Date posted: 24-Sep-2015
At our Annual General Meeting, held on Monday 21st September, a new chairperson and committee we..
Date posted: 07-May-2015
Anyone interested in New Zealand birds will be delighted to hear the latest edition of H..
Date posted: 27-Apr-2015
Those who enjoyed Caitlin Smith and Nigel Gavin's wonderful performance at this year's S..
Date posted: 25-Nov-2013
The latest issue of the New Zealand Journal of Ecology is dedicated entirely to Tiritiri..
Date posted: 09-Sep-2013
Watch out for coverage in the national media this week for a new campaign by 'Include a Charity ..
Date posted: 27-Jan-2013
It is that time of year again, when we are looking for entries to our photographic c..
Date posted: 03-Oct-2012
Many thanks to Pieter Huisman who made this short film of the wonderful Jazz concert hel..
Date posted: 15-Aug-2012
Sadly, Greg the Takahe died on Sunday 12th August. As many Island regulars will know, Greg had b..
Date posted: 03-Aug-2012
It's Kiwi survey time again on the Island. Here are some selected highlights from a report by Ma..
Date posted: 16-Mar-2012
Yet again we are running our almost famous photo competition on the island so please get your ca..
Pre1400AD - In the beginning a natural island
The land that became New Zealand began its drift away from the ancient continent of Gondwana over 60 million years ago, before the rise of mammals. The birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates of this new land evolved without mammalian predators, and many of its birds were fearless ground-dwellers.
Tiritiri Matangi Island was first isolated by the rising sea levels of 20,000 years ago, leaving a chunk of land three kilometres long and less than a kilometre wide, whose hard greywacke base resisted erosion by wind and sea, and whose soils supported a dense coastal forest.
Salt-resistant kohekohe, puriri, mahoe, manuka and kanuka, coprosma, ngaio, and smaller plants like flax all flourished here, and we can now glimpse what that original world was like. Birdsong resounded throughout the forest.
Forest birds flitted through the canopy. Petrels and shearwaters inhabited the forest floor, terns and gulls nested in the rocks, skinks basked, and geckoes, then as now, licked the nectar from pohutukawa and other trees, pollinating the flowers. The surrounding sea, even within living memory, darkened often with maelstroms of fish.
1400AD - Maori settlement
Around 800 years ago, Polynesian voyagers made the first landfall on Aotearoa. It was the world’s last large undiscovered landmass, and Maori prospered here. An archaeological excavation in 1997 near the wharf suggests Maori arrived on this island about six hundred years ago, and established campsites and small villages close to the sea.
Ngati Paoa Maori ousted the original Kawarau settlers and built the Papakura Pa at the northern end of the Island. Kawarau retook the Island around 1700 AD and established the Tiritiri Matangi Pa on a headland midway up the western coast. Both headland pa gave a wide surveillance of craft approaching from the Gulf or the mainland.
In 1821, Ngapuhi raiders from the north invaded the Kawarau, Ngati Paoa, and Ngati Whatua tribal territories. The Ngapuhi were armed with muskets, and the local tribes had only hand weapons to match the deadly fire. They fled the unequal battle, abandoning Tiritiri Matangi, other Gulf islands and much of the Tamaki Makau Rau isthmus.
The only traces of Maori habitation left on the Island now are a few kumara pits, middens, and the distinctive earthworks of the old pa.
The Maori settlers named the Island Tiritiri Matangi, meaning ‘buffeted by the wind’ or ‘wind blowing about’. They fished, hunted birds, burned off some of the bush, and planted gardens. The settlements here may have totalled around 100 people.
1840 - The lighthouse and signal station
Within months of signing the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, the Lieutenant Governor of the new British colony, William Hobson, chose the Tamaki Makau Rau isthmus as the site of his new colonial capital, Auckland. Hobson set aside a lighthouse reserve on Tiritiri Matangi Island that same year, but it was 1865 before the lighthouse itself, prefabricated in England and painted red, finally beamed its one-million-candlepower light across the Gulf.
That distinctive strobe became a part of Auckland’s night-time character. In the 1960s, former Auckland Mayor and philanthropist, Sir Ernest Davis paid to boost the light to 11 million candlepower. The Tiritiri Matangi light was then the brightest in the southern hemisphere, visible 80 kilometres out to sea and illuminating, at 15-second intervals, the bedroom walls of Auckland’s North Shore. Mariners in the Gulf complained of its effect on night vision, and in 1984, with shipboard navigational aids improved, it was reduced to 1.6 million candlepower, and automated. The island lighthouse is now the oldest working lighthouse in New Zealand.
