Flightless Birds and Flying Mammals: New Zealand’s Unique Wildlife

One of the first things you notice about New Zealand wildlife is a distinct lack of mammary glands. The only native land mammals are bats, and I’ve never seen one. They were apparently common in the nineteenth century, but now they’re almost extinct. Blame nasty humans cutting down trees and introducing foreign predators like rats and cats – although my cat would never be clever enough to catch a bat. Do cats eat bats?

Wildlife 6

My little sister’s cat, unfortunately taken by cancer last year

The Maori call the bats pekapeka. They’re really tiny – barely bigger than your thumb – and can be found in very few places. One such place is Tongariro National Park, in the central North Island. There are three Department of Conservation campsites around the park, so finding cheap accommodation is easy if you hire a campervan in New Zealand, which I highly recommend. Obviously the bats only come out at night, so there’s another good reason for sleeping out in the wilderness.

Another native New Zealand creature that only comes out at night is the kiwi, the country’s most famous and special bird. It can’t fly; evolution has reduced its wings to stumps, hidden beneath feathers that are more like fur. Like the bats, kiwis are endangered and so rarely seen in the wild, but there are plenty of places throughout New Zealand where you can see them in captivity, such as Auckland Zoo. I saw a couple of kiwis mating there once. They looked like two tribbles stacked one on top of the other. I had to stop myself laughing, especially when a small child standing next to me exclaimed, “Mum, look, that one’s jumping on the other one’s back!”

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

Kiwis, scientists have found, are closely related to emus, but not to ostriches. There was a New Zealand bird closely related to the ostrich, but it was hunted to extinction by the Maori long before Europeans arrived in New Zealand with their foreign predators. It was called the moa, and it was huge. I remember the skeleton in Auckland Museum – some species could reach a height of over three-and-a-half metres, more like dinosaurs than birds! The only animals big enough to take them down (before the blundering arrival of human beings) were Haast’s eagles.

No, they weren’t eagles owned by some guy named Haast – he was just the first European to describe them. They’d been extinct for centuries by this point, but they must have been terrifying creatures to behold. They were the largest birds of prey ever known to have existed, and may well have hunted humans together with moas. Maori legend speaks of a monstrous, man-eating bird. Did Haast’s eagles snatch children and carry them off to their nests to devour them? It’s a scary thought.

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

New Zealand no longer has any particularly dangerous animals. Someone was killed by a shark off the West Coast of the North Island recently, but things like that don’t happen very often. There have only been about a dozen deaths by shark in New Zealand in the last two hundred years. Australia’s the death-trap. New Zealand doesn’t have any killer spiders, (although the weta can give you a painful nip,) or any deadly snakes – in fact it doesn’t have any snakes at all. It has a few other reptiles, though: frogs, geckos, skinks and, most importantly, the tuatara.

Like practically every other native New Zealand specie, the tuatara is endangered. Most people think it’s a lizard, but it actually belongs to a far older family, older than most dinosaurs, of which it’s the only surviving example. It has a lower body temperature than any other type of reptile and can live well over a hundred years. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to see a tuatara in the wild, as they can only live in areas devoid of rats, which pretty much limits them to a handful of sanctuary islands that tourists aren’t allowed to trample on. I’ve seen one at Auckland Zoo, though, and, to be honest, it was rather boring compared to the mating kiwis!

A tui, a common sight in our garden

A tui, a common sight in our garden

Not all New Zealand animals are so elusive. There are eels in the estuary, pukekos in park, and a whole array of native birds in most people’s back gardens. I’ve often gone to sleep hearing the sweet yet haunting howls of the onomatopoeically named morepork, an incredibly cute little brown owl, and woken up in the morning to the idyllic tune of a tui. My parents get lots of silvereyes in the tree outside their kitchen window, and it’s always entertaining to watch the fantails flitting about the lawn, flicking their tail feathers.

An absolutely incredible place to go to observe native New Zealand birds in their natural habitat is the visitor-friendly island sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi. You can take a ferry there from either downtown Auckland or Gulf Harbour, but Gulf Harbour’s cheaper and has free parking, so good if you have a New Zealand rental car. Make sure you book, though, and make sure you take food with you, along with sunscreen, a hat, a raincoat, comfortable walking shoes, binoculars and – if the weather looks particularly nice – swim stuff. You’ll be doing a lot of bush trekking, and it’s nice to jump in the sea afterwards. There are lots of little blue penguins around the shore of the island. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see them in their nesting boxes.

