When most people think of New Zealand, they think of grand vistas, towering mountains, reflective lakes and sweeping glaciers. But whilst it wasn’t top of my considerations when I first moved here 5.5 years ago, I’ve discovered that it is a country brimming with wildlife too, many of which is endemic to (can only be found in) New Zealand. The country has long flaunted its clean, green image, and whilst there are certainly those who would argue the truth in that, there is certainly no denying that this country is brimming with countryside, nature areas and untouched wilderness. Coming from the UK where every inch of the place has been conquered, owned and settled on, I still find it astounding that there are parts of New Zealand where people just haven’t and can’t set foot. Vast hectares of the southwest are like a jungle and many of the southern fjords remain accessible only by boat.
With no native land mammals, the native birds grew flightless, and in some cases large. Although the giant Moa and its hunter the giant Haast’s Eagle, have long since been made extinct by the arrival of man, New Zealand still remains an island nation of flightless and ground nesting birds. Unfortunately, the accidental and deliberate introduction of mammals and pest species has left some species extinct, and others critically endangered, but find the right piece of forest and the cacophany of birdlife in the canopy brings goosebumps. It is a bird enthusiast’s paradise here, and nowhere else in the world is there an alpine parrot, who’s cheeky antics are always a joy to watch.
With mile after mile of coastline, the seas around New Zealand are breeming with incredibly diverse marine life from the smallest plankton to some of the largest marine mammals in the world. On land, sea and air, there is always something to see if you know where to look.
These behemoths are most consistently spotted off the coast of Kaikoura in the South Island. The 1200m deep Kaikoura Canyon just 500m off shore leads out into the Hikurangi Trench, a 3000m submarine canyon that skirts north past the North Island. This depth houses a submarine world that includes giant squid, the favoured diet of the 56-ton male sperm whales that reside here. Viewed either by plane where the whole body can be appreciated, or by boat where you can get up close to watch them idle at the surface then dive to the depths.
Similar in size and shape to the Minke whale, the best place to see these shy whales is the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island.
Southern Right Whale
Typically found off the south-western coast of the South Island, I was lucky to see a mother and calf cruising in a bay off the coast of Christchurch on the east coast.
These large dolphins are best spotted in the Hauraki Gulf and around the Bay of Islands in the North Island.
These playful and acrobatic dolphins are smaller than the bottlenose dolphin. Best spotted off the Kaikoura coastline in the South Island.
Like the almost identical Maui’s Dolphin, these are the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. They are also unusual in having a rounded dorsal fin unlike other dolphins that have a pointed fin. They are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world. The most consistent place to spot them is off the coast of Banks Peninsula to the east of Christchurch, particularly around Akaroa, although they can be seen up and down the eastern coast of the South Island.
Long-beaked Common Dolphin
An ocean-dwelling dolphin, this species travel in large pods, making for an incredible experience upon sighting them. The Hauraki Gulf in the North Island is the most consistent place to see them.
New Zealand Sealion
Primarily residing in the Sub-Antarctic Islands to the south of the country, an increasing population can now be found in the southern regions of the South Island. Otago Peninsula and the beaches of the Catlins are the best places to find these large and short-tempered creatures.
New Zealand Fur Seal (kekeno)
Although they look fat and uncoordinated on land, they are acrobats and outstanding hunters in the water. Recovering from years of historical hunting following the habitation of New Zealand, they are abundantly spotted up and down the coastline of the South Island. Guaranteed places to spot them are the coastline of Kaikoura Peninsula, Banks Peninsula near Akaroa, Cape Foulwind near Westport and the outer coastline of both Milford and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland.
One of many deliberately introduced pest species, these non-native rabbits and hares are most easily spotted in open pastures. The Ministry of Primary Industries estimate their presence in New Zealand results in $50M of lost production and so there are multiple methods in place to reduce their numbers.
An introduced pest, these little critters are ultra-cute but also a threat to the endemic birds of New Zealand. This one was spotted on a forest walk in Canterbury.
