Many of New Zealand’s diverse species have ancient origins, and birdwatchers are fascinated by their unusual features – some species are ground dwellers, or can scarcely fly. Birds fill many of the niches occupied by mammals in other countries.
New Zealand has over 300 bird species. Birds occupied the land without competition or predation by mammals until the first people arrived from Polynesia about 1250–1300 CE. They brought the kiore (Pacific rat) and kurī (dog). The impact of these predators, combined with the tribes’ own harvest of birds, led to the extinction of 39 bird species. However, this happened thousands of years later than on most other land masses.
From the late 18th century onwards, European settlers introduced a range of new mammals that compete with or prey on birds. These included pigs, goats, deer, more rat species, cats, rabbits, mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels) and possums. Since that time, 15 more bird species have become extinct, and others are endangered. In addition, the numbers of native birds have dropped dramatically because of land clearance and drainage in the past 200 years.
In the absence of land mammals, species such as the giant flightless moa evolved to occupy niches filled elsewhere by four-legged grazing animals. Kōkako (wattlebirds) still run through the forest along branches rather like squirrels. Ground-dwelling kiwi and weka probe for food like badgers or pigs.
In the late 20th century, other imminent extinctions were prevented. New Zealand conservation managers pioneered breeding and pest control techniques that have saved some species. Pests have been removed from many offshore islands, so that endangered birds can re-establish. Researchers have studied breeding and feeding habits, and species have been moved to new sites to spread and increase their populations. Birdwatchers can see some of the rarest land birds at some of these restoration sites.
Open sanctuaries and ‘mainland islands’ (predator-free reserves) are the best places to see threatened, rare and endangered birds in a more natural setting. The abundance of these birds in predator-free environments gives a sense of how New Zealand really was once ‘a land of birds’.
New Zealand’s birds can be categorised as endemic, native or introduced.
Most of New Zealand’s native birds are endemic – they are found nowhere else. They evolved into new species in New Zealand, and are of special interest to birdwatchers from overseas. There are endemic species, genera, families and orders – the latter evolved in isolation for so long that they are only distantly related to groups on other land masses.
Endemics include a number of forest birds such as kiwi, saddlebacks and riflemen, shorebirds such as the wrybill, native parrots, various Chatham Island species and subspecies, and many seabirds.
Native birds are those that naturally occur in New Zealand. In addition to endemics, they include species that also exist in other countries. Native birds that are also found elsewhere, in the same or a closely related form, include the white heron, cattle egret, kingfisher, pūkeko, harrier, morepork, silvereye, two gulls and some ducks.
Rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age separated the North and South island bird populations. Regional subspecies or species developed, notably of kōkako, but also of the robin, tomtit and the piopio (now extinct). The yellowhead and brown creeper are found only in the South Island, while the whitehead, in the same genus, occurs only in the north. The kea (a mountain parrot) lives only in the South Island, which is also the northern limit of some penguins. Wrybills and black-fronted terns breed in the South Island, but some spend winter in the North Island.
The Chatham Islands, subtropical Kermadec Islands and subantarctic islands also have species or subspecies related to but distinct from the mainland species.
The native pūkeko is an example of a species that probably came to New Zealand about 1,000 years ago. It is found worldwide, and is known elsewhere as the purple gallinule. It evolved from the same ancestral species that evolved in New Zealand as the takahē.
Among the birds that have reached New Zealand from other countries during the 20th century are the white-faced heron, welcome swallow and spur-winged plover. Once they establish breeding populations, these self-introduced birds are considered natives.
Thirty-nine deliberately introduced species have formed self-sustaining wild populations. They are not considered native. Most come from Europe, and others from Asia, Australia and North America. They were brought in for sentimental reasons (sparrows, blackbirds and thrushes), or for sport (quail, pheasants and Canada geese), or to control insect pests (magpies, mynas).
