Art. XIII.—Notice of the Occurrence of the Australian Snipe (Gallinago australis) in New Zealand.
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 15th August, 1898.]
The distance separating Australia and New Zealand is so great that one might suppose it would present an almost insuperable barrier to the migration of birds, save perhaps for those species—as the albatros and its allies—whose home is on the ocean itself. But, notwithstanding the twelve hundred miles which intervene between the two countries, it is well known that there are certain birds—as, for instance, the shining cuckoo and the common godwit—which every spring appear in New Zealand, and every autumn return to Australia. And, in addition to these regular migrants, quite a number of Australian birds occasionally visit New Zealand. As instances I need only mention the Australian roller (Eurystomus pacificus), the Australian tree-swallow (Petrochelidon nigricans), the Australian swift (Cypselus pacificus), the black-faced shrike (Graucalus melanops), the masked plover (Lobivanellus lobatus), and the true curlew (Numenius cyanops). As to why it is that these species now and then stray so far from their proper home we have no certain knowledge, although we conjecture that in most cases it is probably due to the influence of storms. I have now to exhibit a specimen of the Australian snipe (Gallinago australis), being, as far as I am aware, the first obtained in this country. It was shot by Mr. C. C. Sandford on the 26th March of this year in a field near Arch Hill, on the western side of Auckland. Mr. Sandford recognised that it was a stranger, and was kind enough to bring it to the Museum at once, thus enabling me to have it properly preserved. Only one specimen was noticed.
The Australian snipe is very closely allied to the common snipe of Europe (Gallinago cœlestis), differing chiefly in the slightly larger size, somewhat different plumage, and in the
tail being composed of eighteen feathers instead of sixteen. It is found in all suitable localities in Australia and Tasmania, and northwards to Formosa and Japan, where it breeds.
Mr. Gould, in his “Handbook to the Birds of Australia” (vol. ii., p. 272), says, “In Tasmania it is very abundant during the months of October, November, December, and January, affords excellent sport to those fond of snipe-shooting, and is to be found in all low swampy grounds, lagoons, rivulets, and similar situations. Its weight varies from 5 oz. to 6 ¼ oz.; it is consequently a much larger bird than the Gallinago scolapacinus of Europe. It flies much heavier than that species, and thus affords a more easy mark for the sportsman; it is also more tame, sits closer, and when flushed flies but a short distance before it again alights. On rising it utters the same call of ‘scape-scape’ as the Gallinago scolapacinus. It is said to breed in Tasmania, but, although, many of the birds that I killed bore evident marks of youth, I could not satisfactorily ascertain that such was the case. I found it very abundant in many parts of New South Wales—in none more so than in the lagoons of the Upper Hunter—during the months of November and December; but it was only a transient visitor, the lagoons and swampy places then filled with water having attracted it.”
The Australian snipe is at once distinguished from the snipes indigenous to the outlying islands of New Zealand—G. pusilla, G. aucklandica, G. huegeli, &c.—by its much larger size, darker plumage, and by the broad red band crossing the tail.
Before concluding, it may not be out of place to mention the extreme sensitiveness of the bill in the snipes generally, as described by Newton and other authors. A number of branching nerve-filaments run nearly to the tip, and open under the soft cuticle in a series of cells that give that portion of the bill almost the appearance of honeycomb, and which can be felt externally as roughened projections on drawing the finger down the bill. Thus the bill becomes a most delicate sense-organ, enabling the bird, when probing for its food, to distinguish at once the nature of the objects it encounters, although quite out of its sight. The same result is obtained by the kiwis, but in a somewhat different manner. In their case the nostrils, instead of occupying their usual position at the base of the bill, are placed almost at the very tip. In probing the ground the kiwis are consequently able to recognise their food by the sense of smell, whereas in the snipes the sense of touch is used.