Supping with spoonbills

Local spoonbills wading in the water.
Fay Bolt

Local spoonbills wading in the water.

In a previous life did the royal spoonbill sup with the devil? The bird's spoon-shaped bill is certainly long enough. In our kitchen there is perhaps a spoon that might suggest this bird's extraordinary bill - black, elongated and flattening out at the end to a wedge-like scoop? A soup ladle? Perhaps it is most unflattering to spoonbills - and royal ones at that - to make such a comparison?

And there's another question that baffles me. Why are these particular birds named 'royal'? In actual fact there are very few bird species with that description. The penguin and albatross come readily to mind but there is only a handful of other birds known as 'royal' - or regia.

John Gould, an English ornithologist, named the spoonbill platalea regia on a visit to Australia in 1838. He was born in Lyme Regis in England, where Regis means royal and for some time his father had worked in the royal gardens at Windsor Castle. So, did he use the word 'royal' as a distant nod to his past or was it the proud bearing of the bird itself that prompted him? A puzzle. Gould published a beautifully illustrated seven-volume book, The Birds of Australia, detailing all the birds he saw there that were unknown to Europeans.

Among his prolific plates was one of the royal spoonbill. The bird eventually found its way to New Zealand where it began breeding in the middle of the last century. Another Australian immigrant!

I first caught sight of spoonbills at the Kumeras. The tide was well out and across the mudflats in the distance was a group of brilliant white birds. I just had to get closer. I trekked over shell-encrusted mud towards a trickling eddy near the birds. It's not easy walking over an extensive muddy stretch recently covered by the tide. I had to support my camera, I wanted to keep the birds in view, I was intrigued by the complex designs in the sun-dried mud, and I kept seeing myriad shell patterns begging to be photographed. The entire surface was potholed and rutted. Just one unwary step would land me flat in the mire. And I was well aware that the tide had turned. Then out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a young man exercising two large black dogs. Something else to worry about.

I came closer to the white birds shimmering in the afternoon light, roosting on the edge of the high-tide mark. Some were sleeping (probably with one open eye observing me); others were preening the feathers on their long necks, which seemed an awkward manoeuvre with such a long bill. Those broad black bills are far from elegant, and the wide-ridged band extending from their eyes looks rather like a liquorice strap that has been over-stretched.

At that moment those two dogs charged up to me leaping around and barking with excitement. I yelled at their owner asking him in no uncertain terms to take them well away from the birds because they were frightening them (not to mention me). This young man was adamant that it was a free country, the dogs wouldn't hurt me and the birds could fly away if they didn't like them being so close. So the birds did exactly that. The spoonbills rose up together and circled away to the south to a more isolated haven.

I trudged back over the treacherous terrain muttering about rude people who didn't have the so-called commonsense to keep their dogs on a leash around birds.

There is safe roosting on the islands in the Motueka Estuary and during the colder months of the year I often see the local flock hanging out there. This tidal stretch is a rich source of nutrients and the water is usually shallow enough for them to feed for long hours at a time. From the causeway I see a light breeze ruffle their feathers as they stalk the sunlit pools. They make their careful way back and forth, their bills scything through the shallows.

These avian minesweepers feel their prey rather than see it. They are able to sense minute vibrations through tiny receptors called papillae inside their 'scoop'. Night or day makes little difference to them; they feed when they are hungry. It's all done by touch.

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A group of spoonbills is known collectively as a 'bowl' and it is always a thrill to see them wading knee-deep, their bills, partly submerged, weaving slowly from side to side. With so many sightings of the 'bowl' around Motueka I sometimes feel that spoonbills belong only to our area and am mildly surprised to hear of them elsewhere. So I wasn't expecting to see them on a trip to the North Island even though it's not so very far as a crow (or spoonbill) flies, from Tasman Bay across to a beach on the Kapiti coast.

We arrived there early one evening and from the motel we listened to the waves on the nearby shore and the wind in the palms. The beach was calling us after our day of travelling. A heavy sea was running, the beach was strewn with flotsam waiting for a beachcomber, and to the south were tumbling, bumbling clouds pushing up into the sky. Then we saw the spoonbills. A pair of them, and I would have sworn they were 'our' spoonbills. As the wind lifted the plumes on the back of their heads they moved lightly in the spilling waves, graceful dancers in the late shafts of sunlight.

A moment later they flew west over a darkening silvery sea towards Kapiti Island. Maybe they were going home - to our home.

Birds about Water is an occasional series about our region's sea birds. It is based on Fay Bolt's self-published book of the same name which can be found on Amazon.

 - Stuff

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