Art. IX.—Notes on New Zealand Birds.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 13th July, 1892.]
Plates V., VI.
Before proceeding to place before this meeting my customary budget of ornithological notes, I must take this opportunity of congratulating those who take an interest in the birds of New Zealand on the fact that, at the instance of the late Governor, it has been decided by the Government to set apart two suitable islands—the Little Barrier at the north and Resolution Island in the south—as public reserves for the conservation of the indigenous fauna and flora. His Excellency, in a memorandum of considerable length, which has lately been placed before the General Assembly, directs the attention of his Ministers to the fact that many of the native species, under the changed conditions of existence, are passing away; that some have already disappeared, whilst others are verging on extinction. He mentions that many prominent writers on zoological
science have urged the importance of some steps being taken for the conservation of New Zealand birds, and have pointed out that it will be a lasting reproach to the present generation of colonists if no attempt is made to save some—if only a remnant—of these expiring forms, for the student of the future. He quotes from Professor Newton's address to the Biological Section of the British Association, at Manchester, in 1887, as follows: “I would ask you to bear in mind that these indigenous species of New Zealand are, with scarcely an exception, peculiar to the country, and from every scientific point of view of the most instructive character. They supply a link with the past that once lost can never be recovered. It is therefore incumbent upon us to know all we can about them before they vanish…. The forms we are allowing to be killed off, being almost without exception ancient forms, are just those that will teach us more of the way in which life has spread over the globe than any other recent forms; and, for the sake of posterity, as well as to escape its reproach, we ought to learn all we can about them before they go hence and are no more seen.” And, after putting forward many cogent reasons, His Excellency concludes his argument thus: “Looking to the interests involved—the great loss to the scientific world implied in the extermination of natural forms that do not exist elsewhere, and the importance therefore of saving them—it cannot be denied that a heavy responsibility rests on those who, while there is yet time and opportunity, may neglect to take the necessary steps for their preservation.” The Hon. Mr. Ballance has earned the hearty thanks of every ornithologist by taking prompt action on Lord Onslow's recommendations, by setting apart the required island reserves, and by making arrangements for having them stocked with birds and plants from the mainland, and placed in charge of a competent ranger.
It is also a matter for congratulation that the present Government has, by Proclamation in the New Zealand Gazette, extended the provisions of the Wild Birds Protection Act to the Huia. It has been a frequent subject of complaint in the pages of our Transactions that this beautiful mountain starling was being indiscriminately destroyed by Maoris and pakehas alike, and that unless some measures were taken for its protection the species would soon disappear altogether. The appeal on behalf of this bird made by His Excellency, which has happily proved effective, is in the following words:—
“There is a bird famous in Maori history and poetry—remarkable for its singular beauty, and interesting to naturalists on account of its aberrant generic characters—a species confined to a very limited portion of the North Island, from which, owing to the eagerness of natural-history collectors
and the inevitable progress of settlement in its native woods, it is fast disappearing. I refer, of course, to the Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris), a bird which is naturally confined within such narrow geographical boundaries that I may describe its range as being limited to the Ruahine, Tararua, and Rimutaka Mountain-ranges, with their divergent spurs and the intervening wooded valleys. The white-tipped tail-feathers of this beautiful bird have been from time immemorial the chief adornment of Maori chiefs as head-plumes; and an incident connected therewith, in ancient times, led to the adoption of the name by the great ancestors of the Ngatihuia Tribe. As Ministers are aware, when selecting a Maori name for my infant son, to commemorate his New Zealand birth, I was induced, for several considerations, to give this name the prer ference over all others submitted to me; and I should therefore accept it as a compliment to my family if Ministers would exercise the power they possess, and throw over this bird the shield of Government protection. I ask this the more readily on the ground that I have been moved to do so by the chiefs of the Ngatihuia Tribe. At the public function at Otaki, on the 12th September last, when I had the pleasure of presenting my son to the assembled tribes, a number of very complimentary speeches were made by the leading chiefs, and one of them, in referring to the name, said, ‘There, yonder, is the snow-clad Ruahine Range, the home of our favourite bird. We ask you, O Governor! to restrain the pakehas from shooting it, that when your boy grows up he may see the beautiful bird which bears his name.' The Huia loves the deep shade of the forest, and as its home is invaded by the settler's axe it would, if protected from reckless destruction, simply retire higher up the wooded ranges, till it finally took refuge in the permanent forest reserve, which embraces all the wooded mountain-tops within its natural domain. Under vigilant protection, therefore, the Huia would have every chance of being preserved and perpetuated.”
