Story: Wetland birds

Page 11. Kingfishers and fernbirds – wetland margins

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Kingfisher – kōtare

The kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) – sometimes called the sacred kingfisher – is iridescent blue, green, buff and white, with a disproportionately hefty bill. Kingfishers sit on perches above tidal flats or pasture. When their sharp eyes detect movement, they dart down to snatch the prey. They carry it to their perch, where they kill it by repeated thwacking against the branch. Their main call during the spring breeding season is an insistent ‘kek-kek-kek’

Feeding and habitat

Kingfishers eat aquatic fare – fish, tadpoles, crabs and freshwater crayfish – and also earthworms, cicadas, dragonflies, lizards, mice and small birds. They are found in most habitats, but are most common in coastal or freshwater wetlands, forest edges or farmland. Power lines provide perches in the absence of trees.

Tunnel engineering

Kingfishers put their strong bills to the test when building nests in steep clay banks or soft tree-trunks. The male and female take turns to fly repeatedly at the bank or wood, bills outstretched, delivering chisel-blows until the hole is deep enough to perch in. Sitting on the lip, they excavate an upward-sloping tunnel about 20 centimetres long, then hollow out a nesting chamber. Sometimes they make several tunnels before deciding on one.

This species is found in Australia and several south-west Pacific islands. The subspecies in New Zealand and on Lord Howe Island is Todiramphus sanctus vagans. It is 24 centimetres long and weighs 65 grams.

Fernbird – mātātā

The fernbird (Bowdleria punctata) is a small brown bird with an intricate pattern of dark flecks and a beautiful long lacy tail. On the North and South islands, fernbirds inhabit dense thickets of scrub, usually close to or within wetlands. They may have been more common in forests and shrubland in the past.

Well camouflaged and very secretive, fernbirds are more easily heard than seen. Their calls are varied – the most common sounds like ‘oo-tik’, and is often called in duo between a pair of birds.

Nesting

Fernbirds build nests of tightly woven tussock or other long rush-like leaves, either low down or raised up to 2 metres above wet ground. They often make a hood, oriented to shelter the nest against wind and rain. The Māori phrase ‘te whare o te mātātā’ (a fernbird’s house) describes a woven flax cape, made to keep out the weather.

Status

There are five fernbird subspecies on separate islands:

  • North Island (B. p. vealeae)
  • South Island (B. p. punctata)
  • Stewart Island (B. p. stewartiana)
  • Codfish Island (B. p. wilsoni)
  • Snares Islands (B. p. caudata).

All are classified as sparse, restricted or endangered. A Chatham Islands species is extinct.

How to cite this page:

Christina Troup, 'Wetland birds - Kingfishers and fernbirds – wetland margins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/wetland-birds/page-11 (accessed 21 October 2019)

Story by Christina Troup, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015