It took some time for her to take me seriously, but once I achieved that, our conversation was set on better rails. The agent at the Department of Conservation’s desk in downtown Auckland gave me some good advice on birdwatching around the city, and one info proved critical: one could stay overnight on Tiritiri Matangi. “Tiri” is an open sanctuary, an island free of introduced predators where trees have been replanted and rare birds introduced. Closely monitored, the place is open to visitors, and a ferry goes there every day, except on Mondays and Tuesday. That’s what pushed me to book a stay between Sunday and Wednesday: the promise of tranquility, with noone but a handful of guests in the vicinity.
That’s how, only a few days into my stay in New Zealand, I was leaving the city to spend a few days on a remote island.
The crossing yielded some news species already: White-fronted tern (Sterna striata) and Australasian gannet (Morus serrator) were maybe the most notable.
Once on the island, I was greeted by the songs of many birds I didn’t know. Luckily, I had booked a guided tour, so I was given a gentle introduction to New Zealand’s native wildlife while we slowly walked from the wharf to the lighthouse.
The Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi are the ones offering these guided tours, for a modest fee of 10NZD (6 euros). This organization, formed when it seemed government funding was going to be cut, manages the reserve jointly with the Department of Conservation. Among other missions, this non-profit organization, powered by many volunteers, has funded infrastructure and vehicles on the island, and maintains the visitor centre and the shop.
We were offered to choose between two routes, one longer than the other. Most people wanted to go on the longest, so I chose the other and was in a group with one guide, Donald, and a couple from Rotorua, Heather and Roger.
The first close observation came in the guise of a New Zealand bellbird (Anthornis melanura); it was singing in a kowhai tree overloaded with yellow flowers. It’s not a very impressive bird, but it’s still shinier than the pair of Brown teals (Anas chlorotis) we spotted in the pond nearby. However, the teals are members of one of the rarest duck species in the world (the fourth, according to Donald), so it was definitely not a sighting to dismiss.
Then we started our ascent through the forest. In 1970, Tiritiri Matangi (let’s call it “Tiri”, from now on) had suffered from years of human occupation and farming, and very few trees were left. The farming lease was not renewed, though, and the island became a nature reserve. Unfortunately, the resistant grass and the Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) present there prevented the forest from regrowing by itself; an ambitious replanting plan was devised by John Craig, lecturer from the Auckland Unversity, and Neil Mitchell, a botanist. Between 1984 and 1994, 280 000 trees were planted on the island, in a formidable collaborative effort that transformed the island.
The patch of forest we crossed was therefore rather recent, and trees remained low. Everywhere around, neverending chatter resounded. The prized bird, which we heard but never saw, was the North Island Kokako (Callaeas wilsoni), but we also got acquainted to the rare Stitchbird (Notiomystis cincta) and the massive New Zealand pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). I watched and learnt without shooting, for I knew I would have time later.
We parted ways around the lighthouse, where the visitor center and the bunkhouse where I would sleep also were. After my picnic, I put on the telelens, and thus began my quest.
The first bird in my line of sight intrigued me: was it the prized Takahe? Alas, it was “only” an Australasian swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus), a relative to the Western swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) one would seek in the South of France (n’est-ce pas Jérome?).
It roamed in the tall grass, not overly worried about my presence. That familiarity is characteristic of Tiri: the birds know they don’t need to fear the humans, and so they don’t.
I walked down to the sea, then along the shore, capturing images of Kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus), one of the two common gull species in Auckland. Tiri is a small island, but a hilly one, and when you walk up and down all day long, carrying your heavy gear at the ready for any bird that might pop up on your way, you get tired.
That said, after coming back to the ridge road, I was not tired enough for the big surprise that awaited there: at the crossroad, I met a pair of grazing South Island takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri).
This species is a survivor: pushed to the brink of extinction by predators introduced by humans, such as rats, mice and cats, it was thought extinct until a few individuals were discovered close to Te Anau, in the south of the South Island.
Then began a plan to save the Takahe. This big flightless rail was introduced to sanctuaries around New Zealand, often islands where pests had been removed first, like Tiri. That’s why one can find South Island Takahe in the north; the North Island takahe (Porphyrio mantelli) is extinct.
When I arrived to the lighthouse, hints of pink and orange colored the clouds. I went inside and settled into my house-for-a-few-days, and met Kate and Carol, two birders and photographers who would stay with me. Two young volunteers were in the house as well, while the ranger had her own building.
To be continued