The rare Australasian bittern has been spotted twice in the Pōrangahau Estuary during pest control rounds by Pōrangahau Catchment Group trapper John McCaslin.
McCaslin has worked as a trapper for 50 years and had an exciting encounter with the bittern, matuku-hūrepo, twice in his career, with both sightings occurring in October and November.
“The bittern I spotted was in an open paddock, and I only saw it when it flew off. I wasn’t expecting it, but I recognised it right away, they’re large birds, about 70 cm in height,” he said.
He took on the role of trapper with the Pōrangahau Catchment Group (PCG) earlier in the year and has since worked once a month to check and set traps.
The Pōrangahau estuary provides a safe home to other birds such as the banded dotterel, the bar-tailed godwit, and the royal spoonbill.
McCaslin said he works to trap all the predators that pose a risk to the birds at the estuary including rats, mice, hedgehogs, stoats, weasels and the “dreaded feral cats”.
“It’s probably one of the healthiest places to see different types of sea birds on the East Coast I would think.”
His work takes him across 1500 ha of the estuary from the wreck through the estuary, and down towards the peninsular.
“It’s such a big estuary, and it’s pretty much isolated. There are not a lot of people down the beach with dogs to disturb them”
McCaslin said special areas that provided habitat were “well worth saving” as he grew up in Auckland and witnessed the disappearance of the Australasian bittern from the area.
New Zealand’s native bittern populations have been greatly impacted by wetland drainage and habitat clearance with the total population across the country numbered at about 1000 birds.
The ground-nesting birds are particularly vulnerable to predators during the nesting season which is from September until February.
To combat the issue the PCG used funding from the Ministry for the Environment to create a network of 200 traps.
“Since September, we’ve caught 142 rats, 114 hedgehogs, 14 weasels, eight feral cats, eight ferrets and one possum at the estuary.”
Ed Mackie, a landowner and PCG committee member, said it’s been great having McCaslin on board with his extensive predator control experience.
“It’s not only birds that need protecting down at the estuary; we also have lizards making their home there, and even katipō, New Zealand’s only venomous spider, can be found in the sand dunes.”
The estuary is a unique and dynamic environment that offers important feeding and breeding habitats for migrating birds.
Michaela Gower joined Hawke’s Bay Today in 2023 and is based out of the Hastings newsroom. She covers Dannevirke and Hawke’s Bay news and has a love for sharing stories about farming and rural communities.