New Zealand is for the Birds

Red-crowned parakeet (Maori name= kakariki)

Before the arrival of humans, New Zealand was a bird paradise. About 131 species of land, freshwater and coastal birds thrived on these islands, which cover an area just slightly larger than California. Bird songs, hoots, whistles and calls filled the bush with a chorus like no other. Botanist Joseph Banks, who arrived with Captain Cook in 1789, noted:

“This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore…their voices were most certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard.”

More than 2/3 of New Zealand’s native bird species were endemic, found nowhere else in the world. Avian life flourished in the absence of mammalian predators; only three land mammals – all bats – are native to New Zealand.

The call of the tui has an R2D2 quality 

The largest known eagle on the planet (the Haast eagle with a wingspan of up to 10 feet) soared the skies, in search of its favorite prey (the giant flightless moa – females standing up to 12 feet tall). The world’s heaviest parrot (the flightless, nocturnal kakapo) roamed the forest and the world’s largest rail (the south island takahe) prowled the mountains. Seven endemic species of wren blanketed the islands from lowland forests to alpine rock outcrops.

Thought to be extinct, the south island takahe was rediscovered in the remote mountains of Fjordland National Park in 1948

Today, only two of those wren species remain. In fact, 46% of New Zealands endemic bird species have become extinct due primarily to the arrival of humans and the mammalian predators we have introduced. The first humans are believed to have arrived here in about the tenth century C.E. These first arrivals brought the kiore rat and Maori dog.

Centuries later, rabbits were intentionally imported as late as the 1860s for a fur and meat trade. As more land was cleared for farming the rabbits thrived and threatened crops. To protect their livelihood and food supply, farmers released stoats (a type of weasel) in the 1880s to prey on the rabbits. In 1837, Australian brush-tailed possums were introduced to establish a fur trade.

Pied shag – Abel Tasman National Park

Rats, stoats and possums compete with native birds for habitat and food. More importantly, these predators have proved quite adept at decimating the native bird population by feeding on eggs, chicks and attacking adults.

Extensive efforts have been undertaken to remove individuals of flagging bird species, such as the kakapo and takahe, to predator-free islands off the coast in order to allow them a chance at survivial. According to the Department of Conservation (DOC), nine of out every ten kiwi chicks today would not survive to their first birthday without extensive predator control efforts, which are now a primary goal of the DOC, non-profit organizations and land trusts.

These control efforts involve two primary forms: traps and poison.

Predator control trap in the Oparara River basin

The ubiquitous predator trap is familiar to anyone who spends any time hiking here. Wooden box traps, which typically house an egg or other type of bait and a large metal spring-loaded trap, line hiking tracks every 100-200 meters. More controversial is poison control, which includes several types, but most notably aerial drops of 1080 (active ingredient: fluoroacetate), which is deadly to any critter that ingests it.

In theory, the only critters ingesting the 1080 are mammals, and according to the DOC, it is the most effective means of controlling non-native predators. While the DOC  points to declines in weasel and stoat populations and increases in native birds where 1080 is used, there is little information on the poison’s other impacts. Many people have significant concerns about its impacts on non-target species, as well as land and water contamination.

Private organizations and land trusts are also using some innovative approaches. “Conservation dogs” are trained to detect rats and other predators and are used as post-eradication monitors on many pest-free islands and enclousures. Private reserves have built predator control fences surrounding swaths of land, worked to eradicate pests within the fence and then re-introduced native species that had been extirpated from the area.

Predator control fencing at Zealandia

In Wellington, I visited one such private endeavor, Zealandia. This 225-hectare (about 500-acre) valley was formerly the domestic watershed for the capitol city. Today, it is an “ecosanctuary” owned by a priviate land trust for the protection of native birds.

The valley is protected by a 9-kilometer-long predator proof fence and pest eradication efforts have removed thousands of possums, rats and stoats within its boundary. Previously extirpated bird species like the whitehead, stitchbird and saddleback are thriving in the valley, one of the only mainland populations of these species in the country. Supplemental feeding stations allow you to get up close and personal with many of the birds as you sit quietly in the forest and watch them flit back and forth. A hike up the valley offers a more natural experience, but no fewer close encounters. On my hike, I enjoyed naked eye views of whiteheads and saddlebacks.

New Zealand scaup

Although diversity is low compared to many places we have visited on this trip, unlike most places we have birded, New Zealand offers an opportunity to have close encounters with several endemic species. On nearly every hike, south island robins appear along the trail and will often land on my backpack or even my shoe if I stop to take a break, eating the incessant sandflies that inevitably swarm me.

Curious and social south island robin

A squeaky, quick warble signals an approaching New Zealand fantail, which will often fly within a few inches of our heads and then perch on a nearby branch to check us out.

New Zealand fantail – can you guess how it got its name?

Flocks of rifleman, one of two remaining endemic wrens, often descend from the canopy to flit about at eye level adjacent to the trail.

So, while our list of species is low compared to those of other countries where we have spent less time, our encounters with the birds of New Zealand have been some of the most memorable of the trip.

New Zealand birds: australasian gannet, australian magpie, banded dotteral, bar-tailed godwit, bellbird, black swan, black-billed gull, blue duck, brown creeper, brown teal, caspian tern, common chaffinch, common myna, common pheasant, common redpoll, common starling, dunnock, eastern rosella, eurasian blackbird, eurasian skylark, european goldfinch, european greenfinch, fernbird, great cormorant, great crested grebe, grey duck, grey warbler, house sparrow^, kea, kelp gull, little black shag, little penguin, long-tailed cuckoo, masked lapwing, new zealand fantail, new zealand kaka, new zealand pigeon, new zealand tomtit, north island robin, north island saddleback, northern royal albatross, paradise shelduck, pied shag, pied stilt, pukeko, red-billed gull, red-crowned parakeet, rifleman, rock pigeon, royal spoonbill, sacred kingfisher, silvereye, song thrush, south island pied oystercatcher, south island robin, south island takahe, spotted dove, spotted shag, swamp harrier, tui, variable oystercatcher, weka, welcome swallow, white-faced heron, white-fronted tern, whitehead, yellow-crowned parakeet, yellow-eyed penguin, yellowhammer

2 thoughts on “New Zealand is for the Birds

  1. Shure it is a bird paradise !!!! thanks for your so well describe blog, we are traveling with you and enjoying nature of many parts of the world. Looking forward to see you around !


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