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Bird watch - Kōtuku/Royal spoonbill

30 September 2021

At first glance, the Royal Spoonbill (Platalea regia,) or Kotuku ngutu papa to Māori, is an odd bird – large, long-legged and distinctive for its wide, black spoon-shaped bill – like something out of a comic book almost.

The size of a white heron, spoonbills are gregarious birds, feeding, breeding and roosting in small flocks along the shallow margins of freshwater lakes, or in brackish coastal lagoons and tidal estuaries.

Frequent visitors to Te Waihora

Once a rare visitor here, large flocks of royal spoonbills are now frequent visitors to Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere, sometimes as many as 150 birds gathering in their favourite wading areas. The royal spoonbills frequenting New Zealand are one of six spoonbill species worldwide, and the only one that breeds in New Zealand. 

The species was first recorded in New Zealand at Castlepoint in the Wairarapa in 1861 and the first breeding colony was recorded at Ōkarito in South Westland in 1949. Since then, their numbers and sightings have increased greatly and they breed at a number of sites on both main islands.

Spoonbills feed on insects, pātiki (flounder), shellfish, small fish and frogs, sweeping their broad bills in a wide arc, often knee-deep in water. 

They feed day or night, whenever the tide is tight. Spoonbills generally nest in tall kahikatea trees (when they are available), or on the ground near estuaries, rivers, among reeds and low shrubs.

In 1977 the New Zealand population of royal spoonbills was estimated at 52 birds. A 1996 estimate put bird numbers at 959.

National population rising

The royal spoonbill (Platalea regia) is a self-introduced species from Australia and has increased in numbers in New Zealand over recent decades, with the national population rising from 52 birds in 1977 (Heather & Robertson 1996) to 956 by 2000 and 2361 in 2012 (Schweigman & Thompson 2012).

Photos Copyright Steve Attwood 2014.