Wildlife of New Zealand

New Zealand is a true paradise for those travelers hoping to spot some unique forms of wildlife. From the flightless kiwis to the New Zealand fur seal, the country hosts a suburb selection of native species.

Before colonization, New Zealand was home to a large host of flightless birds who lived a relatively safe and peaceful existence. When humans brought in rats, possums, and other invasive predators, things changed: the flightless birds formed an easy prey, and many of them were eaten. Up until today, the Kiwi government still tries to prevent these foreign pests from threatening their native species. At a very young age, children are taught possums ‘don’t belong’ by funny children’s books such as Donna Blaber’s Bruce Goes Home, in which a homesick Australian possum is happy to be catapulted back to Aussie by his bird friends.

In this New Zealand Wildlife Spotters Guide, we’ll tell you about New Zealand’s fabulous animals, and where to spot them.

New Zealand fur seals resting on a rock
New Zealand fur seals resting on a rock (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Kiwis

The kiwi is by far New Zealand’s most famous flightless bird. Kiwis are endemic to New Zealand, and they are recognized as a symbol of the country. The term ‘Kiwi’ is even used as the colloquial demonym for New Zealanders. The kiwi is a descendant of the large, flightless birds that lived in the past. Nowadays it is the smallest living ratite, looking up at its distant family members the ostriches, emus, and cassowaries.

Spotting a kiwi in the wild can be difficult, as the little bird only comes out at night. Still, when following the advice of the locals, and with a bit of luck, you might just spot one visiting the forested areas in the North Island, such as Fiordland and Stewart Island. If every attempt to spot a wild kiwi fails, you can always see them in Rainbow Springs, the wildlife park in Rotorua.

Kiwi plushies
There’s definitely no shortage of kiwi plushies in New Zealand (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Kea

The New Zealand kea is the world’s only alpine parrot. The parrots are used to living in a harsh mountain environment, and can easily be spotted on your way to and inside the Fiordland National Park. Kea’s are intelligent and curious, but can also be aggressive. Be careful with carrying eatables when you are around them, as the birds might attack you in order to get to the food.

Takahē

The South Island takahē is another one of New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds. Its round body, blue feathers, and short beak make it instantly recognizable, though seeing one in the wild is rare. The New Zealand Department of Conservation set up programs to maintain the species in several locations on the South Island. The Murchison Mountains at Lake Te Anau serve as a sanctuary for the birds, and in the nearby Te Anau Bird Sanctuary you can still see a few birds as well. Takah? look similar to the equally blue pukeko’s, but are larger and more brightly colored.

Meet the flightless South Island takahē
Meet the flightless South Island takahē (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Tui

Moving away from the flightless birds, we get to the tui. The tui is also one of New Zealand’s endemic birds. Tui boast a complex variety of songs and calls. They are easily recognized by their song and can be found throughout New Zealand. Though tui looks black from a distance, they actually feature a multicolored iridescent sheen and have distinctive white throat tufts. In M?ori culture, the tui act as spiritual messengers to the gods.

Tomtits

This little bird is endemic to New Zealand and can be found on both North Island and South Island. There’s much to love about tomtits: with their large heads and small beaks they look irresistibly cute. The male tomtits on South Island boast a beautiful yellow chest. You’ll have a good chance of spotting one of these cuties while hiking the Routeburn Track in the Fiordland National Park.

A tomtit on Routeburn Track
A tomtit on Routeburn Track (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Sheep and Alpacas

Home to 3 million people and 60 million sheep, New Zealand features a large amount of livestock. Aside from sheep, alpacas have also made the island nation their home. The New Zealand climate is similar to that of the alpacas’ home in the Andes. Clothing, rugs and even alpaca plushies using authentic, soft alpaca wool can be found in every souvenir shop on South Island.

There are many livestock farms featuring sheep and alpacas in New Zealand, but you’ll find more sheep up in North Island, and more alpacas down south. This is because the popular Romney sheep are better suited for farming on the North Island, while the climate of South Island is more catered to the needs of alpacas.

Alpacas grazing in Queenstown
Alpacas grazing in Queenstown (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Glow worms

For a starry night sky in the middle of the day, head for one of New Zealand’s stunning glow worm caves. The New Zealand glowworm is native to New Zealand and can be found on both North Island and South Island. Glow worms are insect larvae that glow through bioluminescence, lighting up the dark, water-filled caves they live in. Their light is meant to attract other insects, who get caught in the glowworms’ sticky web-like lines. To get to know these wonderful luminescent creatures, head to the Te Anau Glowworm Caves in South Island, or visit the caves around Lake McLaren or the Waitomo on North Island.

New Zealand fur seals

The most famous resident of the South Island coastal town Kaikōura is the New Zealand fur seal. Hiking the Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway will be the highlight of any trip to New Zealand. The walkway threads one of the most mesmerizing coastlines in the world. The peninsula’s shore itself is inhabited by thousands upon thousands of fur seals. It is a spectacle to observe how they interact, play in the water, and enjoy the comfort of their own private swimming pools that have formed on the shore’s rocks – water slides and rapids included!

A playful New Zealand fur seals hiding under a rock
A playful New Zealand fur seals hiding under a rock (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Dolphins

New Zealand counts several species of dolphins. Along the west coast of North Island, you can find Māui dolphins. Māuidolphins are quite rare and endemic to New Zealand. Unfortunately, the Māuidolphins are on the brink of extinction: there are less than seventy adults left in the island’s waters. Other dolphin species found around New Zealand are grey bottlenose dolphins, round-finned Hector’s Dolphins, and bluish-black-finned dusky dolphins.

Orcas

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are the largest members of the dolphin family. Their beautiful smooth black and white pattern makes them instantly recognizable. Orcas generally eat small fish, shrimp, and cuttlefish, but they also prey on larger species, such as seals and dolphins. Orcas can often be spotted along the Kaikōura coastline on South Island between November and March.

Sperm whales

The Kaikōura coastline is abundant with sea life. The South Island’s east coast is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen all year round. The whales gather near the Kaikōura Canyon, which runs up against the east coast and offers a rich food supply. Kaikōura only features male sperm whales, gathered in so-called ‘bachelor pods’. Female whales can only be found in warmer tropical waters.

Sperm whales surface approximately every 1-2 hours to fill their lungs with fresh air, and sometimes provide some spectacular breaches. If you are lucky you can spot them from the shore, but you can also get up close with these gentle giants through a whale watching tour.

A sperm whale diving near Kaikoura
A sperm whale diving near Kaikōura (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Humpback whales

The migrating humpback whales of Kaikōura are known to majestically breach the surface when coming up for air. They can dive for up to 30 minutes, but usually come up for air every 15 minutes or so. When they dive again, they show off their beautiful white tails. Humpback whales pass by the east coast during Kiwi winter, which is between June and August. The whales are often playful and each individual is easily recognized, as their dorsal fins are all similarly unique to the fingerprints on humans.

Penguins

Finally, New Zealand also has its own species of penguins: the little blue penguin and the yellow-eyed penguin. New Zealand’s penguins can be found all over the country, but on South Island, you’ll have the best chance to spot the little blue penguin. The little penguins live around the Otago Penisula and the Akaroa Peninsula. In the Catlins, a remote and untouched area near Invercargill, it is possible to spot the rare yellow-eyed penguin.

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