The Best of New Zealand Wildlife

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Some­times re­ferred to as ‘the youngest coun­try on earth’, the com­bi­na­tion of New Zealand’s rel­a­tive ge­o­log­i­cal youth and iso­la­tion from other great land masses has helped cre­ate a liv­ing ‘Noah’s Ark’ of amaz­ing and of­ten unique wildlife species.

New Zealan­ders are lucky enough to share their home with many fas­ci­nat­ing crea­tures. There are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to see them year round – you might spot a fam­ily of dol­phins fol­low­ing your boat, and it’s not un­usual to see whales and orca within sight of Auck­land or lit­tle blue pen­guins on Welling­ton’s city fringe, but there are also many spe­cial places where you can see them up-close.

One of the best times to ob­serve any wildlife is dur­ing the breed­ing cy­cles from spring through to early sum­mer. And - here’s a hint, if you go with a guide, you’ll have the best op­por­tu­nity to find them be­cause they know the best places and times to spot the lo­cals at home.

Some of the first ex­am­ples of unique wildlife that visi­tors are bound to no­tice are the many species of for­est birds found only in New Zealand. The parks and back­yards of Auck­land’s ur­ban sprawl and Welling­ton’s in­ner sub­urbs are filled with the sound of song­birds such as the bossy green black tui - some­times re­ferred to as ‘the par­son bird’ for its tuft of white feath­ers un­der the neck - or the per­fectly pitched green bell­bird high in the trees.

If you’re an early bird, you might wake up to a dawn cho­rus in full swing. That’s likely to hap­pen if you overnight in any one of New Zealand’s many and ex­ten­sive con­ser­va­tion do­mains. New Zealand has 14 na­tional parks and one of the high­est rates of pro­tected ar­eas in the world with one third of the coun­try pro­tected.

Off­shore, there’s a rich and com­plex marine en­vi­ron­ment that ranges from sub­trop­i­cal to sub­antarc­tic habi­tats pro­vid­ing homes to over 15,000 known species, many unique in the world. New Zealand was one of the first coun­tries to cre­ate sea re­serves and there are now 44 marine re­serves in New Zealand’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters cov­er­ing 17,700 km2.


Many dif­fer­ent kinds of th­ese lit­tle birds – com­i­cal and clumsy on land, grace­ful and el­e­gant in the wa­ter – can be found on the cooler fringes of New Zealand in­clud­ing in Akaroa, Ste­wart Is­land and the Marl­bor­ough Sounds. The South Is­land’s west coast is home to one of the world’s rarest pen­guins – the Fiord­land Crested, which has a lik­ing for some of the re­motest parts of the coun­try.

One of the best pen­guin spots is Oa­maru, where you’ll see both the yel­low-eyed pen­guin and the world’s small­est pen­guin, the lit­tle blue pen­guin. The yel­low-eyed pen­guins are very shy, and are best spot­ted early morn­ing or late af­ter­noon from one of the pub­lic hides near the beaches. They gather in the largest num­bers be­tween Septem­ber and Fe­bru­ary.


From the tiny and dis­tinc­tive Hec­tor’s dol­phin (a na­tional trea­sure) to the compact com­mon dol­phin and the sleek grey bot­tlenose, New Zealand’s coast­lines are home to a wide range of dol­phins. Th­ese play­ful and in­quis­i­tive crea­tures are of­ten as in­ter­ested in visi­tors as the visi­tors are in them, so it’s lucky that both groups have the chance to meet each other through­out the year. All three species are found in the Marl­bor­ough Sounds year round, and in the warmer sum­mer months, there are of­ten orca - the largest of the dol­phin species - chas­ing stingrays around the bays as well.


Whales are gi­ants of the sea but with many qual­i­ties that seem to make them hu­man, some­thing recog­nised in Maori myth and leg­end.

Kaik­oura is an iconic des­ti­na­tion for those want­ing to catch a glimpse of th­ese in­cred­i­ble an­i­mals. From here, pods of sperm whales can be seen through­out the year but be­tween June and Au­gust, things get really in­ter­est­ing. Other species of whale, such as the hump­back, make their yearly mi­gra­tion from the Antarc­tic up to warmer climes, and the Kaik­oura coast pro­vides the per­fect stopover for them.


No less an author­ity than Bri­tish nat­u­ral­ist Sir David At­ten­bor­ough has de­scribed the Otago Penin­sula as “a very spe­cial place” and it’s not hard to see why. With the world’s only main­land breed­ing al­ba­tross colony at Ta­iaroa Head, it’s pos­si­ble for visi­tors to see th­ese ma­jes­tic seabirds with a wing­span of more than three me­tres soaring at speeds of up to 120 km per hour. Visit be­tween Septem­ber and Novem­ber to see the breed­ing birds ar­riv­ing at the head­land and build­ing nests. Chicks hatch from late Jan­uary to late Fe­bru­ary and, aided by a strong gust of wind, take their first flight in Septem­ber.


For such a well-known New Zealand icon, the kiwi can be sur­pris­ingly elu­sive. This small, snuffly bird’s shy­ness and noc­tur­nal habits can make spot­ting one a chal­lenge. They are also en­dan­gered and threat­ened by preda­tors such as dogs, cats and stoats, so see­ing them wild is some­thing only the lucky ex­pe­ri­ence.

They can be spot­ted in their na­tive habi­tat at night on Ste­wart Is­land, off the bot­tom of the South Is­land, with the help of ex­pe­ri­enced guides such as Phillip Smith from Bravo Ad­ven­ture Cruises.

To up your chances you might visit a sanc­tu­ary, such as Kapiti Is­land. Here, among a kiwi pop­u­la­tion of 1400, the bird is rou­tinely seen on the is­land’s night tours and there is ac­com­mo­da­tion for overnight stays. Some wildlife parks, such as Christchurch’s Wil­low­bank, have cre­ated ar­ti­fi­cial night-time en­vi­ron­ments, so visi­tors can walk (si­lently) through an en­clo­sure within me­tres of the birds but it is also pos­si­ble to see them in cap­tiv­ity at Auck­land Zoo, Rain­bow Springs in Ro­torua and Kiwi Birdlife Park in Queen­stown. If you want to see cute chicks in the breed­ing fa­cil­i­ties, the best time to visit is Septem­ber to April.

En­dan­gered species - a ju­ve­nile Bryde’s whale in the Hau­raki Gulf IM­AGE: Auck­land Whale & Dol­phin Sa­fari

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