By Sally Hibbard
A hot January morning saw a mixed bunch gathered at Gulf Harbour Marina, right at the end of Whangaparaoa Peninsula. United by sensible footwear and packed lunches we wait for the ferry to take us the mere 20 minutes to the promised island paradise of Tiritiri Matangi. We joined those already aboard from downtown Auckland for a pleasant trip across the water, with gannets skimming the waves alongside.
Our destination is an open sanctuary, meaning the public may visit by ferry or private boat. Comprising around 220ha, farmland has been replanted to reflect the original native flora, and mammalian predators eradicated. This ambitious project achieved success through the combined efforts of the Department of Conservation and thousands of volunteer hours, resulting in a restored habitat now able to support the introduction of numerous native species.
The welcome from a DoC ranger, beginning in te reo, is followed by a biosecurity briefing to ensure no one has inadvertently brought unwanted visitors to the island, a vital message in light of Tiri's precious residents.
Tracks up to the visitor centre are two or three kilometres depending on preference and are all easy to negotiate. Guided walks are $10, with proceeds going to the island and take around 90 minutes, more if it's a particularly good bird-spotting day.
Apart from a welcoming tui swooping overhead on arrival, the first bird sighting is a pāteke or brown teal duck, happily paddling about in a pond at the beginning of the track. A small boy solemnly identifies the bird for those nearby, adding a few interesting factoids for good measure.
Next up is my favourite of Tiri's birds, the saddleback. Resplendent in glossy black plumage with a deep rust cloak, one bird soon became four, with the added bonus of a chick being fed by a parent.
The joy and excitement from an ecstatic visitor seeing her very first saddleback encapsulates for me what an open sanctuary is all about. "Isn't this just the most amazing thing for tourists to see?" I gush to my friend.
The North Island robin is next to make an appearance and scores very highly on the cuteness scale, resembling chubby little grey balls standing up very straight on twig-like legs. These friendly and inquisitive birds made frequent appearances along the trails.
Something rather large moving about just off the track catches our attention next and a pair of kōkako casually appears, immediately transporting us back to New Zealand's ancient forests. This was followed by a kākāriki, a bright green parrot with a red cap. Whiteheads are in abundance, as are small brown quail, rushing importantly across the tracks, fuzzy little babies in tow. Tūī thrive on the island, along with fantails (piwakawaka) acting as unofficial guides throughout the day.
The Wattyl Track leads to a pleasant area around the visitor centre, where we have lunch. Complimentary tea and coffee are offered; however, no food is available on the island. Large packs are driven ahead to the information centre, allowing an unencumbered walk up. Visitors can lounge about for a few hours or set off along one of the other well-maintained tracks in pursuit of more bird life.
We opt for the latter and are rewarded with more bird sightings, including penguin in nest boxes and dotterels on the shoreline. Of particular note is a dotterel keeping vigil atop a nest that has been scooped up and moved into a box above high-tide level. How the parent birds are convinced to embrace this nest translocation points to a very high level of commitment from both birds and humans.
In addition to birds, Tiri is home to wetapunga, tuatara, and geckos. The non-feathered highlight had to be some very beautiful geckos, camouflaged against lichen-covered rocks. We rather smugly keep their location to ourselves as a large group would have sent them scurrying off.
On my list for the next visit, I hope to see rifleman, takahē, and kākā. An overnight stay may be in order with the possibility of kiwi and tuatara sightings, and a chance to experience the glorious dawn chorus.
On busy days it can be a little difficult to dodge your fellow humans and, for some reason, large groups of people getting on and off boats seem to do so with a rather titanic sense of urgency. Stopping on the wharf to admire a large stingray caused a multiple person pile-up and a gigantic camera lens being rammed into my back.
Tiri certainly achieves its goal of inspiring visitors through close-up encounters with New Zealand's stunning bird life and is a living example of good conservation work, thanks in no small part to the Supporters of Tiri volunteer group. The thriving populations of native species in their newly created predator-free home are a testament to what can be achieved when the community joins forces with DoC – creating the magic that is Tiri.
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