Art. XXVI.—On the Addition of the Red-tailed Tropic Bird (Phæton rubricauda) to the Avifauna of New Zealand.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Soicety, 12th January, 1878.]
In the list of the Birds of New Zealand compiled by Mr. G. R. Gray and published in “The Ibis” of July 1862, the Red-tailed Tropic bird is included among the species of Pelecanidœ, the habitat assigned being Norfolk and Nepean Islands. On the publication of my Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand (1865), in the absence of any positive evidence of its occurrence in our seas, I decided to omit this bird from our list of species, and it has been rigidly excluded since.
The fine specimen of the bird, however, which I have the pleasure of exhibiting to-night, and which was shot off the “Three Kings” by Mr. Henry Mair, and the further information which I have been able to collect respecting it will fairly establish the right of this species to a place in our avifauna.
The bird is well-known to the Ngapuhi tribe at the north, under the name of Amokura, and they set a high value on the long red tail-feathers which they exchange with the southern tribes for greenstone. Almost every year, after the prevalence of easterly gales, some specimens are washed ashore (generally dead) at the North Cape or in Spirits Bay. The natives of that district go out systematically to hunt for them at these periods. Owing to their rarity these plumes are more prized than those of the huia or kotuku, and in one instance a valuable slab of pounamu was given by a Hawke Bay chief in exchange for three feathers, one of which is now in the possession of the Manawatu natives.
The allusion is to this bird in the love-song of the fairies, commencing—
Kiatia taku rangi Te kapu o te amokura, etc. Come, deck my head With amokura plumes.
Mr. Gould, who has figured the species with his usual skill in “The Birds of Australia,” states that it “is very generally dispersed over the temperate and warmer latitudes of the Indian Ocean and the South Seas, where it often hovers round ships and occasionally alights on their rigging. During the months of August and September it retires to various islands for the purpose of breeding; among other places selected for the performance of this duty are Norfolk Island off the east coast of Australia, and Raine Islets in Torres Straits, from both of which localities I possess specimens of the bird and its eggs.” He states further that the young birds for the first year are very different from the adults, being of a silky-white without the beautiful roseate blush (so conspicuous in the specimen now exhibited), with the whole of the upper surface broadly barred with black, and with the black of the shafts of the primaries expanded into a spatulate form at the tips of the feathers.
Mr. Macgillivray, who obtained several on Raine Islet in the month of June, gives the following account:—” Upon one occasion three were observed performing sweeping flights over and about the island, and soon afterwards one of them alighted. Keeping my eye upon the spot, I ran up and found a male bird in a hole under the low shelving margin of the island bordering the beach, and succeeded in capturing it after a short scuffle, during which it snapped at me with its beak, and uttered a loud, harsh, and oft-repeated croak. It makes no nest but deposits its two eggs on the bare floor of the hole, and both sexes assist in the task of incubation. It usually returns from sea about noon, soaring high in the air and wheeling round in circles before alighting. The eggs are blotched and speckled with brownish-red on a pale reddish-grey ground, and are two inches three-eighths long by one inch four-eighths-and-a-half broad. The contents of the stomach consisted of beaks of cuttle-fish. The only outward sexual difference that I could detect consists in the more decided roseate blush upon the plumage of the male, especially on the back; but this varies slightly in intensity in different individuals of the same sex, and fades considerably in a preserved skin.”