Dizzy With Birds

How thousands of volunteers transformed a degraded New Zealand island into a pulsing wildlife wonderland

05-01-2001 // Tui De Roy
National Wildlife Magazine Archive Image - Birds

THE FIRST HINT of dawn barely tints the summer sky when I slip out of the old bunkhouse on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Across the calm Hauraki Gulf, glittering night lights of New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, remind me that the hubbub of civilization is only 15 miles distant. But as I head down into the forested valley, I am at once enveloped in the most wondrous, soul-lifting wild bird chorus I have ever heard.

As if directed by an unseen conductor presiding over an island-wide orchestra, the island's entire population of native New Zealand songbirds erupts in full harmony. Fuzzy-tongued nectar lovers, ancient wattle birds and forest-floor insect eaters all vie with each other to greet the new day. Their ethereal rhythms rise and fall not unlike those of a classical violin concerto. It is sheer bird magic, made all the more incredible because 20 years ago it simply did not exist here on this tiny speck of land, a mere 550 acres known for short as Tiri.

The story of this little island stands out as an example of the miracles that can be accomplished when people join hands to achieve a common dream. Tiri is a living illustration of what New Zealand once was, long before humankind arrived, and what it could be again if this vision were expanded countrywide.

But for the moment, down in the bush-clad valley where twilight lingers, I close my eyes and immerse myself in the sea of sound, picturing each musician still unseen in the thickets. Apace with the brightening daylight, every one chimes in a few minutes after the last.

First there's the tui, a grackle-size bird with blue-black and purple hues, filamentous white feathers woven through its nape and a white, tufty throat pompon worn like a bow tie. It quivers as it sings. Triple notes ring out arrogantly, like three big drops of water dripping loudly into a quiet pool, interspersed with delicate twitters so high-pitched I can barely pick them up.

National Wildlife Magazine Archive Image - Birds

This energetic, ground-foraging bird is one of New Zealand's ancient lineages of endangered wattlebirds. Click here to hear its song. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy Audio courtesy of Ana and Norval Williamson of KMP Music (To hear the sound, you need RealPlayer" which can be downloaded for free from www.real.com )

Then comes the New Zealand robin, one of the least showy species on the island's bird list. Gray, chubby, long-legged and big-eyed, it spends most of its time on the forest floor. Its delectably sweet melody - clear and pure, urgent yet unstinting - goes on and on and on, not even pausing for breath, it seems.

But the bellbirds take the prize. Each bird's voice is but four limpid notes, delivered in slow, syncopated cadence, rising to a bell-like question mark. "Ping!-ping!-ping!-ping?" or "so-mi-so-do?" on the music scale. One hundred, two hundred birds perhaps, each following its own, unbroken steady rhythm: waves of music rising and falling, pulsating across the valley.

With the sunrise imminent, more new voices join in. Strident, assertive saddlebacks begin argumentative vocal duels, their staccato "Yak-yak-yak-yak" in ever longer and louder volleys. An energetic ground-foraging bird, charcoal black with a bright rusty "saddle" across its back and delicate pinkish-red fleshy flaps adorning the base of its stiletto beak, it is one of New Zealand's ancient lineages of endangered wattlebirds.

Its cousin, the stunning kokako, is slate gray with sky-blue wattles decorating a black-masked face. It now is also singing across the valley, its call so melodious, yet deep, that the species has an alternate name - organbird. The long notes waft gently through the canopy, haunting but also deeply mournful, as if expressing all of the troubles that have befallen New Zealand's bird life through the centuries.

Dizzy with sound, I walk slowly back up the track as the first golden sun rays sweep across the island and the decibels slowly fade. Just then, another bird voice rings out, loud and high-pitched this time, not melodious at all. It's a takahe, an extraordinary, huge flightless gallinule long believed to be extinct until rediscovered in a remote mountain range 50 years ago.

With the takahe's comes another voice, a woman's - high and clear, sounding anxious. "Aroha? Glencoe?" I find Ray and Barbara Walter, New Zealand Department of Conservation rangers and guardian angels of Tiritiri Matangi Scientific Reserve, tossing a few grains of poultry feed to Glencoe, a hulking, 6.5- pound pedestrian bird with deep blue and green feathers and a bright red, adzlike beak. Glencoe, like the other members of his species on the island, doesn't need the food, but he comes running to Barbara's voice (which he does for no one else). This small reward makes daily check-ups on the endangered bird easier.