The life was hard, and lighthouse families were isolated. Mothers home-schooled their children and dealt also with sickness or injury. In the 1880s a keeper’s young son fell over a cliff to his death.
Tiritiri Matangi was also a signal station, using flags by day and morse code by Aldiss lamp at night. Pilots based here met any vessel that needed guidance into the Waitemata Harbour. The lighthouse buildings, including keepers’ houses, workshops, three foghorns and the signal mast are still in good condition on the Island.
The last lighthouse keeper on Tiritiri Matangi, Ray Walter, arrived with his family in 1980. After the light was automated in the mid-1980s, Ray Walter stayed on to manage the restoration project, and was the DOC ranger on the Island until 2006. His wife Barbara was also employed by DOC, managing the shop, and organising guides and bunkhouse accommodation.
In the early days keepers watched over the light in two shifts; from dusk to midnight and midnight to dawn. Lighthouse families were largely self-sufficient, growing vegetables, raising hens, sheep and milking a house cow. A lighthouse service boat called every three months, and a draught horse then pulled supplies up from the wharf on a ‘konaki’ sled.
1940 - An island farm
Farming began on Tiritiri Matangi soon after 1840 on 200 hectares leased out by the Government. One of the first farmers was Thomas Duder who lived on the Island from 1860 to 1866. Johnny Hobbs and his son Jack leased Tiritiri Matangi from 1902 to 1971 and stocked the Island with over 600 sheep and shorthorn cattle. The Hobbs family lived on Whangaparaoa Peninsula and crossed to the farm by steamer, sailing boat and sometimes dinghy, to muster or shear sheep, watched by lighthouse children who sometimes secretly rode the farm horses. The farm lease was withdrawn in 1971, when Tiritiri Matangi became a Recreation Reserve in the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park. The 20 hectares of Lighthouse Reserve at the south end was also farmed by the keeper, who kept a few sheep through to 2005.
1940 - Wartime
During the Second World War (1939-45) the Island was part of the Auckland Harbour defences. The day after war broke out, 12 signalmen from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve landed on Tiritiri Matangi to identify all approaching vessels. The military then built the Port War Signal Station, near the lighthouse, linked to gun emplacements on Whangaparaoa, Rangitoto, North Head and Waiheke Island. In 1942, the signal station was shifted to the centre of the Island for better all-round visibility. Mines were also laid across the Tiritiri Matangi Channel and out to Rakino Island. The New Zealand Army controlled the mines, and during their stay renovated an old keeper’s house, and added a watch tower. Remnants of some of these buildings are in the paddocks south of the lighthouse.
Life was easy for the young servicemen on Tiritiri Matangi, though the signalmen were training to go on dangerous convoys to Europe.
1969 - The Island awaits restoration
Tiritiri Matangi Island became a Recreation Reserve in the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park in 1970, but the coastal forest was already gone, and few birds remained. The Island was a popular picnic spot for boaties who walked up to the lighthouse area, but aside from old cliffside pohutukawa, protected by decree of a far-sighted Crown Lands ranger in 1908, little of its primordial character survived.
In 1974, Dick Veitch, a protected-fauna officer with the Wildlife Service, got permission to release kakariki – red-crowned parakeets – on Tiritiri Matangi, and that release caught the attention of John Craig, then a junior lecturer in zoology at Auckland University.
He visited, enlisted botanist Neil Mitchell, and the two young academics arranged a scientific study of the Island by student teams. The students found themselves opposed by the lighthouse-keeping old guard for their alleged ‘hippie ways’ but their research suggested natural regeneration was unlikely. Every natural seedling on the Island was gnawed by kiore rats, and rank farmland grasses smothered growth.
Craig and Mitchell pioneered an unusual plan – to replant a forest. Attuned to a new mood of conservation, they made a further bold suggestion. Tiritiri Matangi should be a forested sanctuary made safe for endangered birds but open to the public too. Citizens of Auckland would be welcome to see, and to join, what Craig called “conservation in action”. That was how New Zealand’s first island restoration project began.
Craig and Mitchell's ideas were formalised in the Tiritiri Matangi Island Working Plan, prepared by the Department of Lands and Survey in 1982.
Before and After
Over ten years from 1984-94 thousands of volunteers planted 280,000 trees on Tiritiri Matangi Island. The project was initially funded by the World Wildlife Fund. Ray Walter, the Island’s last lighthouse keeper, became the project manager in 1984. He built a plant nursery and germinated seeds from Tiritiri Matangi’s own trees, and also from islands like Hauturu or Cuvier, or nearby headlands. Mike Cole, a landscape architect, planned the planting programme. Barbara Walter organised the planting teams.
