December 23, 2015: Auckland, New Zealand — About 20 miles northeast of Auckland, in the Hauraki Gulf, lies a one-square-mile island called Tiritiri Matangi. Its name means “wind-tossed” in Maori, but the place has lately become synonymous with bird conservation. This island is one of the world’s most successful hands-on conservation projects.
Once covered with native forest, Tiritiri was cleared and farmed in the early 1900s. Black-and-white photos from the 1970s show it as a grassy outcrop with just a few trees. Then New Zealand’s Department of Conservation took over, and volunteers planted 280,000 native trees on Tiritiri between 1984 and 1994. Rats were eradicated in the early 1990s. Native birds were reintroduced to the island and it now holds populations of some of the rarest birds in New Zealand, some of which are difficult to see anywhere else.
Best of all, the place was not closed off from the public. About 30,000 people now visit Tiritiri each year to see what humans and nature have wrought together. It’s a unique cross between wilderness and a zoo (more the former, but with shades of the latter) where people can enjoy the outdoors, and where birds can enjoy living in the wild without predators. Tiritiri is a refuge for humans and birds alike.
When Harry and I stepped off the ferry to Tiritiri Matangi this morning, we were greeted by North Island Saddlebacks, Tuis, Red-crowned Parakeets, and Whiteheads. After disinfecting and brushing our shoes to get rid of any biological pests, we spent the next several hours exploring trails on the island to find North Island Kokakos, Fernbirds, and a tiny bird called the Rifleman. Unlike some other places I have visited in New Zealand, the forest at Tiritiri was full of birdlife. I practically had to kick New Zealand Robins out of the path!
We were watching a North Island Kokako when a volunteer guide walked past. "What colors are its leg bands?" he asked. We determined that the bird had red and green bands on its left leg, and the volunteer looked at a document on his phone. "That's Chatters," he said. "We named him that because he chatters a lot to his mate, Terae." When a bird species declines to just 750 pairs, every individual counts.
Tiritiri Matangi Island is a remarkable success story of conservation. Small islands like Tiritiri may be the last refuge for some bird species, and the idea of restoring an island and populating it with endangered birds has been replicated in other parts of the world. It’s hard work and doesn’t always go according to plan (for instance, when some Tomtits were trapped near Auckland and taken to Tiritiri to start a new population, they flew back to the mainland instead of settling on the island), but, when you walk through the regenerated forest, you can imagine what New Zealand must have been like when it was ruled by birds.
New birds today: 6
Year list: 5949