Sunday, February 26, 2012

New Zealand: Tiritiri Matangi

From the South Island Eileen and I flew to the North, to Auckland.  On March 20 our friend Eng Leong dropped me off at the ferry terminal for a day trip to the tiny island of Tiritiri Matangi, not far out of Auckland Harbour.

On my first trip to New Zealand in 1974, there wouldn't have been much reason for me to consider going to Tiritiri Matangi (instead I spent five wonderful days on Little Barrier Island, a much harder place to reach).

Tiritiri by then had lost almost all of its forest and was little more than the site of a lighthouse, abandoned farmland and an occasional picnic ground.  1974, though, was the year things began to change for the island.

Today, Tiritiri Matangi is almost completely covered with a replanted native forest, free from the introduced predators that plague conservation projects on the mainland.  It now holds restocked populations of a number of rare forest birds, including some that have been extinct on the main islands for years.

Of these the most remarkable may be the Stitchbird or Hihi (Notiomystis cincta).  At the time of my 1974 visit Stitchbirds were found only on Little Barrier, and seeing them required a stiff hike to middle elevations on the island. Stitchbirds have since been reintroduced to a number of offshore islands (and, unsuccessfully, to the mainland of North Island), and have done so well on Tiritiri Matangi that birds from the island are now being used to stock new introductions elsewhere.  These boxes, which came over with us on the ferry from Auckland, were specifically intended for such a transfer.

After our arrival and a brief orientation talk, I struck out along the beach towards the lower end of the forest trail.

A sprawling Pohutukawa or New Zealand Christmas Tree (Metrosideros excelsa) above the beach, its rich crimson flowers yet to open, may be one of the few remnants of the original tree flora of the island.

In the tangled growth above the beach I came across my first Tiritiri success story: a North Island Saddleback (Philesturnus rufasater).  Saddlebacks have been extinct on the mainland since the early 1900s, and until 1964 the North Island species survived only on Hen Island in Hauraki Gulf.  Today there are some 5000 birds on twelve offshore islands, including Tiritiri Matangi where they were first released in 1984.  There are around 600 of them on the island - over 10% of the world population.

From the coast I headed inland to the forest, decorated along its edge with the peculiar silhouettes of New Zealand Cabbage Trees (Cordyline australis).

A boardwalk led me into the deep shade forest proper.

Once inside, beneath a heavy growth of tree ferns, it was hard to believe that the land where I was standing was barren of trees less than forty years ago.

I did not have to go far before I was greeted by my first North Island Robin (Petroica longipes), every bit as tame as its cousins (now considered a separate species, P. australis) in the South Island.  The robins on Tiritiri have been colour-banded for individual identificatiion... I know that this colourfully-ringed bird is not the same one that checked me out earlier.

Here is yet another robin, sporting its own combination of coloured rings.

Little groups of Saddlebacks also foraged on, or near, the forest floor.  They are extremely attractive, and active, birds, marked by the chestnut saddle that gives them their name.

The fleshy pink wattles hanging from the gape of this Saddleback mark it as one of the members of the endemic New Zealand wattlebird family (Callaeidae).  Both of the surviving North Island callaeids - the Saddleback and the Kokako (see below) - are safe today on Tiritiri Matangi.  Would that the third North Island member of the family, the amazing Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), were here too, but alas, it vanished in 1907.  Apparently the 19th century naturalist Walter Buller tried to get Huia introduced to another offshore island, Kapiti, but failed.

The old naturalists said that the volume of bird song in New Zealand forests could be deafening.  Many of those voices are silent now, but the Tuis (Prosthemadera novaseeelandiae) on Tiritiri Matangi can make the forest ring on their own.  Tuis still do well on the mainland, and needed no reintroduction to the island; they have, apparently, always been here.

The tui used to be called "parson bird";the white tufts of feathers at its throat recalled an old-style clerical collar.  Notice how the bird in the lower photograph has puffed out its body feathers - at display it shares with New Zealand's other honeyeater, the Bellbird (Anthornis melanura), as we shall see.

Bellbirds, like their larger cousins, reached Tiritiri Matangi on their own, but at least some have been colour-ringed by the naturalists working there.

