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Dawn Chorus: New Zealand

"This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore, from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile. The numbers of them were certainly very great, who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable, to which maybe the distance was no small addition."

These are the words of Joseph Banks, botanist aboard Capt. Cook’s Endeavour, moored off the New Zealand coast on January 17, 1770.

The birdsong on this recording is likely very close to what was heard 250 years ago.

Can a whole dawn chorus become endangered? In New Zealand this has become a serious question, as the island's native birds have been decimated by predators introduced since colonisation, with some species lost altogether. Island sanctuaries are one of the remaining places one can hear New Zealand's natural dawn chorus in its splendor. And it was on one of these - Tiritiri Matangi - that this recording was made.

This album allows you to experience a complete and vibrant dawn chorus of New Zealand native birdsong.

We begin in its early phase when Tuis, Kiwis and owls call in the dark. The tinkling of Bellbirds arrives with first light, along with a full chorus of Whiteheads, Robins and other indigenous species. Afterwards, we listen on into a morning rich with native birdsong including Saddlebacks, Stitchbirds, and concluding with the rare calls of the Kokako.

"I was extraordinarily lucky to obtain this recording. Prior to our visit, the spring weather had been foul, with strong winds and gloomy days. On the day we arrived a Tiritiri, the winds abated and the sun came out, the first warm day of the season. Over the following mornings, the birds took their cue, and were singing their hearts out.

I chose my recording location carefully, selecting a well-vegetated gully on the island's northeast side. It was not only some of the most well-restored habitat on the island, but faced away from the mainland and any noise emanating from Auckland.

A huge amount of volunteer effort has gone into restoring both the environment and bird populations of this small island. It has been a decades-long project. In visiting, we found we were in the company of locals who had also come simply to hear their own native dawn chorus. New Zealand is one of the few places in the world that I have found birdsong so appreciated.

With the exception of one introduced, non-native species (a European Blackbird, heard 'chek, chek, chek...' during the dawn chorus), all the birdsong on this recording is from species native to New Zealand. The following notes highlight when they can heard most clearly (Maori names in brackets):

Tuis have an amazingly diverse and flexible vocal repertoire. They can be heard prominently throughout. In the dawn they begin calling several hours before first light, and are the dominant voice for the first 30 minutes of this recording. One comes in close and you can hear its more intimate vocalisations (at 35.00 - 38.10).

Closely related to Australia's Boobook Owl with its 'mo-poke' call. Several can be heard calling back and forth in the predawn (e.g.; 2.47, 3.05...), the female having a slightly higher call note. They also give a rising, raspy syllable (12.25)

Auckland Tree Weta (or Bush Weta) (Hemideina thoracica)
Wetas are an ancient lineage of cricket-like insects, endemic to New Zealand. Bush Wetas communicate by stridulating, creating a rasping sound by rubbing 'pegs' on the inside of their hind legs against a row of ridges on their abdomen. This is a common sound heard in the bush at night on the island, and several insects can be heard in the first 20 minutes of this recording (e.g. at 5.36, 13.20)

Little Spotted Kiwi
A series of rising whistles (off in the distance a little at 3.57, which could be two birds calling to each other)

Almost certainly the 'small bells' Joseph Banks writes of, they signal the beginning of the dawn chorus proper, taking over from the Tuis (from 32.50).

Whitehead (Popokatea)
Their high-frequency 'chipping' calls join in as the dawn chorus builds (around 50.00 on), and continue calling prolifically throughout the morning. A small flock chatter animatedly (88.09) as they pass by.

Stitchbird (Hihi)
The third of New Zealand's native honeyeater species, the Stitchbird waits for the Tuis and Bellbirds to finish their dawn chorusing before becoming more vocal. They have two distinct calls; a sharp, hi-pitched whistle (78.52, 94.34, 95.25, 103.50), and loud, buzzy snaps (one flies overhead calling 41.54, and several call back and forth in the background 52.38... one closer 66.57-68.45)

Saddleback (Tieke)
Quite loud calls with a distinctive tone of voice, repeated phrases such as "Tiu-he-he-he-he-he" (95.47). They also give a series of sharp 'chip's (126.37...)

New Zealand Pigeon (Kereru)
Quiet, single 'whoop's (63.21, 63.33, 64.33, 69.55). Whistle of wings in flight is also distinctive (76.34)

Kokakos communicate with each other with a beautiful and quite mournful song, composed every of pure and slow notes (later in the recording, one is heard from around 141.40, then a pair call more prominent to each other (from 144.14...).

New Zealand Robin (Toutouwai)
Series of soft, descending notes (one relatively clear and close at 13.14 calling on into the dawn chorus, but more often in the background, such as 90.02, 98.47, 113.37 and 140.57 on... and later at 142.23, 143.36...)

Grey Warbler (Riroriro)
Delicate descending song, closely related to the Australian Gerygones (same family). There are no close, clear calls, but they're present in the dawn chorus (e.g. at 59.02)

Sacred Kingfisher
Familiar, penetrating "kek, kek, kek..." (throughout much of dawn chorus from 52.38, and later such as 109.00...), plus rising rasp (150.23).

Yellow-crowned Parakeet (Kakariki)
No calling, but they were at this location, and rapid wing flutter could be them.

Red-billed Gull (Tarapunga)
One can be heard from the nearby shoreline (Tiritiri is a small island) probably calling on the wing as it passes by (148.08...)

Fantail (Piwakawaka)
I can't place their calls in this recording, but they were common on the island, so they're probably audible here, somewhere...

New Zealanders care for their wildlife. It is part of their national identity, and the negative effects of introduced predators since colonisation have been cause for community concern. And action.

Tiritiri Matangi is one project among several designed to give native wildlife a fighting chance. Begining in 1984, revegetation of the island, removal of predators and restocking of native birds and wildlife, has been a spectacular success. Much of this work has been initiated and undertaken by volunteers.

Visiting the island now, and comparing the landscape with historical photographs, the effect of the enviromental restoration is obvious. And listening tells the same story; the island rings with birdsong. Many of the species seen and heard here are absent or critically endangered on the mainland.

New Zealanders have ambitious plans to rid their country of feral pests such as possums and stoats. This may take many decades, if it is possible at all. In the meantime, Tiritiri really is a refuge and a tribute to all those who have worked to make it such a special place.

Click here for more information, including how to visit.

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