The habitat in mature suburbs and town parks often replicates that of the forest edge – the richest area for birds. The common bush birds and most of the introduced species can be found here. A bird bath or a bird feeder close to the house is a great place to watch them. Sheltering shrubs and hedges may attract insect-eating birds and become a place to nest. However, cats can catch birds easily in these situations.
Town birds include the introduced house sparrow, thrush, blackbird and various finches, along with native birds such as the silvereye, grey warbler, fantail, tūī and bellbird. Where there is water – a stream, a pond, a marshy area – then wetland birds may also occur. Town lakes can attract a broad range of ducks, dabchicks, pūkeko, shags and gulls. Generally, these birds are more used to people and can be more closely observed.
To get close to birds, it’s best to sit still so that they come near you. Most bird photographs are taken from portable hides – even a car parked in bush may serve in some situations. New Zealand photographer Geoff Moon noted that you’ll see more forest birds by sitting quietly for an hour than by actively hunting for them.
Bellbirds, common in some districts, vanished from the Auckland region and northward in the 19th century, but remained on offshore islands. The introduced little owl frequents the drier eastern South Island, and in places has largely replaced the native morepork owl.
Escaped cage birds have established local populations, particularly in northern New Zealand.
Native forest is the home of many species, which often live at different levels in the forest:
Listening to recordings of different birds is a good way to become familiar with their calls, and locate them in the forest.
Each spring, the shining cuckoo and long-tailed cuckoo arrive from the tropical Pacific, and over summer they breed in the nests of other birds. The shining cuckoo lays in the nests of grey warblers, which occur widely. Long-tailed cuckoos tend to favour deeper forest – their hosts are whiteheads in the North Island and yellowheads and brown creepers in the South Island.
Both species throw their voices like a ventriloquist, which can make them hard to locate.
Kea, the mountain parrots of the South Island high country, may be found looking for scraps at roadside rest spots in the mountains, as well as screeching in flight high overhead. The native falcon usually lives among the crags, and hunts the forest tops for small birds. The tiny rock wren is present only in remnant populations, having been gravely reduced by carnivorous pests.
These are easiest to see on lake shores and swamp margins. In spring, watch for breeding behaviour and for young being fed by adults. Most ducks, herons and swans are easy to approach, but some more secretive species tend to hide in the reeds, and are more often heard than seen. These include the bittern (which has a low, booming call), the fernbird and the crakes.
Variable oystercatchers and the northern New Zealand dotterel breed in summer on open beaches just above the high-tide mark. Colonies of the various terns and gulls may form on sandspits and the broad shingle riverbeds of the eastern South Island. Clifftops and trees near water may be home to colonies of the various shag (cormorant) species.
From spring to autumn, in particular, New Zealand’s shallow harbours and estuaries are home to thousands of migratory wading birds. Thirty-two species have been recorded, many of them seasonal migrants from the arctic tundras of Asia and North America. They come to New Zealand in the summer to fatten up before returning north to breed. Godwits and knots form spectacular flocks.
Late summer and autumn sees an influx of New Zealand species (the South Island pied oystercatcher, pied stilt, banded dotterel and wrybill) once their breeding season is over. Watch for them at roosting places when they are driven off the mudflats by the rising tide.
Some seashore birds migrate between the North and South islands to breed. Both the wrybill and the South Island pied oystercatcher breed inland around the South Island’s shingle riverbeds in late winter, and then migrate mostly to the great northern harbours in summer.
Other birds may move more locally from inland districts to be near the coast – for instance the pied stilt (in summer), and kingfisher (in winter). Gannets and white-fronted terns spend some time on Australian shores when young, but return to New Zealand to breed.
New Zealand’s position in the roaring forties, at the edge of the Southern Ocean, makes it a great place to observe pelagic birds (those that live on the open ocean) – for example migratory shearwaters and petrels, skuas, and albatrosses. More than 30 species of petrel and shearwater breed on New Zealand’s offshore islands. Pelagic birds feed with the whales off Kaikōura in the South Island. Specialist boat operators offer tours for viewing ocean birds.