Bellbirds seem to puiff themselves up even more than Tuis when they are singing or, it seems, just feeling aggressive - they look positively egg-bound.

This one is emerging from a feeder set up for them in the forest; perhaps his puffed feathers are a challenge to other birds seeking easy access to the food.

The Stitchbird or Hihi (Notiomystis cincta - it takes its English name from its call, which sounds vaguely like the word "stitch"), once thought to be a honeyeater (Meliphagidae) too, apparently has nothing to do with that large and widespread Australasian group.  What it is really related to is still a mystery, but for now it is placed in a family of its own, the Notiomystidae.  These are females or, perhaps, juvenile males.

Adult males are much more striking birds.  This one, like the birds above, is demonstrating their predilection for vertical perches in the forest understorey.

When I first came to New Zealand, the only stitchbirds in the world lived on the upper reaches of Little Barrier - my chief reason for wanting to spend time there in 1974.  Today they, like the Saddlebacks, have been introduced to a number of islands, and there are over a hundred of them on Tiritiri (where they are far easier to see than the birds I sweated after on Little Barrier).

It takes intense hands-on management to keep the Stitchbird populatiomn healthy here, including a supply of nest boxes (this one is a mock-up to give visitors the idea).

The Whitehead (Mohua albicilla), like its South Island counterpart the Brown Creeper, is an acrobatic New Zealand equivalent to the tits of the Northern Hemisphere, roaming through the forest in small, active flocks.

Whiteheads are not uncommon on the mainland, but having them on Tiritiri makes for insurance.  They were first brought here in 1989 and 1990.

The Kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), New Zealand's native pigeon, is a spectacular creature, beautifully coloured and substantially larger than the dumpy domestic pigeons in town.  Fortunately it is still easy to find on the mainland, but it is much more approachable on Tiritiri Matangi, in the absence of both alien predators and illegal hunters.

One of the birds I most wanted to see on Tiritiri - and not a guranteed sight - was the North Island Kokako (Callaeas wilsoni), the other North Island survivor of the Callaeidae (the South Island Kokako (C. cinerea) is almost certainly extinct, and though the South Island Saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) survives it does so only on a few offshore islands).  Kokakos actually look less like Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show than the upper photograph would suggest.

Kokakos still survive on the mainland, where I saw them in 1974, but only in areas where they are intensively managed.  They are fascinating birds, and not just because of their peculiar facial wattles and haunting song. 

For one thing, they are folivores - that is, leaf eaters, something few birds, and in particular few songbirds, are.  Leaves are low-energy foods, and folivores have to eat a lot of them - which means taking on extra weight, not a good idea for an aerodynamic flyer.  Perhaps as a result, Kokakos are relatively weak flyers, depending more on bounding leaps to carry them about the treetops.  Knowing this tidbit of information, I was particularly glad to photograph this one in the act.

I spent so long with the Kokakos that I only emerged from the forest in the afternoon - thus making me perhaps the only birder in recent history to visit Tiritiri Matangi and miss the resident Takahes (Porphyio hochstetteri), giant flightless gallinules that make a habit if begging from visitors during the lunch hour before retreating back into the shrubbery.  As I couldn't afford to miss the afternoon ferry back, I had to make do with these Brown Teal (Anas chlorotis).

Like many of the birds on Tiritiri, the Brown Teal has been pulled back from the edge of extinction. There are fewer than a thousand of them left, sustained by a programme of captive breeding and reintroductions.  There are only about thirty birds on Tiritiri Matangi.

After a brief sojourn with the teals, it was time for me to join the other day visitors for the ferry ride back to Auckland.  

Tiritiri Matangi soon retreated into the distance, but the birding for the day was not quite done.

Hauraki Gulf is a haven for seabirds, and large numbers of Fluttering Shearwaters (Puffinus gavia) flew past us on the return journey...

As did a few handsome Australian Gannets (Morus serrator) - a foretaste of te myriads of seabirds I would see in the Gulf when I found myself, to my surprise, back in New Zealand only nine months later.  That, though, is a story I will tell in time.

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