Rod Morris has more than three decades experience as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker. After working on the quest to save the Chatham Island black robin, he joined TVNZ's Natural History Unit (now independent company NHNZ) in 1980. His name is found on more than 30 books, and his photography has helped spur generations of Kiwis to share his passion for the natural world.
Rod has a rare ability to see greatness in small things, to imagine potential in detail. He weaves stories that are complex and layered, and he understands natural history in a way no other person of my acquaintance does. NHNZ Producer Alison Ballance
This documentary tells the tenuous survivor story of the kākāpō: the nocturnal flightless green parrot with "big sideburns and Victorian gentlemen's face" (as comedian Stephen Fry put it). A sole breeding population for the evolutionary oddity (the world's largest parrot; it can live up to 120 years) is marooned on remote Codfish Island. The award-winning film had rare access to the recovery programme and its dramatic challenges. This excerpt sees a rugged journey to the island to search for a kākāpō named 'Bill', and witnesses the "bizarre ballad" of its mating boom.
Long isolated, New Zealand contains a world of Alice Through the Looking Glass natural oddities: birds, insects and plants like nowhere else. Scientist Jared Diamond remarked "it is the nearest approach to life on another planet". Palaeontology (from Professor Michael Archer) and Māori myth (told by Hirini Melbourne) reveal these 'Ghosts of Gondwana'. Then cutting edge camera techniques (earning a Merit Award at 2002 International Wildlife Film Festival) delve into a night world of bat-filled tree trunk saunas, “demon grasshopper” weta, and furry kiwi with chopstick bills.
This documentary tells the story of the inimitable kea. The 'Clown of the Alps' is heralded as the world’s smartest bird (its intelligence rivals a monkey’s). Kea are famous on South Island tracks and ski fields for their insatiable (and destructive) inquisitiveness. Curiosity almost killed the kea when it was labelled a sheep killer, and tens of thousands were killed for a bounty. After shots of baby kea being fed, there is extraordinary night footage in clip four of the 'avian wolf' in action. The award-winning film makes a compelling case for the charismatic kea as a national icon.
In the mid 1970s the Chatham Island black robin was the world's rarest bird. With only two females left, the ante for a conservation rescue story would be hard to up. Enter saviour Don Merton and his Wildlife Service team. Their pioneering efforts included abseiling the precious birds down cliff faces, and left-field libido spurs for the talismanic 'Eve' of her species: Old Blue. This classic Wild South edition united three award-winning films that were foundational for the Natural History Unit (now NHNZ): Seven Black Robins, The Robin's Return, and Black Robin.
This film tells the story of the world’s rarest wading bird, the black stilt (kakī). With its precise beak and long pink legs the stilt is superbly adapted to the stony braided riverbeads of the McKenzie Country, but it is tragically unable to deal with new threats (rats, ferrets, habitat loss). An early doco for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, the magnificently filmed drama of the stilt’s struggle for survival makes it “stand out as a classic of its genre” (Russell Campbell). It won the Gold Award at New York’s International Film & TV Festival (1984).
Wildtrack was a highly successful nature series for children, combining a Dunedin studio set with reporting from the field. Produced by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, it ran from 1981 through several series to the early 90s. Producer Michael Stedman sought to produce a series where “children can be excited and entertained with genuine information, while not neglecting adults”. Wildtrack won the Feltex Television Award for the best children's programme three years running (1982 - 1984).
By 1976 there were only seven Chatham Islands' black robins left. It was the world's rarest bird. In a bid to save the species, the surviving birds are taken from one island to another more hospitable island in a desperate rescue mission. This is part of an incredible conservation success story led by Don Merton and a NZ Wildlife Service team. Along with Black Robin, and The Robin's Return this documentary was one of the acclaimed Wild South series of 'rare bird' documentaries, upon which the formation of TVNZ's Natural History Unit was based.
TVNZ’s Natural History Film Unit was founded in Dunedin in 1977. The first Wild South documentaries were filmed a year later. The slot's initial focus was on New Zealand’s perilously endangered birds, eg the Chatham Island black robin (then the world’s rarest bird). The results won local and international notice, and a loyal audience. Wildtrack, a sister series showcasing natural history for young viewers was also produced. Wild South ended in 1997 when the Natural History Unit was purchased by Fox Studios; it later became internationally successful production company NHNZ.