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March 9th 2010
Published: March 9th 2010
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It's estimated there are 140 of the birds in NZ, but many others in Australia, elsewhere in the South Pacific and Asia.

Childhood Memories

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
Kotuku FeathersKotuku FeathersKotuku Feathers

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.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13



Not apparent in early March, but during the breeding season kotuku have long, loose plumes and engage in elaborate courtship.
Mt CookMt Cook
Mt Cook

Mt Cook's peak is on the right, Mt Tasman to the left.
Heading Up RiverHeading Up River
Heading Up River

Into the Waitangiroto nature reserve.

At one stage the number of nests here was down to four, but now the numbers are much healthier.
Australasian BitternAustralasian Bittern
Australasian Bittern

Look very closely!

9th March 2010

I had no idea there were so few Kotuku in New Zealand. I regularly saw them in Otago, so I assumed they were quite plentiful.
9th March 2010

Kotuku in Otago
Hi Wayne, yeah, maybe there's more of them around this part of the country. Nice to hear from you - you must be on the late shift in the newsroom. Cheers, Feral Mike
9th March 2010

Mike, I have the tour you did in mind for Spring one year soon! When we stayed at Alister's, 2 years ago, I kayaked up the Okarito Lagoon, with the tide, and found kotuku around the first bend. I was delighted, as had been to a DOC lecture when I was 16 at Franz Josef and never had a chance to get closer to them. Truly lovely birds. xx
11th March 2010

Snow goose
Hi Mike, As a child, my brothers and sister would all sit around the old PYE gramaphone and listen to the snow goose on vinyl. No matter how often we listen to it, it never failed to bring a tear to our eyes. I had no idea that this attraction existed. You have given me another reason to go to the South island.

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