Art. XII.—Notes on New Zealand Ornithology: Observations on Pogonornis cincta (Dubus); Stitch-Bird (Tiora).
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 1st June, 1885.]
The first specimens of these birds I saw in the Canterbury Museum (two males, set up). On inquiring, Dr. von Haast informed me they were very rare. The next brought under my notice was a male specimen, in the Auckland Museum; and Mr. Cheeseman told me Professor Hutton, C.M.Z.S., mentioned them as not uncommon on the Little Barrier or Hauturu Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, for which place I started in October, 1880, accompanied by my friend Mr. E. Firth, for the purpose of
ornithological researches, and especially with the object of studying the habits of these birds, which I may here mention I have never seen or heard on the mainland or other surrounding islands.
After searching the western and south-western parts of the island, I was unsuccessful in seeing or obtaining a single specimen. I intended penetrating in to the centre, but was informed by the Natives that it was impossible to get overland to the east coast on account of the many precipices, and that the sea was too rough to permit of my landing on that side; so I returned to Auckland, with the intention of resuming the search at another time.
In May, 1882, Mr. Dobson, a friend who has accompanied me in several of my journeyings, preceded me to the same island, for the purpose of repairing old huts and building new ones, taking provisions for a prolonged mountain expedition, my intention being to follow him in June; but, owing to boisterous weather, after making two attempts to land, and having to give it up, once in the Water Lily after five days' cruising, and once in the Rangatira after three days', I put off my trip till October, on the 15th of which month I succeeded in landing. The first night we camped at the foot of a precipice, the ascent of which we commenced at three o'clock next morning. To give an idea of the difficulty of climbing here, I had to pull my dog (a good Alpine traveller,) up with a rope, in addition to our provisions, &c. After this we climbed over two ranges, each above 2,000 feet high, arriving at an old nikau whare, which my friend had previously built, at the foot of the last range. It was dark before we finished mending the roof and preparing for a start the next day. On the morning of the 23rd, I first heard the whistle of the Stitch-bird: I was unable, however, to get a glimpse of it; and though we cut tracks to the tops of most of the main ranges, and afterwards frequently heard the birds, could never see them. Later experience has taught me that their shrill whistle is very deceptive, and the sound travels a long distance.
I then shifted my quarters further towards the interior; and on the 25th, my attention was arrested by the call of my dog at a short distance. On going towards him I saw a male Stitch-bird hopping about in a very excited manner in the scrub above him. I was so interested in watching this beautiful bird (which has a brighter plumage than any of its New Zealand compeers), with its quick and graceful movements, that it disappeared before I attempted to use my gun.
Though constantly exploring, I never saw another specimen till the 7th November, yet frequently heard them. Early on that morning we travelled north-west to the top of a high, narrow range of precipices, overgrown with short thick scrub
and manga-manga, which made it so dense that I had to cut the way with my hunting-knife. This place I found a favourite resort of these birds, (which have cost me so much time, labour, and patience,) having a warm aspect, exposed to the sun. There I saw male and female, the latter for the first time; but, unfortunately, my friend was carrying the gun, and before he could hand it to me, both birds had disappeared. On the 8th November, I saw a male at the same place, and on going over a range I heard another; subsequently I went round it, and saw male and female near a nest, and endeavoured to observe them unnoticed, but they quickly saw me, and in the act of escaping I shot them. I then went and examined the nest, which was only half finished, built of very small branches, roots, and fine native grass, and lined with hairy substance off the fronds of the punga.
In December, 1883, in the centre of the island, I observed a pair of adults with three young birds. On the male noticing me, he uttered a shrill whistle, and the female immediately hid amongst the fern for a considerable time. I procured several specimens; of which I gave Dr. Buller a male, female, and young. I have only once seen these birds sitting still, and that was near the nest. They appear always on the move, carrying their heads proudly, their wings drooped, and their tails spread and raised; and, at each successive movement, they utter that peculiar whistle from which the Natives have named them “Tiora.” The female has a different note, sounding like “tac, tac, tac,” repeated several times. They feed on small berries and insects, and suck the honey from the native wild-flowers and trees, as many of the latter exude honey during the night. In fine weather I have found them on the mountains between precipices, in low scrub, where the aspect is warm; but in bad weather, lower down in the gullies, in places entangled with numerous creepers. They are not strong on the wing, but very active in hopping and climbing, which enables them to quickly escape from sight.
The plumage of the male is as follows:—Head and neck, shining velvet black, with a few long silvery white ear-feathers; shoulders, golden yellow; upper secondary, white, with brownish black points, and a slight splash of white under the wing covers; wings and tail, brownish black, each feather edged on the outer side with olive green; tail cover, greenish tinge, and a yellow band round the breast; abdomen, greyish brown; bill, black; eyes, dark brown; feet, light brown. The female is a little smaller than the male, of olive brown colour on the top of the head, back, wing, and tail, each feather being shaded with olive green; shoulders, yellowish; upper secondary, white, with yellowish brown shade, ear feathers hardly perceptible, under part brownish grey; bill, legs, and eyes same
as male. So far as I know, the plumage of the young, which differs from that of the adult bird, has never been described:—
|Male||L. 7.50||W. 4.25||B. .69||T. 1|
|Female||L. 6.75||W. 3.75||B. .69||T. 1|
I landed on my last expedition on the 8th April, 1885, returning in May, during which time I went to the centre of the island, where I knew their favourite resort, to obtain some specimens for the use of the New Zealand museums. I was then successful in observing a pair feed their young, (two males and one female,) which must have been a late brood. I also shot some, shedding their first plumage, as per specimen shown, the yellowish band round the chest beginning to show, also the white ear feathers, and the throat, neck, and head changing from grey to black. When very young, the male is of similar plumage to the female, except the yellow shoulders.
These very rare birds will soon disappear, even from these lonely wilds, owing to the domestic wild cats, which are very numerous, and commit great havoc among them, and also the Sparrow-hawk (Hieracidea novæ-zealandiæ) and “Morepork,” (Athene novæ-zealandiæ) in whose crops I have often found their remains.