Last week I had the privilege of visiting Tiritiri Matangi. The weather was perfect – mild temperatures with only a light breeze. The sea was calm for the crossing and we spotted a tall ship in the gulf with its sails up. It felt for a moment as if we had stepped into the past and like those early explorers saw for the first time the island as it once was.
Tiritiri Matangi is a ‘must visit’ destination for all bird lovers and an important sanctuary for many of our endemic species. Originally covered in coastal forest and within a short paddling distance of the Whangaparaoa, Maori explorers discovered the island. By the time European explorers reached New Zealand they had settled, had cleared large areas of salt-resistant trees like puriri, mahoe, manuka and kanuka and created gardens. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, pioneer farmers living around Auckland leased the land to graze stock. Little remained of the coastal forest. Those early pioneers soon discovered that in summer there was insufficient water to support large numbers of sheep or cattle and farming proved uneconomic.
A prefabricated lighthouse was erected on the island in 1865 and is the oldest working lighthouse in New Zealand. It stands proudly at the highest point and the well maintained keeper’s houses are still used by rangers, visitors and visiting workers. In 1970 Tiritiri Matangi became part of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Reserve and from 1984 to 1994 volunteers worked to reforest the island. The next step was introducing birds back to the island and today many species flourish in the open sanctuary providing visitors with a rich opportunity to see endemic and rare birds and giving the birds a safe place to call home.
Regardless of the time of year there is something to see and every visit brings a new experience. Being spring many birds can be heard but most are not easily seen as they are busy nest building, sitting on eggs, feeding young or defending territories.
Unintentionally I timed my arrival just as a staff member was refilling the sugar water feeders near the shop. Talk about pecking order! I enjoyed watching the tūī chief trying to keep the sweet treat to himself. He couldn’t be everywhere at the same time so was mostly unsuccessful as other birds took their chances and I even saw a bellbird (korimako or makomako) take a sip or two while he was distracted.
Most of the tūī had a dusting of golden pollen on their foreheads so there was a nectar supply handy.
While I heard many birds including the takahē and the kōkako they kept out of sight. I spotted a male hihi (stitchbird) in full breeding plumage being chased by a korimako, saw an inquisitive robin (toutouwai) on the path, caught a flash of orange – a tīeke (saddleback) in the bush and in the safety of the forest a tuatara enjoying a patch of sunlight under a large tree. Down one of the tracks I caught a glimpse of two pūkeko foraging in the long grasses.
On the rocks, ignored by a nearby shag (kawau), three variable oystercatchers (tōrea pango) were circling each other all the while exchanging what sounded like loud insults. I wish, like Dr Doolittle, that I could have understood them. On the beach just above the high tide line a pair were nesting. I hope there are no king tides before their eggs hatch.