Volunteering on Motuora Island

While not too keen on all the road walking on the Te Araroa Trail in the North Island, we signed up to volunteer with the Department of Conservation. We got assigned two volunteer projects. The first is on the Island of Motuora, a small predator-free island in the Hauraki Gulf, north of Auckland. Pest-free means that there are no mice, rats, stoats, possums, etc. Here, rare and endangered birds can live without fear of these non-native bird killers. In another week and a half, we will be volunteering on another small Pest-free island called Tiritiri Matangi.

Day 1:

To get to the island, we took a small boat and had a wet landing on the island because there is no dock. That meant that the boat simply ran ashore and we jumped into the water, about thigh deep and dragged all our belongings to the beach while a few of us held on to the boat so that it wouldn’t get stuck in the sand (the tide was going out), nor would it float away while we were trying to unload. Once everyone and all the gear was unloaded, we all pushed the boat away from the shore and waved the water taxi away.

We spent some time exploring our new home- there was a large ranger’s house, and a “bach” which was a smaller house with four bunks, a small kitchen and bathroom.

We were supposed to live in the batch, but just after we settled in, the ranger, Dave, came over and informed us that the batch had actually been rented out during the time of our stay (a bit of a mistake on the part of the volunteer coordinator’s part), so he invited us to move into the ranger house.

Luckily, the ranger house was big enough for all of us. In terms of volunteers, it was just me and John and one other young man named James, a kiwi from Wellington.

In the ranger’s house, John and I got our own bedroom, as did James, so in fact this was an upgrade for us. After we settled in for the second time, Dave talked with us about some of the tasks we would be doing as volunteers on the island, but it was pouring with rain, so many of the tasks would have to wait for a better day.

Dave needed to check some artificial nests built for endangered petrels, as there were several young chicks that were either still in the nest, or had fledged. We followed him up and over the island to an area covered in buried wooden boxes where you could lift the lids off to look inside, and we checked the nests where the petrels had last been seen, but they were all empty. This was good news. Hopefully the birds will return after two years at sea and lay eggs here again.

After dinner, and after the sun had set, John and I headed out on a quest to find a kiwi. This island is used as a kiwi nursery of sorts – they take eggs from kiwis on mainland New Zealand, where they only have a 10% chance of survival, and raise them in the Auckland Zoo until they are about 400g. Once they are 400g, they are banded and brought to this island where they can live care-free until they are 1kg, at which point they can defend themselves against predators like stoats and rats.

Then, each year they come back to the island and capture 20 or so kiwis and bring them back to the area where they were laid as eggs. There is now a healthy population of kiwis on the island. Each year, when they capture a number of these birds to release on mainland, only one or two had bands on their legs. So, the local population of kiwis were reproducing on the island and they were mostly capturing birds that had grown up entirely on the island.

So now they haven’t released any more baby kiwis in some time because they kiwis here are doing so well. Kiwis are territorial and the island can support about 80 to 100 kiwis.

John and I headed out with our headlamps search of one. We weren’t sure of the right technique for finding one, so we just found a somewhat densely vegetated area, and stood there waiting. We could hear them calling, and we occasionally shined our light in the direction of the calls, but couldn’t see anything. We figured the light would scare them off, so we kept it mostly off, wondering when the right moment was to turn it on. We also wondered how much the kiwis would be bothered by noises we made by walking, so we tried to stay quite still. There was a ton of calling – some of which sounded like kiwis, some of which sounded like other birds, maybe pukekos, quails and other sea birds.

After an hour or two, we gave up and wandered back to the house.

Day 2:

In the morning, we were given the task of digging out a drain along one of the trails. This trail is the size of a road, and a tractor or mower or other small vehicle can be driven along it. There is no need for other vehicles on the island, as there are only the two mostly uninhabited houses plus a nursery on the one beach, and the rest of the island can be walked around in a couple of hours. There are several trails though, for accessing each side of the island.

We spent a few hours digging the ditch before we tired out and went back to the house for a cup of tea and some lunch.

In the afternoon, in order to vary our tasks, Dave showed us some weeding to be done, which we finished off in about an hour.

With the rest of the day Dave gave us a task that would allow us to investigate the island as well as get something done. We were to check tracking cards, which are placed in plastic tunnels with bait. These are monitored to ensure that the island remains pest-free. Basically, there is a piece of white cardboard with an ink pad in the middle and a small bit of bait (usually peanut-butter) is placed in the middle of the ink pad, so that anything that runs through leaves footprints that can be checked.

There were about 20 of these tracking tunnels around the island, and Dave gave us a map with their location and sent us off to explore.

We walked all the way around the island, checkin the tracking tunnels as we went. Most of them had tiny little prints from either skinks or geckos, and of course we were glad to see no other prints. Very rarely (maybe once a decade), a rat will somehow make it to one of these islands, and once they find it’s prints in the tracking tunnels there will be a massive hunt to find and kill it.

