A Tour of New Zealand’s Only White Heron Sanctuary

A Tour of New Zealand’s Only White Heron Sanctuary

a white heron, waitangiroto nature reserve, south island, new zealand

An opportunity to visit the only nesting site of White Herons in New Zealand could not be missed when traveling on the South Island near Whataroa.  A day in advance, we booked ourselves on a tour that would take us to the heart of the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve to observe these elegant birds.

white heron sanctuary tours sign, whataroa, south island, new zealand

The morning of our planned excursion was overcast but dry.  Allowing extra time to arrive in Whataroa from our lodgings in Franz Josef had Bob and me arriving at the offices of White Heron Sanctuary Tours at 10 a.m. for our 10:45 a.m. departure.  Only hitch was two other couples that were running late.

white heron sanctuary tours van, whataroa, south island, new zealand

Bob and I bided our time, growing more frustrated by the minute.  Dion, the owners’ son, had promised to wait for the other passengers, but an hour later, he decided to pack us into his van and head off.  At that precise moment, the other 4 people showed up.

road from whataroa to waitangiroto river, south island, new zealand

It was a straightforward drive from Whataroa to get to the river where Dion would launch the jet boat.  The distance of 15 kilometres took about 15 minutes.

boat launch, waitangiroto river, south island, new zealand

Once at the specified location, Dion prepared to launch the boat in the Waitangiroto River.

staging building, white heron tours, waitangiroto river, south island, new zealand

All passengers were directed to a tidy building at the edge of the parking lot.

bob inside staging building, white heron tours, waitangiroto river, south island, new zealand

This staging building held all the rain gear for passengers about to embark on the boat ride.  Because the weather can quickly change, we wore rainproof slickers and foul weather pants in addition to life vests.

map of white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

A map conveniently posted on the wall of the simple building showed us the location of the White Heron Sanctuary.  White Herons, also known as Great Egrets and Kōtuku, are considered sacred by the Maori, so access to the Sanctuary is by permit only.

staging building, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

A raised boardwalk connected the back of the staging building to the bank of the river.

jean ready to board the boat, white heron sanctuary tours, south island, new zealand

I was all set for the ride.  Ready to help the passengers board, Dion slowly drew the boat up alongside the sturdy wooden deck.

dion gives briefing, white heron sanctuary tours, south island, new zealand

Dion briefed us on what to expect as we sped downstream.  It was a 12-kilometre ride that would take about 20 minutes at a speed of 30 kilometres/hour.

waitangiroto river, waitangiroto nature reserve, south island, new zealand

The Waitangiroto River is a broad flowing waterway that is very shallow.  The speed of the jet boat kept the boat’s hull hovering on the surface as we peeled along.

bob in boat, white heron sanctuary tours, south island, new zealand

Bob and I had opted for the back seats but what a mistake.  It started to rain so we were not only battered by the wind but beaten by the driving rain.

a view of waitangiroto river from the boat, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

It was an effort to keep the cameras dry but we were plenty warm.

waitangiroto nature reserve, south island, new zealand

The riparian habitat of the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve is a mix of dense rainforest dominated by ancient Kahikatea Trees.

kahikatea trees, waitangiroto nature reserve, south island, new zealand

Kahikatea Trees are coniferous trees endemic to New Zealand.  They can live up to 600 years and achieve heights of over 200 feet.

a kahikatea tree, waitangiroto nature reserve, south island, new zealand

Growing in lowland wetlands and forest, these trees were once heavily logged, and now less than 2% of the original Kahikatea Forest remains in New Zealand.

a white heron, waitangiroto nature reserve, south island, new zealand

As we neared the breeding colony, White Herons were seen striding along the riverbank.

boat landing, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

A docking area similar to the one where we launched facilitated disembarking from the boat at the end of the ride.

boardwalk through the rainforest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

A short walk through the bush on a wooden boardwalk was necessary to reach the purpose-built viewing hide.

jean in the rainforest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

It was a wet walk through the gloomy rainforest, though less precipitation reached us below the canopy.

rainforest greenhood orchids, waitangiroto nature reserve, south island, new zealand

Bob and I took note of a small patch of Rainforest Greenhood Orchids along the trail.

jean at lookout over waitangiroto stream, south island, new zealand

The walk was not strenuous in the least, but I still took advantage of a lookout over the Waitangiroto Stream before we reached the bird hide.

the bird hide, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

The bird hide was constructed on stilts so that bird watchers could be at eye level with the nesting White Herons on the opposite side of the stream.

white heron colony, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

The Waitangiroto Nature Reserve was established in 1949 to preserve the natural nesting location and protect the rare White Herons.

dion inside the bird hide, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

White Heron Sanctuary Tours is a family-run business that has been operating for 30 plus years.  Dion is a second-generation guide who works on behalf of the Department of Conservation to monitor the Herons.

bob inside the bird hide, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

From our perch in the bird hide, we could see 43 pairs of White Herons.

white heron colony, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

Back in December of 1865, this breeding colony was discovered by Gerhard Mueller, a pioneer surveyor tasked with surveying this area of South Westland.

