Trustee Kate Waterhouse reflects on the Working Weekend, 28-30 October 2022.

Kate Waterhouse

It’s strange that the bird that stays with me when I leave Hauturu-o-Toi is the most numerous of all on this sanctuary island. As soon as dusk falls  the chattering clack clack clack of tītī, or Cooks petrel, begins overhead. You can’t see them, but they’re barrelling in off the sea to the exact spot they nested last year, close to where they were born, to clear out their burrows ready for mating.  

Cutting the Hamilton track, we come across one tītī struggling in fern and twigs. It is about 20cm long and you could hold its dove grey and white body cupped in your hands.  Cooks petrels are possibly the world’s prettiest petrel, with a jet-black bill, black eyes and a delicate mottled pattern on their breast and cheeks where the blue-grey upper feathers merge with the bright white belly plumage. This one has hit a branch coming through the canopy and there’s pinkish bloodstains under its wing.  It tries to drag and dig with its bill to get away from us; somewhere nearby will be its burrow.  I realise that no feral cat, stoat or rat will attack it in the night, but there’s nothing we can do for a broken wing, so we move on.

It is hard to comprehend more than a million tītī depend on this forest, until they flood in from Te Moana-nui-o-Toi every night, but the forests in turn depend on the steady supply of nutrients from petrel droppings they bring with them.

I’m track cutting with Ricky and Jess, who had no idea about the petrels, or that they nest underground and share their burrows with tuatara, and even kākāpō now.  They run Mangawhai Natives and have left their kids with a relative. 

Like me, they’re plant obsessed, but they’re next level.

The Hamilton track is named after Jess’s grandfather, botanist Bill Hamilton (1909-1992), who ran the DSIR for eighteen years and had a lifelong association with the island. We discuss the distribution of kākā beak by Māori, and parapara – the bird catcher tree, with long ribbed seed pods that are so sticky that small birds are trapped by them and feed the tree with their decaying bodies. 

Mature kauri on the Hamilton Track

The previous afternoon we’d cut Te Maraeroa Flat and they’d gone out afterwards to iconic Te Titoki Point searching for rare mawhai, the native cucumber (Sicyos australis) and waiu-atua, the endangered shore spurge (Euphorbia glauca). I’d walked along the shoreline after them, but it’s the light on the collage of boulders and the way the swell had shaped them in huge furrows, and the quick dark shore skinks that entranced me.   

Sitting on the wide verandah of the ranger’s house at sunset that night, I noticed the zig zag and frankly “batty” flight of what turned out to be pekapeka, long-tailed bat. They appear at dusk hunting insects on the wing and their calls are at  frequencies higher than we can hear. Weighing no more than 10g this one could have a range of 100 square kilometres – meaning it might have come to feed here from a roost almost anywhere on Hauturu. 

There are other night fliers too—walking west towards the cliffs where pied shags roost, there is a soft long cooing overhead, at lower altitude than the Cooks. They are the last of the oī, or grey faced petrels, the muttonbirds of the north, who are finishing their breeding. 

Toropapa

Not many ruru, someone remarks as we walk. No rodents, I think—in 2024 it will be 20 years since kiore were removed. Leader Lyn Wade is on the lookout for giant weta and geckos, and a tuatara scuttles across the lawn near the woodshed.  A male kiwi calls like a slingshot from out on the flats. Brown kiwi were introduced in the 1950s when the Wildlife Service thought they might disappear from Northland, but it seems some may have already made the journey to Hauturu when sea levels were so low the Gulf was dry land. 

“Aotea is where I learned to be in the bush and is just to the east of Hauturu.  These thriving forests, unforgiving gullies and fickle mists and breezes, all speak a similar language and the ridges are covered in Hauturu versions of familiar shrubs and trees.”

There is mairehau (leionema nudum) with star-like white flowers perhaps 5mm across and pale pink centres, frothing in clusters about head height with unmistakable perfume as you pass. Fragrant but secretive is trumpet-flowered toropapa, and tāwhiri karo (pittosporum cornufolium), but it’s much larger than the one I know. Island gigantism, someone else says – they are talking about the hand-sized kawakawa leaves that shine in the rain which eventually comes, tropical-style, in downpours interspersed with clear skies. 

Ricky and Jess on the way out in the transport boat, the Norma Jean

As for the rest of our group, Ngaire is a trustee of Omaha Shorebirds and traps at Tāwharanui Regional Park. 

Every spring the bellbirds come across from Hauturu to feed on the mānuka in flower across the headland facing the island.

“I look at it every day,” she says, “that’s how I justified this trip, to go and be in old New Zealand. It doesn’t disappoint. I’m an absolute bird nut–to see and hear them and know they’re not introduced.”

Ngaire has been involved in translocations of kākāriki and thought about those translocated birds as she watched their kākāriki whānau on Hauturu. She’s started a responsible cat ownership project in the Omaha area to stop pet cats predating shorebirds. Like everyone else, she observes how lucky we are to have Lyn Wade with us, former Chair of this trust, and editor of the comprehensive Hauturu book with Dick Veitch.  Lyn grew up on boats, married a boat builder, knows her plants inside out and has spent more time than most on Little Barrier with her father Bill Hamilton (yes she’s Jess’s aunty) and on conservation projects after that. 

Then there’s Jenny, a retired teacher, and husband Malcom, a retired RMA lawyer who had worked as VSA volunteers travelled the world to see animals in the wild. Malcom is well over six foot and spends Saturday with a pair of loppers at the front of the track-cutting line.

And finally, there’s Georgina (George) who works in digital marketing but is fresh from a stint as a kākāpō volunteer on Anchor Island in Fiordland. She also volunteers on Tiritiri-Mātangi and on our first morning is fascinated by the pair of robins feeding two chicks on the waterlogged path near the bunkhouse. 