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi is a very special island, because it is free of predators such as the possum, which will eat the eggs and chicks of endangered native birds. Possums were stupidly introduced to New Zealand from Australia, and since then they have become hated to the extent that kiwis, (the people of New Zealand, not the tribble-like birds,) will deliberately try to run them over. Their one redeeming feature is their fur… so soft… but as soon as I moved to New Zealand, I had it drummed into me that possums are the spawn of Satan.

So, not having any predators to fear, the birds of Tiritiri Matangi have become bold around the island’s human visitors. One particular bird, a now-deceased giant takahe called Greg, became so bold that, for a time, I referred to the island as Jurassic Park. Takahe are like huge, blue chickens with big, red beaks. They can’t fly, but – Jeez – can they run! A few years ago, Greg chased me and my friends across half the island. When we stopped, it snapped at the bottoms of my shorts and kept leaping up to my crotch. I remember running for ages and, panting, stopping to look behind.

“I think we lost it,” I said.

Then it appeared over the crest of the hill, wings outstretched, legs working like the clappers, beak pointing straight at us.

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

But encountering nature in New Zealand isn’t usually as invigorating as that. The coast is a great place to head to see wildlife, and it begins to get more mammalian. New Zealand fur seals can be observed on many rocky shores around the country, such as the Otago Peninsula. We went there when we were on a campervan tour of New Zealand. It’s a Mecca for wildlife, including a magnificent colony of albatrosses. The very best wildlife encounter I’ve had in New Zealand, however, was just off the coast of Auckland.

One of the dolphins that was riding our bough wave

One of the dolphins that was riding our bow wave

There are a number of companies that take tourists out on ferries to see dolphins, and the tourists are rarely disappointed. My family and I have been on several of these New Zealand dolphin trips and we’ve never had a no-show. Whole pods of dolphins come right up to the boat and play in the waves around it, leaping, diving and engaging in light sexual activity. Once, I was sitting at the front of the ferry with my legs dangling over the edge. One of the dolphins rose from the sea and tapped my foot in a clearly playful way – so awesome! We even got to swim with the dolphins, although, for me, this turned into a rather traumatising experience.

Swimming with dolphins is an activity that tops bucket lists around the world. It’s known as an experience so peaceful and happy it can cure depression, bringing people back to nature and generally being as wonderful as a field of unicorns vomiting rainbows. For me, alas… I got into the water and swam around a bit. None of the dolphins seemed to want to say hello. Then I felt lots of small, solid things knocking into my body, up my arms and legs. I suddenly realised the water was pink, and I was floating in the centre of a massacre: pink chunks of dead fish. Being a squeamish teenage girl (and unashamed ichthyophobe,) I screamed and swam back to the boat, taunted by the laughter of my family.

The day might have been ruined, were it not for the whale.

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic.

A view from the port side of the ferry

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic. But more amazing still were the gannets.

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Diving gannets

The sky was thick with them. They came because they saw the dolphins. Gannets have learned that their hunting technique compliments the dolphins’ perfectly. The dolphins gather deep down in the ocean, underneath a school of fish, and drive the fish upwards, trapping them at the surface – where the gannets can descend upon them from the sky. They dive into the waves like golden-headed missiles, so sharp and graceful… The whole boat was transfixed.

You can see a very impressive colony of gannets at Muriwai Beach, (which, coincidentally, is where that guy was killed by a shark,) just a short drive from Auckland City. I’d well recommend it – they’re absolutely beautiful birds – but seeing them out on the ocean, working together with a pod of dolphins, is a wildlife experience I’ll never forget.

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Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!

Maori Proverb

Korubrighter

A koru I found while walking in the bush

One of the most important, fundamental differences between England and New Zealand is one that is often overlooked when juxtaposed with the landscape, wildlife and weather: it is the people.

The people of New Zealand are called kiwis. This can cause a certain amount of confusion among tourists, as there are two other distinct entities in New Zealand that also bear the name kiwi:

1)      The endangered, native bird that is a symbol of New Zealand, the equivalent of Australia’s kangaroo.

