Volunteering on Tiritiri Matangi Island

With our last week in New Zealand, we are volunteering on another pest-free Island called Tiritiri Matangi Island, or Tiri for short. This island has much more history as being a pest-free island for endangered birds, and is slightly larger than Motuora Island, where we volunteered a few weeks ago. It also sees quite a few more visitors.

Day 1:

We got to Pier 4 in Auckland early in the morning to collect our ticket for the ferry. The ferry is a large commercial ferry which could seat several hundred people – quite different from the little water taxi to Motuora Island. We had a quick biosecurity check – basically they want to make sure that you aren’t bringing over any animals, seeds, insects, etc. so the island can remain pest-free and not acquire any new invasive animals or plants.

The ride on the ferry was over an hour, and although the ferry was mostly empty, we did share it with quite a few other volunteers who come over to the island every Sunday in order to lead guided hikes. It seemed like there were more volunteers than tourists.

When we got to the island, we put our bags in a vehicle that would transport them to the bunk house, and we were given a guided walk by one of these volunteers.

The walk was wonderful. We saw more birds in just an hour or two on the island than we had in months of trekking. Some of the birds we saw included: Kokako (which sound AMAZING!!!), Saddleback, Stitchbird (Hihi), Tui, New Zealand Wood Pigeon (Kereru), Parakeets (Kakariki), Robins, Fantails, Bell Birds, Pukeko, and even a Kingfisher. I’m sure I forgot a few.

The most exciting for me was the Kokako, which we hadn’t yet seen. These are really amazing birds – quite large with blue wattles dangling next to their beaks. Like many birds in New Zealand, they are bad at flying because they have somewhat stumpy wings, and so they climb into trees and then glide down to the ground.

We got to the bunkhouse around lunch time, and got settled. There were tons of volunteers hanging around the kitchen eating lunch. It kind of seemed like this island was their club house. They shared their photos and gossiped about some of the local birds all of which have names. Here’s what the gossip might sound like: “Lucky got chased away from his former territory by Chad and he hasn’t been seen with his old lady Becky in a while.” (Sorry to those who know the birds personally, I couldn’t remember the exact names and events.)

We got a quick tour of some of the tasks we would be doing from the Ranger, Vonny. We would be cleaning out some troughs, which contain water for the birds to drink and bathe in, and pruning some of the flax and other bushes from some of the trails. That’s all we know about so far.

Then Vonny needed to see the ferry off, and so she gave us the green light to explore the island with the rest of our day.

We quickly packed up some food and our headlamps and headed right for the other end of the Island – not knowing how much time we would get on any other day, we figured we should try to hit the hardest to get to tracks first.

It took less time than I had imagined for us to reach the north end of the Island. One of the birds we haven’t yet seen on this island is the Takahe (we’ve seen a few in other bird sanctuaries). They are large, blue flightless rails – like a Pukeko (if you know what one of those is), only bigger and even less able to fly. We were hoping to see one in the wetlands at the end of the island, but they were nowhere to be seen. Hopefully the ranger will let us know where they hang out; apparently there are only 5 of them on this island (and only about 300 in the world).

Picture of a Pukeko

Picture of a Takahe

We brought our headlamps in hopes of seeing two nighttime birds: the Blue Penguin and the Kiwi. In the bunkhouse they had red cellophane that you could put over your flashlight so as not to spook night animals. On this island, they have Little Spotted Kiwis, which is a different species from the Brown Kiwis we saw at Motuora.

I didn’t have high hopes for seeing Blue Penguins because it’s not their nesting season, but we hung around the beach until after dusk just to see. We had familiarized ourselves with their calls, which are quite loud and sound slightly like someone snoring loudly crossed with a baby’s cry.

Darkness started to fall, and I felt like this was probably just a huge waste of time. As dusk turned to darkness, I decided we should walk over to the wharf, which was on the way back to our bunkhouse. My jaw practically dropped when suddenly, seemingly only feet away from us, we heard the loud snoring sound of one of these elusive penguins. Our headlamps were quite dim, and we couldn’t see anything, but we sat a while listening and heard several more over the course of a few minutes. We decided that we really needed to change the batteries in our headlamps, and we would come again the next day to the same spot and look a little harder.

I was quite happy with our little adventure scoping out the island, and I wanted to get back and cook some dinner before we became too exhausted. We made our way back to the bunkhouse, not trying in the slightest to be quiet, when we saw a big fat kiwi in the middle of the road in front of us. It didn’t seem too bothered by our presence, and we spent a minute watching it snuffling around, looking up at me as it slowly shuffled off. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t even finished being excited about how lucky we had just been when a second kiwi appeared in front of us! Again, it didn’t run, but rather slowly shuffled off. We wondered whether these kiwis were just more used to humans, or if their docile nature was because we were using the red cellophane, or perhaps they were just happier being out in a new moon. In any case, I already feel really ridiculously lucky.