While walking around the island, we spent quite some time tide-pooling and checking out the cool rock formations on the beach, including an arch.

Again in the evening, John and I went out in search of kiwis. This time, we decided that we would listen for their calls and try to follow them around. Tonight, however, we didn’t hear nearly as many as we had the previous night, so we spent a lot of time waiting to hear one. We did finally hear a male and a female answering (they have very different calls), and we stood there waiting. Then, just in the light of the moon, we saw a kiwi come out of the forest onto the trail. I fumbled to turn my headlamp on, but the kiwi was fast. It bolted across the trail and into the dense bush before we got a good look at it. Then, it was nowhere to be seen.

We headed back to the house. We will be trying again tomorrow. I’m so glad we’re here for 5 days!

Day 3:

In the morning we got working on our ditch digging along the trail – which we thought we could knock out quite quickly, however it took us quite a bit longer than we had imagined, and in fact we didn’t finish before our lunch break.

After lunch, we helped Dave move and secure a large water tank on top of the hill, which was in a very muddy area, so that made it a bit more challenging.

We got back to the house fairly early and spent a little bit of time relaxing on the deck watching the sunset before making dinner and heading out on our third quest to find kiwis.

This time we decided to head to the northern side of the island where the forest is more mature and you can actually see through some of the undergrowth.

First we climbed up to the top of the hill and waited to see if we could hear the unmistakable kiwi call coming from a certain direction.

Before we even heard a kiwi calling, we heard something rustling in the dense grass. We turned on our headlamps and saw what I can only describe as a galloping kiwi. It looked like a chicken without wings trying to run on sponge cake. I was surprised by how quickly it got away from us. I tried walking on the grass, but it was dense and about hip deep, so I wasn’t much more graceful than the kiwi.

I wasn’t expecting to see one in the grass, so I decided to just keep my headlamp on while walking slowly and quietly towards the north side of the island.

Before I knew it there was another kiwi running away from us. I was hoping to get a closer look, but again, the kiwi was so dang fast.

John and I agreed that next time we wouldn’t try to move towards the kiwi when we heard one or saw one with the headlamp.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t long before another one appeared right in front of us on the trail. This time we froze and we had a few seconds before the kiwi became suspicious and ran off. Somehow our lights didn’t bother it too much.

Finally, we saw one more kiwi between the trees on the side of the trail. Again we had a few moments before it noticed us, but this time instead of running away, it ran head first into some grass, leaving it’s butt sticking out. I sat there staring at this kiwi’s butt for quite some time. It’s feathers were soft and layered. I wanted to reach out and pet it, but I knew better. I got a little closer, my eyes wide open, as probably my mouth was, and the kiwi realized its mistake and moved deeper in to the grass. We decided to leave it be and carry on.

On the way back, we saw the same kiwi again, and we half joked that we could probably lie down next to his grassy patch and he would probably walk straight over us.

Day 4:

We finally finished our ditch digging in the morning, along with some small gardening tasks around the ranger house.

Then, we had some extra time and decided to walk around the island to the one spot where you apparently cannot get around because there is a gut where the water came in a narrow channel into some rocks. Dave suggested that perhaps at low tide on a calm day it may be possible to either shimmy across the rock or swim. We ventured out, enjoying the tide pools, finding sea stars and strange sea slugs or perhaps they were nudibranks, we’re not at all sure, until we made it to that point. Unfortunately, the water on that side of the island seemed quite a bit rougher and the waves came crashing into gut sending water way up into the rocks. There was no way we were going to scramble across nor swim. We spent a few minutes mesmerized by the power of the waves before heading back.

We had some light work clearing leaves out of some drains and trying to make some standing pools of water drain into the outdoor shower drain before we called it a day and spent some time in the water trying to find an anchor that a boat had dropped in and lost the day before.

The sunset was beautiful and we enjoyed taking our time eating dinner, enjoying the evening and going off to bed early since we were completely satisfied with our luck with seeing kiwis the day before.

Day 5:

On the last day on the island, we spent some time cleaning the solar panels before packing up and cleaning out the ranger house and the tools we used during the week.

The boat picked us up after lunch. We watched the island get smaller and smaller on the horizon.

We got to mainland and James, the other volunteer, offered to give us a ride to Puhoi, a town close to the DOC office where we were brought back to once on mainland. We decided to get a ride to Puhoi because it was on the Te Araroa, just north of Auckland, and Martin had sent us a message that this is where he intended on getting to by that evening.

We were excited to start walking again in Northland, which hopefully will have some nice tracks and coastal walks, and we get to walk and sing songs with Martin again. It’ll be a fun last week on the Te Araroa Trail before we volunteer again with DOC (The Department of Conservation) at Tiritiri Manga Island.

Once in Puhoi we were dropped off next to the pub and found Martin at a table outside with a beer. We joined him and once darkness fell, we ventured over the bridge into the local park and found a place to pitch our tents.

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