Before emigrating to New Zealand in December 2016, I didn’t quite realise how significant it’s biodiversity is. There are lots of plants, birds and animals found here that are only found in New Zealand – but it is also unique because of it’s lack of native mammals – home to only two, both of which are bats. Big deal you say? Well, actually, it is. Mammals have a butterfly effect on all other species – forcing them in to extinction or evolution. So how did this happen? Around 80 million years ago NZ’s land mass broke off from Australia and Antartica in the Southern hemisphere. Isolated in the Tasman sea for a long time, it meant that there were numerous species here who didn’t evolve to avoid mammalian land predators. The largest predator on the islands was the Haasts eagle, which hunted from the sky. That changed dramatically around 800 years ago when the first Polynesian settlers arrived in New Zealand, bringing a number of invasive species with them. This had a dramatic effect on New Zealand’s native species. Since human arrival, over 50 native species of bird, frog, reptile, bat, fish, invertebrate, and plants have become extinct, some as recently as the 1960s. The Department of Conservation is now focused on eradicating pest species of flora and fauna from New Zealand – and their mission could not be clearer demonstrated than the ZEALANDIA ecosanctuary in Wellington. ZEALANDIA is the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary, with an extraordinary 500-year vision to restore a 225 hectare valley to a pest free environment, bustling with native plants, birds and other species that would have flourished had settlers not introduced invasive species such as the Norway rat, stoats and possums – which continue to predate native species across the country. It’s a lofty vision and I couldn’t wait to check the place out. Some of the birds living there, protected by its predator fence, have been brought back from the brink of extinction, and can’t be seen in many other places in New Zealand, let alone the world.
I took A LOT of pictures as you can imagine, but here are some of my favourites:
TAKAHE are the worlds largest water rail – and are only found in New Zealand. They were thought to be extinct until a small population were rediscovered in 1948 near Lake Te Anau. Now listed as nationally critical, ZEALANDIA is home to two South Island Takahe, who aren’t shy at all, and are easily found wandering around the lake. I must say they are absolutely gorgeous birds. The spectrum of blues and greens found in their feathers is quite magnificent.
The saddleback is a wattlebird – so named for the bell like fleshy wattles that hang just underneath their beak. Despite their beautiful feathers, they are relatively bad fliers and spend most of their time picking about on the forest floor, looking for insects and other invertebrates to gobble up. The saddleback is known as the Tieke in Maori, and is not related to Australian wattlebirds – although it is part of the same family as the kokako and the huia (extinct). By the early 1900’s the saddleback was almost extinct as a result of predation by rats and other predators, brought in by European settlers. With just a small population remaining on Hen Island After a dedicated effort across NZ to restore numbers of this beautiful bird, the tieke is now thriving at several sites offshore – and within protected mainland environments such as ZEALANDIA. The orange ‘saddle’ fathers are referred to in Maori folklore – it is told that the saddleback was asked to retrieve some water for the thirsty demi-god Maui. The saddleback refused and Maui, angry at the birds ignorance, swiped at the birds back – giving it a saddle of rusty golden feathers.
The Hihi was number one on my ‘want to see’ list. When I picked up a map at the entrance to ZEALANDIA, the helpful staff marked out a hihi bird feeding station. I braced myself for a long patient wait to see a glimpse of this beautiful bird. I didn’t need to. The feeding stations set up at ZEALANDIA are quite incredible. Nestled in deep forest, there are numerous feeding stations for the birds to land on, with benches for visitors. As you sit in the hushed silence of the forest, these beautiful birds dart back and forth, completely unaffected by human presence. It was so wonderful to sit in this wonderful green tranquil, observing a bird that only exists in one other place outside of ZEALANDIA. The hihi or stitch bird is not found in any other country in the world, and was driven to virtual extinction by 1855 – existing only on Little Barrier Island. The hihi was thought to belong to the family of honeyeaters alongside the tui, but is actually the sole representative of the Notiomystidae family. ZEALANDIA became the first location to host hihi outside of little barrier island in 2005. Since then, the Department of Conservation have come up with a long term plan to reestablish this beautiful bird.
The male hihi bird features bright yellow flashes on its shoulder, whilst females are a more drab olive colour. The females reminded me a lot of the North Island robin.
ZEALANDIA is home to numerous protected species, from plants, to invertebrates and birds and beyond. Perhaps one of it’s most famous inhabitants is the tuatara. To tell the story of the tuatara, we need to travel back to the time of the dinosaurs – almost 200 million years ago to the mesozoic era. The tuatara was a representative of the Sphenodontia species – until around 60 million years ago when all species of this family became extinct, save for the tuatara. The tuatara survived the mass extinction event which lead to the end of the dinosaurs, and also endured the geological upheaval which lead to new continents, and land mass distribution when Pangea, the last major super continent, broke apart around 200 million years ago. Despite surviving such significant events, mice and rats are now the tuatara’s largest threat – a pest brought in by early settlers to New Zealand. Tuataras have thrived as a result of ZEALANDIA’s pest fence – and it was a delight to watch these prehistoric creatures bask in the sunlight. The tuataras story is a fascinating one and I intend on writing a far more detailed post about their life cycle and ecological significance. Let me know below if that’s something you are interested in!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these photos – and that it’s encouraged you to make your own visit to ZEALANDIA. Whilst I’ve featured my favourite species from this incredible place, I’ve barely skimmed the surface in terms of the flora and fauna thats available to marvel at. The park is open every day save for Christmas Day, from 9am – 5pm. They also offer an incredible ‘ZEALANDIA by night‘ ticket allowing you to visit the park at dusk. I haven’t been but the pictures I have seen – as well as the increased chances of seeing a kiwi – mean it’s at the top of my list!!
Until the next adventure,