The planting teams were known as ‘the spade brigade'. They dug the holes and tamped the seedlings into place. Forest and Bird groups, tramping clubs, church and family groups all came with their spades. The boat passage to the Island was often rough and winter planting parties were often swept by rain and wind, but the spade brigade was hardy. After any planting duty, the volunteers were free to explore and listen to the birdsong that increased year by year. It was conservation in action, and the project generated a huge loyalty. Soon there was a waiting list, and a limit on the number of trees each group could plant.
1988 - Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi
In the mid 1980s the Wildlife Service, which had managed Tiritiri Matangi, was merged into a new Government department called the Department of Conservation (DOC). Shortly after, as funding looked likely to be cut, Jim and Barbara Battersby formed the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi Inc (SoTM) in 1988 to raise funds for the island. The society funded new vehicles and equipment to support planting, then raised money for more expensive buildings like the workshop complex and the visitor centre, which was built on the site of the former plant nursery.
Tiritiri Matangi is still a responsibility of DOC, but now it is co-managed with the Supporters. Our work includes guiding, track maintenance, tree planting, bird research, fundraising, and managing the Visitor Centre and shop.
As planting ended and the Island’s fame spread, school visits and visitor numbers increased. Guiding started in the 1990s, and there are now some 180 volunteer guides. The fees for guiding, and income from the shop, contribute significantly to the Island’s funding.
SoTM is now one of the largest conservation groups in New Zealand, with over 1800 memberships. Supporters enjoy an array of activities throughout the year, and new members are always welcome. In recognition of its work, the organisation was awarded the Loder Cup in 1998, a prestigious conservation award, and in 2000 Tiritiri Matangi received the inaugural Auckland Regional Council Environmental Award.
In the past, Tiritiri Matangi Island’s lighthouse keepers were isolated and had to be self-sufficient. Now, as an open sanctuary, the Island again aims to be self-reliant. Water is collected from roofs and stored in large tanks. Bore water (with a solar-powered pump) is used for flushing the toilets. Food wastes are composted and sewage disposed of on the Island. The composting toilets at the wharf and Hobbs Beach have been operating trouble-free for many years. Tiritiri Matangi’s energy needs are increasing. Forty solar panels were installed in 2006, making the Island less reliant on fossil fuels, and the houses have rooftop solar water heaters.
1990s onwards - Conservation
As the planting programme neared completion, the emphasis shifted from habitat restoration to re-populating the Island with some of the species that would have been present in pre-farming times, and some that would not, but which needed a safe haven. In fact several translocations of birds took place while planting was still going on. The plans for enhancing and managing the Island's fauna, as well as protecting the renerating forest, were brought together in the second major plan for the Island: the Tiritiri Matangi Working Plan, issued in 1997 by the Department of Conservation.
In Tiritiri Matangi’s small world, endangered species are again beginning to prosper. Most of the translocated species - little spotted kiwi, takahe, kokako, hihi, brown teal, saddleback, kakariki, North Island robin, fernbird, whitehead, Duvaucel's gecko and tuatara - all appear to be doing well on the Island. There are signs that rifleman are also increasing, and shore skinks are at least holding their own. It is too early to gauge the success of the wetapunga translocation (which took place in 2010). Most of the Island's species are monitored regularly and some are managed in accordance with DOC national recovery plans.
As one example, the Takahe Recovery Team moves individual birds around to enhance breeding success. Some of the Island’s takahe were the offspring of one breeding pair, who then mated with closely related birds. Many of the takahe that hatched on Tiritiri Matangi have therefore been sent elsewhere - some to the wild Fiordland population, some to the breeding facility at Burwood and, most recently, some to the newly established population on Motutapu Island. Meanwhile, new birds are brought to Tiritiri from time to time to increase genetic diversity.
The Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi launched a new Biodiversity Plan for the Island in September 2013. This will help to shape the management and conservation of the Island's fauna and flora for the foreseeable future. To learn more about this plan, click here.
As the forest grows and the numbers of birds, reptiles, and invertebrates increase, Tiritiri Matangi will become still more richly diverse. More translocations are planned, including lizard species, seabirds, more invertebrates and possibly bats.
Tiritiri Matangi Island will continue to be a popular tourist destination in the future, and school visits are likely to increase. The future challenge for the Island’s guardians will be managing visitor numbers and safeguarding the magic of wandering amidst birdsong on forest paths.
Ray and Barbara Walter retired in 2006. As DOC rangers, they had overseen the Tiritiri Matangi project from its beginnings, and were integral to it, bringing love, care and vision to a startlingly original enterprise.
Photography Sally Green © (lighthouse and foghorn), Mike Pignéguy © (Te Aroha at Tiri wharf), Simon Fordham © (Jim Battersby)