Quail Island's History

European History

The first European known to have set foot on Ōtamahua / Quail Island, in 1842, was Captain William Mein Smith of the schooner Deborah. The island's vegetation, then, was predominantly silver tussock grassland with scattered matagouri scrub and cabbage trees. Mein Smith named the island after the now extinct native quail which were present in large numbers.

Ōtamahua / Quail Island was acquired by the Crown from the Ngai Tahu in 1850. From that time onwards it changed hands many times and served many purposes. It was originally bought from the Crown by the Ward brothers in 1850. It was farmed for a brief period before the tragic death of the two elder brothers, by drowning, in the following year. Farming continued sporadically up to the mid 1970's (1852-1855, 1858-1863, 1887-1949, and 1958-1975). Over much of this time the island also functioned as a human and animal quarantine station (c.1875-1931). In 1976 the island was gazetted a Recreation Reserve, administered by the then Department of Lands and Survey. In 1987, the management of the island was transferred to the Department of Conservation (Jackson, 1990).

Ōtamahua / Quail Island has two sheltered beaches and it is used frequently during the spring and summer months as a popular site for picnics, swimming and boating. It has good visitor facilities, with water supplied from Lyttelton and a system of tracks that traverse the island.

For detailed information buy a copy of Ōtamahua | Quail Island: A link with the past from our online shop.

Original Vegetation

Although Ōtamahua / Quail Island lacked wooded cover at the time of the European arrival, it would have supported forest a few centuries earlier. Remnants of such forest occur today on nearby Manson's Point Peninsula. It is likely that the island's original woodlands were cleared by early Polynesian settlers for agriculture and strategic purposes. The vegetation is assumed to have been a dry, coastal broadleaf-podocarp forest that is now rare. A small fragment of this forest type is found at North West Bay in Okains Bay. Other small areas of similar forest occur between Waipara and Conway Rivers and north of the Clarence River mouth, in North Canterbury and Southern Marlborough. A few kanuka (Kunzea ericoides) plants near the west end of Ōtamahua / Quail Island hint at a former much more extensive cover of this species.

Prior to the start of the ecological restoration project in 1998, the southern and eastern sides of the island were largely dominated by plantations of introduced shelter and amenity trees such as pines, cypresses, oaks and sycamores and some weedy introduced shrubs. The plateau was formerly divided into fields that grew crops such as wheat and potatoes, and was dominated by exotic grasses. On the drier, northern aspects native grasses were more common and some native shrubby patches occurred in gullies. On the southern aspects were several large areas where native bracken fern and small-leaved native shrubs and flax were recolonising the grassland but only a few individual native tree species of natural origin, other than kanuka, were present on the island (cabbage tree, Cordyline australis; ngaio, Myoporum laetum; broadleaf, Griselinia littoralis) and rare mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus). However, there was good growth and some regeneration of areas of native trees and shrubs planted in 1982 by the Department of Lands and Survey. The evident vegetation patterns strongly suggested that Ōtamahua / Quail Island retained an environment suitable for growth of indigenous woodland.

Original and Present Land Fauna

It is likely that in pre-Maori times Ōtamahua / Quail Island was frequented by up to 36 species of forest and scrubland birds and 19 coastal species. Sadly, only a few of the original number of land birds remained: kōtare / kingfisher, riroriro / grey warbler, pīwakawaka / fantail, kāhu / harrier hawk and pīhoihoi / pipit. Korimako / bellbird and kereru / wood pigeon were present on the island in summer and were occasional winter visitors. Many introduced birds from Europe and self-introduced species from Australia also were present. Of the native coastal species only 12 of the original number remained, along with additions of the self-introduced white-faced heron and the introduced mallard. Kororā / white flippered penguins nested on Quail Island up until the early 1980s but it was thought that the already low population on the island was eliminated by ferrets.

An unknown number of species of terrestrial insects, other invertebrates, and lizards will have been lost when the original woodland disappeared. The invertebrate fauna of Otamahua / Quail Island is thought to number over 500 species, including several endemic to Banks Peninsula. Both Common geckos and the Common skink and/or McCann's skink are present.

Since the island restoration project started in 1998 with the planting of native trees and the eradication of pests, bird numbers have increased. In 2015 it was confirmed that both keruru and korimako were nesting on the island, and in 2017 pipiwharauroa (shining cuckoo) were also confirmed as nesting on the island. These three birds are key indicators of restoration success and are also a key component of the overall goal of restoring a coastal woodland ecosystem. The presence of these species provides a good indication that the restoration plantings have developed to a stage that provides quality habitat including seasonal food supplies and nesting sites for native fauna. The presence of these species is also a good indication that predator control is working. The population of kororā has been re-established, with 10 active burrows found in 2001, with the population peaking at 41 active burrows in 2007. 19 active burrows were found during a survey in 2013, however the search was limited to the areas away from the cliffs, due to the danger from earthquakes and rockfall. In 2017 a survey of the same area found only 4 active burrows. 

Invertebrates introduced since the eradication of pests include carabids (Megadromus guerinii), Banks Peninsula tree weta (Hemideina ricta), and leaf-vein slugs (Pseudaneitea maculata).

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