One of New Zealand’s biggest attractions is its many bird species. Although the different kinds of birds are normally found in different places around the country, if you are in Auckland you are in luck. Just about a 75 minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi is a paradise for birdwatchers where you can see many of the local bird species, including those that are endangered. The island is also a great place for families to enjoy strolls together on its many walking trails.
The ferry departs Auckland at 9 am and arrives at the island around 10 am, except Mondays. An adult return ticket costs approximately 48.00 USD or 70.00 NZD per adult and 27.42 USD or 40.00 NZD per child. If you want, a detailed map of the island’s walking tracks can be purchased on board for just 0.70 USD or 1.00 NZD. All the money from the sale will contribute to the upkeep of the island.
Once you are on the island, you will already hear the various bird songs all around you. After a quick briefing on the do’s and don’ts on the island by the staff of the Department of Conservation, you will be able to walk around the island at your leisure.
It should be noted that toilets are scarce on the island and they are only located close to the wharf and visitors’ centre.
The island has diverse landscapes, from fields to wetlands and forests to beaches. It is interesting to know that there are more areas on the island that are consisted of replanted native bushes compared to areas with original vegetation. Most of the walking trails do not require a high level of fitness, but if you plan to walk around the whole island you might want to make sure that you leave enough time to get back for the ferry departure at 3:30 pm.
Preparing for the trip
Tiritiri Matangi is a scientific research island and is predator-free. All visitors are required to check their bags before boarding the ferry for any small pests, especially for ants and rats. Any open bags, such as totes or shopping bags, or bags with no zip closures, are not allowed on the island as pests could easily hitch a ride in those bags. To discourage any foreign animals as well as residence birds from feeding on human food, anything brought onto the island must be in properly sealed Tupperware containers. Visitors are asked not to bring food that easily creates crumbs.
Apart from the foreign animals, there is also a big effort to keep weeds and potential plant diseases off the island. Visitors are asked to have their shoes cleaned of mud, grass and seeds. Although you can rub your shoes against the brushes provided in front of the ferry, it is always better to clean your shoes beforehand. Some warm water and soap with a good brush should do the job.
The island’s trails and what to look out for
Tiritiri Matangi is home to both the more common bird species such as tuis and bellbirds as well as the rare Kokako and even Kiwis. Some species of birds can be found throughout the island while some prefer to hang out at specific locations.
The Wattle Track is a walking path next to the main dirt road that goes up to the visitor’s centre and the lighthouse. There is a small palm tree on the track where a ruru or Morepork, a small owl native to New Zealand and Tasmania, likes to roost during the day. The owl can be seen sleeping on a branch and as long as visitors are not noisy, it does not seem to mind being quietly observed.
Walk along the Hobbs Beach Track and you will spot some artificial housing for Little Blue Penguins. If the bird is looking after its egg or its young, you can spot the bird inside its home. Other birds prefer to roam around trees and bushy areas, such as the robins and tomtits. The rarer Kokakos and Stitchbirds are slowly recovering in number. They can sometimes be seen on tree branches. Stitchbirds especially can be seen at some nectar feeding stations. Kokakos are one of the birdwatchers’ favourites, with their distinct calls. They are slate gray in colour, with wattles on the sides of the beaks. The North Island variation that you can find on Tiritiri Matangi has beautiful blue wattles.
Lastly, there are the wetland and field areas. There are a number of ponds across the island where you can spot Brown Teal ducks, while the noisy pukekos can be found mainly along grassy tracks. However, there is a rare bird that roams the grassy fields: the takahe. Similar to the pukekos in colour and appearance but somewhat stouter, unlike its cousin, takahes are flightless. Thought to be extinct, the birds were rediscovered in 1948, although its population in the wild is around 200 individuals. You might spot them in some of the grassy areas on Tiritiri Matangi but surprisingly, it seems that their favourite hangout is in the grassy field by the lighthouse next to the visitor’s centre.
Most visitors, especially families and school groups, tend to stay on the tracks closer to the visitors’ centre, so if you are keen to photograph birds with little or no disruption or have quiet walks, it is a good idea to walk the Ridge Road path towards the north end of the island or the eastern side of the island.
