Alien chick in the bush: Diary of a Swiss girl who settled on Tiritiri Matangi for two months

Author: Maude VernetDate: December 2023

Imagine this – what if one day someone told you that you would get the opportunity to travel 18,456 km to a small island lost in the pacific, to uncover multiple bird species that most people on the planet, even those living nearby, have never seen? And what if you could get the opportunity to work with a specific species, the hihi – a cute little bird fiercely fighting extinction, to observe their behaviour daily, while gathering a massive amount of field experience? My response to this proposition was a resounding yes. A few weeks later, I found myself on a plane, ready to explore Tiritiri Matangi and delve into the world of hihi. And the least I could say is that Tiritiri Matangi did not disappoint. 

I remember my first few days on the island, following Emma (who is the official hihi herder on Tiritiri Matangi) around and trying to keep up with the shower of new information pouring onto my overheated brain. The list of discoveries was extensive, from the bunkhouse, the kitchen dance, and the occasional snoring roommate; to the recipe for sugar, the feeding of hihi and opportunistic korimako (under the watchful eyes of tūīs guarding the feeders) and the hungry impatient takahē following us to their feeder. I remember going off track for the first time, discovering the scientific paths leading to cryptic nest boxes hidden in the bushes and my first encounter with freshly hatched hihi chicks chirping in their boxes in the hopes of seeing their helicopter mums and occasionally attentive dads coming to feed them. What a blast. Emma made it look effortless, gracefully flipping sugar feeders and hovering over scientific paths, as if no puddle of mud, tree root, or overgrown bush held any secrets from her.

My experience was slightly less romantic in my first few weeks on site. My initial attempts at preparing sugar water could be summarised as bathing my whole body in sugar water, while enjoying the company of a colony of ants permanently residing rent-free in my wet shoes, saying “hi” to my cold feet every morning. Discovering the bushes of Tiritiri Matangi once Emma was off Island was also an interesting experience. I basically spent my first few weeks on a constant treasure hunt, following my instinct and constantly checking my maps in the hopes of finding a nest box at one point or another.

Today is my last full day on Tiritiri Matangi, I am about to go check nest boxes for the last time and have already said goodbye to quite a few people that I won’t see until I leave. Although it is a quite emotional day, I am happy to say that I have officially (kind of) mastered the craft of working with hihi. Yesterday, and for the first time, I did not use my maps while checking nest boxes, and I am getting better at flipping sugar feeders although the occasional shower is still a part of my daily life on Tiritiri Matangi. 

My experience here has been incredible. I have learnt so much and I have a few special people to thank for all this: Mhairi and John Ewen for having given me this opportunity, the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi without whom the island would not be what it is, particularly Kathryn, who has helped me during my first week here, Christine also, John Stewart and Kay, for the opportunities to work with diving petrels, and Keith and Talia (Department of Conservation) for their amazing work and the awesome vibe that they bring to the Island. Last but certainly not least, thank you, Emma, for your patience and everything you’ve helped me discover while I was here. Sorry for leaving now that you have officially finished training me… Until next time, maybe?