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New Zealand Wildlife

Explore the wildlife and natural heritage of New Zealand, with its iconic birdlife, marine mammals, and adorable penguins. Odyssey offers small group tours for mature and senior travellers, couples, and solo travelers to New Zealand.

25 Mar 21 · 8 mins read

New Zealand Wildlife

Having split from the continent of Australia roughly 80 million years ago, New Zealand‘s islands have developed their own unique, and distinct ecosystem quite unlike anywhere else on earth. The most notable feature of New Zealand’s native wildlife is the near complete lack of mammalian life, save that which humans brought with them, or that which comes by sea. Instead, the North, and South Island of New Zealand are both characterized by a large number of small flightless birds, which in the absence of larger predators, have come to flourish. Aside from its flightless birds, such as the iconic kiwi, New Zealand’s native species include a large variety of marine and coastal life, with the rich waters of the Tasman Sea, as well as its Antarctic proximity, making it an ideal location for penguins, dolphins, whales, seals, and more. New Zealand’s ancient Gondwanan island heritage has also led to a number of so called ‘living fossils’, or unique creatures which can trace their heritage back as early as the Triassic period, providing a fascinating window into evolutionary biology, and the formation of much of the common life we encounter today. On a tour with Odyssey, you can encounter some of these cute, or curious creatures along your travels with us, with tours across both the North and South Islands exploring New Zealand’s incredible natural heritage.

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Birds

Kiwi

The most famous and recognisable of New Zealand’s flightless birds is without a doubt the iconic kiwi. This bird has come to occupy a place of national pride for many New Zealander’s, with the term ‘Kiwi’ even becoming a demonym of the term ‘New Zealander’ itself. This small flightless bird is about the size of a domestic chicken, with brown hair-like feathers covering most of the bird‘s body. It also has a long thin beak with nostrils at the end, which it uses to forage for seeds, grubs, worms and other prey. Interestingly, the kiwi bears little heritage in common with the island‘s other flightless birds, instead being more closely related to larger flightless birds such as ostriches, emus or rhea. You’ll likely come upon a kiwi during many of New Zealand’s wildlife encounter programs in various zoo’s and parks, with the kiwi bird being an incredibly popular, and iconic national symbol.

North Island Brown Kiwi Chick (Apteryx mantelli), being released into a man-made burrow on Motuora Island, Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Nikon D80

Kakapo

Though at present critically endangered, this huge nocturnal flightless parrot was once found across the islands of New Zealand, with the sheltered conditions free of predation allowing this parrot to grow absolutely enormous in size. Now found only on a couple of islands off the coast from the mainland, the Kakapo is a curious and wonderful creature, resembling a large rotund green parrot, that can grow up to 65cm in length, and 4kg in weight. This enormous size makes the Kakapo the world’s largest and heaviest parrot, though its curious features don’t end there. The Kakapo also has an incredible lifespan, living for almost 100 years, making it possibly one of the world’s oldest lived birds. The reasons for the Kakapo’s endangered status is unfortunately due mainly to human activity, while the Maori were known to hunt the bird, the main threat to the species came with the introduction of predators such as cats, ferrets and other mammals, brought over when the British colonized New Zealand.

Endangered, rare and spectacular parrots, the Kakapo are endemic to New Zealand

Kea

The Kea is another of New Zealand’s more iconic birds, with its large size and distinctive plumage making it a recognizable icon across the south island. Found exclusively on the south island of New Zealand, the Kea is the world’s only alpine parrot, and can be spotted in forests, or valleys throughout the island‘s national parks. At a length of 48cm, and weighing about a kilogram, the kea is one of the larger varieties of parrot, with an ancestry found only in other varieties of bird in the New Zealand region. Today the Kea are known as some of the more cheeky or mischievous residents of the south island, with a tendency to steal items from backpacks, or otherwise left unguarded, it also has a fondness for destroying rubber seals on cars and causing other kinds of mischief that earn the ire of many local residents.

Kea Bird, New Zealand

Other Birds

With such a rich variety of avian life, you’re likely to spot a huge abundance of native bird life during a tour of New Zealand. Some other notable birds to look out for along the way include:

The Kereru: A native fruit pigeon with a distinctive white underbelly.

New Zealand Fantail: A common bird found across the country, known for its large plume of tail feathers, active demeanour, and tendency to flitter around quite close to humans.

Pukeko: Otherwise known as the Australasian swamphen, this marsh dweller sports a bright red beak and crest, with blue and black plumage.

Tui: A large honeyeater bird found throughout New Zealand, particularly on the north island. They sport a beautiful mix of black, and vibrant blue plumage.

Morepork: New Zealand’s only native owl, they are also found across the island of Tasmania to New Zealand’s west.

Royal Albatross: While not exclusively a New Zealand native, migratory sea birds such as the Royal Albatross are often found across the islands of New Zealand. You might spot one of these enormous birds along New Zealand’s south, or eastern coast, with the Otago Peninsula in particular being one of the most popular locations for wildlife watching.

Adult Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) in flight over New Zealand subantarctic waters.

