Spray splashed over the bow of our ferry chugging across the wind-tossed Hauraki Gulf to Tiritiri Mitangi Island in New Zealand. The white tower of the landmark lighthouse built in 1894 atop the island still gives warning to ships sailing into Auckland Harbor. It stands guard over remote Tiritiri, a 220-hectare, island habitat reclaimed by caring Kiwi’s for rare, endemic birds.

Like much of the North Island, Tiritiri was shaved clean of its forests for farming. For many years the island was uninhabited, save for the lighthouse keepers, and considered a useless, vermin infested, rock. Today, the island provides a unique opportunity for visitors to walk through native forests and hear the din of wild birds that proliferated before human contact, and it is a monument to what caring people can do.

961dc910A visit to Tiritiri Mitangi is part of the itinerary for visitors enjoying the hospitality of Karen Baird and Chris Gaskin, operators of Kiwi Wildlife Tours specializing in birding hotspots throughout New Zealand. I stayed with them at their wood and glass bird lodge nestled in the treetops of a re-generating Kauri forest, about thirty miles outside of Auckland. Avid birders, Chris and Karen, love to share their knowledge with guests, and take turns topping each other with special finds in the wild.

We boarded the ferry to Tiritiri in Gulf Harbor and joined a host of independent travelers who had begun their journey in Auckland. The colorful sails of the yachts entered in the America’s Cup race shared the channel with us as we plied our way up the Hibiscus Coast. The sun was high overhead in a brilliant blue sky when we tied up at wooden pier at Tiritiri. The swimmers and sunbathers aboard headed for the crystalline water of a nearby Hobbs Beach, a sandy cove beneath sea cliffs draped in morning glories, while birders made their way to the forests.

960dcaf0Miles of trails fan out over the island, encouraging guests to wander freely. Raised boardwalks beneath the cool of the native tree canopy make walking through the lovingly restored native bush a pure joy. Bird voices ring out in clear, lilting tones. It’s easy to spot the source of the music because the wooden walk brings you almost to eye level with the tree canopy of the immature forest. Among the birds flitting in and out of the shadows was the tui, or parson’s bird. This black bird with the white tufts at his throat is a mimic and alternates between sweet tones that sound like that of the Bellbird (extinct on the northland for more than 100 years, but surviving on Tiritiri) to hearty chortles and squawks with a fire and brimstone fervor.

In this aviary without walls, birds gather at feeders lodged in cozy glens with seating platforms for visitors. I spotted the endangered saddleback, a large black bird with a clamorous song that is enjoying a comeback here. The haunting voice of the increasingly rare and shy kokako, a large gray parrot that cannot fly, drifted through the forest. The reclusive stitchbird revealed itself, along with a chatty fantail that spread its’ tail feathers for all to see. The most rare bird on the island is the takahe, a giant flightless rail, thought to be extinct for 50 years. There are six breeding pairs nesting successfully here, raising their chicks in the wild.

962b9ef0Since 1984, over two- hundred thousand trees have been planted on the island by volunteer workers. Altogether, thirty-eight different trees and shrub, including cabbage trees, flax and wattle, provide seeds and berries for the birds. Restoration of the island has been a product of community effort. Service clubs, students, and outdoor recreation clubs provided free labor and donations. Together they exterminated a huge population of Pacific rat before the replanting of the island. They built hundreds of nesting boxes for the birds, including a special underground site for the nocturnal blue penguin. They made sure that stoats, weasels and possums that feast on bird’s eggs and the tender shoots of sprouting trees do not exist here. These vermin, introduced to New Zealand’s delicate ecology through trade and tourism, are the bane of the birds and native bush on the mainland.

95bdc990After a picnic lunch, we made our way across the spine of the island to a valley where a primordial coastal forest has survived. These trees are the source of seeds for re-vegetating the island. Sun streamed through the sprays of immense silver ferns shading the walkway that took us past an ancient Pohutukawa tree with gnarled limbs that spread out in a tortured circle. This tree, flushed with a crown of crimson blooms, was here when the Maori people lived on the island hundreds of years ago. It is believed that the early Polynesian setters cleared the island to plant fern beds for food. This mighty tree witnessed the destruction and the resurrection of the island ecology at the hand of humans. Today, the open sanctuary created for the birds on the island of Tititiri Matangi is free, with the price of a ferry ticket, for all to enjoy.

If You Go to Tiritiri Matangi:
Kiwi Wildlife Tours host guests at their home and take them to local birding hot spots, that include a visit to Tiritiri Matangi, as well as arrange tours through the North South and Stewart Islands with birding in mind.
www.kiwi-wildlife.co.nz e-mail info@kiwi-wildlife.co.nz. Phone: +64 9 422 2115.  Chris and Karen will pick you up at the Auckland Airport when you arrive.

Auckland Harbor ferries departing from Pier 3 next to the Ferry Building in Auckland provide transport to and from Tiritiri Matangi on Thursday and Sunday plus Saturday in summer. 0800-424-5561. Island conservation guides greet independent travelers at the pier with self-guiding maps.

Adventure Cruising Company operates nature cruises that include Tiritiri Matangi. One tour includes overnight accommodations on the Te Aroha, the Tiritiri evening birdsong chorus, and a guided bird walk at dawn. Phone/fax 09-444-9342.

