Postcards from the Edge: Tiritiri Matangi

Department of Conservation —  02/06/2020

When you consider that living on an island is a form of isolation from the mainland, did lockdown look and feel any different to normal life? We thought we’d ask our dedicated rangers that live on the islands of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park to share their experiences during Alert Levels 3 & 4. Welcome to Postcards from the Edge!

Selfie with the Lighthouse takahē family.
📷: Emma Dunning

The short answer from DOC Ranger Emma Dunning is, “strange, amazing and interesting.”

Here’s the long version:

I am lucky enough to be one of two resident rangers based on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Along with Talia Hochwimmer, our role is to keep the island running. Essential things like making sure the power, water and sewerage systems are running efficiently, walking tracks and public toilets are maintained, visitors are welcomed, and wildlife is checked.  

Emma and Talia.
📷: Emma Dunning

Tiritiri Matangi is a true taonga/treasure of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana. It is a shining example of the power of community. The restoration of the island has been led by the community, mainly the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi (SoTM), whose ongoing support is the island’s beating heart.

Fullers360 runs a ferry service to the island five days a week, dropping off up to 170 visitors and 30 volunteers. As there is also overnight accommodation on the island for up to 20 people, the island offers a lot to a broad range of people.

I have been based on the island for 16 months, and my usual roster is 10 days on and 4 days off. However, things changed dramatically for me in late March – much like the rest of the country.

Sunday 22 March was the last time the ferry came to the island. On Monday 23 March, Alert Level 4 lockdown was announced and so began the rush of confusion in figuring out what this meant for us on the island.

Importantly, we were given the choice to spend Alert Level 4 on the island or return to the mainland. For me it was a no brainer – Tiritiri Matangi is an island paradise! I am well set up, comfortable and there was plenty of mahi (work) to do. Luckily for me, Talia felt the same way.

So, what went on during lockdown?

Like everyone who was not considered an essential worker, we were restricted in what we could do – essential services and office work only. Nothing that could put pressure on emergency services if things didn’t go to plan. We were able to look after animal welfare, so supplementary feeding of hihi and takahē continued, as well as keeping the water troughs full as the island was still in the middle of a drought. But otherwise it was catching up on all the paperwork, data entry, updating manuals, emails, and getting to grips with technology to attend the many online meetings.

To help keep our sanity, we maintained regular virtual meetings with our Inner Islands DOC team, SoTM work teams, and the Hihi Recovery group. Some days I felt like I talked to more people via technology than I do normally! Through these calls it was clear to me that members of Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi (SoTM) were experiencing separation anxiety.  Collectively they wore their Tiri t-shirts on Zoom calls! To help alleviate this separation, Talia and I made videos of beloved species and provided island updates and posted them on their Facebook page.

Virtual meetings with our Inner Islands DOC team, SoTM work teams, and the Hihi Recovery group.
📷: Emma Dunning

There were literally no visitors to the island. We pondered when the last time this would have been the case – certainly not in DOC’s history. This created an amazing opportunity to get to know the island at an entirely different pace. Our usual days finds us buzzing from job to job as there is so much to do. Being able to pause, take a breath and observe what was going on around us was a real privilege.

Initially we were seeing some interesting wildlife behaviour. Or were we just paying more attention?

It was most noticeable with the island’s takahē. The Lighthouse takahē family is used to people being around and being the centre of attention. For the first three weeks they spent a lot of time with us in the office, following us wherever we went. As days turned into weeks of isolation, they seemed to relax into it, only greeting us like long lost friends in the morning.

