Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Birding on the Titi Islands

I’ve never been to the Titi Islands and I’m never likely to get there – certainly not for ‘birding’ – the annual harvest of titi or muttonbirds. You have to be a descendant of Rakiura Maori to be able to do that. Rakiura Maori are the sole kaitiaki (caretakers) of the Nga Moutere Titi, the 21 Titi Islands scattered around much larger Stewart Island in southern New Zealand waters. I did however get a few photographs of some of the more northern of the Titi Islands when I was crossing Foveaux Strait on the ferry recently on my return from Stewart Island.

The Titi Islands are one of the few places where customary harvest of birds has continued since Pakeha arrived and the customary rights of Rakiura Maori are now recognised in law. Titi, muttonbird, sooty shearwater, Puffinus griseus – they’re all the same – is a migratory seabird and the young birds caught by Maori as an annual delicacy are fat with the oils of the fish eaten and regurgitated by their parents. The parent birds come home every night, having eaten pilchards, shrimps, sprats and small squid and the young birds gobble down their oily dinner and grow very, very fat. (It’s no wonder they smell on cooking). Generations of families make the annual pilgrimage to the islands on April 1st and capture bird by reaching down into the bird’s underground burrow.

Photograph of display at DOC Information Centre, Stewart Island. Ajr
In the old days, titi were often preserved in a poha like the one pictured here. Inside the poha is a waterproof bag made of bull kelp. The birds were cooked and then placed in the bag in their own (cooked) fat (a process known as tahu). Air pockets were squeezed out by hand to create a vacuum seal that kept the food fresh for 2-3 years. That bag was protected by an outer wrapping of harakeke (flax), tied together with the bark of the totara tree.

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