I believe it is part of Mr. Ballance's scheme to acclimatise Huias on Resolution Island. As mentioned already, the natural range of this bird is a very limited one, but it includes the cold summits of several mountain-ranges, and it is not improbable, therefore, that the climate of Resolution Island will suit it very well. At any rate, the experiment is worth a trial, and will be watched with interest by scientists both here and at Home. The marvellous manner in which the birds brought from the South by Sir George Grey, and placed on his island home at Kawau, have increased and multiplied, affords ample proof that New Zealand birds, from whatever locality, will, under favourable conditions, thrive well anywhere.
As pointed out by Lord Onslow in his memorandum,
Resolution Island is already partially stocked, the Kiwi and the Kakapo being comparatively abundant there, whilst there is reason to believe that the rare Notornis mantelli (of which only three examples are known) still survives in the island. He also points out that on the Little Barrier Island the Stitchbird (Pogonornis cincta) finds its last refuge, whilst the Bell-bird (Anthornis melanura), the Whitehead (Clitonyx albicapilla), and the Wood-robin (Miro albifrons), all of which have disappeared from the mainland, are comparatively plentiful there.
Sir James Hector, in a memorandum on the papers submitted to Parliament, suggests that the various acclimatisation societies might at this juncture give valuable aid, both in the way of collecting rare birds and undertaking the custody of the reserves. His opinion is that “if the Resolution Island Reserve were placed under the control of the Otago society, and the Little Barrier Island Reserve (when acquired) under the Auckland society, and in each case with a moderate subsidy contributed by Government, the work of conservation would be placed on a simple and efficient footing.”
Glaucopis cinerea, Gmelin. (The South Island Crow.)
I had in my possession for many months a live Kokako from the South Island, kindly presented to me by Dr. Cahill. Although apparently in perfect health, it died at last in a fit, caused, I am inclined to think, by extreme fatness, the result of overfeeding without sufficient exercise. The bird was accustomed to occupy a large wire cage in my library, and was a very lively companion, being perpetually on the move and very musical. His period of chief activity was in the early morning or immediately before rain, when he would indulge at short intervals in a melancholy call in a high key, exactly like the Maori words “Kowai-koe?” (Who are you?). At other times it produced a short mellifluous whistle, and every now and then a liquid bell-note quite undistinguishable from the evening tolling of the tui. It occasionally, but not often, sounded the rich organ-note—short, but of surpassing sweetness—which I have described in my account of the North Island Crow (“Birds of New Zealand,” i., p. 2). In addition to all this it has a soft note, in repetition very like the low whimper of the Huia, and, more rarely, a more exact simulation of a hollow cough than that of the Tui. I know nothing of the history of the bird before it came to me, or whether it was brought up from the nest or not, but I was often inclined to think that, as a caged bird, it had been exercising some natural power of mimicry. Its usual food consisted of cooked potato, boiled rice, and soaked bread, but it took Coprosma and other ripe berries with avidity, and seemed to relish all
kinds of green succulent leaves, holding them in its foot when feeding, after the manner of a parrot. He was fond of water, drinking freely, but rarely using it for bathing as other birds do. Nevertheless his plumage was always in a clean and silky condition. On presenting to him a large bluebottle fly, he held it to his perch in the manner described, deliberately tore off one wing and then the other, tasted its flavour, and immediately dropped it. I tried him with other insects, but always with the same result. It is obvious, therefore, that this bird is not insectivorous, which is somewhat singular, seeing how omnivorous the members of the Crow family generally are.
Heteralocha acutirostris, Gould. (The Huia.)
On page 17 of “The Birds of New Zealand” I have represented in a woodcut a very curious deformity in the bill of a Huia, in which the upper mandible had assumed the form of an erect corkscrew, like the spiral horn of the Strepsiceros. This specimen had been obtained in the Forty-mile Bush, and was minutely described afterwards by the Rev. W. Colenso, F.R.S., in our Transactions (vol. xix., pp. 140–145). Recently a specimen from the same district has been shown to me in which a still more singular malformation presents itself (see fig. 1, Plate V.). This bird, like the last-mentioned, is an adult female, in perfect plumage; and, whilst the lower mandible has retained its ordinary form and proportions (except being a little shorter than usual), the upper has assumed the form of a perfect circle, resembling an overgrown boar's tusk in miniature. The lower mandible is unaffected by this, except that at the point of contact its cutting-edge has an even notch or depression produced by the constant friction.
