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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 3 (July 1, 1933)

The Lone-Flying Heron

The Lone-Flying Heron.

“Te kotuku rerenga tahi,” the white heron that flies singly, is a classic Maori description of the habit of that beautiful rare bird of the swamps and the lagoons. The expression is often applied to the visit of a distinguished visitor, and in that poetic speech usage the saying is interpreted as “the heron of one flight,” otherwise the rare bird seen only once; the visit of a lifetime. Sometimes a kotuku is reported as having been seen, even to-day, when the marshes that provide it with its food are being lessened by drainage and settlement. Invariably only one is seen; it is the solitary bird of the wastes. A lovely spirit-like bird, it still lingers in the land from which the ancient peace of the wilds has departed.

There is a poetic and proverbial saying in praise of the white heron: “He kotuku kai-whakaata.” The meaning is that the heron leisurely examines its food before it eats; it is a bird of dainty habit, by contrast with the duck, which is described as “He parera apu paru”—“A duck that gobbles up the mud.” These sayings are aptly applied to mankind. A person at a feast who courteously waits until the others come before he eats his food is likened to the chieftainlike kotuku. A greedy person, on the other hand, is like the mud-gobbling duck.

One of our South Island lakes has a name which preserves a memory of the time when the white heron was numerous on its shores. This is Lake Brunner, on the West Coast railway line. Its Maori name, as the old people of Arahura village once told me, is Kotuku-whakaoka, which means the heron which darts its sharp bill to stab its prey, otherwise Spear-darting Heron. This expression exactly describes the ways of the white wading bird.