The world’s only alpine parrot, these immensely intelligent and fascinating birds are a much-loved sighting in the mountains of the South Island where they are endemic. They have easily become my favourite bird since moving to New Zealand. The most consistent place to spot them is around Arthur’s Pass on the west coast road in the Southern Alps. As they associate humans with both food and toys, they are more than happy to come right up to you, and have been known to work in mobs as decoys whilst they steal your belongings.
North Island Kākā
This vulnerable species is another endemic parrot species, living at lower altitudes than the Kea, in low-mid altitude forests. Infrequently spotted in wilderness areas, the Zealandia Sanctuary in the capital city of Wellington offers near-guaranteed sightings of these playful birds.
One of a few parrokeet species to be found in New Zealand. You are more likely to hear their flocks than see them.
New Zealand Falcon (Kārearea)
The only falcon in New Zealand, they are more commonly spotted in the South Island, especially around bush or the high country. This particular bird was one of two that kept me company at the summit of Roys Peak by Wanaka.
Widespread throughout the north and south islands.
Another endemic bird, they have a beautiful song which is a lovely accompaniment to a woodland walk. With their puffy white bib they have a distinctive look, and are more easily spotted in the North Island, although they are present in the South Island albeit to a lesser degree.
A difficult bird to spot, these rare birds are only found in small pockets of the country where pest measures have kept predators at bay.
For me, this endemic bird has the most beautiful song of all the forest dwellers of New Zealand. I love listening to them when I’m out hiking in the bush. Commonly spotted in the woodlands of both islands.
One of many introduced bird species, I’m used to these birds from growing up in Scotland, but I’ve been struck by how much bolder the New Zealand descendants are. Commonly spotted in rural and urban zones, they are a regular visitor to outdoor cafe tables in the city as they brazenly look for wayward crumbs.
Another introduced species, these can be spotted in woodland areas and occasionally urban gardens.
North Island Robin
These little birds are extremely bold and curious and are a common companion when hiking through the forest.
South Island Robin
The South Island equivalent of the New Zealand robins.
South Island Tomtit
Typically only seen in woodland. They are difficult to photograph – although curious and often will come close, they don’t typically stay still for long.
North Island Fantail
These playful little birds love flitting through the trees as you walk by. Commonly found in rural areas.
South Island Fantail
The more common variety has a grey back and yellow belly as per the North Island variant, but there is also a colour morph in the South Island which is black.
Chatham Island Fantail
The Chatham Island’s own variant of the mainland fantail.
One of the prettiest little birds to spot. Can be found in urban gardens as well as rural areas.
North Island Saddleback
Even if you can’t see these birds, boy do you know if they’re around: they’re an incredibly noisy bird. An endemic species, they have seen a local resurgence at the Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington after having previously been extinct on the mainland.
Introduced from Europe, this pretty little bird loves nothing more than a tree to perch on near open land to sing its song from.
Another introduced European species, found on grasslands.
Introduced in the second half of the 19th century, the blackbird is now the most widely distributed bird in the country and is commonly seen in rural and urban areas.
Another introduced and widely distributed garden and arboreal bird.
Another introduced bird. Found in gardens and arboreal areas.
North Island Brown Kiwi
The species of bird that New Zealand is probably most globally famous for, these birds are actually very difficult to see in the wild and it is said that most human Kiwis (natives of New Zealand) will never see their avian namesake in the wild during their lifetime. The best chance of seeing a kiwi is actually in Stewart Island where they aren’t so strictly nocturnal. This particular bird was rescued following an injury and is now used for education at a wildlife sanctuary in Northland.
Stewart Island Kiwi (Rakiura Tokoeka)
One of the five species of kiwi, this one is exclusively found on the Stewart Island archipelago.
Introduced as game from North America, they are established in pockets of the North and South Islands and are found fossicking around the undergrowth.
One of many of New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, originally there was both a North Island and South Island variety, but the former is extinct. Even the latter was thought to have been lost to history but surviving birds were discovered and thanks to intensive conservation efforts it survives. Most of the population (just 306 in 2016) survives on predator-free offshore islands, but it is possible to see them wandering in Zealandia in Wellington as well as in Te Anau in Fiordland where there is a captive breeding programme.