National Wildlife Magazine Archive Image - Birds

This slate-gray bird with sky-blue wattles on a black-masked face has such a melodious song that some people call it the organbird. Click here to hear its song. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy Audio courtesy of Ana and Norval Williamson of KMP Music (To hear the sound, you need RealPlayer" which can be downloaded for free from www.real.com )

"Oh, Glencoe! You should be on your nest, sitting on Aroha's egg, you bad father! You don't know it, but we really need you to bring up that chick!" scolds Barbara. Clearly, to Ray and Barbara, caring for the rare and precious birds in their charge is a lot more than a job. With a smile and a wave, her husband revs up a four-wheeled motorbike, and they zoom off, his white beard flattened by the speed, to locate the 15 more takahe dispersed all over the island.

Later in the morning I catch up with Ray and Barbara again along the rugged east coast. All the takahe are accounted for now, so they're taking a look at the huge native pohutukawa trees. At this time of year, many of the smaller, honey-eating birds depend on the bumper nectar production of this species.

Ray has been on Tiri for 20 years, Barbara 15, and together they have nurtured, coaxed and cajoled the island from its moribund state back to a thriving, pulsing wildlife sanctuary. How could this be? "Not without the help of literally thousands of people, each of whom gave of their time, their sweat, resources and advice," says Ray, sweeping his arm wide. "That's what you see here. It's everybody working together." For the next two hours, enraptured, I listen to their story.

One hundred and fifty years ago the island had already been cleared of most of its native vegetation for cultivation and livestock grazing. In 1864, it saw the construction of a 68-foot-high lighthouse, which eventually became the most powerful light in the southern hemisphere, guiding ships into Auckland harbor to this day. For more than a hundred years, a succession of lighthouse keepers and their families grazed cattle and sheep on the island until it was reduced to a windswept, hard-packed, fire-scorched grassy knoll sticking out of the sea. By the 1940s, Tiri had only six percent of its original forest still clinging tenuously to a few gullies and cliff faces.

In 1971, when the grazing lease on Tiri expired, the government wisely decided to give nature a break and let the island's forest cover regenerate. Already, all over the country, there was growing concern over the drastic downward spiral of New Zealand's native bird species. After 80 million years of isolation, they were proving no match for modern, introduced mammals ranging from house cats to pigs, European stoats to Pacific rats. Yet while small, predator-free islands might present the best hope for safe bird havens, Tiri's situation did not look promising. A 1969 survey had turned up a dismal count of just 21 tuis and 24 bellbirds for the entire island.

National Wildlife Magazine Archive Image - Owl

After improvements to Tiritiri Matangi Island's habitat, this native forest owl returned to the island on its own. Click here to hear its song. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy Audio courtesy of Ana and Norval Williamson of KMP Music (To hear the sound, you need RealPlayer" which can be downloaded for free from www.real.com )

It was not long after that John Craig, a maverick professor of environmental management at Auckland University, began scheming. His attention was first drawn to this uninspiring little island by a rather fortuitous accident in 1974, involving the unintentional release of captive-bred, endangered red-crowned parakeets originally intended for a distant offshore island. With their boat sheltering behind Tiri from a nasty cyclone and the caged birds beginning to die, the scientists decided to let them go right there, sight unseen. To everyone's amazement, not only did some of the birds survive, but they even started to breed.

This gave Craig the idea that other rare birds could be reintroduced to Tiri. And since Tiri was already open to public access (unlike more intact, strictly off-limits offshore islands), what better place could there be to run an experiment he had in mind?

What Tiri needed, Craig argued, was a project in which every Joe on the street could take part if he wished. This would be a program where government guidance, scientific know-how and the sheer grunt power of the public could be harnessed jointly to a common goal: a campaign to replant trees all over the island. The public reward would be a feeling of active involvement in conservation, plus a guaranteed access to rare native bird life. Craig's bold plan was approved by the government and rolled into action in 1984.

Ray Walter had arrived on Tiri four years earlier. He was the last lighthouse keeper in the history of the island, a position soon to be made redundant by the full automation of the light. So he gladly accepted his first conservation posting, a part-time job for which he retrained as a nurseryman. The tree-planting program was to run for ten years with a view to re-establishing forest cover over 60 percent of the island.

Advertising through radio and newspapers, it drew volunteers by the boatload. Each Sunday, during the winter planting season, gangs 50 to 100 strong arrived armed with shovels for the day. Ray led the charge across the island, digging holes while the teams followed along behind gently depositing Tiri's future back into the ground at a rate of 25,000 trees a year.

