Separated from mainland New Zealand by water for tens of thousands of years, this is the land that time forgot. Species have evolved differently, and insects and plants have grown larger.
The Department of Conservation diligently protects the Poor Knights Islands and rightly so; they are home to a wide variety of rare and endangered native insects, reptiles and molluscs.
One of New Zealand’s largest pohutukawa forests exists on the islands
After the initial Maori settlement was abandoned in the 1820’s, and the island was rid of the remaining pigs in 1936, the native bush began to flourish as it once did. There are still stands of ancient forest, and the secondary bush has regenerated strongly from them. One of New Zealand’s largest pohutukawa forests exists on the islands, and predominate the seaward slopes, exploding in a vibrant sprinkling of red over the top of the island every year during November and December. Known as the NZ Christmas tree, their bright red flowers blanket the island and supposedly reminded Captain Cook of his jam covered “Poor Knights pudding”, hence one story behind the naming of the islands.
Other coastal natives found on the island include kohekohe, Tawapou, ngaio, taupata, karo, mahoe and karamu. Astelias, flax and toetoe and ringaringa cling to rocky outcrops and inland cliffs, and some species are distinctive from the mainland varieties. Suffering from what is called gigantism, they are larger leaved and stemmed than their cousins.
Endemic species include the Poor Knights maupo, and the Poor Knights houhere, but the best known would have to be the Poor Knights Lily, Xeronema callistemon. This beautiful lily takes 7-8 years before it produces a bottle-brush-like stem that erupts into red flowers. Clinging to cliffs, and hardy flax like plants, the lily can grow to enormous clump sizes. In October they produce their flowers that last for several months.
Between October and May, millions of sea birds flock to the islands to breed.
The Poor Knights Islands are the realm of insects, birds, and reptiles. Their long isolation and relatively short period of habitation has protected them from the destruction that was the fate of many mainland species. The impact of introduced species has not reached these outlying islands, in fact the Poor Knights are a completely pest free environment, making them one of the most important offshore reserves in the country and providing a safe haven for many threatened native species.
The dense bush canopy shelters large populations of seabirds as well as land birds. The main residentland birds are the red crowned parakeet (kakariki) and the bellbird (korimako). Both species are extremely rare in Northland but have thriving populations on the Poor Knights. The distinctive and exquisite song of the bellbird rings throughout the bush and out over the water, especially in places like Maroro Bay and South Harbour.
Other land birds include fantails, kingfishers, pipits, harriers and welcome swallows. There are two species of native cuckoo that are also on the island, and they will replace the egg of the bellbird with their own.
Two ground dwelling birds area also established; the spotless crake forages on the forest floor of both main islands, while the banded rail is found only on Tawhiti Rahi.
Between October and May, millions of sea birds flock to the islands to breed. The most abundant species is the Buller’s shearwater. These migrating birds are endemic to the Poor Knights. Around October each year 2.5 million of them arrive at the islands from the Artic Circle to breed. They dig burrows in the volcanic soil and return to the same nest year after year. They will share this burrow with the nocturnal tuatara. At night, the tuatara leaves to feed, and guards the eggs during the day whilst the shearwater stays at sea feeding and resting on the surface. The tuatara will not eat its host’s egg, and the bird will not scratch at the eyes of its guest. This symbiotic relationship exists on few other offshore islands in NZ. The Buller’s shearwaters are silent all day at sea, but as they clumsily land, they are noisy and squawk loudly as they waddle to their burrow.
Australasian gannets breed on the Sugarloaf and the Pinnacles. Males arrive first at the end of July to prepare the nest they occupied the year before. Gannets mate for life and once the female arrives the pair go through an elaborate courtship display which is repeated every time one of the adults return to the nest with food for the newly hatched chick. When the chick is about four months old it is ready for its first flight, a maiden flight all the way to Australia. The young birds return to the colony after two to five years to find a mate and continue the cycle. Around the island bird watchers can expect to see flesh footed shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, fluttering shearwaters, fairy prions, grey faced petrels, Pycroft’s petrels, white faced storm petrels, diving petrels, pied shags, white fronted terns and little blue penguins.