Day 2:

I woke up around 6am. It could have been the dead of night by how dark it was. I decided to jump out of bed and get dressed so as to try to catch the “dawn chorus” that everyone has been talking about. This is the collective singing of all of the birds waking up to serenade each other at dawn, and I wanted front row seats.

I grabbed my headlamp and we headed down one of the trails in search of a good spot to sit and wait. We found somewhere suitable, but I soon really had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t feel like I could wait, and I ran down to the wharf to get to the toilet. Unfortunately, the wharf was further than I thought, and by the time I got there, dawn was practically breaking, and by the time we were walking back up the trail, the birds were awake. I kicked myself for not hitting the toilet before leaving, but I knew we had another 6 days to listen to the birds, so it wasn’t a huge loss.

Our working day started with cleaning out water baths for the birds. Every other day we are taking out the leaves and feathers, and every other day we throughly clean them and replace the water. Today we were only clearing out any debris. While we were clearing them out, we saw several Kokakos, which are one of my favorite bird to watch on this island. We watched one glide from the top of a tree info the middle of a nearby bush. They’re so elegant for being so bad at flying.

We caught up with Vonny back at the house, and she showed us how to clean the visitor’s center, which is open Wednesday through Sunday. We cleaned the windows, swept and mopped the floors.

After lunch John was given an induction on the John Deere ATV vehicle, which we were then allowed to use to get to the other side of the island more quickly.

There is a track on the other side of the island that needs to be widened. We started cutting back bushes and hacking away at flax leaves.

Before dusk we walked back on the last trail we needed to cover to have done all the trails on the Island. Now we can say we’ve covered the whole place.

We quickly scarfed down some food and ran down to the wharf just after dusk to try to find some penguins. New Zealand has quite a few varieties of penguins, but up here they have Little Blue Penguins. Near the wharf there were a few man made penguin nesting boxes that had little covers that you could lift and peer inside.

We waited a while to hear the one that we believed lived under the wharf, but when we didn’t hear anything, we decided to investigate the nesting boxes. The first two were empty, but when I opened the third one – which was the best disguised and closest to the beach – we saw two little penguins inside looking up at us. It was delightful, but we didn’t want to spook them, so we quickly put the cover back on their box.

I was quite happy with our find, but felt a bit like we had cheated since they were in the man-made boxes with a way to look inside. I decided to shine my headlamp back down towards the beach one more time, and to my surprise, there was another penguin on one of the rocks fumbling around looking for a way to jump in the water. We watched it until it jumped in and swam out of view. Now we felt like we really saw a penguin.

We walked back to our bunkhouse, and before long a kiwi ran in front of us on the road. I was practically expecting to see at least one along the road since we saw two here yesterday. I tried to take a video of it, but it was much too dark out, and the video wound up just being black.

It’s so nice to be able to see such awesome wildlife so reliably right outside our bunkhouse.

Day 3:

We got up before sunrise again, and I wanted to try to hear the dawn chorus, but this time John had to poop right before dawn. I waited for him outside and when he emerged, I figured we could still make a mad dash to a good spot on the Wattle Track. We made it there just as it was getting light, and I was surprised that the birds weren’t up and making a racket yet.

The dawn chorus is supposed to be best in the spring, and it’s now fall here, so I’m not sure how much different it is this time of year.

We sat in silence until the first note rang in the forest. It was a series of gentle notes that sounded almost like a xylophone. This beautiful melody continued as a few more chattery birds woke up to chime in. Soon we heard bellbirds and tuis, which sound somewhat alien in their call (seriously, if you don’t know what a tui sounds like, google it. I think they’ve got to be aliens trying to communicate with us through birds).

The dawn chorus was lovely, and I hope to hear it again before we leave.

Then we started with work for the day. We cleaned and changed the water in the bird baths, which took quite a bit longer than we had anticipated, and then a Department of Conservation boat arrived at the dock, and we he helped unload supplies including large gas canisters, huge bags of sugar (for feeding the birds), and a ton of wood. We piled these things in a cart to bring them down the pier, and then onto a vehicle to bring them up to the work shed.

After lunch we headed out to clear more of the trail that we had been assigned to widen.

By mid afternoon I was quite exhausted and we made our way back to the bunkhouse. We decided not to go out looking for wildlife after dark, opting to take it easy for a night and stay in.

Day 4:

We knew that today the ferry would be arriving, and so we needed to have the visitor’s center ready for visitors. We had cleaned out the inside earlier in the week, but there are many tables and chairs outside that needed to be wiped off (they get covered in leaves, dew and bird crap), and we were also given a leaf blower in order to clear leaves from the front and back of the visitor’s center. This all took surprisingly long.

