Exploring New Zealand’s unique wildlife and learning about conservation efforts

Kiwi road sign

Kiwi road sign. Photo used with permission.

All the original photos and videos were taken by Heather Milton or the author during their 2024 travels.

Our recent six-week trip to Aotearoa/New Zealand in late summer and early autumn 2024 presented the ideal opportunity to experience its amazing environment. We hadn't “crossed the ditch” (the Australasian slang for the Tasman Sea) for a holiday since 1985.

The Land of the Long White Cloud was created by volcanoes and carved by glaciers. Before the arrival of humans, its flora and fauna evolved in isolation from the rest of the world, and there were no threats to animals from land-based mammals.

New Zealanders pride themselves on the care they take to conserve their unique flora and fauna. “Kiwi,” their universal nickname, comes from the iconic bird, as shown in the sign above. It is a national symbol.

Their Tiaki Promise is a commitment to care for people and place “for now and for future generations”:

We enjoyed many day walks of varying lengths where we encountered many local bird species. The tui is one of the most popular, with its unusual song. We spotted the tui shown in the video below at Ōtari-Wilton's Bush reserve in the hills above the capital city, Wellington. The rarely-seen Stewart Island weka was foraging on an Ulva Island beach:

New Zealand has 17 species of the iconic albatross. The breeding place for the Northern Royal albatross can be viewed at the Albatross Centre near Dunedin on the South Island. It has a wingspan of up to 3 metres (9.8 feet) and may fly 190,000 kilometres (118,000 miles) across the Pacific Ocean each year.

In addition, captive breeding programs and the reintroduction of endangered and threatened species complement each other. Te Anua Bird Sanctuary is nestled beside the lake. Here they breed takahe, kaka, whio and pateke, among others, for release into wild populations. It is open and free to the public.

Te Anau bird sanctuary sign

Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. Photo used with permission.

An important initiative was taking place when we were in Wellington. One hundred kiwis bred in captivity were being released into the wild in the hills above Wellington.

This video slideshow below shows some of the birds we saw in the wild during our travels. It features the Northern Royal Albatross, Kereru Wood Pigeon, Stewart Island Robin, Kea, North Island Takahe Swamphen, NZ Fantail, White-fronted terns, Saddleback, and Paradise Shelduck.

Wikipedia has a List of Birds of New Zealand, with scientific and some Maori names.

While birds are clearly treasured, other animals receive a lot of attention, particularly the aquatic kind. These include whales, seals, sea lions/pakakes, dolphins, and penguins.

Fur seals faced extinction as a result of sealing in the 1700s and 1800s, but their numbers have increased significantly since being protected by law in 1978. The colony north of Christchurch at Kaikoura is an impressive haven for hundreds of seals and their pups. The walkway is a great way to get up close:

Kaikoura seal colony

Kaikoura seal colony north of Christchurch. Photo used with permission.

Seals on a rock at Kaikoura

Seals on a rock at Kaikoura. Photo used with permission.

On the other hand, sea lions are classified as nationally vulnerable, with numbers below 10,000. We were lucky to encounter them on the South Island coast at Sandfly Bay, Katiki Point, plus Ulva Island:

Creating pest-free habitats receives special attention in New Zealand. Sanctuaries play an important part in nurturing the natural heritage. Fenced areas such as peninsulas exclude introduced species. Wharariki Eco-sanctuary near Nelson is a recent example. Traps and poison baits are used to control predators such as rats, possums and stoats:

Trap for invasive predators

Trap for invasive predators. Photo used with permission.

Two island refuges stand out. Ulva Island is a very special place, off the coast of Stewart Island, just below the South Island. Like most environmental projects of this kind, there is plenty of advice to guide visitors before they take the 10-minute water taxi ride. There is a bait and trapping program as well, as rats can swim the short distance from the main island. They even use sniffer dogs. Their free brochure highlights these risks as well as the many birds and magnificent plant life, including towering trees such as the miro, rimu and totara.

Ulva is less than 300 hectares (741 acres) in area, but its luxuriant forest is packed with spectacular flora and fauna. Many of the birds seem unafraid of humans, presenting many up-close encounters. Its small beaches are popular with fearsome sea lions.

Rangitoto Island is just a short ferry ride from Auckland, New Zealand’s most populous city. It is only 600 years old and is famed for its raw volcanic landscape. Its Historical Conservation Trust is very keen to keep it pest-free, and visitors receive lots of tips on how to help to do this. This video is one example:

There are abundant display boards and signs throughout New Zealand with information about local conservation efforts. This sign at Ngakuta Bay is typical:

Ngakuta Bay birds sign

Ngakuta Bay birds sign. Photo used with permission.

The road sign at the popular Pancake Rocks on the west coast of the South Island shows the kind of effort taken to protect breeding birds:

Pancake Rocks street lights sign

Pancake Rocks street lights sign. Photo used with permission.

Curio Bay, in the Catlins east of Invergargill, is keen to protect their yellow-eyed penguins:

Penguin cutout: Protect Our Penguins

Penguin cutout: Protect Our Penguins. Photo used with permission.

The emphasis on conservation is not without controversy. The first day of an international SailGP event at Lyttleton Harbour near Christchurch had to be cancelled on March 23 because of the presence of a couple of Hector dolphins, members of a nationally vulnerable species. A posting of an NZ National Geographic story brought plenty of support for this action on Reddit. However, some “yachties” were unhappy with the decision.

Finally, if you’re thinking of exploring New Zealand’s natural wonders, best be prepared. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the north island is a spectacular and challenging day hike. Its 19.4 kilometres (12.0 miles) attracts over 100,000 visitors each year, with up to 3,000 in a single day.

The Mountain Safety Council has produced this video, giving advice on personal safety and care for the environment. It's worth viewing just for the incredible landscape:


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