The strange, mysterious and exotic came to the Derwent this autumn and I’m not talking about the latest exhibition or event at the Museum of Old and New Art.
A pair of nankeen hight herons took up residence on the banks of New Town Bay and much to my delight I managed to see the beautiful birds after being alerted to their presence by local residents.
The night heron is not usually seen south of KingIsland – where there is a long-established breeding colony – and so it was a surprise to find a pair so far south, although I learned later they sometimes are seen in the north of the state.
I describe the night herons as mysterious because they are rarely seen by day, and so often go unnoticed. They usually wait for the sun to go down before emerging from the dense vegetation in which they hide by day.
The pair in question had taken up residence in the tangled, seemingly impenetrable branches of a cypress overhanging the bay. The tree is in fact in someone’s garden and the residents kindly me invited me onto their property to view the birds.
I say the herons are strange because they do not look like members of the heron and egret family at all. The white-faced heron and the great and little egrets found in Tasmania are graceful, elegant birds. Standing on long legs, they appear ethereal, as though floating on the still waters of river and lake.
The nankeen night heron looks more like a prize fighter; pugnacious, cocky and stocky, with a short, thick neck. This gives them a hunched stance. Certainly the female of the pair I viewed in the outer branches of the cypress fixed me with a cold, menacing stare before moving slowly and deliberately into the heart of the cypress tree. The male remained almost totally hidden, making it difficult to appreciate his beautiful plumage.
Night herons are certainly exotic. Few birds carry such an unusual plumage. It is not so much beautiful or stunning, but a blend of subtle tones.
The birds have rich cinnamon upperparts, white-buff underparts, a black crown, and yellow legs and feet. The head is large and, unlike the other herons, the legs are short. During breeding the back of the head bears three white nuptial plumes.
The species is also called the rufous night heron, but nankeen is preferred. The Chinese name comes from the rough, brown cotton cloth that Chinese prospectors in the Victorian goldfields in the 1800s used to wear. Another Australian bird, the nankeen kestrel, carries the same subtle, light brown plumage.
Although rare in Tasmania, the nankeen night heron is found throughout Australia, wherever there is permanent water. It frequents well-vegetated wetlands, and is found along shallow river margins, mangroves, floodplains, swamps, and parks and gardens.
It feeds in shallow water on a wide variety of insects, crustaceans, fish and amphibians.
The night herons breed towards the end of winter and into spring. They nest in a thick, dense tree or shrub overhanging water, building a loose stick platform where the female lays up to five eggs. The herons are devoted parents, taking it in turns to incubate eggs and then feed young.
The herons have arrived in Hobart just as the countdown begins for the Dark Mofo festival linked to MONA. If they stay to breed there will be another mysterious and exotic attraction in town.