The islands are noisy. Bird, reptile and insect life is prolific. Seabirds are the making of the islands. The under story of vegetation is riddled by the burrows of millions of seabirds and in some places it resembles low tide in a mangrove estuary. If you happen to be on the islands in late August early September you will be sharing them with the enormous numbers of Bullers shearwaters. Over two million birds are said to nest on the islands. The Poor Knights are the only known nesting place in the world for this species. These birds arrive in early spring usually reclaiming the same burrows they have used in previous years. Laying one egg parents incubate the egg in shifts of four to five days. Fledglings and parents leave the islands in early May to winter in the Northern Pacific. . Once nighttime has fallen a steady stream of birds start crash landing into the canopy above falling to the ground, sometimes into your dinner, your tent or on to your head, then staggering off to announce very loudly to their partner that they are back. This is greeted with what sounds more like a good ear bashing for being late rather than any sort of welcome home. This activity continues until around midnight when there is a short lull. Then about 3am the birds that have been in the burrows for days leave, this again causes much vocal discussion. Sleep for the human visitor is not easy.
The Maori did well to keep the Kiore off the island for over three hundred years, as we all know, rats are notorious stowaways. If rats had arrived the Bullers shearwaters could not have been sustainably harvested. I believe this is the reason there are no Pacific rats on the islands.
There are many other sea birds nesting but not nearly in such great numbers. Little blue penguin, fairy prions, Pycrofts petrel, grey faced petrel, diving petrel, little shearwater, fluttering shearwater and sooty shearwaters. On the outlying Sugar Loaf Island is a large gannet colony. Mortality among nesting seabirds although regarded as remarkably small in relation to actual numbers of birds is visible. A common death is strangulation in the fork of a tree during landing. Hawks, black back gulls, tuatara claim a good number. Generally cohabitation of burrows between Shearwaters and Tuataras seems to work for both but the reptiles have been seen dining out on young chicks and sometimes attacking adult birds. Tuatara can be grumpy and are best left alone if upset.
One member of a weeding party, seeing a Tuatara’s tail protruding from a burrow thrust his hand down to catch the animal which in the process ended up catching him with its mouth and his jaw firmly locked onto his hand between his thumb and index finger remained there pulsating for the next two hours. When you live to over 150 years there is no hurry.
The dominant bird of the bush is the bellbird, considered a subspecies and endemic to the islands. Flocks of up to fifty are regularly seen. The breeding behavior and total disregard or fear of humans is testament to the fact the islands are rodent free. Bellbird chicks are often found tucked under clumps of ferns or sitting just inside entrances of sea birds burrows. I recall a time phoning home from a high point on the islands and my wife being quite unable to hear me above the deafening chorus of bellbirds. Most years towards the end of summer young birds often appear on the adjacent mainland probably young males without a territory.
The next notable bird of the islands is the shy and fascinating spotless crake. The headquarters of the New Zealand population of this bird is on Aorangi Island, expedition almost all mainland sightings have been in swamps or marshy areas. Birds on the islands roam over dry forest floor dieting on insects. The birds are strongly territorial, they are rarely seen in full flight but run at high speed and swim well. Another common ground bush bird seen occasionally is banded rail. Red fronted parakeets, Karkariki, have a large resident population. In hawks roosting place piles of parakeet feathers and remains along with discarded bodies of giant wetas looked like the work of rats and cats. Hawks are always present, cruising the tree tops looking for opportunities to snatch a feed. There is not great deal of diversity among the bird species. Even though there are good populations of tui on the adjacent mainland. It is interesting to note that no one has ever reported seeing tui on the islands. Occasionally we would see wood pigeon or kaka, but it would appear that these were visiting birds rather than residents, which explains why occasional Poor Knights plants appear on the mainland and mainland plants occasionally appears on the Poor Knights.
Guy & Sandra Bowden are owners of Tawapou Coastal Natives Plant Nursery on the Tutukaka Coast. Guy grew up on the Tutukaka Coast and has been passionate about NZ native plants all his life. His interest was kindled by his conservationist parents who began protecting sections of native bush and pohutukaka on the cliffs of the property over forty years ago. Guy talks about The Poor Knights Islands in relation to location & geology; history; plants and birds on the islands; reptiles, insects and snails on the islands; marine life and the 1996 weed eradication programme.