Mountains and Open Country
On the coming of Europeans extensive tracts were clothed in tussock grassland, especially on the eastern plains and lowlands of the South Island, while the largely mountainous spine of the South Island (also to some extent in the eastern North Island) furnished alpine tussock and fellfield or subalpine scrub.
There were three essentially open-country birds: harrier (Circus approximans), pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae), and New Zealand quail (Coturnix novaezealandiae), but it is of note that all did not gain equally from settlement: the harrier was destined to spread widely in settled districts, where it is now everywhere common; the pipit, although well adapted to rougher farm land, does not thrive in the more intensively cultivated country, while the native quail became extinct. The quail was a close relative of the common stubble quail of Australia, and is thus one of the comparatively recent additions to the fauna. The weka extended both into alpine and into lowland tussock country, especially the subspecies (the “buff weka”) occupying the eastern South Island. This was a common bird of the Canterbury Plains and foothills, and familiar to the early settlers.
The kingfisher (Halcyon sancta) may be mentioned here, since its range included both the more open portions of forest and a variety of open country habitats. It is of more diversified habits than its European namesake, feeding largely on insects, worms, lizards, and other creatures captured on the ground, as well as fish and seashore animals, with a correspondingly wide distribution which has been little affected by settlement. The falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) ranged in the early days of settlement from forest to open plain, extending into the mountains; it is now of limited distribution.
The kea (Nestor notabilis) is New Zealand's outstanding alpine bird, an unforgetable feature of the South Island mountains and distinctive in that its habitat is unlike that of any other parrot in the world; its distribution is restricted to the South Island. It is now known that it obtains much of its food (leaves, buds, and fruits, together with insects) in the forests covering mountain valleys. It ranges widely along the alpine grassland and subalpine scrub for the fruits abundant in autumn; however, it is conspicuous at all times of the year and cannot be missed by the visitor.
The high-mountain birds include the pipit, which reaches the highest levels, and one of the primitive New Zealand wrens, the rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris). The habitat of the rock wren includes screes, moraines, and rock falls containing patches of scrub and alpine vegetation, while it freely enters the adjacent subalpine scrub. Various introduced birds also reach the subalpine and alpine zones, notably the redpoll.
The takahe (Notornis) may be included amongst alpine bird life because of its limited distribution in a comparatively small portion of the Fiordland mountains: according to the evidence of subfossil bones, it once had a wider distribution. The rediscovery of this flightless gallinule in 1948 led to an intensive investigation of the existing population which occupies an area of mountain forest, tussock, and subalpine scrub lying to the west of Lake Te Anau.
The kakapo (Strigops) appears originally to have been mainly a bird of the mountains, and to have wandered from the forest to the alpine meadows above. This now extremely rare flightless parrot is one of New Zealand's most notable birds. Although its wings are powerless in flight it can glide from a height to the ground. Its food consists of mosses and other vegetation obtained in the forest, and the leaves and fruits of alpine plants.
In the more mountainous South Island, river flats and foothills provide breeding grounds for waders and inland gulls and terns, included in a later section. Two familiar waders in the inland South Island in spring and summer are the South Island pied oystercatcher and banded dotterel. In several districts the black-backed gull breeds inland at considerable altitudes; this species has a wide range in the mountains.