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Fiordland and Milford Sound Wildlife

A kea comes in to land in Milford Sound. A Milford Sound Lodge regular guest.

There’s barely a corner of Fiordland and the Milford Sound area that isn’t overflowing with wildlife. The lush, dense forest is bursting with life from the tiniest lichens to the mightiest beech trees. And while the animals of Milford Sound and Fiordland are often difficult to spot, they are there. Milford Sound is home to some very special creatures.

If you’re heading into Fiordland for a hike or sightseeing trip, here is a taste of some of the wildlife you may see.

What animals will I see in Fiordland?Rare blue ducks just off the Milford Sound road

On the drive to Milford Sound, you will travel through the Eglinton Valley. This striking landscape is also one of the easiest places to spot the endangered blue duck/whio. This rare creature is usually only visible on remote rivers, but we’re lucky they have made a home in the Eglinton River. The blue duck shares this river with other duck species, including mallards, grey ducks and the large and eye-catching paradise shelduck, the females of which have a distinctive white head.

But if you catch sight of a blue duck you’re allowed to get a bit excited. This ancient species is only found in New Zealand and is one of just three waterfowl species in the world that live only on rivers. You won’t find them living on lakes, for example, or fiords.

Back from the brink: the elusive takahē 

The blue duck isn’t the only endangered bird species to be found in Fiordland. There is also the takahē, found in the Murchison Mountains close to Te Anau. Incredibly, this bird was thought to have gone extinct until it was rediscovered fifty years ago. It is one of only five flightless bird species living in Fiordland.

The mighty forests of Fiordland protect the last populations of many bird species, not just the takahē. The yellowhead/mohua, for example, is a small insect-eating bird with a vibrant yellow head and breast and greenish-brown tail. When Europeans arrived, the mohua was everywhere, but it is now a species in decline. There are only a few populations in the wild still surviving; many are here in Fiordland.

Ancient giants: the moa and the Haast eagle

New Zealand is renowned as a land of birds, and rightly so. There are no native land mammals in New Zealand and so the birds evolved to fill the niche that mammals would have held in the ecosystem. Moa birds, now extinct, grew to twice the height of a man, and the haast eagle was so big it would take on a moa. 

Although these giants are no longer with us, other ancient and bizarre birds still survive. Over time, some lost the ability to fly because they had no need to. Because there were no humans around and no predators such as cats, rats or stoats to hunt them, these birds evolved to nest on the ground. This worked very well until Europeans turned up with their various predators in tow.

Fiordland’s most famous inhabitant: the kea

And then there’s the kea. This protected species of parrot is believed to number just a few thousand today, the majority of which live in Fiordland. Although the keas numbers are dangerously low, it doesn’t seem like it in Fiordland because we see them everywhere! These large, green parrots are one of the most intelligent birds in the world, and they’re not afraid of humans. They have survived in the harsh alpine conditions by being inquisitive, resourceful, and able to figure out new ways to get food. They have quickly learned that one of the easiest ways to get food is by hanging around unsuspecting tourists and looking cute and hungry! Sometimes these cheeky creatures will even adopt sneak-thief tactics to pinch your picnic when your back is turned.

But no matter how demanding, cute or underhand they are, please resist feeding the kea. Their natural diet consists of local plants, berries, roots and grubs, and human food doesn’t do them any good at all.

A forestful of birds in Fiordland

The kea shares the forest with many other birds, and at various times you are likely to see, or at least hear, morepork, kaka, tui, bellbirds, native robins, riflemen, yellow-crowned parakeets, yellowheads, tomtits, fantails and wood pigeons, among other species.

The kaka is another parrot, related to the kea, and features a red or orange-tinged underside. The kaka is best known for gathering in noisy gangs in trees around dawn and dusk. This is their party time, and you won’t miss their raucous racket! 

The morepork is a dark-brown owl you may hear at night, announcing its presence with a “more pork” call. The tui is a handsome black-and-white bird with a glossy green-blue sheen to its plumage, a little white pompom hanging from its throat and one of the most beautiful birdsongs in New Zealand. So keep an ear out for some of these creatures during your stay in Fiordland.

