This article was originally published by AA New Zealand for their Summer Directions magazine in 2015. I have added additional photographs to those which appeared originally.
On the moonlit quay we were split into groups of six to eight people and a guide was appointed for each group. We were led up a narrow path into the regenerated forest. Sometime around 5.45am we reached our destination in a dark, wooded area. In the gloom I could make out benches and chairs that had been laid out on one side of the track where we were invited to sit and wait. As people took their positions I was reminded of being in church: absolute silence and a reverential expectancy among a congregation dressed for the cold, carrying rucksacks and water bottles and lined up along makeshift pews under the night sky.
The inaugural Lost World Dawn Chorus tour to Tiritiri Matangi island was a chance to hear the results of one of the most extraordinary conservation success stories in the world: the repopulation by birds of a reforested island that was only 30 years ago a bare, virtually featureless lump of rock long since cleared of forest for farming, where feral plants and animals had ran amok. A young forest now flourishes on Tiri and it rings, loudly, bursting with songs which hint at how New Zealand once sounded.
A familiar call rang out, the crazy, melodious sing-song gurgling and squawking of a tui, followed by others from different directions somewhere in the darkness. New voices began to chime in the background, interspersed between the gaps in the tui calls, the North Island robin making itself known. Streaks of grey appeared in the sky and I was able to make out the other members of the expedition, intent, concentrating on the growing aural extravaganza taking place around us.
The volume increased dramatically with the arrival of two new players into the avian orchestra, the clear chiming call of bellbirds rising like a brass section into the mix, tempered by the beautiful, flute-like notes of some kokako directly overhead, a soft introduction of woodwind to a symphony the like of which I had never heard before.
Chirping sounds emerged, the whitehead, and then there was the stitchbird (hihi), the saddleback (tieke), and finally the kakariki. I was entranced, forgetting how cold I had become, sitting still waiting for daylight to break. And the lighter it became the more intense the layers of sound: waves of warbling and chiming, squawks chirrups and tweets washing around us unseen in the canopy. People were holding out smartphones to record what was by now an unbroken wall of noise; perhaps, I thought, just a hint of what had greeted Joseph Banks from that mighty forest filled with birds in the Marlborough Sounds 200 years before.
After about an hour the dawn chorus began to wind down imperceptibly as the sky turned light blue, the volume lowering as players flew off to do what birds do on Tiri, which, as far as I could ascertain, was live an active, productive, exuberant life unconcerned by humans or the pests they had once introduced.
I broke away from the expedition and headed down a track that led me over the spine of the island to its east coast. I had the island pathways to myself, just me and the birds. And they were everywhere at this early hour: tuis diving and swooping, chasing each other through the branches of the juvenile forest; saddlebacks, their russet colours glowing in the low sunshine as they hopped from branch to branch.
On the Kawerau Track two feeding stations positioned within 50 metres of each other guarantee the area is as busy as Trafalgar Square with its pigeons – but the cacophony generated by the bellbirds and stitchbirds is enough to drown out a fleet of London buses.
At the visitor centre I sat down to talk to Mary-Ann Rowland, Tiri’s guiding manager responsible for organising the Lost World Tour, and asked her why she had put on this special expedition.
“I thought there’s not enough people who get a chance to see what this country could be like and what it used to be like.”
I told her it made me sad that this was the stage the country had found itself at: where we had to go to an offshore island to see what life should be like on the mainland.
“Absolutely, and this is partly why I wanted to do it, so that people could recognise that. One school that came out, the teachers had taken all the children into the bush beside their school and they’d sat there for 10 minutes in silence listening, and they hadn’t heard a thing. And then she brought them all out here and she made them do the same thing and asked the children to describe it. They called it happy bush and sad bush. That’s what it’s all about. People don’t know what they’ve lost.”
I asked if she had been nervous that the birds wouldn’t perform that morning.
“Of course I was!” she laughed.
On my early-morning exploration in some semi-open countryside I had found a takahe, a chicken-sized, blue flightless bird with a striking red beak, plodding through the long grass by the edge of the forest. I was face-to-face, almost, with a bird which once numbered in the millions but was thought to have been extinct until 1948 when a colony was discovered in the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland. Thanks to breeding efforts on pest-free islands like Tiritiri Matangi, the takahe’s immediate future is assured, even if they do remain critically endangered. It was a thrilling moment that summed up the magic of what has been achieved on what is now a beautiful island: a dry, weed-filled, pest-ridden paddock no longer but a living, breathing, thriving ark cradling New Zealand’s lost world.
Tiri’s east coast