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Birds of a feather

To celebrate Conservation Week, we asked Dr. Emma Williams about some charismatic birds.

Dr Emma is a Science Advisor (Mobile Threatened Species) at the Department of Conservation.

Her area of expertise is finding cryptic (difficult to detect) species. ‘Much of my work so far has been focused on wetlands as these are complex inaccessible environments that form great places for secretive, high mobile animals to hide.’

Here she tells us about a couple of cryptic birds that are found in wetlands. ‘They’re very charismatic creatures but are rarely known.’

Why are they interesting?

Australasian bittern (matuku; Botaurus poiciloptilus)

  • Our bitterns are the most endangered of their kind in the world (nationally critical).
  • The males produce a deep baritone booming call that they use to seduce the females and scare other males away.
  • They are the ninja’s of our wetland! And have the ability to disappear right in front of your eyes
Young female matuku in freeze pose. Photo by Emma Williams.

Spotless crake (pūweto; Porzana tabuensis) and marsh crake (koitareke; Porzana pusilla)

  • Are like little modern human families – i.e. they hang together on family expeditions looking for food (insects).
  • Both parents work together to rear the chicks.
  • Parents can rear up to 7 chicks per nest attempt and chicks can swim and climb within two hours of hatching. This makes parenting incredibly challenging, chaotic and complex – imagine trying to raise up to seven Jack-Jacks (the baby from the movie Incredibles) all at once!
Pūweto. Photo by Emma Williams.

Why are they in trouble?

All three species have similar threats, which are as follows:

  • Habitat loss – 90 % of our wetlands are now gone, the remaining 10 % is under threat
  • Invasive predators – All three species are ground nesters.
  • Poor water quality/clarity –  Bitterns relying on being able to see their prey (small fish/eels); crakes feed on small insects and so require healthy ecosystems.
  • Invasive weeds – All three species rely on reeds and rushes to be able to breed. These habitats are under threats from encroachment of weeds like willows.
  • Unstable/fluctuating water levels – All three species will be forced out of their homes if the wetland is flooded and rely on stable water levels during the breeding season (otherwise nests get washed out).
  • Disturbances – The bittern in particular is very sensitive to disturbances and won’t breed if there is too much activity in their nesting area.

What we can do?


  • Restore: plantings,weed removal etc.
  • Advocate: talk to your children and politicians about the importance of wetlands as habitats and kidneys of our waterways.
  • Protect your wetlands: help with predator control, push for better legislation to protect wetlands from being destroyed and degraded.

If people can’t do the above directly themselves they can still help indirectly by providing funding and support to others.

Marsh crake. Photo by Colin O’Donnell, DOC

This year DOC is celebrating 50 years of Conservation Week – a national celebration that encourages people to get involved in nature and help to take care of it.
Conservation Week runs from 14 – 22 September 2019.

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