$16m project shows off our distinctive animals, plants and eco-structure

Aucklanders will hear the dawn chorus of birdsong and see the little blue penguin when Te Wao Nui, a $16 million New Zealand precinct, opens on Sunday at Auckland Zoo.

With only a handful of native wildlife on show for 89 years, the zoo is finally shaking off the image of tigers and elephants with the opening of six New Zealand habitats - the coast, islands, wetlands, forest, South Island high country and night.

Each contains animals, plants and human features, such as a Department of Conservation hut where the public can get a hands-on experience and find out about the zoo's efforts for the brown kiwi and DoC's kakapo recovery programme.

The opening comes a week after the Auckland Art Gallery reopened and a month after Aucklanders began flocking to the first stage of the Wynyard Quarter development.

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Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken said he was detecting a growing pride in things New Zealand, and Te Wao Nui was part of helping people understand what was special about our natural heritage.

"Because New Zealand species at first glance are relatively understated, we wanted to build an environment where people feel great and look a little bit more closely at the species," he said.

The six habitats, which stretch over a quarter of the zoo's 17ha, were also a shop-front to its conservation efforts in conjunction with DoC and the Forest and Bird Society, Mr Wilcken said.

Those efforts included hatching kiwi for release back into the wild and breeding tuatara to be hatched at Victoria University for release to islands.

The habitats include many popular animals and plants, such as the kiwi, tuatara, kauri and cabbage trees.

Many rare sights are also on show, including the Campbell Island teal, the only flightless water fowl, thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1975, and the New Zealand dotterel.

Following the story of Happy Feet, the stranded penguin who captured the hearts of New Zealanders, visitors will be able to see several little blue penguins - the smallest species of penguin, with dark blue flippers - at the coast habitat. There is also a lifesize model of an extinct giant penguin that stood about 1.5m high.

The forest habitat - native trees and plants within a large aviary - is home to New Zealand's wood pigeon, the kereru; yellow and red-crowed parakeet (kakariki), silvereye, tui and the bellbird, which Captain Cook wrote of its song - "it seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned".

The night habitat has kiwi as well as kauri snails, the short-tailed bat, Archey's frog and several fish.

Te Wao Nui is open to the public at noon on Sunday. About 60 of New Zealand's 350 animal species, more than 100 native plants and several Maori artworks will be on show.

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