Monday, June 18, 2007

Tiritiri Matangi: Once long ago...

Once upon a time (two and a half months ago), I didn't have a care in the world. I sat firmly in the two week long school break between the First and Second Terms of the year. I had plenty of time to enjoy the last of the warm autumn weather. This is a story of what I did with one such day.

Since coming to New Zealand I've discovered how my comfort levels and my knowledge of what's going on in my natural environment are inextricably linked. Maybe I've been spoiled gowing up in Montana, but I miss seeing deer and elk and squirrels and bears right on the edge of town. Even snakes and muskrats have a place in my nostalia centres at this point. Since New Zealand doesn't have any native mammals other than bats and sea lions, and there are no reptiles here, that means I had to acquaint myself with bird and insect life. The bugs are creepy and slimy and cool, and the only one I really needed to know about was the Whitetail spider. It's not deadly but can give you a nasty bite that is rumoured to turn your flesh rotten if not attended to properly. You can learn more about them here. We've found a few in our house here in Auckland so far, but we seem to have gotten rid of them by this point. That means that birds are much more interesting.

A girlfriend of mine, another recent transplant here from Missoula, lives in the Bay of Plenty. She volunteers at a bird sanctuary that skirts her property in the country side and we've started talking a bit about the various kinds of birds that we see and hear on a daily basis. By the end of summer we decided that we would like to spend a day on Tiritiri Matangi, an island bird sanctuary off shore just a bit north of Auckland. She came up the night before and we were out early the next morning to catch the ferry to the island. It turned out to be the perfect day.

To start with, our ferry was greeted at the sancuary by a small pod of bottle nosed dolphins. This was the first time I had seen dolphins in the wild. I thought about trying to get a picture of them playing in the ferry's wake. I couln't stop laughing at the 50 some-odd people who kept herding from one gunwale to the next as the dolphins swam back and forth under the boat, though, so no pictures. We had a nice side-to-side motion going from all of the hustling back and forth. Kids and adults alike were having a great time; even the struggling boatie (that's Kiwi for a person who drives a boat) was smiling as he somehow managed to pull the boat up to the dock without slamming into anything.

When we stumbled off the ferry we were greeted by Greg the Takahe. He's an old timer on the island who's gotten pretty used to the people who come to gawk at him and his fellow island dwellers. He stood quietly next to one of the Department of Conservation workers while she told us about the island and how we shouldn't bring mice there. His much younger mate, Cheesecake, hid demurely in the shrubs, waiting for him to finish. Evidently Greg's a bit of a cradle robber; Cheesecake was only about 2.5 years old, while he was a ripe old 15. All I can say is, way to go, Greg.

A little history is required here. I'll make it brief. The island was once owned by a family named Hobbs. They quickly cut down the vast majority of the trees to make way for pasture land, as was the agricultural practice of the day. In the early 1980's the island was bought by the Department of Conservation, which promptly recruited an army of volunteers to re-plant hundreds of new trees in an effort to establish a bird sanctuary. Islands are particularly suited for this purpose, as many native bird species here are endangered because of threats posed to habitat, food sources and nests by introduced pests like possums, rats, voles, skinks and domestic cats. Greg is a pretty good example of why these pests are so dangerous: he can't fly and doesn't have any evolutionary defenses mechanisms build up against mammals. It's a good thing in one sense, though. He made for a pretty convenient photo op...and tour guide.

As a new comer to the island I was impressed by how well the vegetation had grown since the '80s. For the most part trees were standing at and above the 12 ft level and the bird population has surpassed expectations because of the good cover. There were a few glimpses of what the island would have looked like had the deforestation not taken place. This Pohutukawa tree hovering over Hobbs Beach must be over 100 years old, or so our volunteer tour guide told us.

Tiritiri Matangi is a small island, so Sara and I were able to see basically all of it in one visit. This was our view from our picinic site. Just off to the left we could see the occasional kite surfer, but for the most part we gawked at the nearly two dozen bell birds hanging out in the tree above us. The racket was wonderful as we ate our sandwiches. Bell birds are little greenish-yellow guys about the size of if a large finch. Their call is warbly with a higher-pitched lilt to it. Sara wanted to see these most of all, so our trip was doing pretty well by the time we sat down for lunch. Bell birds are pretty hard to come by on the main islands and we considered that another good omen for our trip.

Because nothing's more boring than reading about birdwatching, here are a litany of photos that I took, along with a few notes about the birds that they show. I only took pictures of the coolest birds that you can't find flying around most places other than New Zealand. Alas, most of them didn't turn out. These are the creme of my pitiful crop. Enjoy!

Red crowned parakeets feeding and bathing near the track. They're the little dark-green spots at the centre of the photo.

A Pukeko. We have some of these hanging out in our neighbourhood, too. They are an Auckland/Northland icon. They look a bit like a malnourished goose and can only fly enough to get to the top of a short tree, where they like to scream at you for making them use their weak wings.

The view looking out on Fisherman's Bay.

A rare Brown Teal duck. There aren't many of these left on the planet, so I'm pretty happy to have had them practically shove my feet aside to get at whatever it was that I was standing on. Sorry for the blurry photo. Evidently they were pretty hungry when we stumbled onto them by their pond.

Note: Only one bird was harmed during the making of this blog post. As I was typing this a Blackbird with striking orange rims around its eyes and an orange beak decided to go Kamikaze on the glass surrounding my front porch. Upon hearing the thud I opened the door to find the poor little thing talons-up on the front stoop. Rest assured it will receive a poper burial under the Morning Glory tree in the yard. Please add "window glass" to the official list of threats to New Zealand bird species.