Myiomoira toitoi, Lesson. (The North Island Tomtit.)
I have to record another albino of this species from Wanganui. Body-plumage white, purest on the head, clouded with black on the sides of the neck, breast, and back; quills black with white tips; wing-coverts almost entirely white; innermost tail-feathers white with a grey shade, and the rest normal; bill and legs pale-yellow.
In Mr. Drew's collection at Wanganui there is a pure albino of this species, presenting not a single dark feather.
Miro traversi, Buller. (The Black Robin.)
I have received several more specimens of this bird from the Snares. The sexes appear to be absolutely alike in plumage.
Sphenœacus punctatus, Gray. (The Fern-bird.)
Professor Hutton sends me the following note: “Last year I sent a specimen of Sphenœacus punctatus to F. E. Beddard for dissection. He now writes to me, ‘I find that it is quite a typical Acromyodian Passerine bird, and that the position assigned to it in Sharpe's Catalogue of Birds in the British Museum is quite in accordance with its anatomical structure.”'
Sphenœacus rufescens, Buller. (The Chatham Island Fernbird.)
The Hon. Walter Rothschild writes informing me that in a collection of bird-skins recently received from the Chatham Islands there was a good series of this well-marked species.
Prosthemadera novæ-zealandiæ, Gmelin. (The Tui.)
An albino in Mr. Drew's collection has many of the quills in both wings, and the three middle tail-feathers, wholly or partially normal; most of the secondaries in one wing partially white; cloudy patches of black on the shoulders and on the abdomen, with a few scattered black feathers on the breast; the rest of the plumage pure-white; bill and feet normal.
Pogonornis cincta, Dubus. (The Stitch-bird.)
An Auckland collector has recently been on a visit to the Little Barrier Island for the purpose of getting specimens of this rare bird, several of which were obtained. This is the last refuge of the species, and unless the strong hand of the Government is invoked for its protection, and that at once, the Stitch-bird will soon be lost to us for ever. Let us hope that steps will be taken to save the colony from this reproach.
Anthornis melanura, Sparrm. (The Korimako, or Bell-bird.)
I have from time to time recorded albinoes, more or less perfect, of this species; but I have the pleasure of exhibiting this evening a specimen from Nelson in which the entire plumage is of a delicate olivaceous-yellow, the quills and tail-feathers being white with greyish webs. Bill and feet palebrown, instead of being respectively black and leaden-grey, as in the normal state.
Referring to the Bell-bird, Lord Onslow, in the memorandum already referred to, says, “I would also, at the same time, suggest that Ministers should take into consideration the propriety of including some other native birds in the list of protected species. As I have already mentioned, the Bell-bird,
formerly so plentiful, has entirely disappeared from the North Island. But it is still very plentiful all over the South Island, and is a common denizen of the gardens and shrubberies in all the principal towns. This is the bird that so enchanted Captain Cook by its song when his ship lay at anchor in Queen Charlotte Sound more than a hundred years ago, and, having become historical, it would be a grievous pity for the bird to die out altogether. The general testimony goes to show that the protection extended to the Tuis had the desired effect, this species being now more numerous everywhere than it was fifteen years ago. Would it not be well to extend the same protection to its small congener the Makomako, whose haunts and habits are almost precisely similar?”
Xenicus longipes, Gmelin. (The Bush Wren.)
Of this bird I have obtained only four specimens since my return from Europe, although I have made constant inquiries for it. Mr. Brough writes me from Nelson, “I have now been out in the bush for six months, and have seen only one Bush Wren, two Rifle Wrens, two Saddlebacks, and no Rock Wrens. These birds are almost extinct in the Nelson and Pelorus forests, where they were so plentiful eight years ago. Weasels, ferrets, stoats, rats, and wild cats abound in our woods. Cats are the greatest enemy to the Wren family. The animals I have mentioned are making terrible devastation amongst our native birds. Wingless birds, and pigeons too, will soon be a rarity here.”
Platycercus novæ-zealandiæ, Sparrm. (The Red-fronted Parrakeet.)
