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Published: March 9th 2010
It's estimated there are 140 of the birds in NZ, but many others in Australia, elsewhere in the South Pacific and Asia.
In an old, dusty photo album at home there is a black and white picture of an expanse of tidal mudflats, water and some hills. A childlike arrow has been drawn on the photo, pointing down. Under the arrow is a white dot, a blob, an indeterminate something.
I took the photo, so I know the blob is a white heron, or kotuku, which many years ago was a rare visitor to the Hokianga Harbour, in Northland.
For a few days or a week or two (I can’t remember) the bird was a topic of conversation in the district. Most of the discussion centred on where it had come from. The consensus was that it had been blown across the Tasman in a storm, all the way from Australia, and was now feeding in the shallows of our harbour and slowly gathering strength for its next flight to who knew where?
The White Heron And The Snow Goose
The bird fascinated me. About the same time, I’d been introduced to that wonderful, sentimental story by Paul Gallico, “The Snowgoose”, and somehow the two birds had become fused into one in my
These feathers on the wall of the hide have been found around the colony. Both Maori and Pakeha valued the feathers - Maori kept the birds in cages and Pakeha almost shot the birds out of existence because the feathers were wanted for women's hats.
First there was the solitary, slender, snowy white kotuku, and then there was the snow goose, the subject of that book. The snow goose was a stranger on another shore far away, and in the story by Gallico it fosters a friendship between a girl and a solitary artist who lives in a lighthouse, in a time of war. If you haven’t read it, try to. It’s guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat.
Kotuku's Only NZ Breeding Ground
In the years since the kotuku‘s visit to the Hokianga, I’ve learned the species breeds here in New Zealand in one place - near the Okarito Lagoon on the West Coast. I’ve always wanted to visit the colony and now at last, it has happened.
Yesterday I joined a tour - something I seldom do - and along with eight others was taken first by minibus, then by jet boat into the Waitangiroto nature reserve. Visitors into the area are carefully limited by DOC to ensure the birds are not unduly disturbed - there is no general public access and only one company has a concession to
take tourists to the colony.
Deep In The Rain Forest
We climbed out of the jet boat about 500 metres from a hide built deep in the rain forest. Kahikatea (white pine) grew untidily into the sky above us and the undergrowth was a dense mat of native bush - an area never milled nor farmed nor touched by man.
At the hide, a wooden structure that felt as though it was built in a jungle, we peered across the river to a wall of green lit by flashes of pure white. There were just three or four kotuku but a good turnout of equally brilliant royal spoonbills and some smaller darkly plumed shags.
Minding Their Own Business
Our exclamations of surprise and excited chatter must have been clearly audible across the river, but the birds showed no signs of being disturbed. Most of the kotuku population had finished rearing their young and had left for estuaries around New Zealand. The few that were left were only days away from doing the same.
We watched for half an hour as the birds fussed and fluttered from branch to straggly nest
and back again. The spoonbills were more active, with one in particular sweeping away to return a few minutes later with food.
But There's A Whoops!
I left elated. It would have been nice to have visited in spring or early summer when the breeding season was in full swing. And I’d left my miniature tripod behind on the jetboat, so my pictures are almost as indistinct as that one I took all those years ago. But I don’t care. I’ve seen kotuku up close and personal, and it’s a memory I will treasure for ever.
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