New Zealand's unique wildlife is a result of its isolated evolution. Separated from other land masses for millions of years, the pristine environment fostered a remarkable array of species found nowhere else on Earth. While exploring the biodiverse haven of Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park, you’ll encounter many rare and captivating creatures that call New Zealand home. This guide will introduce you to some of Fiordland’s fascinating local inhabitants, giving you a taste of what you might encounter on your expeditions into one of New Zealand’s most enchanting locations.
The New Zealand Difference
New Zealand’s unique wildlife is attributed to its separation from other landmasses around 80 million years ago, when it first began breaking away from the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana.
The New Zealand landmass carried some species away with it on it’s ocean voyage, and many arrived in New Zealand over millions of years, either by drifting there, flying, or being blown on the wind. Due to the isolation, the species in New Zealand evolved differently to their relatives elsewhere in the world, becoming specialised to New Zealand’s environment. With a lack of predatory mammals, many bird species lost their ability to fly, becoming permanent ground inhabitants. New Zealand now has one of the world’s highest rates of endemic species: species that are found nowhere else on Earth.
Return of the Takahē: A Brush with Extinction
The South Island Takahē is the largest rail species in the world. Rails are ground-dwelling birds with large legs and toes and short wings. The plump, blue-green takahē received its name from the Māori word ‘takahea,’ meaning ‘to stand tall and stomp one’s feet.’ They once roamed throughout New Zealand’s South Island but threats from hunting, food competition, habitat loss, and predation from introduced land mammals lead to dramatic population declines. In 1898 they were officially declared extinct.
For 50 years the takahē remained an extinct species until, in 1948, rumours of takahē calls sent physician and amateur naturalist, Geoffry Orbell, venturing into the rugged Murchison Mountains near Te Anau in search of the bird. Along with a trio of other adventurers, he spotted some large bird footprints. He believed the footprints had to belong to the takahē, and in November 1948, with photographic evidence, the takahē was declared alive, launching one of New Zealand’s longest-running conservation initiatives.
At that time, there were around 200-300 birds in The Murchison Mountains, and the area was immediately closed off to the public. In the takahē’s early conservation years, efforts consisted of population monitoring and predator control. “Back then, it was the New Zealand Wildlife Service that managed it. One of the biggest threats are introduced stoats, and in the early 70’s we did lot of work there in the Takahē Valley monitoring the trap lines.” - Murray Neilson, ex Wildlife Service and DOC officer.
In 1985, Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre opened near Te Anau, a large tussock reserve where chicks were incubated, hatched, and raised for release. Rangers used sock puppets resembling adult takahē to feed and interact with chicks so they wouldn’t become reliant on humans. The chicks spent time getting used to the tussock environment before being released back into the Murchison Mountains.
“It was fantastic seeing them all out in their natural habitat and seeing what all those years of work had gone into, and it’s been great to see the populations increase over the years as a result of all the conservation efforts.” - Karen Neilson, ex Wildlife Service volunteer.
Takahē Conservation Today
The takahē is now a conservation icon.The Department of Conservation (DOC), the public service now responsible for conserving New Zealand's natural and historical heritage, have continued the takahē conservation efforts. Burwood Takahē Breeding Centre now hosts takahē breeding pairs who raise the chicks and teach them essential survival skills before they’re released into the wild.
The centre is central to the Takahē Recovery Programme, which includes breeding programmes, translocations to offshore islands and ecosanctuaries, wild releases, research, and predator control. Controlling stoats remains a challenge, and in 2007 a mass outbreak reduced the Murchison Mountains population by half. The total takahē population today consists of around 450 birds, and you can see them up close at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary.
Punanga Manu o Te Anau / Te Anau Bird Sanctuary
Takahē are the main attraction of the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. They are most easily seen rummaging in their feeding stations. Feeding time for the sanctuary takahē is 10:30 am, which provides optimal viewing as they munch on their breakfast. The pairs of takahē in the sanctuary help support the takahē breeding programme by raising chicks until they are a year old. The chicks are then released into their new, wild predator-controlled homes.
Kākā are loud, boisterous, forest-dwelling parrots that are often heard before they’re seen. They have olive-brown feathers, white crowns, and red underwings. It’s thought that kākā received their name from the Māori word ‘kā,’ which can mean ‘screech,’ referring to their loud ‘skark’ call. Māori believed the birds to be fierce gossips of the forest due to their raucous behavior and constant chattering.
Because kākā evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, they are vulnerable to most introduced mammals. They nest in hollow trees, making them easy prey for stoats, and rats and possums easily ravage chicks and eggs.
Kākā were once widespread throughout New Zealand but are now restricted to forest areas where predator control is in place, eco sanctuaries, or as part of captive rearing programmes. The sanctuary helps support the South Island Kākā Recovery Programme, breeding birds that are then released into protected areas to help re-establish wild populations.
Antipodes Island Parakeets
Here you’ll also find some Antipodes Island Parakeets. These birds are not native to mainland New Zealand, but the sanctuary hosts a small group as part of an insurance population in case any harm comes to the wild populations found on several offshore islands. The sanctuary birds can be cheeky, known for tugging the hems of people’s jumpers as they walk by.