To the many recorded varieties of this well-known species I have now to add another in the remarkable specimen (from Nelson) which I have the pleasure of exhibiting. The plumage of the upper surface is intermixed with bright canary-yellow, this colour predominating on the wing-coverts, back, rump, and upper tail-coverts. The outer tail-coverts are varied with yellow, and there are scattered feathers of the same colour on the cheeks, throat, and fore-neck.
Another, which I had lately an opportunity of examining, differs from ordinary specimens in having the first bastard quill in the right wing yellowish-white, with a blue-black tip, and the corresponding feather in the left wing entirely yellowish-white; it likewise has the innermost secondary lemon-yellow, with touches of the same colour among the wingcoverts, and on the back and rump; whilst the primaries on the left wing are yellowish-white at their tips.
Carpophaga novæ-zealandiæ, Gmelin. (The New Zealand Pigeon.)
A partial albino received from Wanganui has the head, neck, breast, and upper surface of wings and back dull yellowish-brown, with numerous yellowish-white feathers on the back and rump, and a few widely-scattered ones among the larger wing-coverts; all the smaller wing-coverts and the interscapulary feathers rich vinous-brown, with a perceptible sheen, forming a sort of mantle; wing-feathers and tail-feathers of the same yellowish-brown colour as the body-plumage, with paler tips; bill and feet normal.
Another specimen (obtained from the woods near Levin) has the plumage entirely white, with only a tinge of creamcolour on the upper surface of wings and on the hind-neck.
In Mr. Drew's collection at Wanganui there is an absolutely pure albino, obtained in that district.
Numenius uropygialis, Gould. (The Australian Whimbrel.)
This species must be added to the New Zealand list. A specimen (now in the Colonial Museum) was shot by Mr. S. Liardet in the Wairau district, and was presented by Mr. W. T. L. Travers to the Museum. The bird agrees exactly with Gould's description of this species in “The Birds of Australia,” but he curiously omits to notice that the sides of the body and undersurface of wings are conspicuously marked with arrow-head bars of blackish-brown, and that the long axillary plumes are transversely barred in their whole length with the same. This specimen measures: Extreme length, 17in.; wing, 9in.; tail, 3.5in.; bill, along the ridge (following curvature) 2.35in., along the edge of lower mandible 2.5in.; bare tibia, lin.; tarsus, 2.25in.; middle toe and claw. 1.6in.
Gallinago aucklandica, Gray. (The Auckland Island Snipe.)
The length of the bill is evidently a very uncertain character with this species. A specimen in my collection, brought to me in spirit from the Auckland Islands, has a bill measuring 3in. from the angle of the mouth to the tip, and 2.6in. along the culmen.
Lobivanellus lobatus, Vieill. (The Australian Wattled Plover.)
In “The Birds of New Zealand” (vol. ii., p. 13) I have described a straggler of this beautiful species of Plover, obtained by Mr. Drew at Kai-iwi, near Wanganui, in August, 1886. The specimen is still in his interesting little museum at Wanganui.
The distinguishing features in this bird are the lobed mask of pale sulphur-yellow, and the sharp spur, more than half an inch in length, at the bend of the wing.
Mr. C. A. Barton, writing to me from Hokitika, describes what is certainly either Lobivanellus lobatus or L. personatus, of Australia, as occurring there. He says, “Can you inform me if there is in Australia a spur-winged wader about the size of an Oyster-catcher? Several times lately I have observed a rara avis in the sandbanks of the Hokitika River, that, from what I have been able to observe through a field-glass, would be classed between the Dottrels and Oyster-catchers; but I am nearly sure that it has well-developed spurs (say half an inch long) on the wings, and a flap-wattle (pale-yellow) covering the sides of the face and extending back to and close round the eyes. And the bill, I think, is soft or rather weak, and about half as long again as the head.” I refer this bird to L. lobatus, because the one obtained at Kai-iwi was of that species.
Pelecanus conspicillatus, Temm. (The Australian Pelican.)
I have in my possession the head and neck of an Australian Pelican which was shot by the Maoris on the Wanganui River bank about a mile above Hiruharama. This was in 1890. The bird was first observed in the early morning, and, being entirely strange to them, the Maoris brought the head and neck to Wanganui (in the flesh) for identification, but unfortunately left the body, which was soon devoured by the pigs.
