Why Tiritiri Matangi Island in New Zealand is Perfect For Birdnerds
Tiritiri Matangi Island is a pest-free island not far from Auckland, which is a sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s rare birdlife. Read on to find out more about this unique thing to do in New Zealand.
Thanks to their millions of years of isolation from other continents, island countries like Australia and New Zealand are home to some pretty, let’s say unique looking animals (because you can’t look at the platypus for example and not be utterly baffled by evolution).
There’s no denying that settlement within these countries has been a blow against their delicate eco-systems.
The introduction of predators and invasive species, over-hunting and farming has affected many species of flora and fauna that are endemic to these countries.
In turn, they have either been pushed to extinction, or are critically endangered.
New Zealand in particular is fighting back – the government has pledged to make NZ Predator Free by 2050. The country has become a world leader in saving species from the brink of extinction.
Success stories include the saddleback/tīeke, long-tailed bat and particularly the Takahē, a flightless bird that was thought to be lost forever until a colony was found in the Murchison Mountains of the South Island.
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Tiritiri Matangi Island: A Haven For NZ’s Wildlife
One conservation act that has really helped make a difference is the introduction of predator-free islands.
These sanctuaries give New Zealand’s unique birdlife and reptiles a space to bounce back and hopefully flourish.
Scientists, rangers and volunteers work together to ensure these places remain a safe haven for NZ natives.
The presence of even one rat can wreak havoc upon the inhabitants of these islands.
In even better news, not all of these islands are closed to the public.
Tiritiri Matangi is located in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand, around 30km from Auckland and is considered an Open Sanctuary.
Budding conservationists, birdnerds and trampers are able to take a ferry out to the island for a day trip, to learn more about New Zealand’s birdlife and conservation efforts and see some of the country’s splendid flora and fauna flourishing in the wild.
So, you should definitely take the time to visit Tiritiri Matangi Island. Here’s what to expect if you do.
The History of Tiritiri Matangi Island
Tiri is a 200-hectare island, originally covered in forest.
However, Maori occupation and European settlement led to the felling of trees. The land is then covered with grass for farming – hardly any of the native flora remained.
This disruption causes much of the birdlife to leave and search for new homes, although a few plucky species stick around.
The land is farmed until the 1970s, when it becomes a recreational reserve.
A replanting program begins in 1984. This is done in the hope that the land would once again host a habitat in which native birds, reptiles and insect species can thrive.
As with most eco-systems, the plants and animal life on the island work in conjunction with each other. The planted pōhutukawa, taraire, kohekohe and pūriri (amongst other trees) propagate and have their seeds spread by the droppings of birds.
Life goes on and the forest continues to regenerate.
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A pest-free future
The volunteers, rangers and researchers work hard to keep Tiritiri Matangi Island predator-free.
There are traps for rats and stouts across the island. Visitors are required to brush down their shoes for seeds and check their bags for unwanted hitchhikers that may have climbed inside.
We are told that in recent times, a female rat has made its way onto the island, after stowing away on a ship.
It became a gigantic island-wide effort, with the culprit soon being caught before it could cause any long-lasting damage… such as giving birth to more vermin.
What happens when you get to Tiritiri Matangi Island?
After the relatively relaxing ferry journey, you will disembark at Tiri to begin your day of fun and frivolity there.
In booking ferry tickets (which I’ll explain in further detail later on) you have the option of paying a little bit extra for a guided tour. It costs around $10NZD more and is worth every cent.
Many of the guides have been volunteering on the island for years, some for decades.
They have a deep wealth of knowledge when it comes to Tiri and its inhabitants (whether they be birds, insects or plants) and are happy to answer any questions.
Plus every dollar spent on the island is funnelled back into its ongoing conservation.
If you’ve booked a guided tour, this will begin once you’ve stepped on the island.
We chose to take the longer and more arduous two hours tour. It is hugely interesting.
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After the tour, we arrive at the Visitor’s Centre and gift shop where we purchase a few bird-related things and have a cup of tea. As a sponsor, tea company Dilmah provide free teabags for guests of the island.
It was around lunchtime at this point and we are told we have to be back at the jetty at 3:15pm, lest we want the ferry to leave without us (not really).
Although there are extended tramping trails around the island, they’re best tackled at the start of the day.
We decide to take the less arduous Wattle Track back to the ferry.
We encounter many more birds along the way, as well as our guide John. He’s sitting in one of the many seats provided along the track, listening to the chorus of the island’s feathered inhabitants.
A world without birdsong would be a sad place indeed.
What birds will you see on the island?
There are quite a few birds to be found on Tiritiri Matangi, endemic and otherwise. You can find a full list of the island’s inhabitants here.
If the sight of new, unique birdlife makes you froth at the mouth, you won’t be disappointed on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Here are the native NZ birds I managed to see in the few hours I spent there.
The Tīeke or North Island Saddleback was extremely threatened when it was released into Tirtiri Matangi in 1984, but its population has bounced back. Around 6000 are estimated to be living across NZ, with 500-1000 on the island.
Tīeke is a wattlebird which doesn’t really fly, choosing instead to bound from branch to branch.
They can live epically long lives for a bird – the oldest recorded male on Tiritiri made it to 18 years of age before vanishing and the oldest female to 21 years.
