When I first came to New Zealand I was amazed at how green this country is. Every shade from lime to emerald, and hues that don’t even have names yet, emerge in the landscape. It’s as if Nature is challenging herself with how many tones she can create. The colors here can come together in very primitive ways. Giant ferns look as if they’re hiding dinosaurs not yet discovered. Disappointingly, the dinosaurs are gone, however, descendants of dinosaurs remain. Birds.
Getting to know New Zealand means getting to know her birds. Any path will lead you to them. The coasts are filled with shorebirds that glide on the sea’s winds. And the forests are filled with birds that dance between trees. They are seemingly full of personality. I’ve watched a male tui sing and ruffle his feathers, trying desperately to attract a mate, taking no notice of my presence. I’ve been followed by a curious black fantail hiding and reappearing down the trail.
From Past to Present
Birdlife here is special because the land in which they evolved has a unique history. New Zealand is made of islands that have been cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years. One hundred and eighty million years ago the world looked quite different. New Zealand was part of a supercontinent called Gondwana, along with Antarctica, Australia, India, Africa, and South America. The split from Gondwana occurred around 80 million years ago, giving New Zealand enough time in isolation to evolve distinct species.
Endemic, when referring to a plant or animal, means that it is only found in a particular area. New Zealand has many endemic birds and only one land mammal – bats. Void of predators, birds began to fill a niche in the ecosystem. Some species took to the ground, losing their energy-depleting ability to fly. And other species like the Moa, lost their wings altogether.
Lost in the Past
Moas belong to the order of Dinornithiformes, and are related to the South American tinamous. There were nine different species with some standing over 12 feet tall. The lifecycle of the moa would be their detriment. Females only laid one or two eggs each clutch. And like the kiwis, male Moas probably incubated the eggs, leaving the females to forage. When early inhabitants arrived in New Zealand, moas were easy targets, but the population could not keep up with this new predator. By the 1600s, Moas were close to, if not already, extinct.
The moa may be long gone, but conservation efforts in New Zealand are keeping other endemic species alive. I fell in love with two places that were given to the birds. The Orokonui Ecosanctuary and Ulva Island. Orokonui was where I saw takahēs for the first time. And Ulva Island, a small island off of Stewart Island, is where I saw the cheeky weka with two shy chicks. Both places are safe playgrounds for the birds. They are monitored for introduced pests like stoats and rats. To visit these places is visiting as a guest in the bird’s realm, a pleasant and awe-inspiring experience.