So you want to be a hihi volunteer? Well you’ve come to the right place; this guide will tell you all you need to know from one volunteer to another. Grab your sunscreen, hiking boots and binoculars, and let’s get going.
Tiritiri Matangi Island is located in the Hauraki Gulf, a 75min ferry ride from Auckland CBD. Known by many Aucklanders as “the bird island” this scientific reserve is teeming with native wildlife you might never see on the mainland such as reclusive geckos, endangered insects and of course many species of native sea, shore and forest birds. The island draws thousands of tourists a year and hosts a vibrant community of volunteers who help keep the island running alongside dedicated staff. On “Tiri” you can enjoy stunning beaches, awe-inspiring cliff views and forests alive with birdsong.
Of course you aren’t just coming to Tiri to relax, you’re here to do your bit for conservation. And the star of the hour is the hihi/Stitchbird. These beautiful little birds are endemic to Te Ika-a-Maui (the North Island of New Zealand) and until the 1980s only one population survived on Te Hauturu-o-Toi or Little Barrier Island. These birds are extremely vulnerable to mammalian predation and habitat degradation, meaning they can only survive in fairly intact, predator-free forests. Considerable efforts have led to successful reintroductions to other islands and even mainland sites but this species still remains one of New Zealand’s rarest birds.
Feeding on nectar alongside fruit and insects, this unique species was once thought to be a part of the honeyeater family alongside tui and korimako. Recent research has shown that hihi are actually the sole members of a distinct and ancient family most closely related to wattlebirds (kōkako, tieke, huia). Hihi posses many other unique physiological and behavioral traits which make them an attractive candidate for research especially on Tiri where the population can be easily observed.
Hihi are sociable, curious and have little fear of humans, which makes them a hit among Tiri’s avifauna where they have been thriving since 1995.
Now here is where you come in. The success of Tiri’s hihi relies on the hard work of many passionate people to feed, monitor and ensure the health of the population. Daily tasks include:
- Making and delivering supplementary sugar water which the birds need to survive.
- Monitoring hihi breeding and identifying mated pairs. That’s right, become an expert in bird romance.
- Helping care for hatchlings. You basically get to see the baby birds grow up.
- Answering the questions eager tourists ask of you. This is a great chance to help spread awareness for hihi AND prank tourists. Win win!
- Help with banding of hihi. This is a great chance to learn how to band birds and start working towards your banding license.
- Cleaning nest boxes and feeders. Nothing like a summer afternoon cleaning bird poop and listening to the birds serenade you from the branches above.
- Assisting in research efforts. You get the chance to be involved in real research studies in the field, furthering your science skills.
All of this may seem like a lot of work for one person but don’t worry. As the old adage goes: “birds of a feather flock together.”
Tiritiri Matangi Island Scientific Reserve was started with the goal of creating a conservation reserve that was open to both scientists and the public. One of the first reserves of it’s kind in New Zealand many doubted it would be a success but from 1984 to 1994 the farming island was replanted by many thousands of volunteers and has since become a shining example of what can be done with the help of the community. Tiritiri Matangi is now pest free and hosts many vulnerable plant and animal species making it a valuable asset for the conservation of New Zealand’s unique species.
As a volunteer you will work alongside rangers, contractors and a variety of volunteers. These are people who dedicate their time to this amazing location and you will find a great community of friendly, like-minded people. Though everyone has their own focus or area of expertise you can always find a helping hand. As a hihi volunteer you will be part of a team of staff, researchers and other volunteers who are all passionate about hihi conservation. You’ll be a card-carrying member of the hihi fan club in no time!
Sharing a bunkhouse with tourists and other volunteers can be a hectic experience but you’ll meet loads of interesting people. Explore the remote beach caves with a group of volunteers. Swim among the bioluminescence with your new tourist friends. Cook a shared bunkhouse feast. Communal living can take some getting used to but can also turn out to be a real highlight of your stay.
Don’t forget your friends of the feathered kind!
Working in conservation is a very rewarding and touching experience. You have the chance to form a special sometimes individual connection to the animals you work with. At times it can be tough and even heartbreaking but in the end working with wild animals free in their native environment is such a fantastic experience. I have learned so much in my time on Tiri and have made some amazing friends. I can’t recommend it enough.
For more information about how you can get involved, get in touch with Hihi Conservation about upcoming opportunities.
About the author
Leani Oosthuizen is a Massey university graduate living in Auckland. She has been volunteering with hihi on Tirirtiri Matangi Island since 2018, spending two summers as a full-time hihi volunteer. She boasts having been hit in the head by four different species of endemic birds and counting.