2)      The fuzzy, green fruit also known as the Chinese gooseberry, the growing of which is an important industry in New Zealand.

Despite this, kiwis (the people) are in no way confused about their identity. They are a proud nation of do-it-yourselfers, tough and laidback at the same time. They embody the spirit of adventure – a relic, I suspect, from the colonial days of old, when you had to both help and accept help from your neighbours to survive. Above all, it is their attitude – their niceness – that sets them apart from their distant cousins in Mother England.

To illustrate just how different New Zealanders are from the English, I’d like to tell you a story, something of my personal journey since immigrating to New Zealand at the age of ten. You see, I was first awakened to how different kiwis are on my first day of school here. As usually happens when a new kid shows up in class, the teacher introduced me by getting me to stand up in front of everyone.

“This is Abigail. She’s from England. Abigail, why don’t you tell us a bit about what England’s like?”

So, shaking under the scrutiny of thirty pairs of eyes, I tried desperately to think – what was England like? For me, it was just normal, a more overcast version of New Zealand. It was August at the time this was happening; I’d just taken a plane ride from the middle of summer to the middle of winter, but the weather hadn’t changed. It was hot in New Zealand. Well, not hot for New Zealand, but hot to me. I was sweating, yet somehow frozen. My throat was stuck.

“I know,” the teacher said, gently. “How about the class asks you questions – would that be easier? Does anyone have a question about England?”

Of course, I don’t remember everything they asked me, but how could I forget these four questions:

 “Is there grass in England?”

 “Do you speak English in England?”

 “Do you have a butler?”

 “Have you met the Queen?”

I had come to a country of morons.

I suppose they were only ten, and New Zealand is rather cut off from the rest of the world. Some of them must have only seen England on the news, or in American cartoons. They must have thought my home country consisted of the brown and grey streets of London stretching from coast to coast, populated purely by toffs… Not that they were familiar with the word toff. I’d grown up physically and culturally so far away from the world they thought I’d come from! They all thought I was posh, not realising how ridiculous the idea was, or quite how much it offended my Northern, working-class roots.

Me

A younger me looking not quite at home in the New Zealand bush

I soon found that what kiwis lack in general knowledge, they make up for in moxy.

The first break time of the day, or, as kiwis call it, morning tea, arrived. When I’d entered the classroom, I’d seen that most of the other kids had bare feet, which I’d thought was strange, but maybe it was the custom to remove shoes inside wherever you were, so I’d taken my sandals off, leaving my socks on. Now I hurriedly put my shoes back on, realising as I did that no one else was. They were actually going outside in bare feet!

You see, kiwi feet are like hobbit feet – though in most cases less hairy – with thick, rubbery soles. My classmates were not just walking across grass and smooth concrete, but across gravel and bark chippings! One of them had a bit of broken glass stuck in the ball of their foot and, when I asked if they were all right, they responded, “Yeah, it’s been in there a while.”

After a few days, some of my classmates coaxed me into taking my shoes and socks off outside. They ended up having to carry me, as my soles were as delicate as a baby’s bottom. They haven’t improved much in the last eleven years.

Another thing I discovered during those first few days of school is how confusing the kiwi accent is. My classmates decided to play a game of hide-and-seek, but, as I wasn’t yet familiar with the layout of the school, one girl offered to team up and hide with me.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go and get on the dick.”

I blinked. “On the what?”

“The dick.”

I looked around, bewildered.

“That dick over there.”

She was pointing, but I still couldn’t see what she meant.

“The big dick! The big, brown dick!”

My mind reeled.

“All that wood! It’s right in front of us, by the school hall.”

And before the unintended puns could get any worse, I clicked. “Oh, you mean the deck.”

Skimming Stones

Two friends, one a kiwi and one a British immigrant like me, skimming stones on the shore

I got used to the accent fairly quickly, and could soon tell it apart from the Australian accent, something you need to learn fast if you want to survive in New Zealand. Kiwis are very touchy when it comes to Australians, like us Brits with the French, I suppose. Except Brits are nothing like the French, whereas Australians and New Zealanders are practically the same people. ***Ducks a volley of ANZAC biscuits*** (ANZAC biscuits are what the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were given as rations in the First World War, and it was said they were so hard it was better to lob them at the enemy than eat them.)