You can choose to walk around by yourself, but guided walks are also available by volunteers working on the island. The price for the guided walk is 6.85 USD or 10.00 NZD per adult or 1.71 USD or 2.50 NZD per child.
Accommodation on the island
Should you want to stay overnight, you can book a bed via the DoC’s webpage. Make sure that you book your arrival and departure according to the ferry schedules as the schedule may change according to the seasons. Upon arriving at the island, the DoC staff will ask you to follow them for brief instructions on staying overnight.
The bunkhouse has no private bedroom and you might have to share a bedroom with other guests. There is a special room reserved for researchers, so even if you book the whole house with friends, you may still be sharing the house with researchers.
The bunkhouse has all the basic amenities that you will need. The bedrooms are equipped with simple beds and mattresses and you are to bring your own sleeping bags. The kitchen is very well equipped with cooking utensils and a gas stove. There is also a food cupboard where previous visitors may leave seasonings and other dry condiments for the next visitors. A fridge is available for use where you can store your food in the small baskets provided.
It is very important to note that apart from recyclables such as cans, glass and plastic bottles, everything else that you bring, including rubbish, must leave the island with you. So, if you are planning to spend the night, make sure to bring some rubbish bags.
Connected to the kitchen is an open plan living room and dining table with books on New Zealand birds and bird identification charts.
Shared toilets and showers are located in the connected bungalow and can be accessed via the house’s front door. It is best if you bring eco-friendly washing products with you onto the island.
Night time walk
Before going out on a night walk, it is very important that you grab a piece of red cellophane wrap from the basket in the living area in the house. Rubber bands are provided. You must attach the red cellophane in front of your torches. White lights from torches will not only scare off the nocturnal birds, but it can also damage their eyesight, and red cellophane will help reduce the intensity of the lights, making it safer for the birds while helping you to spot them.
One of the reasons many people spend the night is to go out on night walks in the hopes of spotting the Little Spotted Kiwis, an endemic species of kiwi birds. The birds can be heard from their distinct shrill calls in the dark. They are quick on their feet, however, and since they are territorial, a single kiwi bird’s territory can cover quite a distance, meaning that the birds are spread out.
To listen to examples of Little Spotted Kiwi calls to help you find the bird, there is a link below with some kiwi call recordings.
A trick to spotting a kiwi at night might be to find a sitting spot in the dark and wait for the birds to come pass you or wait around for one to hopefully run across the walking path from one bush to the other.
Another bird that is fun to spot in the dark is the Little Blue Penguin or the fairy penguin. After spending all day at sea feeding on fish, those small hardy little birds will make the journey back home. Some birds chose to make their homes in the boxes provided by the DoC next to the sea but some others live in burrows inside the dense vegetation. You can catch some of them as they make their way up the steep hill from the sea.
The best way to spot them is to wait to the side at the top of one of the steep sloping paths. Once a bird is spotted, make sure to face the torch away from it or switch it off and wait for the bird to pass. If not, the penguin might become frightened and decide not to make its way home, further tiring the bird out.
It is a very endearing sight to watch the penguins while they make their way to their nests.
While you are busy looking for those two aforementioned birds, you are likely to hear Morepork calls around you. If you are lucky, you might spot one in flight.
Generally, kiwis start moving about around dusk while the Little Blue Penguins tend to make their way back to the island much later at night.
Leaving the bird paradise
On your departure day, the earlier you get up, the more time you will have to walk around the island, with hardly any other visitors around! You can enjoy a few last walks on your favourite tracks before the daily visitors arrive at 10 am. You can catch a ride back at 3:30 pm with the daily visitors. It is a good idea to be at the pier 15 minutes beforehand. Should you have any luggage, make sure to put it out in front of the house by the shoe rack and the DoC staff will bring it down to the wharf for you to collect before your departure.
Why you should visit
With easy access, Tiritiri Matangi is well worth a visit. It is not just a place for avid bird watchers but it is also family-friendly. Well-equipped with basic facilities and amenities, Tiritiri Matangi is somewhere you can enjoy the outdoor experience while still having the comfort of the bunkhouse, as well as the plus side of not needing to have a high fitness level to enjoy the beautiful scenery the island has to offer. The island is extremely well-looked after and both the DoC staff and volunteers genuinely care about the island. If you are in Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi is not to be missed.
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