Kookaburras, Koalas and Kangaroos. Wombats, echidnas and Tasmanian Devils. These “down-under” animals live in a forested hillside called the Taranga Zoo, which promises an exciting, Australian-style safari.
The zoo lies across the harbor from Sydney, Australia, a fifteen-minute get acquainted with Sydney’s sparkling blue harbour and bays filled with ferries and jet-cats and sailboats.

My day at the Taronga Zoo began at the hilltop entrance. I marked “must sees” on the detailed zoo map that I bought at the information center. Elephants and giraffes, chimpanzees and seals — the stuff of most zoos – have habitats here, but my priority was to see the animals indigenous to the South Pacific.
First stop: the koalas. They roam through a eucalyptus forest with a view of the city of Sydney, one of the best around.

Visitors are encouraged to have their picture taken with a koala. I did. The first step was a thick shoulder drape — protection from the koalas long, curved claws. As I held the fluffy, gray and white koala, she chomped on her eucalyptus branches, her tiny round black-cherry nose wiggling with each bite.
Nearby, we found the wombats’ den but no wombats. The nocturnal marsupials tend to hide inside their burrows to escape the bright sun.

We saw kangaroos roaming along the edge of the forest. They loped and rocked from strong, hind legs to short front legs. The gray ‘roos are the animal most associated with Australia from the Qantas airline symbol to decorations on hats, towels and Olympic promotions.
“I’ve got to see a platypus,” I said. As a child, I learned that the duck-billed platypus, whose name intrigued me, had lived long ago in prehistoric times. We found a platypus in a darkened house that held a huge, lighted water tank. He zipped around the tank and flashed through the plants so fast we could not focus a camera. We just clicked at random, hoping we’d get at least one good shot of the silver-gray aquatic mammal with the weird flat bill.

What was next? Dingos are the unappealing, wild yellow dogs that have roamed Australia for over 3,000 years. They destroyed so many sheep in Australia’s Outback that the farmers built a 3,307-mile wood and wire fence to protect their sheep. Without the barrier, farmers say, the sheep industry would not survive. We glanced at the ugly dingo and moved on. Maybe the Tasmanian Devil would be more appealing, I thought. How close does it come to looking like the Disney Taz cartoon creature? What we saw was a black furry lump among the leaves and grasses in the far corner of his shady habitat. No bared teeth, no attack-lunge. But we read that they are the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials, and have scandalous eating habits. With their powerful jaws, they grind up every bit of their prey, all the while screaming, grunting and growling. Oh, my.
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We paused by the elephant habitat, but our real purpose was to capture on camera the Sydney skyline and the bay. The magnificent view detracted, for a moment, from the animal hunt. We identified the white sails of the Opera House, the black steel Harbor Bridge span, and the island, Fort Denison, once a prison and a defense fortress.
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Continuing our animal safari, we wound across the hillside to find a real echidna. We’d seen caricatures of it along with the platypus and the kookaburra on postcards, billboards and in magazines advertising the Olympics. The echidna has a tiny face with a long snout that’s surrounded by a big, round, bristly body. That echidna creature was very uncooperative. He went back and forth from his play yard under a spreading hillside tree, to his house under a building. Our picture shows his spiky backside heading underground. Oh well.
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Two strains of penguins, more than two dozen in all, showed off in their rock-lined pond, preening and marching around their habitat. The brown Fjordland Penguin can remain at sea for 4 months, feed and sleep in the icy water south of New Zealand. These penguins breed in the cool coastal forests along the rocky, South New Zealand shores. The other strain, Little Penguins, and the world’s smallest, build their nests in burrows. They come ashore during the first two hours after dark and return to the sea in the hour before sunrise after they have laid two eggs in each burrow. Only one egg will survive.
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We strolled a downhill path through the rainforest to the Red Pandas, where a big sign announced that we were nearing an endangered species. It also stated, “No trees, no pandas! No zoos, no pandas.”
Red Pandas are tree dwellers and their tree homes are disappearing. The zoos, particularly the Taronga, have biologists successfully breeding the pandas in captivity. Red pandas dash up the tree-trunks, run along the limbs, and then peer down at the visitors as they swish their long, bushy tails. We wished for more time to enjoy their antics.

Moving on, we found another appealing animal – a small black Sun Bear, the smallest bear in the world. Their short, sleek fur sheds tropical rain and keeps them dry. The little bears raid bee hives for honey and dig into palm trees for a hearts-of-palm treat.

For more animal encounters, the zoo also offers daily animals-in-focus presentations and animal keeper talks. As for the air safari, the twice-daily “Free Flight Bird Show” features a spectacular display of more than seventeen species of birds that take to the skies over Sydney Harbor. To round out the offerings, zoo keepers lead guided tours and a have a Discovery Farm complete with milk cows.

The Sydney Ferries advertise a ZooPass: “For a wild day out, it’s just the ticket.” Your round-trip ferry and bus trips, and zoo admission are all included. The day’s adventure begins at Sydney’s Wharf 2, Circular Quay, where bay ferries leaves every half-hour for Taronga Zoo. At the zoo wharf, a bus waits to run you up to the Zoo gates.
The Sydney Tourist Guide says, “The Taronga Zoo is regarded as the world’s most spectacular zoo.” That may be hype, but Sydneysiders do have something to brag about.

ADDITIONAL INFO about Taranga Zoo:
If going by car, the address is Bradley’s Head Rd., Mosman
By Ferry: A Zoo Pass is a real buy and includes entry, round-trip ferry from Circular Quay, and bus ride or Aerial Safari (cable car, if running) to upper entrance.
Ferries leave the Circular Quay every half hour from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m