It is considered to be one of NZ’s greatest success stories as far as conservation goes, with Tirtiri Matangi Island featuring it upon their official logo.
The Bellbird is a honeyeater found on the mainland as well as the island.
They’re known for their very distinctive bell-like song (have a listen to it here – I kinda think it almost sounds like shooting laserbeams).
The Korimako has long existed on Tiritiri Matangi and have a solid conservation status of not being threatened.
I was quite excited to spot a Red-crowned parakeet in the distance during my time on the island.
Although several hundred exist on Tiri, their population is threatened elsewhere thanks to feral cats, stouts and rats.
They’re rarely seen on either the North or South Islands of NZ. Rather, its the predator-free island reserves they now call home.
The Kākāriki is actually the first bird to be released on Tiri in 1974, starting the conservation project that exists there today.
The Hihi or Stitchbird is part of a long-running research program on Tiri, having been extinct on the mainland since 1885.
For almost 100 years they survived only on Little Barrier Island/Hauturu, before being transported to other predator-free islands, including Tiri in 1995.
There are around 188 found on Tiri, with the total population numbering around 3000.
The Tui is a member of the honeyeater family and can be found all over mainland NZ.
They have a distinctive birdsong – take a listen here.
The Tūī has survived across NZ due to its dominant nature – they’re territorial and defensive. They’ve always called Tiritiri Matangi home (being one of the stubborn birds that stuck around) and their numbers are only increasing with each passing year.
Propped up against others of its kind, the New Zealand pigeon looks massive – and no wonder, with it being the fifth largest pigeon in the world.
Unlike many of the other birds on this list, the Kererū wasn’t introduced to the island, as they frequently fly between it and the mainland.
They’re herbivores who as it turns out, are closely related to the fruit doves of Australia!
As far as I’m concerned, Fantails win the award for hands down sweetest little birds I saw in NZ.
No threats to these cuties – they’re found in abundance across the country.
Another close contender for cutest bird of NZ award is the North Island robin.
They’re said to be quite bold and fearless, which I can certainly agree with. On our walk we encountered one plucky little fellow who landed right near us and sang us a song.
Although Toutouwai closely resemble the European robin, this resemblance is only skin deep – they’ve got stronger ties to the thrush family.
The Takahē was thought to be extinct until a population was discovered in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948.
They were doing somewhat okay there, until the introduced stout made an appearance.
Takahē are flightless, making them susceptible to ground-based predators and the population in Fiordland has been severely affected, with only 130 estimated to be surviving in that region.
So, an extremely rare bird indeed. 4 pairs of Takahē call Tiritiri Matangi Island home and we were lucky enough to see two of them moving through dense bushland.
I don’t have a photo of them, but I took quite a few mental snaps. It was a fantastic moment that was worth staying present for.
The Oystercatcher was the only seabird we saw properly during our time on Tiri (there were some flying around the rocks when the boat docked, but they were too far away to see properly).
These status of these birds is “recovering” and a population of around 5000 exists countrywide. They get their name due to their love of oysters.
Any seafood lover would agree the Torea has good taste.
The Oystercatchers we encountered were extremely nonplussed to see us, allowing us to get quite close to them, although they kept one beady eye on us – I assume ready to take off should they perceive us as a threat.
How to get to Tiritiri Matangi Island
The only way to get to Tirtiri Matangi Island is by ferry. Fullers provide a service which leaves at 9am each morning, departing the island at 3:30pm.
The ferry picks up passengers in Auckland City and Gulf Harbour. It’s $78NZD an adult for a round trip and takes around 75mins to get there from the city.
Book onto the ferry to Tiritiri in advance
Check your bags and your boots before you leave
The volunteers and scientists work hard to ensure that no pests make their way onto the island.
You can do your part by thoroughly cleaning your shoes before embarking the ferry, ensuring no rogue seeds are stuck in them.
Don’t forget to thoroughly check your pockets and bags for any other pests as well.
You’d be surprised at the stowaways you can find nestled between your own personal belongings!
Bring your own lunch
There are no cafés on Tiritiri Matangi (although there is a station featuring free tea and coffee), so you’ll need to bring your own packed food.
All food needs to be sealed – I brought pre-made sandwiches in a Tupperware container, although I saw people using zip-lock bags as well.
What to wear
Many parts of New Zealand experience four seasons in one day and Tiritiri Matangi Island is no exception.
You’ll have the opportunity to do a bit of walking around the island, so don a sturdy pair of hiking boots. Although, I wore runners and they fared fine.
Most people wear their tramping best, but active-wear will serve you in a pinch.
Having wet-weather gear on hand wouldn’t go astray either, we had intermittent rain whilst we were there.
Don’t forget to slip, slop and slap on some sunscreen in the warmer months, bring a hat and wear some sunnies. Make sure you bring a water bottle… and your camera!
If conservation is your jam and you’re a self-confessed birdnerd, you should visit Tiritiri Matangi Island. At the very least, it offers up an opportunity to experience what New Zealand might have looked like, before settlement took place.
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I SO want to visit NZ one day! Taking a guided bird watching tour like the one you described in this post would definitely be something I would do. Great photos and descriptions here. That colorful and large pigeon is eye-catching but the Toutouwai gets my vote for most cute. Always something new to learn from nature wherever you go.
It has so much to teach us!