words & images Claire Thomas
When I was a kid, my grandparents (both retired schoolteachers and fierce advocates for educational outings) used to take me and my sister to the local bird reserve to get us excited about twitching. Cocooned in our sensible and—no doubt, matching—waterproofs, we would trudge obediently behind them for what seemed like hours along woodland paths slick with decaying leaves. We reeked of wholesomeness. On a good day, we might see a few squirrels, a dopey pheasant and, if we were really lucky, maybe some badger droppings.
The highlight of the day would be reaching the observation hut—a somewhat misleading name given the rarity of any actual bird sightings—which was nothing more than a drafty, cobweb-ridden, wooden shack that might collapse if you sneezed too hard. Chilled to the bone, we would sit ‘keeping our eyes peeled’ on the pond (as instructed by granddad), nibbling on our KitKats until the binoculars finally would be passed our way for a closer look at where the Kingfisher had just landed...for all of a millisecond.
Fifteen years later, it was with naturally more than a hint of skepticism that I agreed to go on a trip to Tiritiri Matangi, a bird sanctuary and island located seventy five minutes away by boat from Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf. As the boat set sail and Auckland’s skyline dwarfed before my eyes, I wondered if maybe bird watching was like coffee, anchovies, and comfortable shoes—something that you just couldn’t appreciate until you were a little bit older.
Prior to the introduction of mammalian predators, such as the rat, the possum, and the weasel, by careless Europeans and Australians, the ecosystem of New Zealand had maintained a delicate balance and was a haven for a large variety of native birds. Because many of these birds were flightless and hadn’t evolved to evade predators, they were quickly snaffled up by the new greedy hunters.
Today, Tiritiri Matangi is kept meticulously predator-free, and the population of reintroduced native birds has been flourishing. The island's redevelopment was overseen largely by Ray Walter, Tiritiri’s last lighthouse keeper who, along with his wife Barbara, has spent decades living in isolation on the island. Countless others have contributed to making this habitat a success: passionate volunteers, generous donors, and scientists and wildlife experts whose legacy lives on through the birds.
When we shuffled off the boat, we were shepherded into little groups while our guide, Phil (whose moustache alone could have probably housed a small family of birds), enlightened us about the island. Tiritiri Matangi, he told us, had been continuously farmed for over a century and, as a result, stripped of 94% of its native bush. Since 1994, however, thanks to an army of green-fingered volunteers, the island had been since been replanted with over 300,000 trees.
We’d barely taken ten steps on the path before we spotted our first bird, and one of the rarest: a Takehe. There are only 266 of these bizarre-looking creatures left in the world. They are comically over-sized, with round, compact, wingless bodies and sturdy little legs that end with orange-colored feet like a chicken's. They, too, are completely flightless, but have stunning petrol-blue-green feathers, and—the crowning glory—very prominent and powerful red beaks that span the entire height of their heads. This particular one along our path was easy-breezy, just minding his own business, pecking here and there, and unaware of the potential danger posed by this group of humans who stood paces away snapping photos of him.
From there on, it became a bird-watching frenzy. My eyes darted from branch to branch trying to follow the seemingly endless movements and identify the sounds, shapes and colors: the beautiful melody of the olive-colored Bellbirds; the sleek black and chocolate-brown Saddlebacks that hopped along driftwood on the beach; the Tuis perching on low branches; the sudden flash of yellow from a Stitchback; and the great, big pigeon sitting high up in the canopy, so much more colorful and attractive than its drab European counterpart.
I asked “Moustache Phil” question after question, eagerly pointing out a family of partridges I’d spotted darting through the undergrowth, and taking note of the differences between the New Zealand robin and the UK robin (theirs has no red breast, but is much cuter). I avidly watched the flurry of activity at the feeding station where the birds came to take sips of sugar-water. These, I mused, were the descendants of the dinosaurs.