Hihi Breeding Program in Tiritiri Matangi

by Misha on

You could be marooned in worse places. The weather on the island is agreeable, the lodgings are nice, the views are pretty and even the locals are just about tolerable. Really, it’s not a bad spot at all. At least that is what I try to tell them, as they flit in and out of their nest boxes, bound about announcing their territories in the developing forest and guzzle sugar water to fuel their passions. They don’t seem to need my reassurance though, restless as they are to perform the tasks necessary to continue their species’ remarkable recovery. For some reason, pretty much invariably, one of the first things you are told about the Hihi (or Stitchbird, Notiomystis cincta, a honeyeater-like passerine) is that it is the only species of bird that copulates face-to-face (run an image search for “Hihi copulation” if no-one is looking over your shoulder). This forms part of a fascinating and slightly terrifying mating system, but I merely mention it here in order to continue the tradition.

Male Hihi bird

Tiritiri is a triumph: two square kilometres of regenerating native forest filled with a riot of bird life just 4km out into the Hauraki Gulf from mainland New Zealand. The translocation here of Hihi in 1995 was integrated into a broader plan of habitat restoration that had begun in earnest in 1984. Bucketloads of volunteer sweat and swearing contributed to the replanting of native trees and shrubs, and the eradication of the Polynesian Rat across the island. By the time the Hihi arrived, a host of nectar- and fruit-producing plants awaited it. With the help of management techniques such as artificial nestboxes and supplementary food–administered while we wait for the forest to become mature enough to provide ample food and nest sites itself–the population on Tiritiri has been productive enough to provide the founders for recent reintroductions that marked the Hihi's glorious and unlikely return to the mainland. As I write, the 2013/14 breeding season on Tiritiri Matangi is gathering its raucous momentum: eggs are appearing in the nest boxes, and the first few chicks crane their adorably ugly heads out of the nest bowl. Stepping towards summer, the weather is volatile. T-shirt and shorts conditions just days ago have given way to sporadic rain and a chilly wind that will rise to gale-force by tomorrow. Hopefully, this won't put a dampener on the Hihi's early spurt, but clamber up to a high point and you can see the choppy seas. It's a cracking view, though. To the southwest, you can pick out the Sky Tower of Auckland and mainland North Island, looming in the haze to the northeast lies the hulk of Hauturu, host to the last remnant population of Hihi. Between them: Tiritiri Matangi, stepping stone in the great rebound back.

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