Gnarly old Greg, the oldest takahe on Tiritiri Matangi,
turned 18 last year, but the festivities were not as chirpy
as he might have liked.
For one thing, Greg's long-time mate, Cheesecake, had just
run off and had two chicks with a hunky newcomer called Te
Mingi, so he was feeling a bit lonely.
For another, the volunteer guides who show visitors round
Tiri (in return for a $5 donation) were not sharing the
birthday cake, because as much as he might enjoy human food
it isn't actually good for him.
And those killjoy volunteers aren't keen on the way the old
fellow has sought consolation by nicking food from unwary
picnickers or becoming affectionate towards the occasional
visitor wearing blue jeans - probably because they're about
the same colour as Cheesecake - and they've set up a special
roster of Greg monitors to try to stop him having fun ... or
getting into trouble, as the guides see it.
So it was no great surprise that when I bumped into Greg on
Tiri he was stomping out the door of the visitor centre with
a face like thunder.
We had just unpacked our lunch after a truly fantastic walk
through the bush of this wonderful island sanctuary and I had
a brief panic that he might jump up on to the table and pinch
one of my sausage rolls.
But, fortunately, Greg seemed to be thirsty rather than
hungry because he charged past our table and headed straight
for his paddling pool - the one right under the sign saying
"Do not feed the birds" - where he had a drink and a bit of a
That seemed to cheer him up because he posed agreeably enough
for a few young fans - understandably keen to get photos of a
bird once thought to be extinct and even now officially
endangered - then strolled off towards the old Tiri
lighthouse in the hope of finding someone with a spare ham
sandwich lying round.
The takahe are certainly one of the great attractions on Tiri
- after all, where else in the world can you have your lunch
stolen by a supposedly extinct bird? - but even with Greg on
patrol and the other takahe off raising their chicks there
was still plenty to see.
It's amazing to think that just 25 years ago this place was
mostly bare farmland and, now, thanks to the volunteers who
have planted more than 250,000 trees, it is covered in forest
and alive with birds, many of them, like Greg, rare or
As if to underline the point, as we sat munching our sausage
rolls a fine fat kereru perched on a treetop behind us,
several hihi (stitchbirds) and whiteheads flittered through
the leaves looking for insects and a chorus of bellbirds
provided background music.
It had been like that all day, really, with birds popping up
Our ferry was still pulling into the wharf at the end of the
80-minute cruise from Auckland (via Gulf Harbour) when we
spotted a kingfisher perched on a flax bush and a pied
oystercatcher nesting on the rocks.
And we had no sooner landed and been introduced to our
volunteer guide, Donald Snook, than he was pointing out a
whitehead nest in the wharf shed, a couple of kereru resting
in a nearby tree, a saddleback calling from just up the road
and what he called "the rare orange-crowned tui" - a tui with
its face covered with orange pollen - feeding greedily on the
As we wandered down the track from the wharf to Hobbs Beach
there were two more such rarities: orange-crowned saddlebacks
and bellbirds, all taking full advantage of the fact that the
flax were in full bloom.
Their refined nectar-sipping was in sharp contrast to those
of a small flock of kakariki who, their beaks not having
evolved to fit inside the flowers, simply ate the blossoms
There were even more birds on display when we came to a huge
old pohutukawa tree which was covered in crimson flowers.
Bellbirds, saddlebacks and kakariki were all feasting on the
nectar of the flowers and suddenly a swirl of wings announced
the arrival at the banquet of two kokako, identified by
Donald as Te Rae and Chatters.
They were an amazing spectacle, climbing round the tree on
their long legs, looking almost clownish but actually
amazingly sure-footed, their blue-grey plumage and bright
blue wattles standing out vividly against the red of the
flowers, their heads constantly disappearing as they tucked
into the nectar.
We watched, entranced, and even Donald, a Tiri veteran, was
"I've made over 300 trips to the island," he said, "but it's
the first time I've seen that.
When I've visited Tiri previously, the sugar-water feeding
stations dotted through the bush have been the best places to
see birds but this time they were deserted.
"Usually the feeding stations are the highlight," agreed
"But who wants Chelsea sugar when you can have pohutukawa
nectar?" Of course as soon as he said this a flighty hihi,
resplendent in its Taranaki colours of yellow, black and
white, popped down to the feeding station beside us for a
But Tiri hadn't finished with its surprises.
As we walked into one of the few remnants of the island's
original forest cover, I noticed bits of wood and bark
falling from high up in a tree alongside the path.
"That's strange," I said to Donald.
"That's what you'd expect from a kaka.
But you don't have kaka on Tiri, do you?"Donald didn't answer
and a few moments later a large brown parrot fluttered down,
landed on a branch and started enthusiastically tearing at
the bark with its powerful curved beak.
"I didn't mention it, because I don't like to disappoint
people," said Donald with a grin, "but there have been a
couple of kaka hanging around for the last two to three
We're hoping they might stay and nest."
It's surely the ultimate tribute to those who transformed
this island into a wildlife sanctuary that a bird that is
listed as nationally endangered, the North Island kaka,
should make its own way there for a holiday and maybe to
Further into the old bush, we watched three North Island
robins bouncing along the forest floor, spotted a couple more
kereru chilling out on high and applauded as several tui
engaged in a noisy battle for supremacy.
About the only thing I didn't see was the rifleman, New
Zealand's smallest bird, 31 of which were introduced from
Little Barrier last year.
They've apparently settled in well but, despite checking a
couple of their nesting boxes, we saw no sign of them.
"Ah well," said Donald.
"The ranger saw one in the workshop the other day inspecting
the tractor engine.
"Perhaps they prefer nesting on a John Deere to the nesting
boxes we built."
I thought of checking the tractor out but when we got to the
workshop the tractor shed was locked.
Instead, just as we got to the visitor centre there was one
final delight: a couple of neat brown quail.
Surely these couldn't be the New Zealand quail, thought to
have become extinct about 160 years ago?"No," said Donald.
"There was at one stage a hope that might be the case.
They did some DNA tests to check and found they're actually
Tasmania quail, probably brought here by one of the early
"But from what we know from the drawings of the New Zealand
quail, they are pretty much identical ... so these are the
next best thing."
It was worth a try.
If the extinct New Zealand quail were going to be found
anywhere it would have to be on Tiri, playing with grumpy
360-Discovery cruises visit several Hauraki Gulf islands
including Motuihe, Rangitoto and Tiritiri Matangi.
To find out more about the Tititiri Matangi project visit
Jim Eagles visited Tiritiri Matangi as a guest of
360-Discovery and the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi.