The herons are back!
A white-faced heron near the shore of our local lake (Lake Opuha). I took the photos with my smartphone camera a day before publishing the post!
First off, here’s what Steve Braunias has to say about white-faced herons (now regarded as a native species here in New Zealand), in his book: How to watch a bird.
Another visitor from Australia set up shop during the war. ‘Rare in New Zealand,’ writes [the ornithologist] Moncrieff in 1925, about the white-faced heron. ‘There is no record of the nests of this species having been found in New Zealand,’ writes Oliver in 1930. The birds began breeding in New Zealand as recently as 1941, at Shag River in Otago. They are now so widespread, a familiar sight on shores, farms and rugby fields, that it’s strange to imagine a New Zealand without their yellow-toed footprints, without the opportunity to gaze through bins at their lovely plumage of pink turning to grey turning to soft, delicate blue, at the way they croak to each other at dusk, staying close to the nest, protecting a new life.
Mid-winter and the white-faced herons are back. A herald squawking from the top of the pines told us they’d taken up their winter and spring quarters. Jogging along our road, a raucous cacophony as one flew up from water pooling in a paddock. Then a few days ago June watched as a breeding pair circled overhead before being swallowed by their nesting site deep in dense, dark criss-cross branching and foliage up high in an old man pine.
Went outside mid-morning to enjoy a coffee and a winter sun in a sky uncluttered by cloud. A couple of herons started up.
Not the noisy Jurassic Park guttural croaks that usually capture my attention. To my untrained ear it sounded like a rather muted basic note was being differentiated by how long it was held. Made me think of how a long or a short vowel can utterly change the meaning of a word in Maaori. The pausing between notes also seemed to be significant and varied in length.
It was not difficult to imagine that they were having a conversation. Amicably working out the delegation of domestic chores on a blue sky morning where all was well with the world.
It’s lovely to see a solitary heron drinking in the heat of a winter sunrise. Long twigs of legs glued to the spot on a high up branch in one of the gully’s big old crack willows. Motionless, facing forwards in an upright pose, their bodies remind me of those fat exclamation marks some children and not a few adults love to festoon their handwriting with. Every now and then they’ll give themselves away with a swivel of the head or a preening of wing feathers.
Hard to imagine the herons that grace our place with their presence without bringing magpies into the picture. The magpie, unlike the heron, is no graceful flyer, but the magpie’s an aggressively territorial bird and cuts through the air with a powerful sawing wingbeat. The adult herons seem to regard them as more of a nuisance than an actual threat to the eggs or the young in the nest.
Several times in the course of a nesting season I’ll watch three (it’s nearly always three), magpies engage in aerial combat with a breeding pair. It involves a great many feints, swoops and encircling moves by the magpies, but in what seems, in stark contrast to their foes, a regal display of ruffled dignity, the herons, heads tucked in and legs stretched out, fly out of the magpies’ sphere of influence and take a circuitous flight path back to their nest sites, seemingly unperturbed by such decidedly undignified antics.
Steve Braunias notes the ubiquitous presence of New Zealand’s white-faced herons. For our part, it would indeed be, as he says, “strange to imagine” our place without them. Little Owl Gully bereft of herons would be as alien to us as one without the little owl.
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.