A marine ecologist’s work schedule is often ruled by the tides. This week, the low tides are early— which means certain aspiring ecologists have to drag themselves from bed at an ungodly hour of morning to make the bike commute to the university and then the drive out to the coast. But on arriving at the estuary, this ecologist was rewarded by the early sun shining against the mudflats, calm warm weather that made for perfect collecting conditions, and a whole host of creatures already out and about. My labmates and I were especially excited to see these birds. We watched as a group of three waded down a tidal channel near our field site, sweeping their bills in wide arcs in front of them and swallowing down the small crustaceans and fish they caught.
It’s that bill, no surprise, that inspired the common name of this species: the Royal Spoonbill. Its Latin name is Platalea regia, and its Maori name is kōtuku ngutupapa.
The fact that it has a Maori name is a good reminder that Maori is not a stagnant language that describes only elements of the natural world as they stood before the arrival of European settler, since the Spoonbill is actually a fairly recent New Zealand resident*. First spotted here in 1861, it’s believed to have self-introduced from Australia. And it’s doing pretty well— in 1977, there were 52 birds in New Zealand, but at the most recent official count in 1996, the population was up to 959.
I can’t help but wonder what sort of impact the Spoonbills have on the invertebrates of the estuary, especially given their blossoming population. But to get a better sense of that, it would help to have another nationwide Spoonbill count— I’d volunteer for that!
Until next time,
*Interestingly, the NZ Bird Encyclopaedia (check it out!) actually lists Spoonbills as a native. I’ve been searching for definitions of how “native” or “non-native” is actually assigned, but it’s a topic of some debate. What do you think? Is it “useful” to determine “native” vs “non-native” status anyways?