Liam Butler interviews Niels Meyer-Westfield author of Land of Birds an illustrated tribute to the birds of New-Zealand. $49.99

For 80 million years, since New Zealand split from the gondwana supercontinent, birds evolved without mammalian competition into a unique ecosystem. Until human arrival New Zealand was the only such place in the world. It was the land of birds.


Question One

You explain that Christchurch had a tradition of ringing the Cathedral Bells for half an hour when the Godwits returned to celebrate the coming of spring.  What do you find remarkable about these international long distance travellers?

A female Godwit was satellite tracked and flew 11680 km non-stop. We humans can fly to the moon but can’t built something as small that can fly as far – nature still holds the edge by a big margin.

That’s only one of the reasons why the Godwits deserve our greatest respect. Godwits, like Albatrosses or Whales and many other creatures need protection beyond New Zealand borders. Godwits for example suffer greatly from the loss of wetlands that are important fuel-stops on their long migration. I like to think that the Christchurch Cathedral Bells not only celebrate the coming of spring but also paying tribute to one of nature’s wonders – the epic migration of the Godwits.

Question Two

Your diligence and artistic ability allows you to intricately illustrate the unique beauty of our birdlife.  What bird are you particularly pleased to showcase in Land of Birds and why?

It has to be the Kakapo. It’s incredible beautiful, with an iridescent blue/green shine on it’s feathers and a most unusual pattern on its plumage which makes it a challenging subject and difficult to draw.The Kakapo also represents, through it’s unusual biology, every bit that’s special about New Zealand birds while holding up a mirror to us humans.  It’s cliff-hanger survival story, that it shares with many other New Zealand birds, is second to none and showcases a big change in our attitude towards New Zealand’s natural heritage. We humans caused it’s dramatic decline, saved it from extinction and if one day the Kakapo can stand on its own feet again this would be one of our biggest achievements.

Question Three

With each of the illustrations you provide the name of the Bird in Te Reo.  How has learning about the role of the birdlife in Maori Culture added to your interest in our countries birdlife?


Maori Culture has something that we Europeans don’t have. In European literature a bird will be correctly described in all their biological facts, behaviour, appearance and characteristics. However, historically Europeans relationship with New Zealand birds has been somewhat shorter and Maori lore adds greatly to our knowledge and more importantly is very fascinating.

For example "M?ori tradition believed the shining cuckoo (pipiwharauroa) spent the winter in Hawaii, which lead the voyaging ancestors of M?ori, who were well aware of the bird’s migratory habits, to believe that there was land to the South.

Whether this is true or not I often think of this little bird, to be the one who lead us humans to New Zealand. I think such stories giving each bird a real personality and complementing an otherwise factual image that we might have.

Question Four

Why did you decided to create this book?

Since I arrived in New Zealand from London in 2002, I have developed a great passion for the flora and fauna of my new home. I’m sure that it was a love of nature in my native Germany that inspired me to paint from an early age, but that has been rekindled here in New Zealand.

After mainly painting watercolour landscapes outdoors, in 2006 I casually started to draw birds with coloured pencils, which soon turned into a serious pursuit. Initially I set up on our living room table with a few prisma-colour pencils and apart from a few photos, not much knowledge of my subjects.Eventually I decided to convert the garden shed next to our house into a small studio. Hidden in the bush and surrounded by birds it turned out to be a very inspiring location to work. It soon became my favourite place and ‘the shed’ even became popular with the kids in our neighbourhood who came for visits, sometimes with their own paintings or treasures they had found in the bush.


My neighbour’s daughter Macey for example, brought me a dead tu- ?-, which I ended up painting. I spent many late, long hours in this shed working away on this book when my baby son was in bed and the work of the day was done.

However, drawing is only one part of the process of creating credible bird illustration. One’s efforts will always look unconvincing if you don’t have direct knowledge of your subject, and observation in the wild has become a big part of this project. It is critical to see how birds move, browse for food and to watch their social behaviour. Saddlebacks for example, are always restlessly browsing the forest floor, rotten logs, and old trees for insects and worms, and are always in pairs or small groups keeping in touch with each other with their squeaky calls. I have never seen a saddleback resting calmly on a branch like a wood pigeon, or flying above the tree line, like a tui. These different behaviours very much determine the composition of my illustration and any associated subjects or backdrops.

Since starting work on this book every bush or beach walk has turned into a single-minded pursuit to find subject material for my artwork – insects, shells, anything inspiring – but most importantly of course, birds. Since 2006 my knowledge of New Zealand birds has been growing steadily, but so has my collection of feathers, plant parts, driftwood, insects and shells. And my pile of finished illustrations and sketches gets bigger and bigger, matched only by my passion for New Zealand’s wonderful, beautiful and unique birds.

 To enter the competition CLICK HERE  Open to NZ residents only.

 Competition closes 24th April 2015.


About Liam Butler