It’s true we have no bears, no snakes, no crocodiles, no big cats, only one slightly poisonous spider (which is really, really hard to find) and our entire native mammal population is made up of two species of bat (also really, really hard to find).
“If I come on an adventure trip to New Zealand will I see any interesting wildlife at all?” you might ask.
New Zealand is a weird and interesting place for wildlife because it’s been out on its own, geographically-speaking, for the last 80 million years. We were once attached to Australia, but before any wombats, koalas or kangaroos had a chance to hop aboard, New Zealand separated from our gum-tree-covered neighbour and drifted off into the South Pacific like a rocky canoe. It was, however, a rocky canoe that had loads of birds on board and heaps of marine mammals (and penguins!) swimming around it.
While some of New Zealand’s most interesting birds, like the enormous flightless Moa (a cousin of the ostrich), and Haast’s Eagle (once the world’s largest eagle) are now extinct, along with at least 50 other species of native New Zealand birds, there are still plenty of unusual and curious birds flying – or in many cases walking – around the New Zealand wilderness. And our surrounding ocean and endless dramatic coastlines are home to a plethora of whales, dolphins, fur seals, sea lions, penguins and other sea birds, including the enormous Northern Royal Albatross. Chances are, if you join us for a trip around New Zealand’s national parks and other remote areas, you’ll see a bunch of these curious creatures along the way.
A cheeky robin
A few years ago, when I was guiding our adventure trips, it never failed to surprise me where, when and how we would be greeted by our native wildlife. Hiking through Nelson Lakes National Park on our Rimu trip, I once spotted a native New Zealand robin following us through the beech forest. I knew that if I stirred up a little patch of soil on the track, the bird might venture down to see if there were any bugs in the disturbed ground.
What I didn’t expect was that this little bird would fly down and land on the toe of my hiking boot so that she could check out the bug situation. Everyone stood quietly around while the bird feasted on a few morsels that were wriggling on the track – it was a special moment with one of our smaller forest dwellers.
At the other end of the spectrum, one sunny day out at Taiaroa Head on the tip of the Otago Peninsula, near the city of Dunedin, with a light onshore breeze we saw several Northern Royal Albatrosses soaring back and forth next to the sea cliffs below us.
They used the updraft against the rocky cliffs to slowly gain height before they would rise over the cliff top and circle the hill at the very end of the peninsula where their nests are perched – the only mainland breeding colony for Royal Albatrosses in the world! On this particular day, the wind was so light that the albatrosses would only gain the smallest amount of height each time they flew back and forth, and for one bird this meant barely clearing the top of the cliff by a mere 6 feet (2 meters). Of course, we were standing at the top of that cliff, so we quickly found ourselves ducking underneath a fast-moving bird with a 10-foot (3m) wingspan!
The endangered kakapo
Amongst the rarest of New Zealand’s birds is the Kakapo, a large flightless parrot weighing up to 4 kg (9 lb). There are only 126 of these birds remaining, the majority of which live on predator-free Codfish Island, west of Stewart Island, the third largest island in the New Zealand archipelago. The Department of Conservation have an intensive breeding program underway and the bird numbers are slowly rising from a low of less than 60 birds in the 1990s. To find out how they did it, read Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue.
Chatham Islands black robins
Sixty individuals isn’t many when it comes to an entire species, but New Zealand lays claim to what may be the closest a species has come to extinction without actually going extinct. In 1980, only 5 Chatham Islands black robins remained. Out of those, three were male, and of the two females remaining, only one was fertile. The one fertile female bird, named “Old Blue” – along with help from some very hard-working conservationists - was responsible for the recovery of the species, which now sits at 250 birds.