time on the island and now she's a dedicated Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi volunteer. Her expertise and patience, her pace and kindness were all perfectly pitched to our group. She had some pretty good advice to share, too. One of our favourite pearls of wisdom was: "If there's a bird above you, keep your lips sealed while looking up at it."
Teeming with rare and endangered birdlife, as well as lots of more pedestrian feathered friends, Tiri is a twitchers' paradise. Recent releases include robins and whiteheads (both 1989), kokako (1997) and stitchbirds (1995). Californian quail are everywhere, brought out, it's suspected, by the lighthouse keepers.
At one spot we sat for several minutes and just listened. We were spellbound. The adults could happily have stopped for days while the youngsters managed marvellously as long as they did, eyes closed, their other senses sharpening to the rousing cacophony. One sugar feeder played host to a party of at least 20 plump bellbirds hamming it up for the camera.
Being a day trip we didn't spy any kiwi although Julie told us about the specially trained dogs that conducted a recent census.
Using that canine intelligence, rangers estimate there are between 80 to 100 kiwi on the island.
In the 25 years Tiritiri Matangi has been an open sanctuary the trees have grown at an incredible pace, trying to catch up to the ancient pohutukawa on the Kawerau Track (some up to 1000 years old).
At the island's high point, the buildings and lighthouse add another dimension. There we saw at least 20 tui squabbling at a bird feeder, as common as pigeons in Trafalgar Square.
Also delightful were the troops of takahe roving about, like giant rainbow chickens.
I entertained a brief fantasy about applying for the position of lighthouse keeper, a romantic occupation if ever there was one; until I learned, less romantically, the light's now switched on in Wellington, by a computer.
Over lunch, Mary-Ann Rowland, the shop and guiding manager, checked our ranger books and gave the children their badges, of which they were rightly proud.
Home we sailed on a sparkling blue sea, our spirits soaring like birds. Lou Reed's Perfect Day was playing on the Walkman in my mind, as Auckland grew bigger by degrees.
Tiritiri Matangi, thank you so much for having us.
Kiwi Ranger is an imaginative booklet of family learning activities launched this Queen's Birthday Weekend.
Pick up a booklet when you reach Tiritiri.
With the ferry departing Auckland at 9am and taking 75 minutes to reach the island, you're there from 10.15am until 3.30pm, perfect timing for our gang.
And do bring some money because the gift shop is filled with beautiful things.
360 Discovery has a family special to Tiri this Queen's Birthday Weekend - one child travels free with each fare-paying adult. 360discovery.co.nz or ph 0800 360 3472 to book.
Tiritiri Matangi is Maori for "buffeted by the wind".