The large pond hosts many waterfowl species that come and go, like Mallard ducks and New Zealand scaup, a small diving duck species. There is also a group of paradise shellducks who reside at the sanctuary, identifiable by snow-white (female) or jet-black (male) heads. If you’re visiting through the spring and summer months, you’ll likely see mated pairs of these ducks with a brood of ducklings at their tails.
Milford Road Encounters
Whio, or blue ducks, are one of only a few duck species in the world to inhabit twisting, churning, fast-flowing rivers. Māori named them whio for the male duck’s distinctive whistle-like call.
Whio were once widespread, finding territories along New Zealand rivers from the mountains to the sea. However, water diversions, damming, and vegetation clearance have reduced their habitat. Whio are also particularly vulnerable to stoats that attack females on their nests and take their eggs, and they can easily sniff out ducklings and pluck them from the river's edge. Whio are now restricted to places of natural river reaches and areas that have predator control in place, making Fiordland National Park a great place to see them in the wild. Fiordland has one of the strongest whio populations in New Zealand, and you can often see them in rivers throughout the Hollyford Valley and Eglinton Valley.
Mirror Lakes Marvels
Mirror Lakes is a popular stop along Milford Road, where visitors can stroll along the boardwalks, taking in the reflections of the Earl Mountains and surrounding beach forests.
As you peer down at the clear waters, you may see a long, dark shape slithering in and out of the shadows. Tuna, or Longfin eel, is one of the largest freshwater eel species in the world. When they begin their lives, the eels are only one millimetre long, but they can grow up to two metres long and are capable of living for over 60 years.
These eels breed only once, at the end of their lives, in a secret location in the South Pacific Ocean that nobody has ever found. From late February to March, a proportion of eels mature and undertake their great migration to their secret breeding grounds. The journey takes around 6 months, and once there, a large spawning event marks their life’s end and results in thousands of eggs. Tiny larvae later hatch and ride ocean currents back to New Zealand’s freshwater rivers, streams, and lakes.
These little ducks are a common at the Mirror Lakes, and the clear waters provide excellent opportunities to witness their masterful diving skills. Scaup obtain most of their food by diving, capable of spending several minutes underwater at a time, plucking snails, insect larvae, and plants off the bottom of ponds and lakes. Males and females look similar, both having dark-brown feathers, though males have yellow eyes and a green tinge to their head and wings, while females have brown eyes and darker-brown bodies. Scaup ducklings are dark brown, sometimes with cream patches, and fluffy all over. If you’re visiting between October and March, you might see groups of scaup ducklings learning to dive.
While walking around the boardwalks you might see and hear various forest bird species, such as the South Island robin. The little songbirds are dark brown with white chests, and are curious and friendly, happily hopping up to within a couple of metres of people. You’ll likely also see and hear tūī, noticeable by white tufts under the beaks, as well as the yellow-green bellbird. You may also hear kākā screeching throughout the surrounding forest. You might not see kākā at eye level, but if you look up to the sky you may see them swooping above the trees.
Kea are the world’s only alpine parrot. The incredibly clever, mischievous birds are common along Milford Road, especially in places where humans frequently stop. Kea are one of the most intelligent birds in the world. They like to explore and play, and it’s not uncommon for them to pinch people’s food and belongings, so make sure to keep your items secure. Kea are related to the kākā, and Māori named them kea for their distinctive ‘keee-aaaa’ call. Kea look similar to the kākā but are easily recognisable from their larger size and green feathers.
Te Anau to Milford Sound Tour
Taking a guided tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a popular option for many, allowing you to sit back and relax while you’re transported along the Milford Road. These tours are designed to give you the best opportunity to witness the diverse wildlife along Milford Road, providing insights into Fiordland National Park’s landscapes and biodiversity.
You’ll likely see and hear a range of forest bird species throughout your tour, such as tūī, bellbirds, South Island robins, and kākā. You may also see weka, brown, flightless birds, sometimes mistaken for kiwi. Your tour guides will be able to point out wildlife with their well-trained eye, and you’ll have time to explore several key nature-viewing stops along the way to see what species you can spot, such as the Mirror Lakes and Eglington Valley.
All tour companies will provide slightly different experiences, and some may offer specific wildlife encounters. For example, Luxe Tours provide a stop at Monkey Creek near the Hollyford Valley to spend some quality time with the curious Kea. Here, you can watch their antics, chat with them, and take excellent photographs. Your guides will provide all the necessary information on the proper etiquette for kea interactions, but it’s essential that you never feed them or touch them, no matter how much they try to convince you otherwise.
Milford Sound Cruise
A Milford Sound Cruise is a must-do activity for nature enthusiasts, where you can sail through the iconic fjord beneath the towering cliffs covered in lush forests and tumbling waterfalls with opportunities to spot interesting marine wildlife.
NZ Fur Seal
Year-round you’ll likely see New Zealand fur seals basking on Seal Rock. They are the deepest-diving seal species in the world, capable of diving down to 200 metres and holding their breath for 11 minutes. They spend several days out at sea, foraging for deep-sea delicacies such as lantern fish and squid. They then haul themselves out onto rocky shores for a well-deserved rest.
