Archives For Little Barrier Island

Naturalist, conservationist and herpetologist, Dylan van Winkel, has worked in an a variety of challenging environments, both in New Zealand and abroad. Today he writes about a recent visit to Hauturu/Little Barrier Island as part of a Pacific gecko translocation.

This post was originally published on Dylan’s blog.

Pacific gecko on Astelia sp. flower. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Pacific gecko on a Astelia sp. flower

Situated 15 miles from Cape Rodney, and 11 miles from Aotea/Great Barrier Island, Hauturu/Little Barrier Island bursts out of the ocean; its knife-edged ridges rising to 2,370 ft at the summit of Mount Hauturu.

The 3,038 hectare island is fringed by an almost continuous boulder beach—except where vertical cliffs plummet into the ocean.

Rocky shore and driftwood on Hauturu coastline. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Hauturu/Little Barrier Island typical coastline landscape

It is a site steeped in rich Māori cultural tradition and nationally significant conservation initiatives; and is home to some of New Zealand’s rarest and most threatened fauna and flora.

Sphenodon punctatus (Northern tuatara). Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Northern tuatara—this fellow is part of an island breed-for-release programme

The name Hauturu, was traditionally bestowed by Toi, who arrived in New Zealand from Hawaiki circa 1150 AD in search of his grandson Whatonga.

It was said that the island was uninhabited by “ordinary mankind” but on the misty summits lived the patu-pai-arehe/fairies, visiting the coastline only at night or in misty weather to fish and collect kai moana/sea food (Hamilton 1961).

While the thought of night-faring fairies is somewhat hard to believe, there is undoubtedly some truth in the myth, as at night, the island truly becomes alive!

Oligosoma smithii (shore skink).  Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Shore skink

Scaly creatures, spiny giants, venomous villains, feathery beasts, and slimy critters emerge and take over the forest floor. However, even so, walking at night requires cautious and vigilant steps, alerted senses, and often quick reactions to catch a glimpse of the island’s inhabitants.

Little Barrier Island giant weta . Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Little Barrier Island giant weta—the world’s heaviest insect. So heavy, they are unable to jump effectively

By day, the island is alive with bird song and, in fact, Hauturu harbours the highest number of threatened bird species compared to any other island in the country! Their calls penetrate and echo through the 400-plus species of plants and, in particular, the dawn chorus is mind-blowing; arguably unmatched by any other site in New Zealand.

North Island robin, Mt Hauturu summit. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

North Island robin, Mt Hauturu summit

In January 2014, I was fortunate enough to join a team of conservationists, lead by Auckland Council ecologist Su Sinclair, on a lizard project, aimed at translocating Pacific geckos (Dactylocnemis pacificus) to two Hauraki Gulf Islands undergoing ecological restoration.

Dactylocnemis pacificus (Pacific gecko) sub-adult on Pohutukawa. Photo © Dylan van Winkel.

Pacific gecko on Pohutukawa

Here are a few photos representing some of the treasures found on Hauturu during our ten day stay in paradise.

More photos can be found on Dylan’s original blog post.

Today’s photo of the week is of one of New Zealand’s famous reptiles—the tuatara.

The tuatara is the only living representative of an ancient lineage, the order Sphenodontia, which is over 250 million years old.


This week Victoria University of Wellington researchers published rare footage of a tuatara hatching from an egg.

The egg was one of 23 being incubated in captivity this year as part of a joint initiative with DOC and local Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island Mana Whenua.

This initiative is helping to save the threatened tuatara population from extinction.

Watch the video of a tuatara hatching:

Photo by Somaholiday | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Following on from his tale of returning to Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island 33 years after the last cat was removed (Conservation Blog, 24 June 2013), Dick Veitch recalls the history of cats on Little Barrier…

No one knows exactly how or when cats got to Little Barrier. Andreas Reischeck noted cats were “very numerous” on his visits to the island between 1880 and 1885.

The resident rangers killed cats, but taking out 10 to 40 cats a year didn’t so much as dent their population. Cats made a massive dent in the bird population though. By the 1960s, the Little Barrier snipe was extinct, and the saddleback and banded rail had disappeared from the island. Cats were the prime suspect in these loses, and in the decline of the tuatara, and lizard and seabird species on the island.

Banded rail, Little Barrier Island.

Banded rail, Little Barrier Island

The Wildlife Service (now part of DOC) started Operation Kill the Cats in 1968. The next 10 years saw a reduction in numbers, but no eradication. The lessening cat numbers allowed black and Cook’s petrels to recover a bit, but it was still easy to count 40 freshly cat-eaten Cook’s petrels on a single walk to Hauturu’s summit in March or April at that time.

Black petrel eaten by a cat on Little Barrier Island, 1976.

Black petrel eaten by a cat on Little Barrier Island, 1976

In 1976 the operation stepped up a gear. Wildlife Service and Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park staff agreed on a joint approach—the Park would build huts and cut tracks and the Service would kill the cats. The plan called for three new huts and 70 km of tracks. Park Ranger, Dave Smith, and Assistant Chief Ranger, George Holmes, supervised the hut building and got three-quarters of the tracks cut by 1977. The Wildlife Service finished off the tracks and began getting rid of the cats in 1978.

The island rangers and Dave’s successor Alex Dobbins and their families were the stars of the operation. They managed the comings and goings of cat trappers and boats, and got people out to the huts. The ranger’s house was frequently invaded, particularly for important TV events such as rugby matches!

Little Barrier Island bunkhouse and Ranger's Flat.

Little Barrier Island bunkhouse and Ranger’s Flat

Cat hunting was done by two teams. Team 1, managed by Richard Anderson, was mainly people from Northland. I managed Team 2. Various government unemployment schemes, a line up of willing volunteers, Wildlife Service trainees and even the occasional paid person provided all the muscle for the job. All up 139 people were involved.

The plan was to do a bit of poisoning and a lot of trapping in the first year, then bring in dog teams – we all know how dogs love to hunt cats. The dogs did well in training on the mainland but did not even hint at scenting a cat on the island. Day after day we walked those tracks without the slightest sign of action. The dog team was quickly disbanded! We now know there were still at least 23 cats on the island. Who knows why the dogs couldn’t smell them.

Cat in a trap.

Cat in a trap

So the trapping and poisoning continued. We walked the tracks and mapped the locations of cat signs. Slowly the mapped information showed each cat being trapped or poisoned, until the last cat was trapped on 23 June 1980.

Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island lies 80 km north of Auckland city on the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf. You need a permit to visit this thickly forested island that is home to over 350 native species of plants. It’s an incredible place to view wildlife.

Learn more about visiting Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island