New Zealand: Where the Wild Things Are

New Zealand is filled with great people, incredible vistas, and a huge range of stunning wildlife. From tiny birds that are only found here, to gigantic whales off the coast, the wildlife of New Zealand is diverse and beautiful.

I was surprised to learn that New Zealand is the world leader in bringing back severely endangered species. Sadly this is due to the destruction and disruption of its delicate ecosystem. Before the arrival of humans on the island, about 1,000 years ago, there were only a few species of mammals (a few small bats). So for millions of years birds and insects ruled the land evolving into diverse shapes and sizes, taking over all the general roles in an ecosystem normally filled by mammals.  

When humans arrived the environment of New Zealand radically changed. The first people hunted the giant apex predator birds to extinction and cleared the forest. Europeans arrived with a plague of rats and other animals that quickly wiped out the delicate balance established over millions of years. Birds that had previously laid their eggs on the ground were now under attack by rats, possums, stoats, cats and dogs. Sealing and whaling industries threatened marine life as well.

Thankfully, the government of New Zealand has recognized the threat and are actively working to protect the ecosystem. Marine parks have been established to help protect fur seals, and bird sanctuaries have been created to protect native birds. Many once threatened species are starting to make a comeback, and strict laws and biosecurity now protect the island nation from the importation of unwanted species. 

Here are just a few of the many different birds and animals we saw in New Zealand.

{video} Takahae were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in 1948. Thanks to protection and breeding programs they are slowly making a comeback. In 2013, only 263 Takahae were thought to exist. In this video, two parents and a chick graze on Tiritiri Matangi, a bird island sanctuary near Auckland.

New Zealand fur seals where hunted for food and their pelts (skins) for years. They are making a comeback after gaining protected status in 1978.

A fur seal rests on the rocks near Kaikoura.

{video} Sperm whales were once hunted nearly to extinction, now they have returned to feed near Kaikoura. Converging underwater currents and a deep underwater canyon just off shore of Kaikoura, make it a great place for the whales to hunt squid.

Sperm whales spend nearly all their time hunting underwater, returning to the surface only for air. Once they surface they spend around 15 minutes deeply breathing before diving back below to feed.

Wallabies!

Bennet's Wallabies were introduced to New Zealand from Australia in the 1870s. At Enkeldoovery Korna in Waimata, we got the chance to feed some tame ones. Next to sheep, they were the cutest things on the island.

Tuatara are the only surviving members of an order of reptiles that flourished 200 million years ago.

{video} Near Akaroa, we had the chance to visit a white-flippered penguin reserve. After a great bush hike down to the bay, we saw a few white-flippered penguins that had been rescued and saw some nesting boxes with adorable penguin chicks. Then we hiked along the coast to look for more penguins. The white-flippered penguins only come on shore in the evening, but have a social happy hour as the sun goes down. They group together in the water until its dark enough for them to return to shore. We also spotted a pair of yellow-eye penguins that climbed up the hillside for the evening.

White-Flippered Penguin

Yellow-Eyed Penguins 

We took this boat through the glow worm caves at Waitomo. Glow worms are a type of gnat that has evolved to feed on other insects.  It creates a silk snare (like a spider) that it dangles in the cave, and then glows to attract bugs. The worms glowed on the ceiling of the cave like thousands of stars in the night sky. 

An Island of Birds

Above all, New Zealand is known for being home to some of the world's most unique and rare birds.

There are over 115 species of birds that only live in New Zealand.

We got to see a Great Spotted Kiwi at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, but weren't permitted to take any pictures. The Kiwi is truly one of the oddest birds, or animals I have ever seen. They walk around looking for food in the soil and leaf litter by poking their long snouts into the ground.

Pukeko (also called Purple Swamphen) are found in New Zealand, Australia, and parts of Indonesia.  While they are about the same size as the Takahe, they are 1/3 as light, and can actually fly.  

{video} Spur-winged Plover at the Otorohanga Kiwi House.

Variable Oystercatcher on Rabbit Island.

Variable Oystercatcher on Rabbit Island.

Red-Crowned Parakeet on TiriTiri Matangi Island.

A Paradise Shelduck at the Otorohanga Kiwi House.

Pig Goose, or Cape Barren goose.

Kea are the world's only alpine parrot. Once hunted for bounty, they are now protected by the New Zealand government. They are known for their intelligence, and will often steal unattended items and rubber parts of cars.

New Zealand Kaka

Of all wild things on New Zealand, sheep are the most common, and according to Beth, the cutest.