There are four different herons which breed in New Zealand. The most common is the white-faced heron – matuku moana. The rare white heron or kotuku is the best loved and revered by Maori. The reef heron (matuku tai) is more common in the North Island and Nankeen night herons have become established on the Whanganui River.
Egrets, also classified in the heron family (cattle egret and little egret), winter over but return to Australia to breed.
Bitterns belong to the same family as herons and New Zealand is home to matuku hurepo (the Australasian bittern) which is rarely seen and considered endangered. The endemic New Zealand bittern is extinct.
Kotuku – White Heron
This rarely seen, beautiful heron is a native having first arrived here from Australia several hundred years ago. The only known breeding colony in New Zealand is on the West Coast at Whataroa. Their beautiful feathers were greatly prized both by Maori and pakeha settlers. The fashion for white, feathery plumes on ladies’ hats almost killed off the colony. In 1941 with only four nests surviving, the area around Waitangiroto River was made a reserve. Now there are more than 100 birds and the number of nests is slowly increasing. This is a great reward for both the government, which declared their nesting area a reserve, and the dedicated guardians, who looked after them.
Nankeen Night Heron
This nocturnal heron is a recent arrival in New Zealand. It has become established around the Wanganui River. Its arrival is considered significant by local Maori who believe it brought back the departed spirit of an exiled ancestor. In 1988 the remains of Hohepa Te Umuroa were returned from Tasmania and about that same time this heron was first spotted in the area. Little is known about the life of this heron in New Zealand.
Matuku Tai – Reef Heron
This dark grey, native heron is more common in the north of New Zealand. It prefers rocky coastal areas, mangroves and mudflats and avoids sandy beaches. They are known to breed on Hawere Is (Goat Is).
There is a citizen science project called Project Hotspot. This specifically focuses on Taranaki but if you see a reef heron anywhere in NZ you can report this on their website. Better still take a photo and upload it onto the site with your reported sighting.
NZ heron species websites
- Project Hotspot – reef heron sightings
- Wildscreen Arkive Nankeen night heron page
- NZ Birds Online reef heron page
- Oiseaux-birds reef heron page
- Wildscreen Arkive reef heron page
- NZ Birds Online nankeen night heron page
- Wildscreen Arkive nankeen night heron page
- DOC white heron page
- DOC Australasian bittern page
- Wildscreen Arkive Australasian bittern page
- Oiseaux-birds heron family page