a white heron, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

Mueller was occasionally reduced to using a self-fashioned dugout canoe when exploring the waterways.  When plying the Waitangiroto Stream, he happened upon a nesting colony of 50-60 White Herons just north of Okarito Lagoon.

a white heron, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

White Heron feathers became fashionable in womens’ hats during the 1930s and 1940s, and to meet the demand, the Heron colony was almost wiped out.  By 1941, only 4 nests were recorded at this spot.

a white heron and chick, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

It is thought that White Herons showed up here hundreds of years ago, blown off course across the Tasman Sea from Australia where they are widespread and abundant.  Known as the Okarito Heronry, it has remained in essentially the same spot since before its discovery in 1865.

okarito lagoon, whataroa, south island, new zealand

During breeding season, the White Herons feed in the large coastal lagoons including nearby Okarito Lagoon that Bob and I visited late the previous afternoon.  No Herons were present at that time.

a white heron and chick, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

White Herons only inhabit this location during breeding season between mid-September and early March.  They then disperse across New Zealand and are usually seen as solitary individuals.

white heron breeding plumage, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

By the time White Herons return to the breeding grounds in the spring, their appearance and plumage has been transformed.

white heron breeding plumage, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

The bill of a White Heron is normally yellow, but it turns a dull black, and the lores, that small patch of skin between the bill and the eyes, turn a vibrant shade of turquoise blue.

white heron breeding plumage, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

Spectacular long, lacy and elegant plumes have grown from their backs and wings and can be displayed much like a Peacock raises its tail.

a white heron, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

Both male and female White Herons utilize the filamentous breeding plumes in their courtship displays.  Males first select a nesting site, drive away all other birds then build a small platform upon which they can strut and advertise to the females.

white heron courtship behaviour, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

Courtship displays are quite elaborate.  White Heron males performing a Mating Dance will arch their head and necks upwards in a stretching motion while raising their nuptial plumes.

white heron courtship behaviour, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

As the stretch culminates, the bill, head and neck remain pointed vertically, and the Heron bobs.

white heron courtship behaviour, white heron sanctuary. south island, new zealand

Then the head is lowered and the neck withdrawn.

a white heron in breeding plumage, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

If a male White Heron is defending his intended territory, he will erect his circular fan of plumage and sway from side to side.

two white herons touching beaks, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Once a female White Heron shows interest in a particular male, they will preen each other and bow with entwined necks.

two white herons touching beaks, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

The Herons touch bills and clasp each others’ mandibles in a show of affection.  We were so lucky to witness all these different steps in the courtship rituals of these Herons.

white heron and chick in nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Once two White Herons pair up, they work together to complete the nest that the male began.

a white heron with twig in beak, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Long sticks and twigs are used to fashion the nest that is then lined with pliable plant material shaped into a cup.

white heron and chick in nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Nests are built in the crowns of tree ferns that overhang the Waitangiroto Stream under the tall Kahikatea Trees.

a white heron with eggs in nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

When we visited the White Heron Sanctuary, some pairs of White Herons had 2-week old chicks, while other nestlings were several weeks old.  We were delighted to spot one Heron that was tending her eggs.

a white heron with eggs in nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Between 3-5 eggs are laid by a female, and both parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs over the course of 28 days.

a white heron feeding chick in nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

A nestling is fed partially-digested regurgitated food.  The parents take turns foraging for fish and then feeding their young.

a white heron and chick in nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

It would be around 8-10 weeks before the White Heron chicks fledge their nests.

a white heron and chick in nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Fledglings mature and are ready to return to the rookery for breeding 3 years later.

jean in the bird hide, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Bob and I were thrilled with the sight of the graceful, snow-white Herons in their natural nesting environment, but there was even more to appreciate at that location.

a white heron and royal spoonbill, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Sharing this ideal habitat is a small colony of Royal Spoonbills that put on quite a show of their own breeding plumage.  More on that species in a separate post.

little shags in the nest, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Also in extreme proximity is a Little Shag Rookery.  The breeding success of all three species has been monitored since 1944 because they all put pressure on one another in such a small area.

a white heron, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Currently, the breeding population of White Herons in New Zealand is stable and numbers between 150-200 birds.  Predators such as Stoats and Possums are trapped during breeding season to prevent breeding failure in the heronry.

white herons in breeding plumage, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

With the White Heron or Kōtuku considered a symbol of things beautiful and rare, there is no wonder it holds a special place in Maori myth and folklore.  To see one of these birds once in a lifetime is considered rare and a sign of good fortune.

a white heron, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Dion allowed us to remain in the bird hide for 40 minutes before ushering us back through the rainforest to the boat.  It was difficult to pull ourselves away from such a sight.

jean in tour boat, white heron sanctuary, south island, new zealand

Bob and I secured the front seats of the launch this time, and boy, were we glad.  Precipitation started to pelt down heavier as we made our way upstream.  It was the other passengers who faced the driving rain this time!  We were protected by the boat’s windshield.  What a glorious day!

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