My nana, who now lives in New Zealand with us, once met a kiwi on the London Underground. By this point, she’d visited us enough times to recognise the person’s accent, and the person was so grateful that Nana hadn’t assumed they were Australian!

Speaking of the London Underground, let me fast forward my story a few years. I was now seventeen years old, in my final year of high school, (or college, as kiwis call it,) and my drama class was going on a very expensive field trip to England, to perform a show at a performing arts school in Devon, to watch a few musicals at the West End, and to take in the sights. I hadn’t been back to England since leaving it seven years previously, and I’d got used to how safe New Zealand is – you don’t have to be paranoid about locking things or walking through parks on your own at night. Well, in most places, anyway.

After travelling around the southwest of England and encountering mysterious, new wonders like squirrels and stinging nettles, my kiwi classmates and I made it to London. We were on a tube train, packed in like sardines in the middle of this sweltering, July rush-hour, when the train stopped and a dry announcement came on:

“We apologise for the delay, as a body is being removed from the line.”

Immediately, the kiwis began to freak out. The Londoners, on the other hand, didn’t bat an eyelid; they remained engrossed in their newspapers, or the Underground map opposite them. There were so many pairs of eyes around, but none of them would move in case – horror of horrors – they ended up crossing paths with another pair. I had been living in New Zealand long enough to find this unsettling.

Then, when the train got going again, the motion sent me stumbling into a middle-aged woman.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.

“WATCH IT!” she growled, turning her back on me.

That moment shocked me. A kiwi would never do that. They’d smile at you and say, “That’s all right.”

I needed reassurance. I needed some kindness. I tried to catch someone’s eye and smile. They weren’t having it. I realised I’d changed. In this aspect, at least, I’d become a New Zealander.

A sneaky photo of my grandpa relaxing like a kiwi on our driveway

A sneaky photo of my grandpa relaxing like a kiwi on our driveway

I used to be like those Brits on the tube. Cold, isolated, mistrusting of every stranger I met. I remember when I was a child – quite a young child, like four or five – my family and I were walking over a hill in the Lake District. Whenever we walked past fellow hikers coming in the opposite direction, my dad would greet them, and they’d politely say something back. I didn’t understand.

“Why did you talk to them, Dad? You don’t know them!”

Dad explained that there was an unspoken truce amongst mountaineers. Everyone on the mountain was your friend. I found it very strange and quite uncomfortable. Then we moved to New Zealand and it turned out that kiwis are like that with everyone they pass on the street. It’s just nice. If you drop your shopping, you know that someone will stop to help you pick it up, and they won’t nick it. If you’re waiting for a bus, people will ask you how your day’s been. I’ve noticed it is changing in the busy centre of Auckland city, which is unfortunate, but in general it’s far nicer to step out of your front door in New Zealand than it is in England.

Maybe kiwis are so nice because there are so few of them. They aren’t elbowing each other out of the way to get to where they need to be. The population only exceeded the four million mark a few years ago, and the landmass of the country is larger than the whole of Great Britain, which has a population of sixty-something million. When my family was travelling around the South Island in a campervan, we kept bumping into people we knew from the North Island, on holiday just like us.

Kiwis are generally outdoorsy-types: they like hiring campervans and sleeping in tents. They like doing silly, adventurous things. They are responsible, for example, for the invention of commercial bungee jumping, jet-boating and zorbing. Of these, I’ve only done jet-boating, but I’ve done it a few times in various locations because it’s so incredibly fun. My favourite jet-boating experience was when we were on our Great New Zealand Campervan Holiday, on the Shotover River, which was one of the locations Peter Jackson used for the River Anduin in The Fellowship of the Ring. Not only was this the fastest jet-boat ride I’ve ever been on, I kept expecting to see the Argonath looming up on either side of us!

So anyway, that’s kiwis for you. Not fruit or birds, but a genuinely nice ilk of people. Completely mad, of course, but wonderfully mad. Caring and relaxed, yet hardy and adventurous; fiercely independent, yet always happy to help. Perhaps the difference in attitude between Brits and kiwis can be summed up like this:

Something bad happens. The Brit thinks, ‘At least it’s something I can complain about later.’ The kiwi thinks, ‘It doesn’t matter.’

A New Zealand sunset

A New Zealand sunset