Tuis at one of the bird feeders

As we saw the ferry pulling into the wharf, we decided to head for the other side of the island so that we wouldn’t be possessive of our bunkhouse or upset at the mess people were making in the visitor’s center that we had just cleaned out.

So, we headed for the track that we’ve been clearing, and made quite a bit of headway. Again, this work was exhausting, and a couple of hours later, we headed back to the side of the island with all the buildings.

There were people everywhere. The visitors center was full with a school group that was getting taught about the local birds. Attached to the visitor’s center is a small gift shop and we wandered in and bought a few small souvenirs. All these things are being run by volunteers that show up to the island with the ferry. When the ferry comes, it just brings people around 10am and then takes them off again at about 3pm. Just one ferry a day.

We went back to the bunkhouse for lunch, and saw that several people had moved in.

After lunch we headed out to clear some drains from several tracks, and wound up coming back to the bunkhouse around 5:30pm. We’re only supposed to work 5-6 hours a day, but it’s really easy to work more than that. I’m not at all complaining – I think I’d be bored if we didn’t have enough work to do, and we have quite a lot of control over our schedule.

We made dinner and met some of our bunk-mates. There is a researcher who is sharing a room with us named Jess, and I think she’ll be here until we leave.

Then there are two couples who are in another two rooms who are here just for one night. One of them is German, the other Swedish. The Swedish couple are biologists – and the man is a herpetologist. The man Mats was very keen to see a tuatara. Tuataras are an endemic order of reptiles (large group of reptiles found only) to New Zealand. Tiri is one of the few places to find these nocturnal reptiles in the wild. After talking to him and seeing his excitement we decided it would be fun to show him where we had seen a tuatara before.

We headed out after dark to find that the island was very active with penguins. We heard their calls as soon as we got down to the water. We were surprised to see them swimming in the water and watched as they stood on the beach recuperating from their long day at sea, standing there catching their breath. Mats had a great camera and took a lot of great shots of the penguins. We continued on to see a number of other penguins resting in the woods but no tuatara. We turned back in hopes of seeing some on the way back. No luck. The goal for the evening was clear: Mats was only on the island for one night and must see a tuatara!

We waited a few minutes to go back on the same track and looked at the collection of penguin photos Mats had a accumulated.

(Penguin photo credit: Mats Höggren)

Then we headed out on another journey down the track where we had seen the lizards previously. Even more penguins! This time we saw them even climbing steep slopes. One penguin was huddling right next to the track and I resisted the urge to pet it on the head. Another penguin was actually ON the track and we had to be careful not to trip over it. These penguins seem pretty uninterested in the fact that we were there.

Finally Mats caught a quick glimpse of a tuatara scuttling away from him, and we decided at that point to head up the hill back to the bunkhouse. On the way, we expected to see a kiwi but instead we saw a penguin well into the interior of the island. Weird. We didn’t get back until after 10pm, which was way past when we’ve been going to sleep.

Day 5

We slept in since we had stayed up late the night before, and woke up to thunder storms. We took our time getting ready for the day, since there was no point in going out in a storm.

It quickly passed though, and before long the sun was out. Today was a good day for clearing drains since the rain water would still be sitting in any clogged drains making it obvious. We walked around several of the tracks clearing leaves from drains before returning to the bunkhouse for lunch.

With the afternoon we finished clearing the track on the North End of the Island, and finished fairly quite early. Vonny was busy with some people that had come on the ferry, so we decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and have a little nap.

The Swedish couple emailed us a few more pictures from their morning: one of a tuatara they saw during daylight, and one of a Kokako (these are obviously taken with a nice camera and a big zoom!):

Photo credit: Mats Höggren

We also didn’t go out in the evening, but rather made dinner and listened to some podcasts before falling to sleep obscenely early.

Day 6:

We woke up early to listen to the dawn chorus for perhaps the last time while on this island. The birds started waking up a bit earlier than usual, and I’m guessing that’s because there were practically no clouds in the sky, so the sky lit up quite fast. As I listened to the chorus of birds waking up for dawn, I decided to make a point when we get back to the USA to do the same there. I’d just be curious to sit with the birds and listen to the morning songs back at home.

I think what makes the dawn chorus here so special is the fact that there is basically no such thing on mainland New Zealand. There are so many birds that have gone extinct or have become endangered that the forests of mainland New Zealand are almost like a ghost towns for birds. Keep in mind, birds were the primary native animals – the only mammals that existed here before man arrived were a few species of bats. So, when rats, mice, stoats, cats, dogs, etc. were introduced, the population of practically all the native birds when from millions, to, in many cases almost 0. It’s almost hard to imagine how full of life these forests used to be. But here at Tiritiri, you kind of get an idea.

After we got done with our regular bird bath cleaning duties, we went for a drive with Vonny to feed one of the pairs of Takahe on the island, and along the way, she pointed out another track that she wanted widened. The Takahe came running up when she shook her little container of food.

