Little Barrier Island
I’ve just been on a visit to Little Barrier Island north of Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf. Many of us Aucklanders know it as the very high island with rocky beaches and good fishing where you’re not allowed to land. Those with an environmental interest know it as the jewel in the crown of New Zealand birdlife conservation. And it goes broader than that, with a growing collection of rare insects, reptiles and mammals (the mammals being bats). After many years of eradication work, there are no rats, cats, elephants or any other introduced animals on the island. And this is what makes the island so special.
What I was particularly keen to see, not having been to the island for many years, is how its birdlife compares to Tawharanui Regional Park, where I spend a lot of time. This park sits on the end of a peninsula west of Little Barrier and is its nearest mainland reserve. The two places have a lot in common. The birdsong as you enter the bush in either place is almost deafening at times. The list of birds you can see is similar; I found thirty species in a day on the island and Tawharanui would have a few less of the natives but more introduced species. And that’s not counting seabirds, of which Little Barrier has greater variety and vastly greater numbers.
The kokako is the bird that really separates the two places for me, with around 400-600 now on the island. Their song is wonderful – strong, haunting notes – but they are also great to watch. They can sustain only a short distance of level flight but make up for this with their long powerful legs. On the ground they move like a small kangaroo with a very bouncy gait. I would call them flight-assisted hoppers rather than true birds of flight.
At night kiwis call outside the bunkhouse telling you you’re somewhere a little different, and the mewing and growling calls of blue penguins come in from the coast. Other uncommon birds call from the bush; saddleback, rifleman, robin, stitchbird …the list goes on.
From 1885 till 1980 the island held the only population of stitchbirds, after which some were transferred to a range of islands including Tiritiri Matangi 40km to the south where they can now be easily seen. Behind the calls of all these less common birds is the continuous background song of tui and bellbird.
Tuis and bellbirds also contribute hugely to the general volume of birdsong at Tawharanui, and here too they’re not alone. Saddlebacks chatter in the understory, whiteheads and all the usual small bush birds chip away; there are takahe and kiwi if you strike it lucky. But although the two places may be very similar, the dramatic landforms, greater botanical variety and abundance of birdlife puts Little Barrier just a little in front. Its only drawback? I can drive to Tawharanui.