Bellbirds, four of them, feathers fluffed up, sit in a huddle in a wattle tree with winter yellow flowers, and they’re going for it, sounding each other out, shrieking more than singing. Their beaks are wide open, and I can see their tiny pointy tongues, making sounds far louder than their littleness should allow, and it’s not the usual laidback melodious bell.
Fantails lure us away from the battle of the bellbirds and take it upon themselves to escort us around Tiri.
Tiritiri Matangi, an island in Hauraki Gulf 30 kilometres north of Auckland, is designated a scientific reserve and bird sanctuary managed by DOC (Department of Conservation). There are no cages here and 21 varieties of land-based native birds fly freely, plus numerous seabird species, over and around 220 hectares of regenerating and replanted native bush.
The fantail escorts vary as we tramp around Tiri, with changing guard on the borders of their particular territories. They are hilariously cheeky, so close but never quite touching, flitting, fiddling, doing aeronautical stunts and tweeting to ensure we notice. One little fellow does especially brave and dangerous tricks – he only has one feather left in his fan, an indicator perhaps that in the past he took one risk too many.
A saddleback, a brown bird with a brunt orange saddle, hunts bugs by scratching dirt on the side of a bank. It’s holding on sideways like Spiderman, nipping, pecking, just a metre from us, completely fearless of gawping humans.
The stitchbirds, the males are easily recognisable by canary yellow under their wings, are so named because they build nests in the hollows of trees using between two and four hundred sticks, all neatly placed, as if stitched together. They’re nectar eaters and there is not quite enough natural nectar on the island so their diet is supplemented with sugar syrup from feeders whose entry holes exclude bigger birds. To find a stitchbird just find a feeder and wait for birds to come.
We watch white heads, robins and grey warblers, all tiny tweety, flitty birds, bobbing about, ducking and diving in a water trough, shaking themselves, preening, cleaning off their mites. Their little legs are not much wider than threads, too spindly to hold up feathered bodies, but they do.
Wood pigeons, the glamorous kereru, kings of the forest, often whir overhead and are seen snacking on the berries of puriri trees. A couple of these colourful creatures sit high in a tree and keep an eye on us when we sit on the grass to eat our sandwiches. They, too, seem to enjoy the view. The horizon on the bluest of winter sea is trimmed by bumpy stretches of land, Moehau on the Coromandel Peninsular, Great Barrier, cloud-capped Little Barrier, Kawau and other islands of the north Hauraki Gulf.
Distance has turned these far mountainous islands into flat soft grey bands that delineate sea from clear sky. The low winter sun turns vast slices of sea into shimmering silver and in the rippling glare pohutukawa are silhouetted; strong branches of tortured shapes and knobbly roots holding tight to rocky razor ridges. A container ship looks to be pulled by an invisible string across the picture, yachts in full sail beam-reach towards Great Barrier and near Tiri’s rocky shores blokes in boats bob about at anchor, lazy-Sunday fishing.
Pukekos, fire engine red legs, sturdy red wedge beaks and blue-black plumage, look like prehistoric birds left behind from another age. There are flocks of them grazing on open grassland but they are not brave and friendly like fantails; they hear us walking, their tails begin to flick, up down, up down, exposing their fluffy white bottoms then they stride off in a head-bobbing gait.
Takahe sometimes graze with pukekos; they are bigger, sturdier, shorter-legged and more green than blue, but are clearly close cousins to pukekos. They are less suspicious and canny than their cousins and we walk to within a meter or two of them. Their friendly nature and flightlessness has been their downfall and they are now an endangered species with only 243 left in New Zealand, 18 of which happily forage on Tiri’s grasses and fern rhizomes.
Tiri’s lighthouse, high on the southern end of the island, has been guiding ships through the Gulf since 1865. It’s fully automated, now, powered by solar panels and the DOC ranger lives in one of the original lighthouse cottages. Many Takahe hang-out around this area, grazing the lawn and the fields nearby, and watching these great green-blue birds, with scarlet bill and legs, strutting about in front of a bright white 20.5-meter lighthouse is a bizarre, beautiful and uniquely Tiri experience.
Wattle Track, at the south end of the island, should be renamed Cabbage Tree Track. In the massive replanting programme that began 20 years ago and was completed a decade later, this valley got more than its share of cabbage trees. Cabbage trees are so familiar we scarcely notice their Dr Seuss weirdness but when there are thousands of them, more or less the same height, closely sprinkled across a valley, with pompom-topped arms up-stretched, they are an extraordinary sight and I almost expect the cat in a hat to come big-striding, around a dark track bend.
The slanting afternoon sun lights the cabbage tree pompoms obliquely, the headlands, at the sea edge of the valley, beautifully frame Rangitoto, an ever-symmetrical almost perfect volcano. This strange round island-mountain is iconic for Aucklanders and from north south east or west, Rangitoto remains the same, the compass rose around which Auckland swings.
A tui, a fat fellow, is singing on a branch just above my head. He’s black with rainbow shimmers, like a dark oily puddle with petrol stains, and as he opens his beak wide, to project his tui song across the valley, I can see every feather of his white throat tuft as it bobs about in time to his tune.
Fantasy could hardly be stranger and never more beautiful. This is New Zealand and I love it.
Fact File.Getting there - 360 Discovery (formerly Kawau Kat Cruises) runs day trips to Tiritiri Matangi Wednesday through Sunday throughout the year. From 26 December to 13 January the boat goes every day. The vessel departs from Pier 3 Downtown Auckland at 9am and from Z Pier Gulf Harbour Marina at 9.50am, leaving the Island again at 3.30pm to arrive back at Gulf Harbour at 4pm and Auckland 4.50pm.
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