Known by its Māori name in New Zealand, it is known by the rather less interesting name of Australasian Swamphen in other countries. I fell in love with this bird when I moved to New Zealand and love their comical look and walk. Easily found around wetland areas.
Like their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these birds are often sighted around wetlands, or pastures. Their call is quite distinctive.
Widespread in the South Island, but localised in patches of the North Island, these large geese are best spotted on grassland close to waterways.
Another one of New Zealand’s flightless birds, I’ve often overheard tourists confusing these guys for kiwi. Spotted in a variety of habitats from woodland to the coast, mainly in the South Island.
A distinctive wetland or estuary bird.
Found near waterways and some offshore islands.
First spotted in the 1940s, these are a very common heron spotted nationwide around waterways.
Spending most of my life in Scotland, I grew up with white swans. Initially a novelty seeing black swans, they’ve quickly become my norm here. Evident in waterways in both the North and South Island.
The largest concentration of these ducks is Canterbury in the South Island although they can be found in the North Island also.
Commonly spotted in urban rivers and lakes as much as in rural regions, and present in both the North and South Islands. One of the game species allowed to be hunted during the shooting season. Hunting is very popular here with an estimated 500,000 mallards and hybrids shot every year.
Another of New Zealand’s endemic birds, I think they have the cutest ducklings of any duck species I know. Widely visible nationwide, including in urban parks. The fluffy ducklings are a common sight in spring in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens.
Blue Duck (Whio)
If you see one of these, you are very lucky. Endemic to New Zealand they are Nationally Endangered due to both predation from introduced mammals and competition for resources. They have a preference for high quality water and reside in very small geographic pockets. I was lucky enough to spot this solitary whio in Tongariro National Park.
New Zealand Scaup
Found on the many lakes of New Zealand nationwide.
Variable Oyster Catcher
Commonly-spotted shoreline bird nationwide.
A seabird found in small numbers around the coast of both islands.
Of the 36 species of shag worldwide, 12 of them are found in New Zealand. This species is the most commonly spotted, seen singly or in groups around coastal regions.
Spotted in Otago by a pond inland.
Spotted in both islands, I’ve more commonly seen them away from the coast by inland freshwater.
Little Black Shag
Spotted at one of the North Island’s inland lakes.
Exceptionally rare (836 were recorded in 2015), these endemic shags only reside in the Marlborough Sounds and specifically on just 4 special rocky sites. They may not look anything special, but to see such a rare bird is a true privilege.
Another endemic shag species, mainly spotted in the South Island.
Stewart Island Shag
Another endemic species of shag, generally around the southern parts of the South Island and Stewart Island. There are two colour morphs, both of which are seen in the photograph.
Little Blue Penguin
The smallest species of penguin, these are the same as Fairy Penguins in Australia. The outer reach of Akaroa harbour on Banks Peninsula, South Island is one of the more reliable places to spot these little guys, but I also saw one whilst kayaking off the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island. Otherwise, there are rescued ones on display at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, where a home is provided for injured birds that won’t survive in the wild.
Fiordland Crested Penguin
An endemic species of penguin, these penguins are localised to the south-west of the South Island and the coast of Stewart Island. Listed as vulnerable, I was lucky enough to see 6 of them swimming as 3 pairs whilst on a nature cruise in Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park.
The largest species of penguin to be found in New Zealand, these ones are also my favourite. Rarely seen north of Otago, they can be found south of Oamaru and in Southland.
Southern Black-backed Gull
Similar to their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these are a common sighting around New Zealand’s coastal regions. Bigger than the other gulls they can be a bit of a bully.
The most common gull sighting around the country, they are easily spotted nationwide.
Southern Royal Albatross
One of the two largest species of Albatross in the world, seeing these large birds is an awesome sight. Spending the vast majority of their life at sea, they come to land only to breed. Most of the world’s breeding sites are on offshore and uninhabited islands, but on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin in the South Island, it is possible to visit the only mainland breeding colony in the world.