A pod of around 60 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the Fiordland area, where they take advantage of the abundant food sources available, working together to hoard schools of fish. They are playful and curious and often enjoy riding the waves alongside cruise ships on a sunny day and swimming alongside kayakers. They can be susceptible to human disturbance, so there are strict rules in place to ensure their comfort and safety. For example, if there are dolphins around, vessels must wait for the dolphins to move away first.
Tawaki/Fiordland Crested Penguin
While aboard a Milford Sound Cruise, you may see a tawaki, or Fiordland Crested Penguin. While many other bird species received their Māori names due to the sound of their calls, the tawaki name has mythical origins. Tawaki was a god in Māori mythology associated with lightning and flooding. It’s thought that tawaki received their name from the bright crests above their eyes, resembling lightning, or the fact that they live in areas of heavy rainfall. They are quite shy and elusive, but you may be lucky enough to spot their orange beaks and pale yellow crests while on a cruise, most likely during their July to November breeding season.
Doubtful Sound Cruise
Doubtful Sound is a long, twisting Fjord three times larger than Milford Sound, also known as “the sound of silence.” There’s no direct road access there, so the area is very quiet, and the only option for witnessing the remote landscape is by taking a cruise across Lake Manapouri, a bus trip over Wilmont pass, and then boarding another cruise to guide you through the fjord.
Aboard the Doubtful Sound Cruise, you’ll spend around 3 hours sailing through the fjord while a knowledgeable guide shares information about the area and points out the wildlife. You’ll likely see similar species to what you’d see in Milford Sound, such as seals, dolphins, and the tawaki penguin.
Because Doubtful Sound is quieter than Milford Sound, you may be more likely to see tawaki here. Tawaki are one of the rarest penguin species in New Zealand, with currently around 2500-3000 breeding pairs. While other crested penguin species nest in dense colonies, tawaki have unique nesting behaviour, forming nests in dense vegetation, under roots and tree logs, or in caves.
New Zealand also has a range of fascinating nocturnal species you may be able to spot during your Fiordland adventures, such as the Fiordland tokoeka/kiwi. Ngāi Tahu, or Kāi Tahu, the principal South Island Māori iwi (tribe), named the kiwi ‘tokoeka’ meaning ‘weka with a walking stick,’ for their weka resemblance and long beaks that they tap on the ground as they walk. The tapping behaviour helps them detect prey, such as worms and beetle larvae, and then they probe their long beaks into logs, leaf litter, or the ground to pluck them out.
Tokoeka live in native forests, scrub, tussock grasslands, and subalpine areas, and can often be heard along Fiordland hiking trails, such as the Milford Track and Kepler Track. They are occasionally active in the day, but most often active at night. Catching a glimpse of a tokoeka in the wild is a rarity, but if you hear the male’s screeching call, the female’s hissing sound, or some scuffling noises coming from the bushes, keep very still and quiet, and you may just be lucky enough to see one.
Fiordland is also home to long-tailed and short-tailed bats, the only native land mammals in New Zealand. Both bat species are referred to as pekapeka in Māori and the origins of the name are currently unknown.
The long-tailed bat is the smaller of the two species, weighing only 8-11 grams. They live in mature forests, forming roosts in hollow trees and occasionally in caves. Long-tailed bats emerge at dusk to hunt, catching flying insects like moths, midges and beetles. The short-tailed bat has unique foraging behaviour, spending a lot of time on the ground, folding up its wings to crawl along on its elbows, feasting on insects, fruit, nectar and pollen. Like the long-tailed bat, short-tailed bats most often roost in hollow trees in mature forests, as well as the occasional cave.
Like many of New Zealand’s bird species, forest clearance, human interference, and introduced predators have lead to population declines of both species. In Fiordland National Park, pekapeka are protected by predator control programmes and population monitoring. You may be able to spot them in Eglinton valley at dusk. Their little jagged bat-wing silhouettes and quick, sharp direction changes mid-flight help distinguish them from birds.
Responsible Wildlife Viewing
When viewing any wildlife, it’s crucial that they remain safe and as stress-free as possible, so keep the following tips in mind as you venture through Fiordland National Park:
Stay on track: Stick to designated paths to avoid disturbing wildlife habitats.
Keep a safe distance: Give the animals plenty of space. If they approach you, stay still until they move on, and never follow or touch them.
Don’t share your food: Never feed wildlife; human food can harm wildlife and alter their natural behaviour.
Keep lights low at night: Nocturnal animals, like the kiwi, have very sensitive eyes, so if you encounter any night creatures, keep your torch light low and never shine it directly at them. A red light torch is a great option for viewing nocturnal creatures, as the red light doesn’t bother them. Please also avoid flash photography, as it can stun them.
Fiordland National Park is overflowing with wildlife, and while the animals of Milford Sound and Fiordland can be difficult to spot, with curiosity, patience, and respect, you can fill your visit with memorable sightings of some of New Zealand’s most unique and treasured species.