New Zealand

Giant tree ferns tower 50 feet tall (15 m) over New Zealand’s Fiordland where glowworms cover cavern walls and roofs, flightless Kiwis with nostrils at the end of long curved bills sniff out rain forest grubs, and blue/green takahes, moorhens long thought extinct, feed on tussock shoots, alpine grasses, and fern roots.

Furry, densely-feathered little kiwis, New Zealand’s national birds with nostrils at the end of their bills, labor here to lay monstrous eggs 20 percent of their body weight in some of the wettest rain forests in the world. They are only one of an array of remarkable species that have been evolving in isolation since this beautiful island country broke off from the supercontinent Gondwanaland more than 100 million years ago.

With no mammal competition except two tiny bats, terrestrial birds could roam in a predator-free environment 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from their nearest neighbor, Australia. Today New Zealand, just twice the size of England (102,347 square miles/265,150 km2), divided into North and South islands, has more flightless birds than anyplace outside Antarctica. Among them are the world’s largest parrots, kakapos; world’s only alpine parrots, keas; with world’s oldest reptiles, dinosaur-like tuataras dating back 250 million years; world’s smallest bats; and some of the world’s biggest earthworms and oldest trees.

When Polynesians, or Maoris, made the first human contact here over 1,000 years ago they found giant moas, birds standing up to 13 feet (4 m) tall, running about unafraid, and huias, birds in which males and females’ bills differed uniquely in both form and function. Within a few years both were gone and other species were on their way out. Death sentence for many came with arrival of British Captain James Cook in 1769 bringing not only humans bent on killing everything possible but also destructive mammals such as goats, wild pigs, deer, and rats.

Belatedly awareness came of the value of what has been lost and what remains, and now some 30 percent of New Zealand is set aside in nature reserves. They cover habitat from subtropical to alpine, craggy mountain ranges to beaches, ice and snow-covered glaciers to drenched rain forest, deep fiords, rivers with thunderous waterfalls, and a 9,315-mile (15,000-km) coastline.

New Zealand’s marine environment is 15 times larger than the land, ranging from the subtropical north with corals to subantarctic with New Zealand (world’s rarest) sea lions, and 13 species of albatross, of which nine are endemic. There are six breeding types of penguins, including four endemics, among them the world’s rarest, the yellow-eyed. New Zealand waters contain about half the world’s whale species, including some beaked varieties so rare they have never been seen alive, and the world’s rarest marine dolphin, the Maui’s.

For the visitor there are dolphin, whale, seabird, and seal watching expeditions, the most famous at Kaikoura on the South Island, where one can see sperm whales year round. Off the North Island one can snorkel in warm coastal marine reserves teeming with fish and dolphins.


Some interior reserves are so remote it is unlikely humans have ever set foot there, but most are, at least in part, easily accessible, so that determined birders might see 42 of the 43 remaining endemics on the main islands in a short trip. These include three kiwi species plus keas—cheeky, inquisitive olive-green parrots with vivid crimson underwings; moreporks—endemic owls that announce themselves by name; two enguins and five shorebirds along with unique wrybills with left-pointing beaks (which help trap muddy marine organisms). A rich diversity of seabirds includes visitors from remote Chatham and subantarctic islands supporting a further 18 endemics, including the shore plover.

New Zealand


Fiordland National Park

Westland Park

Mount Aspiring National Park

Tongariro World Heritage Site

More about the Reserves in New Zealand

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