But four years into the project, severe government cutbacks threatened to scuttle the whole scheme. Undaunted, a group of ardent volunteers got together under the leadership of Jim Battersby, a Presbyterian minister who opened his church doors to convene a conservation meeting, and placed $20 each into a hat. And so was born, in 1988, the non-profit membership organization Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi, Inc. "The notion to restore Tiri simply had reached critical mass, nothing could stop it now," recalls Mel Galbraith, a high school teacher who'd taken his class to Tiri a few years earlier.

The tree planting had been well underway when Barbara married Ray and came to live on the island, but she brought her own touch. "The volunteers were simply working too hard, toiling like slaves and leaving the island utterly exhausted - mission accomplished, but most likely never to return," she says. "So we started to call it a day an hour before the boat left, just to make sure people would be forced to have time off and enjoy what we started calling their island.'" From then on Ray and Barbara were never again short of volunteers: school children, nature clubs, walking clubs, Lions clubs, birding groups, senior-citizens groups, church groups, ad infinitum.

National Wildlife Magazine Archive Image - Birds

This grackle-size bird with blue-black and purple hues and a white, tufty throat pompon quivers as it sings. Click here to hear its song. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy Audio courtesy of Ana and Norval Williamson of KMP Music (To hear the sound, you need RealPlayer" which can be downloaded for free from www.real.com )

The momentum was so great the replanting scheme was completed a whole year ahead of schedule. Ray's blue eyes twinkle. "We planted 280,000 trees of 32 species in just nine years with all those volunteers," he says. The value of their freely given labor has been estimated at around half a million U.S. dollars.

Today the public keeps coming, 25,000 a year and counting, not so many of them to work now, but to reap the fruits of those early labors. And Ray and Barbara are there to meet every ferry load that reaches the pier and to educate school groups, explaining to them how special the island is and how it all came to be.

Getting involved and staying involved is what Tiri, now also called the People's Sanctuary, is all about. Mel Galbraith, who recently concluded a three-year term as the lastest Supporters chairman, smiles as he recalls one of his former students who came back as a young adult and exclaimed, "My, I planted that tree!"

The high point for Galbraith came when 26 of his high-school students at Glenfield College near Auckland were invited by the Department of Conservation to participate in the reintroduction of the highly endangered stitchbird, a boldly patterned little honey-eater. The kids drew up the release plan, designed new nesting boxes (a necessity in Tiri's young forest where tree cavities on which they depend have not yet developed) and helped capture, transport and release 37 birds in 1995. The stitchbird was the eighth of nine native bird species set free on Tiri since the auspicious freedom flight of the parakeets in 1974.

Other species were repatriated starting in 1984. That year, just as the tree planting was getting underway, an experimental flock of 24 released saddlebacks successfully colonized scrubland. Inconspicuous little communal insect eaters, aptly named whiteheads, were reintroduced next, in 1989. These were soon followed by three pairs of secretive, swamp-dwelling brown teal, reputed to be the world's fourth rarest duck, for which special ponds and small reservoirs had been constructed in several of the island's valleys. After that came takahes, highly endangered and the subject of intense breeding management, followed by New Zealand robins and little spotted kiwis�14;enigmatic, flightless nocturnal birds that sniff out their dinners on the forest floor with sensitive nostrils at the tips of their long beaks. The last were aristocratic kokakos. Their calls now join the soft cries of moreporks, native forest owls that have found their own ways un-assisted onto the island's roster of breeding birds, along with screaming petrels and mewing little blue penguins.

National Wildlife Magazine Archive Image - Birds

Since the tree-planting program on Tiritiri Matangi Island, the number of bellbirds on the island has flourished. Click here to hear its song. Photograph courtesy of Tui De Roy Audio courtesy of Ana and Norval Williamson of KMP Music (To hear the sound, you need RealPlayer" which can be downloaded for free from www.real.com )

But for John Craig, there's still a lot more to be done. There are fernbirds and tomtits that should also return. And tuataras, New Zealand's ancient lizards. And all the smaller night organisms, the insects, plus seabirds around the shore and Tiri's own marine reserve.

The summer sun on Tiri is slanting toward the west, but it's too early for Ray and Barbara to call it a day. For a moment they gaze silently over the pohutakawa forest bedecked in crimson flowers, and I notice they are holding hands�14;surreptitiously, like teenagers. The next instant they grab notebook and gear and head down into the forested valley to band the latest generation of baby saddlebacks. "In this little valley, and only here, the saddlebacks have invented a new call. Hear that? Sounds like an ambulance siren." There may be more than 500 saddlebacks on Tiri now, but Barbara still knows them like her own children. She is 67, Ray 64, but there's a bounce in their walks as they pursue their fervent mission.

Roving editor Tui De Roy and her partner Mark Jones have lived on New Zealand's South Island for the past eight years.

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