Tussie reports for duty.
📷: Emma Dunning

Now, we know that we aren’t meant to anthropomorphise, but this is somewhat difficult when humans are the rarest thing on the island. In the absence of people, the wildlife stepped up and took on some responsibilities around the island:

  • Takahē (Lighthouse family): Ranger wellbeing, volunteer assistants dutifully reporting for service everyday (unless it’s really raining).
  • Takahē (Northern family): Essential work only – road check point. You just try to get through if your task isn’t an essential service.
Road block.
📷: Emma Dunning
  • Korimako/bellbird: Time management, “It’s time to get up! You’re late to refill the feeders! You’re taking too long to fill the feeders!”
  • Sparrows and black birds: housework – daily check and clean up after the Rangers.
  • Tīeke/saddleback and pīwakawaka/fantail: indoor bug control specialists.
  • Toutouwai/North Island robin: supervision – step outside and you shall be adequately supervised at all time.
  • Kōkako and Kākāriki: roadside weed control. Mission to eat all the seeds and pull out the small seedlings.
📷: Emma Dunning
  • Magpies: Island security, Kāhu/swamp harrier patrol.
  • Kāhu/swamp harrier – Tormenting pūkeko, avoiding magpies.
  • Kōtare/kingfisher, kawau/shag, tara/red-billed gull, tōrea/oystercatcher: border control, favoured work location – wharf. Also, intensive monitoring of the water’s edge for potential aquatic invaders.
  • Hihi/stitchbird: Ranger wellbeing – rays of sunshine and reason to get going on the weekend.
📷: Emma Dunning
  • Kererū and Tūī: Ranger wellbeing/exercise including side-step training (humans do not have right of way).

What’s been the hardest thing?

For those of you who know me, it was not being able to swim during Alert Level 4. And of course, the people – nothing beats seeing school kids go home with big smiles, wide eyes and tired legs.

During Alert Level 3 the time seemed to go faster although, I felt like I was living in an alternative universe. Unlike stories I heard from the mainland, I did not have to worry about going to the supermarket, or who I might encounter on my local walks.  From a distance, it did make me wonder – will people’s behaviour change, will people return to Tiri and how do I feel about that?

I was about to find out. When Alert Level 2 was announced, I was relieved, but then had a reality check – this is when Covid-19 comes to us. Suddenly we were required to contact trace, distance ourselves, clean all surfaces and set up workshop coordinators. I had a vision of a wall of boats heading our way.

Day one of Alert Level 2 dawned with some wind, blowing away the possibility of a flotilla of boats. But the following day, the calm weather returned and so did Aucklanders in their boats. Our bubble popped and the takahē promptly disappeared.

The first people I saw in Alert Level 2 initially got a smile and a wave as I went past them in a vehicle. I had a wave of anxiety – should I stop, should I talk to them, what do I say? I passed them again a short time later near the Lighthouse, blurting out, “there’s a kōkako on the lawn” before disappearing again. Soon after I remembered some social etiquette and went out to meet them. They were a lovely family from Iceland who had Tiritiri Matangi on their bucket list and were blown away by the wildlife. Suddenly my anxiety dropped – this is what the island is about.

A lot of people have asked if we were desperate to get off the island. My time on the island turned out to be 67 days and was so special. My story was unique enough to capture the attention of the news crew, so my first steps on the mainland were captured for the nation to see. I admit, it took some time to be comfortable around people and noise, but it was also nice having a flat white and some face to face chats.

Two days on the mainland saw me happily back on the island. It is a truly amazing place and I am living my ultimate life in New Zealand’s predator-free dream. I was back to being lulled to sleep by the soothing calls of ruru and kiwi, woken by korimako, entertained by takahē, tīeke, kākāriki and kōkako to name just a few.

I am very lucky.

2 responses to Postcards from the Edge: Tiritiri Matangi

    Dorothy Mowat 03/06/2020 at 6:29 am

    Thank you for your postcard. You got to live in the most amazing place. A bird livers paradise. Can’t wait until we have the freedom to travel freely again. My travel and accommodation booking were cancelled last time due to alert levels 3 & 4 but I shall return in the coming months. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into keeping this place pristine for us all to enjoy. 🙏💙

    Robin Mills 02/06/2020 at 1:30 pm

    What a wonderful post about a unique experience. Thank you. I think anyone with close ties to animals, 2 legs, 4 legs, feathers, fur and probably reptiles as well, saw each other in a different light during lockdown. Their perspective but from a human thinking and language base. Moments of thankful hilarity! Your birds and a holiday and clearly enjoyed it. Perhaps we should close our sanctuaries for a week or 2 every year.