The plight of Fiordland’s flightless birds

The kakapo is another parrot, but unlike the kea and the kaka, this one can’t fly. It has yellowy-green plumage and an owlish sort of face. Although it can climb trees and tries to escape danger by freezing, it was one of the most vulnerable victims of human hunters and introduced predators, and is even more endangered than the takahē.

Although they were plentiful around here when the pakeha settlers arrived, there are now only 86 kakapo left. It is a tragedy that such a unique and intelligent bird is on the brink of extinction. In the 1970s, Fiordland was the only place where kakapo were found, but their numbers continue to decline. The last kakapo in the wild have been relocated to remote islands for preservation. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation keeps a close eye on the kakapo and are hoping to see some success with breeding. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for them.

Other flightless birds in Fiordland include the weka, three types of kiwi and some penguins, which obviously don’t live here in the forest!

The weka is a small brown ground-dweller that’s sometimes mistaken for a kiwi. It’s a more slimline bird with a shorter beak, sleek feathers and a much more outgoing and curious personality. Although they are threatened themselves, these birds sometimes eat the eggs of other birds, which causes problems. It can be quite hard to know how to keep them safe without endangering other threatened species. DOC (Department of Conservation) has a program in place to make sure weka numbers don’t fall any further.

The iconic New Zealander: the kiwi

Finally, there’s the famous kiwi. Fiordland is home to three kiwi: the spotted, the little spotted and the brown. The kiwi is famous thanks to its status as the national bird, and it’s also a common nickname for New Zealanders. For a bird that’s so prevalent in our culture and iconography, kiwis are incredibly difficult to spot in the flesh. They only come out at night to forage on the forest floor and are very shy and quiet creatures. They’re funny-looking birds with hair-like brown feathers and are actually a distant relative of emus and ostriches. You are more likely to hear a kiwi than to see one. Listen out for their “kiwi” calls at night.

Kiwi are currently in trouble as well with 95 per cent of kiwi chicks killed by cats and stoats. Adults are frequently killed by dogs. Conservation programmes are doing their best to protect them with DOC facilitating a long-term program to raise chicks in captivity before releasing them into the wild. They are also working on establishing kiwi colonies on remote islands where they are safe from predators.

Removal and isolation: the last hope for many New Zealand bird species

The concept of moving endangered species to islands in order to save them was first introduced by Richard Henry. Henry was an Irishman who settled in Te Anau in the 1880s. He was a keen birdwatcher and was concerned about the declining population of some of the local species. When the government decided to set up a nature reserve on one of the islands in Dusky Sound, Henry was the obvious choice for curator. He relocated to the island, built a house and set about catching birds on the mainland and shipping them out in his little boat. It was difficult and sometimes dangerous work, but by 1900 he had ferried about 700 live birds from the mainland to the islands on Dusky Sound far from introduced predators. As well as kiwi, he transported kakapo and weka, and was pleased to watch them breeding in their new home.

Sadly, Henry resigned his post when he spotted what he thought was a weasel on one of the islands. The sight of the weasel suggested to Henry that his efforts were in vain. But his work was worth it. Weka and brown kiwi still survive on those islands, and although the spotted kiwi and kakapo didn’t survive, he had raised enough awareness of their plight that other conservation programs started up to save them. His idea of moving endangered birds to the islands is still carried out by DOC to this day. So those birds owe him one.

Birds are not the only animals to be found in Fiordland. The forest is also home to insects, freshwater creatures and our only two native land mammals, the relatively common long-tailed bat and the endangered southern short-tailed bat. The short-tailed bat is a small and ancient bat species unique to New Zealand which the Maori associated with impending doom. They’re not so bad when you get to know them though. They feed on nectar and pollen, are very small and are one of only a few bat species which have learned to clamber around on the forest floor when searching for food. Fiordland is home to one of the last surviving wild populations of these bats.