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Common Birds of the New Zealand Forest


Here's one of the most well known and liked New Zealand birds, the fantail.

fantail   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

This friendly little creature flits around the forest looking for insects and even seeks out human contact, following people as they walk through the bush and catching the insects which we disturb.

fantail   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The fantail has several adaptations which allow it to catch and hold on to its prey, including the stiff whiskers around its beak which you can see in this photo.

These whiskers guide the insects towards the fantail's open mouth as it catches them in mid-air.


How wude!

Well, of course the fantail's major insect hunting asset is the tail which gives it its name.

The tail is very large in comparison to the size of the bird itself, allowing the fantail to turn very rapidly in flight, all the better to catch maneuverable insects.

white-eye (also known as wax-eye)

The wax-eye is another cute little bird which lives in what New Zealanders commonly refer to as "the bush".

The wax-eye is also known as the white-eye or silver-eye, and unlike the fantail it eats berries and nectar, which it laps up with a brush-tipped tongue.

The wax-eye is a very recent arrival in New Zealand, in fact it's thought that it was self-introduced in the mid 1800s from Australia, perhaps when a flock of them was blown across the Tasman Sea by a storm.

South Island robin

This little sweetie is a New Zealand robin or, more accurately, a South Island robin, since  this sub-species is noticeably different than the variety that lives in the North Island of New Zealand, or the separate Stewart Island version.

All of these sub-species are endemic to New Zealand, meaning that they're found nowhere else in the world.

Like the fantail, the wax-eye and quite a few other New Zealand birds, the robin is very tame and unafraid of people, which is the natural result of evolving in a country with no mammalian predators.

North Island robins aren't common, but South Island robins can be seen regularly in the northern part of the island.

This one was by the side of the road in the Lewis pass near the tiny settlement of Maruia.

South Island robin

And I found this one on a different occasion, but in very nearly the same place.

If you look closely, then you'll realize that it's contemplating a meal of mushrooms, which is very appropriate, since it looks exactly like an egg itself!

In reality, they eat insects which they find amongst the leaf litter, which is why both of these photos show the bird on the ground.

whitehead feeding chick   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The cuteness just goes on and on!

Here is a juvenile whitehead imploring a parent for food. The whitehead isn't a well known species to most New Zealanders, but it's fairly common in the North Island, south of Auckland, as well as on some islands offshore from the North Island, such as Little Barrier, Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi, where I photographed these two.

Unusually, a nest with two or three youngsters is often attended to by four adult birds, all of which feed the chicks and rush in when necessary to distract predators.

The chicks venture outside the nest early, and it's common to find three chicks sitting closely together on a branch.

As you can see in this photo, the chicks rapidly flutter their wings as a greeting to the adults, and the adults also greet each other in this way.


The tui is a much more well-known bird, and considerably more common than the whitehead, too.

It's one of the few native birds comfortable living in suburbia, lapping up nectar from flowers with its tongue.

It probably helps a great deal that the tui is a very feisty bird which will chase other birds from its territory.


The tui is sometimes also called the parson bird, because of the white tufts under its chin which reminded people of the white collars worn by English parsons.

The filaments around its neck also give it a very distinctive appearance.

From some angles the plumage looks almost black, but when the light strikes it from certain angles you can see almost metallic greens and blues, as well as rich copper colouring.

pukeko   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The pukeko is another very common and well known bird, but unlike most of the birds on this page it is found in many other places around the world, including the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia and Melanesia.

Like the name "tui", the word "pukeko" is of maori origin, but in other parts of the world it's called a purple swamphen or purple gallinule.

For such a widespread bird it's a surprisingly bad flier, hardly able to flap more than a few tens of meters with its legs dangling down, before crash landing.

Once on the ground it walks around looking for insects, frogs and the like, periodically flashing the white plumage under its tail, particularly if it feels threatened.

wood pigeon   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The New Zealand wood pigeon is another bird endemic to this country.

It's quite large and like the tui has really beautiful plumage, again with metallic shades of green and copper.

The white feathers on its belly and legs nicely highlight the colours on the rest of the bird.

wood pigeon

Like the tui, the wood pigeon is able to make a living in city parks and suburban gardens, where it searches out berries, or leaves and shoots if there are no berries.

sacred kingfisher

There's only one type of kingfisher found in New Zealand, a sub-species of the sacred kingfisher found in Australia and parts of Melanesia.

They're very aggressive, attacking other birds and even predatory mammals, and often eat mice in addition to their regular diet of small fish, lizards, worms and insects.

Nevertheless, like most kingfishers around the world it's very difficult to get close enough for a decent photograph.   This shot was taken on Tiritiri Matangi island, as were the earlier photographs of the whitehead, tui, wood pigeon and pukeko, as well as the next photograph.


The bellbird is well known, but not often seen by most people, though it's said to be relatively more common in the South Island.

The red eye on this individual indicates that it is male.

As the name suggests, their song sounds rather like the ringing of small bells, and it was a major contributor to the dawn chorus of bird song which filled the country each morning when Europeans first arrived.

Many species of birds became extinct in the following years, and it seemed as if the bellbird might head in the same direction, but thankfully it's been able to pull itself back from the brink.

kea   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

As you might have noticed, one characteristic of all of the birds on this page is their feistiness, which has allowed them to survive despite the arrival of humans and their accompanying horde of mammalian predators like rats, cats, stoats and ferrets, as well as competitive species like deer which have totally stripped away the forest undergrowth.

Each of these birds is impressive, but this one is definitely the King of the Feisty.

The kea is one of several parrots found only in New Zealand.   Some of these, like the red-crowned and yellow-crowned parakeets, are fairly ordinary as parrots go, others are far from ordinary, like the kakapo, which is not only the world's largest parrot, weighing up to 3.5 kilograms, but is also flightless and nocturnal, and has a very strange and unbirdlike "booming" call.

Sadly, it has nearly no concept that there are now enemies in its world or how it should defend itself from them, and this has made the kakapo extremely rare, with fewer than a hundred left in the world.

The kea is another extraordinary parrot, but thankfully it's able to take care of itself.   The kea isn't nocturnal, nor is it flightless, but it is unusual in being the world's only alpine parrot.

High mountains in the South Island are the best place to look for them, both of these photos were taken at the top end of the Homer tunnel which leads across to Milford Sound.

Keas are extremely intelligent, scoring better on intelligence tests than most primates, and research has shown that they're one of the very few animals in the world which are self-aware.   They've even learned how to take advantage of the animals introduced by humans. For many years farmers complained that keas were killing sheep at night, only to be ridiculed for this idea by environmentalists.   However, eventually night camera footage was obtained of keas flying onto the backs of sheep and using their sharp hooked bills to dig into the backs of the sheep in order to feed on the fat around their kidneys.   Of course it's very unfortunate for the sheep, and some people refer to the kea as "the feathered wolf".

kea   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Keas gleefully take out their vengeance not only on the destructive animals introduced by humans, but on humans themselves!

Many a skier has returned from an exhilarating day on the slopes only to find that his car has been torn to pieces, with every plastic or rubber part around the doors and windows ripped to shreds!

Somehow it seems like very appropriate payback for the thoughtless havoc that we've done, and continue to do, to the original bird inhabitants of the country which were less able to defend themselves.

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