Penguins

Surrounded by the South Pacific, and Southern Oceans, New Zealand is an ideal habitat for a number of penguins, with the rich fishing grounds supporting numerous colonies surrounding the entirety of the islands of New Zealand. Amongst these penguins, the most numerous and well known is the Little Penguin. Also known as the ‘Little Blue Penguin‘, or ‘Fairy Penguin‘, these are found all around New Zealand, though their numbers have declined sharply over the past 40-50 years. They are unique in their miniature stature, at only 30cm tall, sporting a bluish colour on their upper body, and a small white belly. Aside from these adorably small penguins, New Zealand also has a number of endemic penguins such as the Fiordland Crested Penguin, which can be found around Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park, as well as the now rare Yellow Eyed Penguin, which can be found along the southeast coast. Recently, rising ocean temperatures have been linked to the outbreak of disease and infection, which has been a major contributor to the rate of colony loss. In the face of this, conservation authorities are hard at work with breeding, and protection programs to keep these iconic animals a part of New Zealand’s natural heritage.

A group of fiordland crested penguins
A group of Crested Penguins are excited by the visiting boat and trip over each other trying to get closer. Milford Sound offers many inlets to shelter the birds.

Marine Wildlife

While New Zealand has a distinct lack of mammals on its mainland, when it comes to the coasts and oceans, mammals are the predominate force that characterises its marine biosphere, with an abundance of dolphins, whales, and seals, many of which are seldom found elsewhere in the world. In fact, this marine biodiversity ranks as the highest concentration anywhere in the world, with 80% of New Zealand’s biodiversity being marine based, as well as 50% of the world’s whale and dolphin species living in, or passing through New Zealand’s waters.

Amongst New Zealand’s dolphins are its famous, small endemic varieties, such as the Maui dolphin, and Hector’s dolphin. These two varieties of dolphin are still a relatively rare sight, with an overall small population, and they are both small at around 1.5m, sporting a distinctive, grey, white and black pattern, with a small rounded dorsal fin. The Hector’s dolphin is a popular sight for travellers to cities such as Christchurch, where they can occasionally be spotted around the Banks Peninsula. Other varieties of dolphin found in New Zealand’s waters include the Common, Bottlenose, and Dusky dolphin, which can still be found throughout the islands in relative abundance, as well as a few larger species of dolphin such as pilot whales, or Orca.

Hector’s Dolphin mother and calf, the world’s smallest and rarest marine dolphin, Akaroa Harbour, New Zealand

Whales are also found in abundance in New Zealand’s waters, with common sightings of species such as the Humpback whale, Sperm whale, as well as the Southern Right whale, making it a fantastic destination for whale watching, or for nature enthusiasts in general. Occasionally even the incredible Blue whale can be found making its way along New Zealand’s coastline, despite only 2,000 or so remaining in the world. New Zealand has a long history with its whales, with the first European outposts on the island belonging to whalers in the early 19th century, many years before European colonization began in earnest. Though their numbers have been diminished over the past few centuries, New Zealand has been one of the loudest advocates for whale protection and conservation since commercial whaling was banned in 1986, with their own operations ceasing over two decades prior in 1964.

Humpback whale off the coast of Kaikoura.
Humpback whale breaching off the coast of Kaikoura.

The last of New Zealand’s marine mammal life are its seals and sea lions. Amongst these, the most well known is the New Zealand Fur Seal, and the New Zealand Sea Lion. Of the two, the fur seal is the far more populous, with a stable and growing population that can be found anywhere throughout the south island and even along the south coast of Australia. Fur seals range between 1.5-2m and have a thick brown/silver coat of fur, they mostly feed on fish, squid, and seabirds. The sea lion on the other hand, is the larger, and more endangered of the two, at roughly twice the size, though their population has waned to a point where they are projected to be functionally extinct by 2035. Aside from these local species, during the winter months, some species of Antarctic seals such as the leopard seal, and elephant seal are known to range north to New Zealand’s waters, providing a rare sight of some of the world’s least sighted creatures.

Close-up of a New Zealand Fur Seal

Reptiles and Invertebrates

Heading back to land, New Zealand also has a number of unique and distinct creatures dating back as far as the Triassic era. Of these the most well known is the native Tuatara, a reptile resembling a lizard, but of an ancestry far predating every other kind of known reptile on earth. In fact, the Tuatara is the only surviving member of its class, with other relatives slowly dying off before becoming wholly extinct around 60 million years ago. This genetic abnormality has peaked the curiosity of many researchers and evolutionary biologists, seeing the Tuatara as a ‘living fossil’. Today you can find the Tuatara on a number of islands off New Zealand’s coast, or at a wildlife park, with habitation on the mainland coming to an end following the introduction of competitor species. Another strange fossil is the Weta, this invertebrate resembles a large flightless cricket, using its large size and spiny limbs to its advantage. There are a variety of different weta throughout New Zealand, many of which are unfortunately endangered, including the enormous Giant Weta, the Tree Weta and more.

Tuatara

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