Saturday, September 11, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: White-faced heron (Ardea novaehollandiae)

White-faced herons would have to be one of my favourite birds to photograph! (I tend to say that about a lot of birds). Although there aren’t too many birds that can rival the beauty, grace and finesse of the heron, or match the heron’s speed, precision and deadly accuracy. I never seem to tire of watching the herons feed at my local estuary, herons are masterful hunters, and I've seldom seen a heron miss its target. In the above photo a small mud crab hangs onto the heron's beak for dear life!

DISTRIBUTION: The white-faced heron is common throughout most of Australasia, and was self-introduced to New Zealand in the early 20th century. It was first observed breeding here in the 1940s and now breeds in abundance throughout New Zealand.

White-faced herons are very adaptable birds and are particularly successful in New Zealand due to their ability to inhabit almost any wetland environment, from sandy/rocky shores, estuaries, mudflats, lakes, rivers, pastures … in fact white-faced herons are just at home inland as they are on the coast. 

DIET & FEEDING: White-faced herons are now the most common heron species in New Zealand; part of the reason for this success is their varied diet which consists of molluscs, insects and their larvae, spiders, plant matter, small fish and reptiles, frogs, marine worms and even mice. 

White-faced herons stalk their prey by either actively wading in shallow water or standing still and waiting for prey movement. White-faced herons use an assortment of techniques in their feeding repertoire from wing flicking and foot stirring (both used to disturb and subsequently locate small fish and invertebrates) to chasing prey with open wings.

For such an elegant bird the white-faced heron's call has been described as a 'croak', 'gobble' or gutteral "grraaw", which is typically given in flight or during aggressive encounters.

Prior to the breeding season the herons undergo a moult and as a result develop reddish-brown nuptial plumes (breeding plumes) which appear on the foreneck & breast and long blueish-grey plumes on their back. The nuptial plumage is brighter than their basic plumage, for the purposes of sexual display.

BREEDING: The breeding season peaks between October and December where usually 3-5 eggs are laid in a messy nest of sticks high up in a tree. For around 25 days both the male and the female will share incubation duties. Chicks hatch with a white down and will fledge after approximately 6 weeks. The young stay with their parents until the next breeding season. 

So next time you're out and about, keep an ear out for that unmistakable "graaww" and spare a thought for these wonderful birds... chances are there's one near you!

A reef heron (Egretta sacra) stalks its prey in a typical hunched pose in the photo below. Reef herons are a much less common sight here in New Zealand. 



  1. Some very beautiful images. Love the low angles and soft lighting.

  2. Hi Johnathan. Nice pics, looks like you had to wait patiently for those shots. The herons have a relaxed natural look, not an alarmed what's that photographer doing over there look :-) Lorne

  3. Cheers Lorne! Most of these photos are taken from the cover of a hide so I can get nice and close :)

  4. hey,
    amazing photos! i see some new pics, so i assume youre got better!?
    how are you going?

  5. Cheers benny, yeah I'm getting better. Its fantastic to be able to get out with the camera again! I'm working on pukekos at the moment and having a lot of fun capturing them!