We stopped for a few days in Auckland, New Zealand, to visit nieces and nephews, on our way to see our grandkids in Australia. Tiritiri Island was on my agenda.

As an isolated ecosystem, species have evolved in New Zealand almost independent of outside influences. It was essentially free of mammalarian predators, so flight was not a necessary protective measure and several species lost their ability to fly. This worked well until the Maori arrived. The Maori eradicated several species and greatly reduced many of the rest. Then the Europeans arrived and they were even more efficient than the Maori. Many more species disappeared.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation has been doing yeoman service, for a number of years now, to protect their remaining threatened endemics. They have completely cleared several islands of introduced animal species and are working on weeds, grasses and trees. On these islands they have reintroduced the remaining populations of threatened species. They pay particular attention to population density, range requirements, inbreeding and disease immunity or lack thereof. All birds are banded, with the bands used to identify, among other things, their home island or, for the rarer species, their family groups.

One such island is Tiritiri, 485 acres of former farm and bush land just 15 miles from Auckland. Access is tightly controlled with one ferry and only 150 persons per day, for about 4 hours total, allowed on the island. Reservations need to be made a week or two in advance. As we were only there a few days I was out of luck. Our niece’s husband, Toko, however, said there must be some way. He determined that the ferry made two stops; one in Auckland and one much nearer the island. He said, “Let’s drive up to Gulf Harbour (the second stop) and ‘go standby’ just as one might for an airplane.” Accordingly, Saturday morning we got up early and made the one hour drive to Gulf Harbour. We talked to the agent there and he agreed to put me on the boat if there was a cancellation. Sure enough, a few minutes after the ferry left Auckland, he called to us – there had been one cancellation. I got to go to Tiritiri Island!!!

Once at the island, we were given our choice of going off on our own or going with a volunteer guide up one of the tracks. We were then sub-divided into groups of about six each. I immediately regretted not being more discerning about which guide I drifted toward. As it turned out, my choice was brilliant. The lady had not only been guiding for five years, she was a scientist who assisted with many of the projects on the island and supervised staff doing several of the others. A walking knowledge machine.

A short distance up the trail, we came upon a water trough. Since northern New Zealand is experiencing a severe drought, all the water holes on the island have dried up. Birds rely on the many troughs around the island for water. They are supplied with water from a local well through a pipeline system. They have found from sad experience that importing water introduces a new set of germs to the system and can result in catastrophe. A few years ago, a group came upon some bees that were gathered around an almost dry water puddle. The tourists, trying to be helpful, emptied their water bottles on the ground. The bees drank some of the water and interacted with other bees on the island, apparently introducing a new bacteria into the system. Stitchbirds, a species with low resistance to most germs, and a bird that feeds on bees, was wiped out. They had to wait some four years for the bees to return to their original condition and the germs to be eliminated. New Stitchbirds were introduced from another island and are now making a comeback on Tiritiri, but the lesson has been well learned.

Since this trough was empty, the guide filled it and we stood back to watch. Within a minute, several Bellbirds arrived and started drinking. Soon a North Island Kokako arrived and took over the trough for a few minutes. When it left a Red-crowned Parakeet and a Pied Fantail settled on the edge of the trough and drank. Before they were finished, the trees, trough and posts were suddenly inundated with more than a dozen Tui. These are crow-sized birds which, in the shade of the forest, looked black except for a white-cotton throat tuft which reminded me of St. Bernard dogs in the Alps with an emergency soup barrel around their neck. I saw some later in the sunlight and they are actually, black, grey and brown but the tuft still looked like a white soup barrel. The walk took about 1 ½ hours, after which we were on our own. Fortunately, I ran into the guide a couple of times during the day so had most of my questions answered before I left the island.

The most interesting bird I saw was the Takahe, a very heavy-weight version of a rail. There are only 240 of the species alive but they should make a comeback because of the effort being exerted by the conservation staff and volunteers. Each male requires quite a large range so only eight are kept on Tititiri. This past year, four chicks were raised. They were collected and taken to another island to mature and, after a few years, breed with the residents there, thus reducing inbreeding.

Before leaving, I visited one of the nest boxes constructed for the small Blue Penguin. I was in luck! Right after the young fledge, the adults moult. For a short time after moulting, the new feathers do not shed water so the bird is land bound. They stay in their nest boxes or under rock piles until they can again go to sea. In this case they were in a nest box which was constructed so that the top could be removed and only thick glass separated me from the two birds inside. There was enough light, that I could see the little guys quite plainly, and they in turn took a good look at me. What a neat experience.

I got back to Auckland about 5:00 PM. My species count for the day was not great but I got over ten lifers and learned a lot about conservation and restoration.