Habitat Tours goes in search of the locals

In an idyllic coastal corner, not far from Auckland, Tristan Cullen introduces visitors to some of New Zealand’s rare locals.

In an idyllic coastal corner, not far from Auckland, Tristan Cullen introduces visitors to some of New Zealand’s rare locals – the elusive North Island brown kiwi, pateke brown teal duck and weta (a fearsome critter that only comes out at night) to name a few.

Just like the locals, Cullen – a young man with a passion for conservation – knows his way around this patch of Tawharanui Open Sanctuary, night and day, finding his way along forested paths into secret places where the wildlife come out on show.

Auckland’s newest and possibly youngest tour operator, Habitat Tours is a small family operation that has been in the business since early 2013. Tristan is the main guide, and his mother Pamela is the talent behind the scenes – booking, organizing and creating the guest picnics that add additional Kiwi flavour to the eco tours.

After less than two years as a nature guide in Auckland, Cullen has developed a wide ranging and impeccable knowledge of the local habitat and its inhabitants, the result of lots of hands-on observation and reading.  

Cullen, who has worked in zoos in New Zealand and overseas (including Australia Zoo), has developed a series of Habitat Tours – half, full day and day /night trips – that focus on two destinations, both on the outskirts of the Auckland metropolitan area, at Tawharanui Sanctuary to the north and west into the Waitakere Ranges.

Tawharanui Open Sanctuary

Tawharanui - set on a remote mainland peninsula just over one hour by road from Auckland city – is an open mainland sanctuary that is pest free and home to a significant number of New Zealand's native and endemic birds, many of which are endangered. Treasured species include the kiwi, takahe, pateke and many more.

It is a true nature lover's recreational paradise of marine reserve, white sand beaches, coastal wetlands, native bush, and spectacular landscapes. This conservation area is also an example of how conservation can work alongside a sustainable farming operation.

Much of the result of this conservation success story is thanks to the Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society (TOSSI) whose members, working with Auckland Council, have built a major predator-proof fence, planted thousands of native trees and shrubs and been involved in reintroducing 14 species of birds that are now successfully breeding. The result is a very significant conservation location.

Day / Night tours

Habitat Tours offer a unique opportunity for visitors to experience Tawharanui Sanctuary with their most popular ‘day/night’ tour.

The afternoon departure allows time for visitors to experience most of the day tour itinerary, seeing the natural habitat in daylight before venturing out again under cover of darkness – the best time to see some of New Zealand’s many nocturnal inhabitants and the time when the sanctuary is all but devoid of other human occupation.

While darkness falls, there’s time for a picnic dinner with incredible views over the Pacific Ocean, looking out to Little Barrier Island – an island wildlife sanctuary - with the sun setting behind. Away from city lights, the night sky can be very spectacular.

Then, after a spread of homemade salads and tarts (sweet and savoury) washed down with hot manuka or kawakawa tea, it’s time to don the night-lights and begin the night-time adventure.

Curious nightlife

The object of the adventure is seeking out some of New Zealand’s curious nightlife - the morepork owl, wetas and what everyone is really hoping to see, the kiwi.  

What is remarkable is that most ‘Kiwis’, of the human kind, have never seen a ‘kiwi’ of the feathered kind, in the wild. It’s not so easy to find them; they’re nocturnal, they’re secretive and in much of New Zealand they simply haven’t survived due to predation.

There are no promises, this is wildlife in its natural habitat, however Habitat Tours conservatively estimate a 70% chance of seeing these most intriguing birds.

Cullen leads the small group along the pathways into the bush. It can be incredibly quiet with only the occasional sound from the night birds and insects while constantly on the alert for the telltale signs of a kiwi - a distinctive call or a snuffling sound and sometimes rather loud rustling as the bird walks through the bush.

For those privileged enough to see or hear these secretive birds in the wild, it is the icing on the cake as there really is so much more to this wonderful destination.

New Zealand flora and fauna

Habitat Tours owner and operator, Tristan Cullen, and his small team are passionate about New Zealand, its flora and fauna and delight in sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

With this in mind they run small groups (maximum of seven), so they can deliver the right experience, enabling the best opportunities of bird sightings and also having minimal impact on the environment.  The pace is leisurely with easy walking.

For those who don’t want to go out at night, the Tawharanui day tour is a great way to explore an ancient kauri forest en route to the sanctuary, the white sand beaches and rock pools of coastal Tawharanui and the regenerating bush that is home to at least 50 different species of birds and other wildlife.  

The full day tour to Waitakere Ranges visits the lush rainforest of Auckland’s west coast, the wild coastal landscape of black sand beaches, massive dunes and thundering surf of Bethell’s Beach and Muriwai where there is a mainland gannet colony.  There’s also a shorter half-day option.

All tours include a picnic lunch, dinner or morning tea.