The morning seemed unusually quiet. At the edge of Olney Pond, a single spoonbill stirred the water, swinging its bill with a pendulum-like rhythm: shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish. Glossy ibis, long-billed and svelte, picked over their sandbar like latecomers to brunch. Only the stilts, hidden among the rushes and reeds, shredded the silence with their sharp, clean yips of warning and complaint.
In the rising heat, clouds bubbled and built before bending to the will of the winds. Distracted by their shifting shapes, I barely noted the soft, muted sound behind me. Then, I heard it again: the sound of a pillowcase being snapped and shaken out before being pinned to a clothesline.
While considering the possibilities — Alligator? Hunter? Frogs? — I heard the sound again: closer this time, and more resonant. Suddenly, with a fluttering of wings and loud, croaking cries, a great egret dressed in breeding plumage landed at the edge of the pond.
He wasn’t alone. A second egret landed, and then a third. For several minutes they appraised one another, as if comparing feathers. Then, without warning, the last of the group to arrive rose straight into the air: his strong, slow wing beats re-creating the snapping sound I’d heard.
Remarkably, the egret didn’t fly off as I expected, but hovered above my head like a dragonfly or hummingbird: dangling his legs and spreading his wings forward as if to slow his momentum.
Only feet above the ground, he began calling in flight: perhaps announcing his presence, or issuing a challenge to the other birds.
Alternately perplexed, entranced, and mystified, I watched the bird continue his show: rising up, circumscribing his patch of sky, then falling back toward earth to hover again, as though suspended by a wire.
Tucking and fanning his feathers, the bird seemed a sky-set jewel: impossibly beautiful, and utterly self-possessed.
When he straightened himself at last, setting a course for the horizon and disappearing from sight, nothing remained but the soft swish of the spoonbill, and the silence of the pond. The performance might never have happened.
It did happen, of course, and I had seen it — but what had I seen?
With breeding plumage as a clue, I began exploring heron mating rituals, and discovered that displays designed to attract females often involve flight. In his discussion of heron courtship, James Kushlan notes:
Circle flights start from the colony, travel around, through, over and beyond the colony sites and return to about the same place. Herons dangle their feet, call, raise their crest, cut about in curious curves and zigzags, and make species-characteristic flapping noises on slow wing beats.
These sounds are rendered as “whomp, whomp,” and the display is frequently called a flap flight.
The behavior typifies several species, including the Eastern great egret: Ardea alba modesta. A white heron widely distributed throughout Asia and Oceania, the bird is plentiful in Australia, but uncommon in New Zealand.
First described as a New Zealand species by British ornithologist John Edward Gray in 1831, its only known nesting site lies on the West Coast of South Island, along the banks of the Waitangiroto Stream, north of Okarito Lagoon. The lagoon, a few miles from the sea, is home to about thirty pairs of white herons which return each year to breed, primarily in the crowns of tree ferns over-hanging the river, under tall kahikatea forest.
The Okarito heronry has remained an isolated breeding ground since its discovery by pioneer surveyor Gerhard Mueller in December, 1865. While exploring the Waitangiroto Stream, he found between fifty and sixty birds, and described them in a letter to his wife. In time, word of the birds’ presence began to spread, and their significance to Māori culture began to be documented.
Feathers of the white heron always have been prized by Māori chiefs. Each carries a specific name: whaitiripapa for the larger plumes; hikurangi for the extreme wing feathers; tatara, titapu, kapu, and kira for still others.
Because of their importance as ritual objects, Māori women weren’t allowed to wear the more highly-prized plumes; doing so was said to lead to baldness, and subsequent ridicule. If a man wearing heron plumes was included in a group of men sharing a meal, no woman could join the group, unless the plume-wearer removed his decoration.
Ironically, it was women who nearly put an end to the plumes, and to the birds that provided them. When the beautiful feathers became fashionable additions to women’s hats, the species nearly was exterminated to satisfy the demand. By 1941, only four nests remained at the New Zealand rookery. Finally, in 1949, the establishment of the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve and the implementation of patrols during the breeding season helped to stabilize the population, although it remains small, with only 100-150 birds.
From mid-September until early March, the herons at the Okarito sanctuary busy themselves with mating, breeding, and chick-raising. Then they disperse, spending the autumn and winter months in harbors and estuaries, freshwater wetlands, lakes, and outlying islands.
During their time away from Okarito, they remain solitary: rarely seen except by those who seek them out. Such infrequent sightings gave rise to the Māori proverb, “Rare as the Kotuku,” and the lovely, descriptive phrase, Te kotuku rerenga tahi — variously translated as “the magical bird of a single flight,” “the heron of one flight,” or “the white heron that flies singly.” Because sighting the Kotuku can be a once-in-a-lifetime event, such encounters are considered good fortune for anyone granted the privilege.
Deeply embedded in Māori culture, the Kotuku often is referred to metaphorically. The phrase Te kotuku rerenga tahi may apply to the visit of a distinguished visitor: the guest who rarely comes. It also is used as a compliment, since likening someone to Kotuku is to suggest that they, too, are rare and beautiful.
The bird itself may be described as He kotuku kai-whakaata: that is, the heron that leisurely examines its food before eating — a “bird of dainty habit.” In contrast, the duck is described as He parera apu paru — “a duck that gobbles up the mud.” In Māori society, a person who waits politely for others to arrive before eating is likened to the Kotuku, while a greedy, impolite, or impatient person is like the mud-gobbling duck.
More significantly, Kotuku are thought to be inhabitants of the netherworld: messengers from the the spirit land of Reinga. An old Māori funeral chant, as beautiful as the heron itself, ends with the words, Ko to kotuku to tapui, e Tama e — “Kotuku is now thy sole companion, O my son.”
Here on the Texas coast, “common as the Kotuku” might seem a more apt expression than “rare as the Kotuku.” With so many great egrets standing watch in marinas, patrolling estuaries, and roosting together along urban bayous, their presence in our world seems ubiquitous. They’re an easy bird to take for granted or ignore: some consider them pedestrian.
Still, the world of these birds is not our world, and surprises abound. On any given day, from the edge of any unnamed pond or half-hidden ditch, there always is the possibility that beauty and grace will rise up: tumbling into the sky; falling more softly than feathers; and granting a vision of Kotuku, the magical bird of a single flight.
Te kotuku rerenga tahi ~ E. Mervyn Taylor (1906-1964)
Christchurch Art Gallery (click image for gallery page)