Thursday, January 20, 2022

Changes in the status and distribution of Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) in New Zealand, 1800s−2011

TitleChanges in the status and distribution of Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) in New Zealand, 1800s−2011
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsO'Donnell, CFJ, Robertson, HA
Type of ArticleFull article
Keywordsbittern, conservation status, distribution, habitat loss, habitat use, swamp birds, threatened species, wetlands

We collated and reviewed 4179 records of the historic and contemporary distribution of the endangered specialist wetland bird, the Australasian bittern (matuku, Botaurus poiciloptilus), in New Zealand, to assess its current status and trends in its distribution across major habitat types. We mapped distribution in 5 time periods (pre-1900, 1900−1949, 1950−1969, 1970−1989, post-1990). We found that Australasian bittern are currently found throughout New Zealand with strongholds in Waikato, Northland and Auckland regions (46% of records) in the North Island, and Canterbury and West Coast (22%) in the South Island. They occur widely in freshwater and brackish riverine, estuarine, palustrine and lacustrine habitats. Australasian bittern were abundant (records of groups >100 birds) in Māori and early European times, but historical maps indicate their range appears to have been reduced by c. 50% over the last hundred years, with the most dramatic shrinkage in range occurring post-1970. Marked declines in occupancy began in Otago, Canterbury, Waikato, Wellington and Auckland regions between the 1900-1949 and 1950-1969 periods and reductions in range have been steady since. In comparison, declines in Northland, Southland, West Coast and Tasman/Nelson appear to be more recent and greatest between the 1970-1989 and post-1990 periods. The apparent shrinkage in range is supported by numerous observations in the literature. Australasian bittern distribution is now biased towards coastal areas and lowland wetlands of the North Island. Information indicates that range reductions were paralleled by marked declines in numbers: 34% of pre-1900 records were >1 bittern and 7.3% were >10, whereas post-1990, only 19% of records were >1 and 0.7% >10. The clearance and drainage of wetlands (c. 90% loss) and shooting were major causes of declines, but contemporary threats include continued habitat loss and degradation, accidental deaths from a range of causes, and predation by introduced mammals. Current trends in Australasian bittern populations suggest that they should be reclassified as Nationally Critical under the New Zealand threat classification system. Conservation management should focus on restoration of hydrology, water quality and aquatic food supplies, predator control, reedbed management and maintaining regional wetland networks.

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