Ngaire on the Hamilton track

Fascination is the vibe for the eight hours we are out track cutting the Hamilton track—the plants, the constant company of hihi, the stands of kauri and beech – yes, beech.

Richard the long-serving Hauturu ranger comes with us to supervise, always generous with his knowledge and vigilant at the rear. We find a range of suspicious non-native plants which are duly photographed and sampled in case they prove invasive. No matter how good the biosecurity around us, seeds come in on the wind and any open stretch of track is a great germination spot. 

Much as we want to carry on up the summit ridge, the track is closed, and we descend steeply to the valley and groves of flowering taurepo (NZ gloxinia), also larger than usual. It’s warm when we get back and although it’s low tide Jess and George attempt to swim. I watch them negotiate the kelp from the top of the boulder bank with a desiccated seal pup, a large whale vertebra and more shore skinks for company. At no time can we see the mainland which is obscured by thunderstorms rumbling past. When everyone has gone up, a looping black shape makes its silky way along the shore. A seal. The weed team, here grid searching for invasives, tell me over dinner that he’s a regular. 

The next morning it’s not tipping down and amongst the hordes of whiteheads in the canopy I am looking for kōkako. A pair had bounded across the lawn while Richard was doing an H&S briefing and sure enough, not far behind the clearing where Ngāti Manuhiri will soon build a small marae, I listen as one bird sings for twenty minutes, until the rain comes again. 

In the drizzle Dan from the weed team shows me dactylanthus taylorii, a wood rose, pua o te reinga, or “fingers of the underworld”. It’s rare now because it is pollinated by short-tailed bats (which are also here, having been decimated by rats elsewhere) and because in autumn its flowers are especially delicious to possums, which mainland forests are full of.  It’s spring, so all we can see is the knobbly black rhizome which grows on the roots of host trees like this, belying its inner beauty.

Tuatara eggs in ranger’s collection

The thunderstorms finally come in from the north east and the rest of the morning is a write off, but it means there’s time to hear the epic story of the rediscovery of NZ Storm Petrels and hold a soft, empty tuatara egg. On the track to the gorge beyond the flat there are kererū everywhere feeding on grass seeds and kākāriki dot the huge pūriri and coastal scrub. I watch a tīeke take apart a rotten log and marvel at his colour – the hands of Tane burnt orange on his back. 

We pack up amongst the weed team who still have ten weeks to go, and the builders who’ve just about finished the replacement slipway that will remove the need for new arrivals to boulder scramble after a dinghy landing. The forecast isn’t so good, but the Norma Jean rides the broad dark 2m swells under brooding skies, beside dolphins, gannets and black petrels. 

In the smoothness of Kawau Bay, I ask the team how they’re feeling. Malcom tells me it was the vegetation that stood out for him. “There are few places you can see kauri growing in the number and size of those trees. We walked through groves and groves of them, never fully cut over, and now they’re preserved.” He told me Jenny was better with words, and that afternoon as we had cleaned the bunkhouse she had offered this about the island: “It’s a dynamic place, not some sort of museum for endangered species… it’s not an ark, things are changing here all the time, the populations are a both source of preservation and creating a new future at the same time… change is part of the package.”

“Obviously you hate the plant life,” I joked to Jess as the boat swung up toward Sandspit. Like me, she had been emotional leaving the island. Pointing to the shore as we neared the wharf she said “Look across there. What’s in there that shouldn’t be? I’m really sad to be back.” 

Volunteers assemble on the bunkhouse verandah back row Kate, George, Malcom, Jess, Ricky, seated Ngaire, Lyn, Jenny

She’s impressed by how much work has been done on the island by so many incredible people, and it’s true— the bunkhouse visitor book is a bit of a roll call for conservation in New Zealand. “But it’s hard to believe that things aren’t getting killed or wrecked or trampled or eaten there, because that’s how we’re trained to think. It was hard to get my head around—that there was no killing. Knowing that that plant, or that animal will be fine.” 

Ricky had been sad too—before we even left the island. “I’m depressed,” he’d told me, staring at a skink book in the bunkhouse library (there are thirteen species of skinks and geckos on Hauturu if you were wondering). “It just makes me realise what we’ve done to the rest of the country. NZ would have all been like this, and amazing as it is, this is such a tiny pocket. It’s depressing… that we’ve basically wiped everything out. That’s a bit morbid but that’s what I’ve been thinking about today.” Ricky tells me he wants to keep going down the environmental track, “definitely targeting more of the rarer plants—just to get them out there.”

On the wharf he and Jess are in a hurry. She heads up LANDSAR at Mangawhai Heads and is a trained paramedic, as well as helping Ricky run the nursery, plus kids. Busy life. But now we are standing there, both of us still for a moment, thinking, how can we get back to Hauturu. 

Stream in flood Maraeroa Flat

It’s hard to articulate why, but it comes from a place deep in me that is connected to the boulders on the beach, the sea washing in, the movement of the wind through the thin forest of the ridges, that seal looping along the shore at dusk, the mournful song of the kōkako. 

In Hauturu, Professor Paula Morris of Ngāti Manuhiri describes the island as a psychic landscape as well as a physical one for mana whenua.  How could anyone deny the deep history of this place, clearly evident in the many trenches, terraces and storage pits for water and food along the Hamilton track. That place would have had another name then, and I wish now that I knew it. 

As she leaves the wharf Jess says: “Anyone that goes there is a custodian, because that’s how special it is. It’s so significant to so many people in so many different ways, but it’s such a small part of New Zealand. So we just have to spread the word, spread the message, anywhere we can.”

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