Their Northern Hemisphere counterpart has always been my favourite seabird growing up in Scotland. Not as commonly spotted as in my native land, the best place to see them is Cape Kidnappers to the east of Napier in the North Island. Here there are 3 colonies that nest in the breeding season.
New Zealand’s endemic reptile, tuatara are the only surviving lizard of their order, which started 200 million years ago. In other words, there were tuatara around when the dinosaurs existed. They are exceptionally difficult to spot in the wild and are under threat from predators. Most people’s best bet of seeing them is at a zoo, however, Zealandia in Wellington has a small number that live a semi-wild existence, and if you are lucky, you can see them in the undergrowth when visiting there.
There are multiple subspecies of green gecko that are endemic to New Zealand. Due to predation, they are now very rare. Seeing one in the wild would be a sheer fluke, but several wildlife centres have them on display. These guys were at Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch.
INSECTS & ARACHNIDS
The sound of thrumming from these abundant endemic insects is one of my favourite sounds of summer. Found nationwide wherever there are trees, they are at their peak in January and February.
Crickets are a common accompaniment to hikes up mountains where the size and colour of the cricket can vary depending on the altitude.
Smaller than the brown crickets, I have been regularly hit on the face by these as they jump away when I’m out hiking.
Squeaking Longhorn Beetle
Another creature endemic to New Zealand, they have long antennae, and are spotted seasonally from spring to autumn.
The largest of New Zealand’s endemic beetles, they are capable of flying. They are best spotted in and around forests as their grubs love rotting wood.
Another endemic insect, there are 60 subspecies of cave weta. Despite their name they are often found outside of caves in the forest, but I spotted this large collection down an old mine entrance near Wellington.
Probably one of the hardest insects to spot due to their incredible camouflage, they are actually very abundant throughout New Zealand.
Like many places, these guys are in decline, but due to the market for Manuka honey products, they are often farmed and seen easily in the summer months out and about.
A common sight around cultivated gardens.
Probably the most striking butterfly, they are found nationwide. I’ve ended up having to handle these loads because my cat’s favourite game in summer is to grab them, bring them inside the house and let them go.
Red Admiral Butterfly
A gorgeous butterfly to spot whilst in meadows.
Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide.
Carove’s Giant Dragonfly
Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide, although more commonly on the western half.
The most beautiful light in the darkness is that created by the larvae that cling to caves and forest walls and light up at night to entice their prey. The most famous caves to see these are those of Waitomo in the North Island, and the glowworm caves near Te Anau in the South Island is another pay-to-enter cave with guaranteed sightings. However, there are many places to spot them for free if you know where to go, just ask the locals. They are hard to photograph unless you are a professional with the equipment to match. These faint twinkling lights were seen at Abbey Caves near Whangarei in Northland.
Introduced from Australia, there is a North Island variety and a South Island variety. They are bold spiders that hunt other spiders. They also move quickly and have been known to bite people and pets.
A common spider to be spotted in urban and rural zones, and probably the cutest spider there is.
Even a mild arachnophobe like myself appreciates some of the pretty types of spiders that exist in the World. Orbweavers are also known as garden orbweavers as they are commonly found in back yards.
Giant Powelliphanta Snail
The largest snail in the World, endangered and endemic to New Zealand but rarely seen. The North-West corner of the South Island is their remaining stronghold.
I didn’t even know it was possible to see these in inland caves until I came across one whilst exploring Abbey Caves near Whangarei in the North Island.
Similar to lobsters, the particular species found around New Zealand are endemic to these waters, with a separate variety between the North and South islands. They are a popular seafood to eat in the country, and the name of the town Kaikoura incorporates the crayfish, translating to ‘eat crayfish’. Best spotted on your dinner plate or if you are a scuba diver.
Another popular seafood, these are often spotted in the tidal zone on beach walks.
Eleven-Armed Sea Star
The largest starfish of New Zealand.
Normally growing in deep water due to their preference for darkness, the tannin that leaches into the Fiordland waters creates a false darkness that allows the coral to grow relatively close to the surface. The internal structure is black (hence the name), but they appear white on the outside.
The waters around New Zealand are rife with life, with many fish species to be found if you are a scuba diver or a fisherman.