Like white herons, royal spoonbills are widespread in Australia. They are also found in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and on some south-western Pacific islands.
Only six spoonbill sightings were recorded in New Zealand prior to 1930. Since 1942, according to Oliver, birds have been seen every year and seem to have started breeding here from at least the 1950s. In the summer of 1949–50 a single pair of spoonbills bred alongside the white herons at Okarito, South Westland. In the following years others joined them, building up the colony to a peak by 1970. Through the 1970s little nesting occurred although spoonbills were present each spring. In the 1980s there have usually been a dozen or more nests but very limited success in fledging chicks. The Okarito spoonbills build their nests in the exposed canopy of the tallest kahikatea trees and regularly lose all their eggs or chicks in storms.
The spoonbills have extended their range and now breed in a number of other places, including Kapiti Island and Parengarenga and Manakau Harbours. Recently, I have had a report of “a large colony up the Waiuku River, just below the Glenbrook Steel Mill. It appears that many of them are permanent residents. I’ve seen them both winter and summer in front of my house. I’ve been recording my sightings from my home of these beautiful birds for the last 6 or 7 years. To start with there would be 2 or 3. Then over the last few years the numbers have increased. This morning (late May 2011) I watched about 12 sweeping the low tide line for food.”
Royal spoonbills tend to breed near kotuku, shag and gull colonies. Some nests are high in kahikatea trees, others on low shrubs or on the ground. The birds assemble at nesting sites about October and begin their courting behaviour. When pairing, both sexes perform exaggerated bowing movements whilst clapping their bills. The beautiful nuptial plumes are raised and lowered and mutual preening begins after the bond is established. After breeding they disperse to estuaries and wetlands around the country.
The spoonbill feeds on insects, shellfish, small fish and frogs. They are readily identified in the distance by the way they feed, walking and sweeping their spoon bill in an arc, often knee deep in water. They feed day or night, whenever the tide is right.
They were known to the Maori as kotuku ngutu papa, the board billed kotuku, so must have been visitors to New Zealand before European recordings.