Saturday, December 4, 2010

Flown

There used to be two chicks in our nest too, but they're both gone now, the first last, this week. Twenty-one years: long and short, frustrating and fulfilling, wearing and inspiring, expensive and enriching. On to the next phase of life. I've been more excited.

Seeing one of these birds, white herons, or kotuku, is meant to bring favour, because in New Zealand they've always been rare; at Whataroa we saw more than a hundred. They're a good news story: in 1946 there were only four pairs in the country, but now there are 140 birds, breeding steadily, as we observed on a sunny West Coast afternoon.

Sustained by a hot whitebait sarnie, we set off in a minibus through lush green farmland down to the Waitangi Taona River. There we got into a jetboat and skimmed over the shallow water, fat dim paradise shelducks lumbering into the air ahead of us and flapping frantically along right in front for an absurd length of time until it occurred to them to peel off to the side.

Then we bumped along a track through the bush in a trailer to another boat, which puttered genteelly through a flooded kahikatea forest to a jetty from where we followed a boardwalk to the hide directly opposite the nesting site. It was quite an expedition, but very pleasant, and it was exciting to find ourselves close to so many of these beautiful birds. The kotuku were fully occupied preening their floating nuptial feathers, but there was plenty of action from their gawky spoonbill neighbours, who were blundering in and out the whole time, clumsy and unbalanced: born clowns.

Outside the nesting season, the kotuku disperse throughout the country; here, near the Okarito Lagoon, is the only place to see them en masse. Come February, the fledglings leave the nest to go off and fend for themselves. That's life.

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