nankeen night heron

Recently self introduced from Australia the Nankeen night heron, started breeding along the Whanganui River in the 1990s. However, Sir George Grey when Governor of the New Zealand colony, in 1852, imported some of these birds from Australia and liberated them at Wellington.

There are five extant sub-species of this bird: hilli of eastern Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia is presumed to be the form recorded in New Zealand.

Buller says of this bird: “Its flight is slow and flapping; and during its passage through the air the head is drawn back between the shoulders, and the legs are stretched out backwards, after the manner of the true Herons. When perched on the trees, or resting on the ground, it exhibits none of the grace and elegance of those birds, its short neck resting on the shoulders. When impelled to search for a supply of food, it naturally becomes more animated, and its actions lively and prying; the varied nature of its food in fact demands some degree of activity–fishes, water–lizards, crabs, frogs, leeches, and insects being all partaken of with equal avidity.

“It breeds in the months of November and December, and generally in companies, like the true Herons, the favourite localities being the neighbourhood of swampy districts, where an abundant supply of food is to be procured; the branches of large trees, points of shelving rocks, and caverns are equally chosen as a site for the nest, which is rather large and flat, and generally composed of crooked sticks loosely interwoven. The eggs, which are usually three in number, are of a pale green colour, and average two inches and five eighths in length by one inch and a half in breadth.”

Our local branch of the Ornithological Society recently had a field trip up the Whanganui River to Jeruselam and there saw the heron while wending their way home to the Old Convent. It had come out to sun itself in a huge old chestnut tree, adjacent to the marae. It was high up in the tree, its rufous feathering glistening in the late afternoon sun. That night a number of Nankeen night herons were heard flying over, the call recognised from listening to an audio tape just an hour previously.

nankeen night heron
Sub Species:

Other common names:  — 

Rufous night heron, Ardea caledonica, Nycticorax australasle.

Description:  — 

Native bird

57 cm., 800g., stocky heron, rufous brown, or heavily streaked and spotted brown, thick black bill, short yellow legs, black cap.

Where to find:  — 

Whanganui River.

Illustration description: — 


Mathews, G.M., The Birds of Australia, 1910-1927,

Broinowski, G.J., Birds of Australia, 1887-1891.

Reference(s): — 


Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Buller, Walter Lawry, Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of NZ., 1888., 1888.

Page date & version: — 


Tuesday, 20 May 2014; ver2009v1


©  2005    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.