In the absence of many of the introduced pests and predators now present on mainland New Zealand, Aotea has become a lifeboat for many native animals and plants, including freshwater fish, bats, lizards, frogs and birds.
Native and endemic plant life
After a tumultuous history of land clearance and kauri logging, much of Aotea is now covered in native vegetation. With the recent eradication of goats and the fortunate absence of many other browsing mammals, many plants and habitats on the island have been able to flourish. Kānuka and mānuka dominate the landscape, although mature pōhutukawa, tairare, pūriri and kauri are beginning to re-emerge.
Several rare plant species susceptible to browsing mammals have survived on the island, such as Kirk’s daisy, Pimelea tomentosa, and sand tussock.
Three plant species are found only on the island: the Great Barrier tree daisy, prostrate kānuka, and a subspecies of hebe.
Reptiles and amphibians
The island is also home to thirteen different species of skinks and geckos and New Zealand’s only island based population of Hochstetter’s frog.
The chevron skink is one of New Zealand’s most endangered lizards. Found only on Great Barrier and on Hauturu / Little Barrier Island, they can grow to more than 30 cm long and are perfectly camouflaged to blend in with the leaf litter along the forested streams where they live. Its Māori name, niho taniwha, refers to the tooth-like chevron markings along its back and means ‘teeth of the taniwha’.
Many of the birds on Aotea are now rare or extinct on the mainland. They can be secretive and require patience to spot. Keep an eye out for: pāteke/brown teal, the Caspian tern, wrybill, pied stilt, banded dotterel, bar-tailed godwit and the banded rail.
Most conspicuous in summer are the New Zealand dotterel and variable oystercatcher. With patience, you can also find black petrels, Australasian gannets, common diving petrels, fluttering shearwaters, Cook’s petrels, grey-faced petrels, little blue penguins and Buller’s shearwaters.
The recently rediscovered New Zealand storm petrel is also sometimes spotted off the north of the island.
Blue maomao, snapper, piper, sea turtles, sunfish, common and bottlenose dolphins and orca. Also Brydes, southern right and humpback whales.
Great Barrier is recognised as a Treasure Island as part of a conservation campaign run jointly by the Department of Conservation and the Auckland Council. The campaign traces its roots to early pest-free work done in the 1990s by DOC and the Auckland Regional Council (ARC), both to protect the Hauraki Gulf from a range of predators. It became obvious that a joint venture was required to achieve mutual aims – with both parties acknowledging the Gulf’s precious cargo as treasures or “taonga” and the Treasure islands campaign was born.
Although Aotea has fewer introduced predators than the mainland, it has a number of pests that affect habitat. The island is now home to large numbers of ship rats and feral cats, amongst other pests such as mice and pigs. Many species such as whiteheads, bellbirds and kōkako have been lost from the island, and others such as kākāriki and tomtits are just hanging on.
Hope for the future
Locals, community groups and DOC are working hard to reduce the effects of these predators.
Good results are already being seen and the wildlife is starting to return to these protected areas. Weed control programmes are also underway on key sites. Argentine ants are recent arrivals, and are the focus of an intensive programme by DOC and Auckland Council to manage the invasion and hopefully eradicate them.
How you can help
You can help protect this special place. Aotea doesn’t have Norway rats, possums, stoats and other mustelids, hedgehogs and rainbow skinks. Please check all your gear (boats, cars, kayaks, tents, cases and backpacks) for stowaways before you head to the island.
Clean your dirty gear, especially footwear, for soil and seeds—weeds are a serious problem. It is a good idea to pack food in sealed containers as open bags provide easy access for pests.
Unsupervised dogs are also a risk to wildlife on the island, so please keep any dogs under control.