Shakespear sanctuary securing saddlebacks

Boxes made by volunteers for saddlebacks weather on a fence line before they are placed around the open sanctuary.

Shakespear Open Sanctuary will welcome another new bird species – 40 North Island saddlebacks, or tieke – on Saturday, May 26.

This latest introduction is the fourth, following the release of North Island robins, whiteheads and little spotted kiwi.

The saddlebacks are coming from Tiritiri Matangi Island, and will eventually be joined by 10 more, from Tawharanui.

Volunteers preparing for the arrival of saddlebacks at the open sanctuary in Army Bay had an additional challenge when it came to making nesting and roosting boxes for the birds.

Apparently saddlebacks do not like the smell of fresh timber, so the 200 roost boxes and 100 nest boxes had to be hung on fences to weather, so that they would be acceptable to the new occupants.

Open sanctuaries senior ranger Matt Maitland says the box design was developed on Kapiti Island, to keep saddlebacks safe from Norway rats. They are needed as quite a lot of the sanctuary is relatively young habitat, and saddlebacks prefer the holes that form naturally in older trees.

Saddlebacks are very vulnerable to predators such as rats, stoats and cats as they spend a lot of time looking for food on the ground.

Matt says that the birds, which are already popular with the public on Tiritiri Matangi, will be easily seen by visitors, and have a distinctive song.

They will also improve the biodiversity of the sanctuary. “Once we have saddlebacks in the mix, it alters the wildlife community,” Matt says. “We will see mixed flocks feeding and saddlebacks also peel and lift the bark on trees, which opens the way for other birds, like waxeyes, to find food.”

Matt says the focus for rangers and volunteers at the sanctuary remains on keeping up its pest proof defences.

More people are needed to check trap lines around the sanctuary on a regular basis, making sure they are set and ready. Training is provided and the volunteer is then given their own trap line to look after. These can be serviced on a monthly, or fortnightly basis at a time that suits the volunteer. Info: email

Saddleback facts
The saddleback or tieke belongs to NZ’s unique wattlebird family, an ancient group which includes the endangered kokako and the extinct huia.

Saddleback were fairly common throughout all of mainland NZ until their decline began in the mid-19th century, caused by forest clearance and introduced predators such as ship rats, feral cats and stoats.
They are currently categorised by the Department of Conservation as an “at risk, recovering” species.

The North Island saddleback is now resident on 19 islands and is in a favourable position to survive. The South Island species is on 11 smaller islands but its tiny founding population leaves it vulnerable to inbreeding.

Saddlebacks are similar to a blackbird in size and occupy a similar niche which includes spending a lot of time on the ground.

North Island saddlebacks have striking black plumage, a rich chestnut ‘saddle’ across their back, bright reddish-orange wattles (that get larger with age) and a thin pale yellow band on the leading edge of the saddle.