Wild populations of some birds, such as kākāpō and New Zealand snipes, only occur in conservation areas that are closed to the public. You can see a number of species – including takahē, saddleback, stitchbird, kiwi and parakeet – in captivity, as part of breeding programmes. But they are better observed in sanctuaries such as Tiritiri Matangi Island off Auckland, Kāpiti Island off Wellington’s west coast and Zealandia (Karori Sanctuary) in Wellington city. Endangered birds have been re-released into these pest-free reserves.
Millions of seabirds breed around the Subantarctic World Heritage Area, the island groups to the south of New Zealand. Ocean tour parties land briefly at some of them. The more accessible Chatham Islands group has several unique species and subspecies. The Kermadec Islands, to the north, have many subtropical seabird species.
A field guide or locality guide will tell you where to see different kinds of birds. The Atlas of bird distribution in New Zealand, 1999–2004, published by the New Zealand Ornithological Society, indicates where to find each species. The maps for the atlas have been reproduced for each species on the website New Zealand Birds Online. This website also provides bird lists for several hundred localities, and for the entire country.
As some birds move with the seasons, check first that the time of year is right. For shore birds, check the local tide times. At high tide, birds will be at their shoreline roosts. Between tides is better for watching them feed.
A field guide with clear drawings or photos is the first key to identifying species. It also helps to listen to recorded calls of the birds you are likely to see – or you can use the 'Identify that bird' feature on New Zealand Birds Online.
Binoculars are an essential tool for birdwatching. The ideal format is 8 x 30 – giving eight times magnification and a wide field of vision. Binoculars with higher magnifications are larger, and harder to hold steady. The 7 x 50 binoculars are heavier and of lower magnification, but easier for watching birds from an unsteady boat.
Binoculars should work well in low light, with a minimum of colour distortion, and be able to focus on birds close to you. You may need a telescope to watch shore birds out over tidal flats, but the birds will come closer at high-tide roosts.
Amateur birdwatchers can contribute valuable information about New Zealand birds. There is still a lot to learn, even about the common native species. Keep a notebook, marking the date, time, conditions and place for each observation. Record the bird behaviour, and report your findings to the local ornithological society or museum, or to New Zealand eBird or NatureWatch NZ.
A hide is usually a small tent-like structure, which does not flap in the wind – useful for close-up observation. It seems that most birds cannot count: if there are two people in the hide, and then one person leaves it, the birds will behave as though the hide is empty. The pretence must be kept up. The helper must return to collect the birdwatcher from the hide, so that an arrival always precedes a departure. As a result, the birds ‘assume’ that the hide is always empty in between times.
A car can become a hide if parking near the birds won’t disturb them or damage the environment. If you stay very still, birds often come quite close.
Choose a camera with a high shutter speed to freeze movement, and zoom lenses for close and distant shots. In New Zealand there is no law against photographing rare species, but it is prohibited and unethical to disturb any native species. Photographing nests can alarm birds and may cause them to leave the nest. Expert bird photographers will move a hide towards a nest over several days. If you are considering doing this, read widely and ask experts, then practise on common introduced garden birds.
Groups such as the Ornithological Society of New Zealand (Birds New Zealand) and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand provide valuable information and networks for birdwatchers, and welcome any interesting findings.
The Miranda Shorebird Centre, south-east of Auckland, holds a variety of activities and courses, and it is easy to see a range of birds by going on a commercial tour.
The first settlers, arriving by canoe from Polynesia around 1250–1300 CE, found a land teeming with birds. They studied the birds, their habits and habitats closely, in order to hunt or trap them for food. Birds held a central place in Māori culture, and many species were thought to foretell the future, or signal changes in the weather.
From 1769, naturalists came on voyages of exploration from Britain and France, recording their studies of birds. The birds they collected or described were later given scientific names by European taxonomists such as Johann Gmelin, who did not himself visit New Zealand.
