Scientific Name: Egreta Alba Modesta
Maori Name: Kotuku
The Kotuku or White Heron is considered a very rare and sacred bird in New Zealand. It is the splendid bird in flight featured on the NZ $2.00 coin. In Maori oratory to see one of these birds just once in a lifetime was believed to be good fortune and to liken someone to a Kotuku was paying them a great compliment.
The only known nesting site for White Heron in New Zealand is on the West Coast of the South Island along the banks of the Waitangiroto River deep within the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve. Access to this area is by guided tour only. It's presumed the first White Herons were windblown across the Tasman Sea from Australia. It's not known why the White Herons have only one nesting site in New Zealand or why it's in the location it is. This remains a mystery of nature.
The population of White Heron in New Zealand has always been small and limited. The first record of the nesting site was on the 31st of December 1865. Pioneer surveyor Gerhard Mueller came across the colony while exploring the Waitangi-roto River and recorded his findings in a letter home to his wife. He witnessed a population of between 50 and 60 birds.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s White Heron feathers became fashionable in women’s hats. In satisfying a demand for them the colony was almost wiped out. In 1944 just 4 nests were recorded. Following this steps were taken to protect the White Herons and the nesting site and in 1949 the area was declared a Flora and Fauna Nature Reserve. The reserve is now administered by the Department of Conservation.
The White Herons only use the area for breeding so are seen in the reserve over the spring and summer months, usually mid-September until early March. Over the autumn and winter they disperse widely throughout New Zealand and are generally seen as a solitary bird. The population of White Heron in New Zealand is around 150, to see one of these birds is a rare and special sight. To visit their only New Zealand breeding ground is truly unique.
As the White Herons return to the breeding ground in spring (September) from their various wintering spots, they transform into their spectacular breeding plumage. Long, lacy, elegant plumes are grown from their back which they display like peacocks. The beak changes colour from yellow to black and around the eyes a bright emerald/turquoise blue colour develops. Male and female birds look the same, both having plumage. White Herons do not mate for life.
Once a mate is found a loose platform of sticks and twigs is built as a nest. An average of three eggs is laid and incubation is shared by both parents over a 28 day period. Usually one or two chicks are raised.
The success of each nesting season can be quite variable depending on the weather and food supply, these factors can vary greatly from year to year. Fish is the main food source e.g. Whitebait, Yellow Eyed Mullet, Flounder, frogs and small eels. Adults take turns at foraging for food, semi-digesting it and regurgitating to the young.
Chicks normally fledge the nest at around 8 to 10 weeks of age and from then on have to look after themselves. The young mature at three years of age and that’s when they will return to the nesting site to begin breeding. They will then return every year for an average of 10 years. It is believed they live for an average of 15 years.
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