Bird Watch – White heron

The rare and beautiful kōtuku.

The rare and beautiful kōtuku. Photograph courtesy Steve Attwood, Christchurch.

You don’t often see white herons at Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. New Zealand in fact, is near the extreme limits of their geographic and climatic range so they’re rare throughout the country.

 

They have just one breeding colony in New Zealand, which was discovered on the banks of the Waitangiroto Stream, near Okarito in South Westland in 1865. By 1941, when the area was declared a reserve,  there were only four nests; their numbers have now stabilised and Okarito has a permanent population of 100-120 birds.

 

Found worldwide in tropical and temperate areas, the white heron ( Egretta alba modesta or kōtuku in Māori), is found in India, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

 

Outside of the breeding season, they disperse widely throughout New Zealand, frequenting shallow waters along the margins of rivers, inland lakes, swamps and coastal estuaries. These birds were part of a small flock of eight spotted on Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere in August 2013 by Christchurch photographer, Steve Attwood.

 

Kōtuku are solitary feeders and their long, bare legs and spreading toes are especially suited to wading in muddy-bottomed waterways. They eat mainly small fish, eels frogs, tadpoles and insects,  and standing in water as deep as their long legs will allow, they remain perfectly still until a fish comes within reach. Then, with lightning speed, they strike and swallow their prey.

 

Kōtuku are rare visitors to Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere.

Kōtuku are rare visitors to Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. Photograph courtesy Steve Attwood, Christchurch.

Adult birds start arriving in New Zealand around August, when they take part in elaborate courting displays. Males build small platforms from which they advertise themselves to the females.  Once the female is attracted, the pair preen each other and intertwine their long necks, wings and bills.

 

The female builds the real nest (in trees or ferns close to water) and three to five eggs are laid in September or October. The young are ready to fly in December or January.

 

The feathers of the kōtuku, like the huia, were once highly prized by Māori and were used to adorn the heads of chiefs both in life and after death. The feathers were kept in carved wooden boxes called waka huia.

 

In Māori oratory, the most telling compliment is to liken someone to the kōtuku. It symbolises everything rare and beautiful. So seldom does the kōtuku appear in any locality that “rare as the kōtuku” has passed into a proverb among Māori.