Of this fine species Mr. Gould writes, “It is abundant in all the rivers and inlets of the sea, both in Tasmania and on the Continent of Australia. I shot specimens on Green Island, in D'Entrecasteaux Channel, and I also met with it in abundance in South Port River. Owing to the advance of colonisation it had become scarce in the Derwent and Tamar when I visited Tasmania, but it may still breed on the small group called Stanners Bay Islands, lying off the south-western land of Flinders Island, in Bass's Strait.”
Puffinus carneipes, Gould. (The Flesh-footed Shearwater.)
By the kindness of Mr. Reeves, the lighthouse-keeper on Mokohinou Island (in the Hauraki Gulf), I have obtained a pair of these birds in spirit. The species appears to have a strictly northern range, for I have never heard of a specimen further south than the Bay of Plenty, where there is a breeding colony of them, although in a very inaccessible place on the Island of Karewa.
Diomedea fuliginosa, Gmelin. (The Sooty Albatros.)
Captain Fairchild, ever on the alert for new or interesting birds, brought me a pair of these birds which he had shot from an open boat a few miles north of Cape Palliser. He states that during the many years he has been navigating on this coast he has never before met with this Albatros so far north as that.
Majaqueus æquinoctialis, Linn.
The carpenter of the “Hinemoa” has described to me a large Petrel, of which he obtained two specimens at the Auckland Islands—of blackish-grey colour, with a triangular white patch on the throat. Is not this M. œquinoctialis ?
Thalassæca glacialoides, Smith. (The Silvery-grey Petrel.)
I have recently obtained a fine pair of this rare Petrel—one bird coming from Nelson and the other from Otago.
Anas chlorotis, Gray. (The Brown Duck.)
This Duck is still very plentiful on the west coast of Wellington. I have lately seen a flock of two hundred or more in the Papaitonga Lake; but they have become very shy, and it is almost impossible to get near enough for a shot. During the day they generally remain concealed in the dense beds of raupo along the shores of the lake, coming out to feed in the evening. In the cool hours of the day, however, they may often be seen consorting in a large flock on the surface of the water.
A specimen which has lately come into my possession has nearly the entire head pure-white, while the rest of the plumage is normal.
It is probably to a similar form that the following letter from Captain Mair (June 30) relates: “For a whole week before the shooting-season commenced we saw a pair of beautiful Ducks or Teal with white heads. I went out several times after them, but could not get nearer than 60 or 70 yards. The head and neck was white, like the female Paradise Duck, only it was a purer white, and the birds were small—hardly bigger than the Black Widgeon. They were very conspicuous, and could be noticed a quarter of a mile off. We saw them nearly every day for a fortnight. But unfortunately two men came to my place [on the Manawatu River] on Good Friday and shot all over it during my absence, and I fear they must have killed or wounded these birds, for we have seen nothing of them since. When observed these birds were always in company with about a dozen Spoonbill Ducks.”
Nyroca australis, Gould. (The White-eyed Duck.)
A specimen was lately obtained in the Wairarapa Lake. There are several in the Canterbury Museum, all from Lake Ellesmere.
Casarca variegata, Gmelin. (The Paradise Duck.)
This fine Duck, formerly so plentiful in the Marlborough District, is becoming scarce, large numbers perishing every season through taking the poisoned grain laid for rabbits. A Marlborough resident informs me that years ago he was a constant attendant when the Maoris hunted the “flappers,” or moulting birds when incapable of flight, and that he has known upwards of five thousand to be taken in this manner during a single season. They are now counted only by tens and twenties.
Apteryx bulleri, Sharpe. (The North Island Kiwi.)
I have to notice a singular development in the bill of a Kiwi from the Hawera district which was kindly presented to me by Mr. S. H. Drew, of Wanganui. The lower mandible is bent downwards at the tip, after the familiar form of a boathook (see fig. 1, Pl. VI.). Most of the toes are without claws, having blunt and rounded extremities. I think this condition is due to the bird having, when very young, passed over ground on which a fire was smouldering, using the bill in the manner habitual to it, and getting severely burned in consequence. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, this Kiwi seemed to have had no difficulty in procuring food, and was in excellent condition of body when presented to me. As requested by Mr. Drew, I turned it loose on my little wooded island at Papaitonga, where it will have the companionship of its own and other species.