Nineteenth-century explorers and surveyors described birdlife in the hinterland. The diaries of West Coast explorer Charlie Douglas contain fascinating descriptions of bird behaviour, and note the decline of birds as introduced predators spread. Douglas relied on birds for food as he travelled, and his accounts recommend ways to catch and cook different species.
Others saw an economic opportunity in hunting birds for overseas collectors – the rarest species fetched the highest prices. Naturalists Walter Buller and Andreas Reischek collected and exported large numbers of rare birds, believing them doomed to extinction anyway. Both contributed to the knowledge of New Zealand birds through papers in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, and Buller published two editions of A history of the birds of New Zealand.
Today, most native birds are protected by law.
Ornithologist Richard Henry, alarmed by declining bird numbers in the 1890s, moved hundreds of kākāpō and kiwi to inshore Fiordland islands – but he was thwarted by stoats, which could swim the short distances necessary. However, the strategy of moving birds to predator-free islands has since saved several endangered species.
The first museums offered new professional positions that included ornithology (the study of birds). Museum directors Julius Haast, Frederick Hutton, James Hector and W. R. B. Oliver advanced the understanding of extinct species and the evolution of birds.
Key contributions to understanding New Zealand birds were made between the 1850s and 1950s by Thomas Potts, Herbert Guthrie-Smith, Edgar Stead and Pérrine Moncrieff. All had private means and the leisure time to pursue their passion for birds, making detailed observations of the feeding and nesting habits of mainland and island populations. They studied migratory species and noted the impact of deforestation and predation. They helped change attitudes to native birds, highlighting the need to conserve habitats.
In the 1930s, nature study educator Lance Richdale was known by thousands of Otago’s city and rural children as Mr Rich, the Nature Study Man. Robert Falla’s regular radio broadcasts in the 1940s enthused thousands of young New Zealanders. And from the 1940s to the 1960s, classics teacher Richard Sibson ran school field trips that inspired many students to make a lifelong study of birds.
In New Zealand, birding or birdwatching is not so much a matter of ticking off a list of species, but more a way to learn about different birds and their quirky behaviour. Interest often starts with noticing birds while tramping, sailing or doing other outdoor activities. Iconic birds such as the kea, bellbird, albatross, kiwi or godwit often generate the initial spark of interest. People may seek to expand their own knowledge, and later contribute to research or conservation projects. Joining a local Forest and Bird or Ornithological Society (Birds New Zealand) group is a good way to take part.
Birders contribute sightings of visiting waders to a migration study coordinated by the Ornithological Society (Birds New Zealand). The society’s bird atlas scheme, mapping the presence of species over all New Zealand, involved over 1,000 observers and was completed in 2004. It has been replaced by the ongoing eBird mapping scheme, to which anyone can contribute. Thousands of people are also involved in planting, pest control, fencing and fundraising to improve local habitats for kiwi, kōkako and other endangered birds.
A growing industry caters for international visitors interested in learning about New Zealand birds – on land and at sea. Courses are offered for international student groups to study the birds and their environment.
Chambers, Stuart. Birds of New Zealand: locality guide. 3rd ed. Orewa: Arun Books, 2009.
Heather, Barrie D., and Hugh A. Robertson. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Rev. ed. Auckland: Viking, 2005.
Robertson, C. J. R. , P. Hyvönen, M. J. Fraser, and C. R. Pickard. Atlas of bird distribution in New Zealand 1999–2004. Wellington: Ornithological Society of New Zealand, 2007.
Moon, Geoff. Reed field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Rev. ed. Auckland: Reed, 1998.
Orbell, Margaret. Birds of Aotearoa. Auckland: Reed, 2003.
Parkinson, Brian. Field guide to New Zealand seabirds. Auckland: New Holland, 2000.
Reader’s Digest complete book of New Zealand birds. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1985.