By Terry Thomsen, nature guide and writer

Imagine if you had set foot in Canterbury a thousand years ago, before humans arrived in New Zealand.  You would have witnessed a unique fauna, dominated by an extraordinary assemblage of birds which had evolved for millions of years in the absence of land mammals and snakes.  

Many were flightless, some were very large (including the moa, one of the largest birds ever known), while tiny wrens ran around the forest floor behaving much as rats and mice do elsewhere in the world. The top predators came from above in the form of giant eagles and harriers.

Humans, both Polynesian and European colonisers, have put paid to much of that.  Hunting, habitat destruction and the introduction of mammals such as rats, stoats and possums, has seen many native bird species go extinct, or become scarce.

Forest wildlife

The only patch of forest within Christchurch city is the wonderful Riccarton Bush with its towering kahikatea trees.  There is some forest (much of it regenerating) on Banks Peninsula, most notably at Hinewai Reserve near Akaroa. Otherwise head up towards Arthur’s Pass for a walk in southern beech forest, or onwards to the West Coast to get among the humid podocarp forests.

When you venture into the forest, you should expect to see some of New Zealand’s native forest birds.  Look out for fantails, robins and tomtits, which often approach closely when humans pass by and disturb insects.  Listen out for the trill of the grey warbler, or the melodious call of the bellbird and tui.

The largest forest bird that you are likely to see is the kereru, the large native pigeon; it can sometimes be seen in parks in Christchurch city.  The nearest wild kiwi to Christchurch are at Arthur’s Pass, where they can sometimes be heard calling at night.  Because they are nocturnal and rare, you are very unlikely to see a kiwi in the wild in New Zealand – your best chance is in a darkened enclosure at a wildlife attraction.

Native geckos and skinks are also often seen in forests and open country.

Wild introduced mammals are common in New Zealand’s forests.  Because of their adverse impact on the country’s native animals and plants, conservationists regard them as pests  These include deer, pigs, stoats, hedgehogs and rats. At night you have a good chance of seeing Australian brushtailed possums.

Open country wildlife

In open country, you may see the NZ falcon or the Australasian harrier – you are most likely to see the latter scavenging on road kill.  In alpine areas of the South Island, including Arthur’s Pass, look out for NZ’s alpine parrot, the kea.  It is a very charismatic, intelligent – and mischievous – bird.  Please do not feed kea.

Native birds such as pukeko (the native moorhen) and paradise shelducks are often seen on wet pasture.

In open country and in cities, European visitors will see many familiar birds which have been introduced to New Zealand: sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, finches, skylarks and many others.

Rabbits and hares are commonly seen – another unfortunate animal introduction to New Zealand.

Lakes, rivers and streams

The largest freshwater fish in New Zealand are eels which can exceed one metre in length.  Most of the remaining native freshwater fish are small.  A number, such as inanga, kokopu and koaro, belong to the galaxid family.  These are migratory fish that spend their earliest lives at sea before the tiny juveniles migrate back into rivers during spring.  At this time they are caught in nets near river mouths and eaten as whitebait, a popular delicacy in New Zealand.

Introduced trout and salmon can be found in most rivers and lakes in New Zealand.  If you are lucky, you might even spot a trout in the Avon River from one of the bridges in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens.

The most common duck in New Zealand is the introduced mallard.  Introduced Canada geese – regarded as pest species – are also numerous near waterways and on pasture.  You also have a good chance of seeing other aquatic birds such as grey duck, grey teal, paradise shelduck, NZ scaup and black swan in and around New Zealand waterways – including areas adjacent to the Avon River in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens, or in the green spaces adjoining the lower Avon.

Coastal and marine wildlife

The coasts and estuaries in Canterbury have a wide range of birdlife, including gulls, terns, shags, cormorants, stilts, herons and oystercatchers.  Royal spoonbills are a spectacular sight.

There are also migratory waders, most famously the eastern bar-tailed godwit which migrates all the way to northern Alaska to breed in the northern summer. 

The Avon-Heathcote Estuary, within Christchurch city limits, is a great place to view coastal and estuarine birds, including migratory waders.

White-flippered penguins (and rarely, the yellow-eyed penguin – this is better seen further south) also roost in some places on the Canterbury coast.  They may sometimes be seen in the water during the Akaroa harbour cruise.  Kekeno (New Zealand fur seals) are often seen basking on the coast of Banks Peninsula, but are more common on the Kaikoura coast, further north.  Occasionally sea lions and even sea elephants are seen.

Perhaps the most special animal in Canterbury waters is the rare Hector’s Dolphin, the world’s smallest marine dolphin.  They are an inshore coastal species, and are usually seen during the Akaroa harbour cruise. North of Christchurch, off the Kaikoura coast, pods of hundreds of dusky dolphins can often be seen on swimming with dolphin cruises.

Migrating whales are occasionally seen off the Canterbury coast.  The best place to see whales is at Kaikoura, where sperm whales can be viewed from whale-watching cruises – these are also a great opportunity to see pelagic seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels.