Less than 25% of New Zealand is under 200 m so, despite appearances there is not as much room as you think. When man arrived and set to with his short-sighted slash and burn policy, New Zealand’s landscape was irrevocably altered and has now lost over 85% of its natural forest cover. The impact on the whole ecosystem has been immense; most of the native forest that remains is confined to inaccessible areas and mountain slopes, with almost a quarter of that being in South Island’s west coast region alone.
One of the most evident yet hardly common species of the forests and low lying bush is the native New Zealand pigeon or kereru; a large, handsome, colourful character, with a signature plumage of almost iridescent greens, browns, purples and white, with bright red eyes. Often heard crashing about in the leaf canopies, they exhibit the congenial air of one who is over-fed and bring new meaning to the word plump. Little wonder the Maori prized the kereru as an important source of food. Today, despite being protected, their numbers are declining, mainly due to habitat loss and illegal hunting. The kereru can be seen in gardens and parks, but if it remains illusive you can see them at most animal parks. ‘Pig’, a rather daft Kereru residing in Wellington Zoo, is amenable to visitors and nearly died once after swallowing a pencil!
The stitchbird, bellbird and tui are also found in the lowland and forest habitats and are New Zealand’s three representatives of the honeyeaters. A New Zealand endemic, the tui is quite common throughout the country and you are bound to see, and certainly hear them. From a distance they look a dull-black colour with a distinctive white bib (that also earned it the name of the ‘parson’s bird’), but on closer inspection their plumage is a superb mix of iridescent blues and greens. Their song is almost legendary, a delight to listen to, but almost impossible to describe. In essence they boast a remarkable range of audible whistles, grunts and knocks – a bit like Björk on a good night. Much of the tui’s repertoire is beyond our audible range which is why they often look as if someone kept the camera rolling but momentarily pressed the ‘mute’ button. One of the best places to see tui in large numbers is during spring in the blooming cherry trees behind the Wairakei Golf Club, near Taupo. There, up to 30-odd birds can be seen in action, which is quite a sight and sound. The stitchbird and bellbird are not as common as the tui but are equally colourful and just marginally less melodic. They are best seen on the offshore island reserves.
Of all the smaller birds encountered most folk’s favourite is the enchanting little fantail. These charming little birds are a bit like butterflies on speed and your visit to New Zealand will more than once be enhanced by their inquisitive nature. While walking down any bush or forest park they will often appear from nowhere and with manic audible ‘peeps’ fly about your person as if interested in making your acquaint- ance. They do this not once but for some time, flitting about and fanning their tails manically. In actuality, fantails are only interested in the insects you are disturbing within their individual territories, which is why, after a while, they suddenly seem to lose interest. Another little charmer, that is less common and shares this behaviour, is the tom tit: a small, native black-and-white character that in many ways resembles the European robin. Trampers will become familiar with the tom tit, especially in the South Island. New Zealand does also have its own robin, the dull-coloured New Zealand robin which can often be seen in the forests of both North, South and Stewart Islands.
The morepork is New Zealand’s only native owl species. It is a small owl that feeds mainly on insects but is not impartial to the odd lesser-sized avian. Being very illusive and nocturnal, they are most often heard rather than seen and it is their distinctive butcher’s shop request – ‘more pork, more pork’ – that earned them the name. The only other raptors (birds of prey) present in New Zealand are the native New Zealand falcon and the ‘imported’ Australasian harrier. Commonly seen soaring above hillsides and fields in the countryside, the harrier is often mistaken by the amateur to be an eagle. But eagles are much larger; the Haast eagle, which is now extinct but once ruled the skies in New Zealand, was over 26 times the harrier’s weight and had a wing span of over 3 m, so large it would probably have been able to tackle a child.
Also with a curvaceous beak, the adorable kaka is one of New Zealand’s three native parrot species. Once common throughout the country they are now confined mainly to old-growth beech and podocarp forests. Although unmistakable in both call and plumage the average visitor would be lucky to see one in the wild, making your best bet the zoos or DoC wildlife centres at Mount Bruce in the Wairarapa or Te Anau in Fiordland. At Mount Bruce, a small group has been successfully captive-bred and were released locally. Now, although essentially wild, they remain in the vicinity, returning to the same spot at the same time each day to be fed. This daily spectacle provides the kind of quality entertainment for which parrots can always be relied upon and also offers a superb photo opportunity.
Even tamer than the kaka but sharing its love for a free lunch is the weka, a sort of flightless brown rail. Again, without any predators, the weka evolved to dispense with the need for flight and focused its hunting activity entirely on the forest floor. In modern times it is not just the forest, but the human car park and campground, that offers rich pickings. If you are joined at any point by this appealing albeit uninvited guest, bear in mind they can be very persistent and notoriously quick with the steal.
Of course the lowlands and forests are also home to many non-avian species, but most of the true endemics are either reptiles or insects. Two notable exceptions are the much celebrated and impressively sounding peripatus and powelliphanta, both of which are as old as the land itself. Peripatus is like a cross between a worm and a centipede, while powelliphanta is a carnivorous land snail with a shell the size of a saucer. Both are remarkable creatures and were around millions of years before man.
It is remarkable to think that New Zealand played host to only one mammal before we arrived, a small bat, of which two species evolved. The long-tailed bat and the short-tailed bat are rarely seen by the casual observer, living in small local populations, and even then mainly on only a few remote offshore islands. Of course in New Zealand today, besides the bat, there is now a thoroughly cosmopolitan and unsavoury list of mammalian guests. This extraordinary list of reprobates includes possums (an estimated 70 million – 20 to every person), stoats, weasels, rabbits, hares, wallabies, ferrets, rats, mice, pigs, cats, horses, deer, goats and the infamous Paul Holmes (watch New Zealand television any weeknight at 1900).