Kiwi, kokako and kea magic: A bird-watching adventure in New Zealand

friends jumping in the alps

Is there anything New Zealand group leader Kim Bowden doesn’t know about the Land of the Long White Cloud? Kim takes us on a bird-watching adventure to learn that the kiwi’s feathered friends can be very cheeky…

“Would you believe that the bat is the only land mammal native to New Zealand? With Australia as a close neighbour, visitors to NZ shores are often surprised to discover that this land is snake, crocodile and kangaroo free.

The explanation lies in the fact that New Zealand separated from the ancient landmass of Gondwanaland before most mammals were on the scene. Prior to the arrival of Maori and then European settlers, many of New Zealand’s birds had adapted in remarkable ways to fill the niche occupied by mammals in other countries. Couple this with New Zealand’s location in the roaring 40s at the edge of the Southern Ocean and you can be sure to spot both weird and wonderful birds on any NZ travels.

You don’t always need to look up to be a bird watcher in New Zealand as many native species are ground dwelling. They’ve lost the ability to fly because let’s face it, there is little need when you have no natural predators.

The iconic kiwi lives a very non-bird-like life! It is flightless with loose hair-like feathers, has nostrils at the end of its bill to sniff out insects, is nocturnal and lives in a burrow on the ground. The kokako (wattlebird) still runs through the forest along branches more like a squirrel than a bird. The weka is a large, brown flightless bird famously feisty, resourceful and curious. Don’t leave your jandals (flip flops or thongs) outside when you are staying on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, as this bird may well drag one off to use in the construction of its ground-dwelling nest. With few mammals to hunt, birds were an important food source for Maori and especially prized was the now extinct flightless moa, an amazing creature that could grow to more than 3 metres (10 feet) tall.

The kakapo is an extraordinary bird – it is the world’s heaviest and only flightless and nocturnal parrot. The kakapo is a good climber and uses its wings for balancing. The male kakapo’s booming call can be heard as far as 5km (3 miles) away and an early geologist believed the sound to be “So sudden and startling that it was a subterranean noise in some way connected with volcanic action.” Endemic to New Zealand the kakapo is a critically endangered species with only 86 known birds remaining.

Another claim to fame, New Zealand is home to the world’s only alpine parrot. Listen for the raucous cries of “keeaa” when walking in regions close to the South Island’s Southern Alp mountain chain, as you usually hear this bird before you see it. Social and inquisitive, the kea is notoriously destructive. In areas frequented by kea it is not uncommon to come back to a parked car and find it stripped of the rubber around the doors or along window wipers. A local motorbike hire company informs prospective hirers that “You are responsible for all and any damage to the motorcycle while it is in your care. This could include damage not directly caused by you, for example if you are unlucky enough to hit a piece of debris lying in the road, or a seat being torn up by one of our destructive native parrots, the kea.” If the TV reception is fuzzy in our Mt Cook accommodation you will usually find the frustrated lodge owner cursing the cheeky kea for playing with the TV aerial!

New Zealand boasts more penguin species than any other country. Keep your eyes peeled for the Fiordland crested penguin or tawaki when sea kayaking in Milford Sound on our South Island Explorer trip. It has a distinctive yellow crest that starts at the base of the bill and extends over its eyelids like elaborate eye makeup. Awkward and even a little clumsy on land, this bird is a sleek and acrobatic mover in water.

Albatross are ocean wanderers, travelling vast distances to feed. 85% of their life is spent at sea generally well away from land and thus human view. The sight of a soaring albatross held aloft on wings up to 3m (10 feet) across is an impressive and remarkably not an uncommon sight around certain sections of New Zealand’s coastline. Less than 2km (1 mile) off shore from Kaikoura, a stop on our Northern Highlights trip, warm and cold currents converge to bring an upwelling of nutrients from the ocean floor. Albatross and other migratory seabirds as well as seals, dolphins and whales use the waters as a seafood buffet!”

Tour New Zealand with Intrepid on trips like these great small group adventures:
South Island Explorer – 15 days ex Christchurch
Northern Highlights – 14 days Auckland to Christchurch

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Hi Maria,
If you’d like to also find out more about the local language in NZ, check out our ‘jandals, tiki tour and togs’ post at
Sue, Intrepid Express editor'

Good day,

At this time I was collecting new stuff for an article on Christchurch for our German travel guide to New Zealand when I was sent by Yahoo to your page. Actually, I didn’t find exactly what I expected. But, your article has given me inspiration for another article. Insofar: Thanks.

Kind regards,

The kea’s elongated bill is perfect for biting, tearing, and lifting a variety of prey and objects, even prying rubber parts from cars, a behaviour that has given it a reputation as a vandal.'

Thank you so much for this post. I am heading to NZ with you, and now I cannot to meet the cheeky kea 🙂