Kōtuku have returned for the breeding season

The White Heron, Kōtuku, is considered a very rare and sacred bird in New Zealand. In Māori 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.

When the Queen Elizabeth II visited New Zealand during 1953-54, she was compared to the kōtuku by Māori.

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 Waitangi-roto River deep within the Waitangi-roto 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 1865with 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.

White Heron Sanctuary Tours
White Heron Sanctuary Tours offers tours to New Zealand’s only White Heron nesting site.

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 200, to see one of these birds is a rare and special sight. To visit their only New Zealand breeding ground is truly unique. Last year 50-60 breeding pairs could be observed.

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 don’t 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 for breeding, returning every year for an average of 10 years and living for an average of 15 years.

White Heron Sanctuary Tours (located in Whataroa) has been providing tours to visit the Kotuku nesting site now for 35 years. Only company with a concession to do this and to visit this unique area.

More information

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