A small island just off the east coast of Auckland is at the forefront of Aotearoa conservation efforts. Alice Webb-Liddall spent a night there.
“I’ve seen hundreds of kiwi,” says AJ. “But I’ve never had an encounter like that.”
The night tour operator at Wellington’s Zealandia wildlife sanctuary is almost exactly where you would expect him to be at 9.30pm: exploring with a red light torch on the paths of a nature reserve, though this one is a few hundred kilometres north of his usual kiwi-finding spot.
Crouched down on the grassy path in the centre of Auckland’s Tiritiri Matangi island, AJ, myself and our new friend Harry held our breath as the kiwi pukupuku, little spotted kiwi, crept through the undergrowth looking for worms. Cautious of scaring it off we had red light torches, or our phone lights covered with red cellophane, to lessen the effects of the light on the nocturnal wildlife we encountered. Stretching its head forward through the long grass, the little spotted kiwi moved toward me, coming within centimetres and sniffing at my knee before running back to his perch under a nearby kānuka tree.
Shaking out our legs as we stand up from where we’d been crouching for the past 5 minutes, AJ, Harry and I beam with the delight of kids on Easter morning. “I think that’s worthy of a hug,” says AJ, and the three of us share a giddy bear hug in the middle of the island’s Cable Track.
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Tiritiri Matangi is a tiny island in the Hauraki Gulf, north of the far more visited Waiheke Island, and about 40 times smaller. It is a favourite destination for school groups, families and overnight stayers wanting to catch a rare glimpse of New Zealand’s elusive national bird – as well as the hundreds of other species that call the island home, like tuatara, wētāpunga and kōkako.
For the overnighters, AJ, Harry and I included, the island provides the opportunity to not just stay in one of the most pristine and undisturbed landscapes in Aotearoa, but the safety in knowing the island is home to no pests or predators. The most dangerous thing there at any given time are the other lodge guests, of which there are 15, not including the Doc ranger who stays on the island in shifts of 10 days.
On the day I arrive, the sun is bright – a rare showcase of warmth early in the Auckland autumn. Doc ranger Talia Hochwimmer greets the ferryload of visitors at the Tiritiri Matangi wharf to give them a rundown of the island rules, and protocols should anyone have brought along an unwanted “friend” – by which she is referring to pests that could have come along for a free trip in some unknowing visitor’s bag.
Everything from mice and rats through to seeds, skinks and the Argentine ant, which was successfully eradicated from the island years ago, could cause devastation to the wildlife and native bush over here, so visitors are warned to keep an eye out for these freeloaders.
“There’s a lot of messaging trying to make people aware that this is a pest-free environment. That’s not only for people bringing bags with them that might have food and mice or rats in there as well, but it’s also about where they’ve been storing their boats if it’s been in the garage all winter, then making sure there aren’t rats or mice or that sort of thing stowing away,” says Hochwimmer.
The land on Tiritiri Matangi wasn’t always the native paradise it is now. Farmed throughout the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s when a community group was formed to replant the island and begin efforts to eradicate the unwanted species.
“Initially, the plan was that it would take 30 years to get the island to the replanting levels that were wanted, but the community really rallied around it and it ended up taking only 10 years.”
That community is now called the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi, and they can still be found out on the island every day that a ferry is scheduled – leading tours for groups of visitors, running the gift shop up by the lighthouse and helping to share the unique heritage of the sanctuary.
As we walk around the island, between saying hello to the dozens of visitors and the volunteer guides she’s got to know over the last three years, Hochwimmer points out the various bird calls that echo around us; from korimako to tūī, and the haunting wails of kōkakō.
She stops to check under certain areas of tree overhang and on branches to try and find a wētāpunga, knowing where they like to hang out, and points out the areas where seabirds and tuatara share living quarters. Finding these hidden wonders among the dense bush is impressive – and it’s a specific expertise that Hochwimmer isn’t sure even she has mastered yet.
“I’m not great at it, to be honest. But I did really notice that with weed management – before I started working here, I was doing plant control – and once you’ve been doing that for a while it’s amazing how you can kind of just see a wall of green and know that there’s something not quite right in there.”
But despite the details of the intricate bird calls and the humming of life that gathers around the hihi feeders during the day, Hochwimmer says the best way to see the island is by night. When the day visitors have packed up and left on the ferry, and the forest grows quiet of footsteps and school groups, a new kind of magic sweeps over Tiritiri Matangi.
It is drizzly when I decide to head out on foot with AJ and Harry – but the keen birdwatchers aren’t stopped by this. The prospect of seeing a kororā coming in from the sea after a long day hunting, an elusive kiwi or a tuatara is too great.
So we quietly set out, our steps already above 20,000 for the day, for another hour or two slowly pacing the tracks waiting for a sighting. We hear ruru call – AJ’s keen ear picks up that it is a territory-warning cry from our native owl. We see kawakawa caterpillars hanging from their silks for the night and hear kiwi screeching in the distance, an exciting sign that they are out foraging for food.
An hour later and our hunt slowly continues, though my shoes feel heavier than they did at the beginning of the day, and the various bird calls are becoming phantom in my head. We decide to head back to the hut, pleased with what we did manage to see, though sad at not ticking the kiwi pukupuku off our lists.
Not even 10 paces into our walk back, the men stop and whisper to me to walk back and join them. Scratching its way through the long grass to the side of the track is a male little spotted kiwi that quickly scurries away into the dense undergrowth.
We perch up on the path, knees wet in the grass and wait with held breath to see it return – and it does, our little friend back to scratch through the dirt where it has found a bounty of kai for the night.
It walks closer to us, sniffing at our knees. The entire encounter is minutes long – and it’s as close to a magical experience as I’ve ever come.
Just a short ride from Tāmaki Makaurau, Tiritiri Matangi is a mecca of wildlife, a glimpse into the Aotearoa of old. During the day, it’s a hub of tourism and passionate naturalists, but at night, the island enters a quiet meditation. A reminder of nature’s beauty and fragility, and the wonder of waiting.