We also helped Vonny pick some seeds off a few native bushes that they are going use to propagate.

After lunch we headed out to clear the new track, and Vonny leant is a couple of her folding saws that weren’t dull under the condition that we return them to her cabin before we left. We got to work clearing back trees and branches and we were surprised when we finished the whole track by about 4:30 in the afternoon.

Vonny left the island on the 3pm ferry. Rangers typically work 10 days on, 4 days off.

When we got back to the bunkhouse, tons of people had moved in for the night. That’s because it’s Friday night. Tomorrow even more people will be coming to spend the night. I think we’ll perhaps want to leave the island when we see how many people come here for the weekend.

We decided to head out for a last night time walk, and headed down to the beach to see the penguins first. As usual, they were making a racket. In case I haven’t described their call before; it sounds like a cross between a crying baby and someone snoring.

We left the beach to head up a track towards the ridge to look for kiwis. As we headed up past the toilets near Hobbes beach, we saw something in the middle of the track not moving. “What the heck is that?” I asked to John. We walked up to it and realized that it was a penguin. It just stood there. “Don’t trip over the penguin!” I joked. We heard a bunch of other penguins calling off to our left and it parked up and waddled in that direction , tripping over a large clump of grass along the way.

Only a few yards further we heard a rustle and saw a tuatara heading for a culvert. It stopped and looked at us.

We continued up the track and onto the ridge track and along the cable track and all the way over to the lighthouse, and no kiwis. We didn’t feel the need to persist further since we had seen kiwis on previous nights, so we headed back to the bunkhouse to call it a night.

Day 7:

In the morning we intended on cleaning the water troughs early, but the work shed was locked. We spent some time wandering around the island. By the time we got back we were able to get into the workshop and got the supplies for cleaning the troughs. Walking the Wattle Track to clean some of the troughs, we stumbled upon a pair of kokakos and I got a really good look at them. They were in a branch right overhead. I think these are my favorite birds on this island.

After finishing our chores, we remembered that we needed to return the folding saws to Vonny, but again the workshop was locked! I guess the other ranger prefers to keep it locked, something we hadn’t anticipated when we made the promise to return the saws.

We spent a little bit of time trying to find the last couple of species that we hadn’t yet seen: a fern bird and a giant weta (I believe these are actually the largest insects in the world). We sat by a pond for half an hour and heard a fern bird but only got about a quarter second glimpse of it as it flew past.

Finally we got into the workshop and grabbed the saws and returned them to Vonny’s little house on the other side of the hill.

Then we went searching for the giant weta. We got a tip from one of the volunteer guides and went looking for a particular tree that one apparently lives on.

It took us a few minutes to locate which tree we thought it was, and I circled around it a few times before looking far enough up it. But when I did see it, I practically stumbled backwards in shock. The thing was beyond huge. It’s body was maybe two inches long and it’s legs were each maybe two to three additional inches long. So all in all, it was at least a foot long. Definitely bigger than my hand. It looked like a gigantic tarantula. We spent some time trying to get a picture of it, but it was probably 10 feet up the tree in bad lighting with leaves and branches in the way.

On the way back to the bunkhouse we spotted another giant weta tucked away in a flax plant, moving slowly down a leaf. There was a giant wasp’s nest in the way, but we got some pictures anyway. You’ll still have t google “giant weta” to see the scale of these animals.

We then only had time for a late lunch before catching the ferry back to Auckland.

volunteering on Tiritiri was one of the most fun and rewarding experiences we had in New Zealand. We really enjoyed working with Ranger Vonny and the Island was an amazing setting for a volunteer opportunity. I highly recommend that anyone with the time and energy come and volunteer with the Department of Conservation, especially on Tiritiri.

3 thoughts on “Volunteering on Tiritiri Matangi Island

  1. Pingback: Anthropolodgy

  2. Wow. I am so glad you pursued this and we would have never thought of it ourselves. What an incredible way to immerse yourselves into NZ culture & habitat!!

    We definitely caught the dawn chorus during our TA hike, as we went SOBO. I can remember being in the forest in our tent and enjoying it at 5AM close to solstice time. (I always like to equate the Tui to R2D2 LOL).

    I wish we were able to see/identify more birds while we were there. No kiwi sightings, but we did get to observe the yellow-eyed penguin & albatross while in Dunedin.

    You probably would like this app I just came across: Song Sleuth. A little late, but probably still fun to use this summer in all the different parks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You might have noticed we got really obsessed with the endangered birds of NZ especially the Kakapo. In researching these birds we explored the idea of finding them. As a result we found these amazing places that they are located. If we go back to NZ we definitely will be going back to Tiri and we might try to get to Little Barrier Island one of the locations of the critically endangered Adorable kakapo.


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