Art. XXIII.—Scinde Island, from a Naturalist's Point of View.
[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 9th July, 1900.]
This is most emphatically not a deep paper from a scientific point of view, being just a rough sketch of a few of the most interesting features of the natural history of this most in-
teresting island. Perhaps I ought to have termed it the “Shores of Scinde Island,” for it is upon the shores rather than upon the hills that one finds by far the greater part of the wild life here. I say “wild” advisedly, for it is with the wild folk that I wish to deal, whether they be native—whose forbears have swum, crawled, or flown here since the land first rose as marshes from a shallow Pliocene sea—or the horde of familiar European types of wild life that have come in the track of civilisation.
Therefore, beginning with the highest forms, our first wild type is that familiar savage the common grey rat. I need scarcely tell you that rats are common in Napier. Long years ago, when the first traders came to Napier, the slimbuilt Kiore maori, the true native rat, held possession. Whether it was ever really common here I cannot say, but its bones have been found plentiful in the piles of shells, bones, and other matter that mark the old Maori camps, or “kitchen-middens” as they are sometimes called, which have been found on many parts of the Napier hills. Only the other day, as I roamed over the new sections of the late Mr. Colenso's property, I noticed that some one, in peeling off the sod to form a garden, had laid bare one of these shell-heaps. I could find no bone fragments of any sort, they having probably long ago rotted away to their original lime, but of shells there were a great abundance—of the cockles, pipis, pupus, pawas, &c., so common on our coasts. I suppose this relic of very old times will have to give place to an assemblage of foreign shrubs and alien weeds, unappreciated save perhaps as a means of paving a garden-path. With these traders came rats, whether our familiar grey Norwegian or the black Polynesian, or both, I am not sure. It is certain that for a time the black rat swarmed all over the country, driving out (we suppose) the brown Kiore maori, for even now in bush districts the black rat is common, though vanishing, with the clearing, before the fiercer Norwegian. We still have them in the small patches of bush that are found in the gullies of our poorer uplands some eighteen miles from Napier. They have a different gait to the grey rat; one that we caught in the open hopped more than ran, in the fashion of a kangaroo. I am afraid the only good point that I can bring forward for this grey Viking of ours is that he is a great devourer of snails.
In some of the ruder walls that prop our Napier gardens— those built just of ragged crags of limestone and uncemented —the crannies are used as cave-dwellings by the rats. In a Coote Road wall they are literally crammed with the broken shells of Helix aspersa, the garden snail, cracked and devoured by these rapacious rodents. The smaller, flatter, shining,
horn-coloured shell, Helix cellaria, that is also common in the gardens, is not appreciated by the rats for some reason; I have found them crawling about in safety in these same cave-dwellings. In the few remaining patches of scrub that mark the one-time bushed Sturm's Gully you will find the shelters strewn with broken shells in the same way; in this case the rats may be helped by the blackbirds and thrushes, though as a rule these birds prefer to kill in the open.
But when we come to the next class of our “island life” —the birds—we need no fierce immigrants to bridge the gap, as with the mammals. For, thanks to the sea in front and the weedy wastes and shallows of the swamp behind, Napier, in spite of its publicity, can boast of a longer list of native birds than many a more sequestered situation inland. The following list is, I am certain, by no means a full one, being made up by a non-resident, who knows little of the winged sea-folk to be seen by those who boat in the Inner Harbour, or, better still, the open waters of the bay.
List of Napier Birds.
Circus gouldi. (Harrier; kahu.)
Athene novæ-zealandiæ. (Morepork; ruru.)
Halcyon vagans. (Kingfisher; kotare.)
Prosthemadera novæ-zealandiæ. (Tui.)
Zosterops lateralis. (Blight-bird; tauhou.)
Gerygone flaviventris. (Grey-warbler; riroriro.)
Anthus novæ-zealandiæ. (Ground-lark; pihoihoi.)
Rhipidura flabellifera. (Fantail; piwakawaka.)
Platycercus novæ-zealandiæ. (Parrakeet.)
Nestor meridionalis. (Kaka.)
Eudynamis taitensis. (Long-tailed cuckoo.)
Chrysococcyx lucidus. (Shining cuckoo.)
Charadrius bicinctus. (Dottrel.)
Ardea pæciloptila. (Bittern.)
Limosa baueri. (Godwit; curlew.)
Himantopus leucocephalus. (Red Stilt.)
Himantopus novæ-zealandiæ. (Black Stilt.)
Ocydromus earli. (Weka.)
Rallus philippensis. (Striped rail.)
Porphyrio melanotus. (Swamp-hen; pukeko.)
Anas superciliosa. (Grey-duck; parera.)
Larus dominicanus. (Black-backed gull; karoro.)
Larus scopulinus. (Mackerel gull; tarapunga.)
Sterna caspia. (Caspian tern; taranui.)
Sterna frontalis. (Sea-swallow; tara.)
Dysporus serrator. (Gannet; takapu.)
Phalacrocorax novæ-hollandiæ. (Black shag.)
Phalacrocorax brevirostris. (White-throated shag.)
We all know the common hawk, or harrier. One may see one or more at almost any time of the day sailing in majestic spirals over the island or the swamp. Those who frequent the swamp for business or pleasure will have often noticed this bird, a motionless brown figure in the purple salt weed, or waddling awkwardly over it in search of crabs and other small game or the carrion on which he mostly feeds, for in spite of his size and formidable beak and talons he attacks nothing but the dying and defenceless; and, even in his aerial combats with his fellows, there is little of earnest onset and much peevish squealing and whirling of wings. I have watched him flee like a gawky brahma before a bantam at the whirlwind attack of his fierce little kinsman the sparrow-hawk. The latter I have never seen in Napier, though I have heard old residents speak of seeing him here in the early days.
Thanks to our dense plantations, we still have that quaint little owl the morepork on the island. Only a short time ago, as I passed the mouth of Coote Road, a round brown form winged noiselessly across opposite the drillshed, and settled in a small tree overhanging the first of the steep lanes that scramble up the sides of the gulch through which the road runs. I followed the bird up, and found a morepork blinking his yellow eyes in the failing light. Two small boys saw him at the same time. I caught a whisper of “Watch him while I get my shanghai,” and one of them hurried off up the steep track, so I waited awhile to give the wee owl timely warning of his return. But it was not needed. Before the youngster returned, breathless, “ruru” quietly slipped off again—moth-hunting I expect—down to the Parade and round out of sight into the darkness and quiet of the bluff-face.
The kingfisher, blight-bird, grey warbler, and ground-lark are all permanent residents here. The tui is only an occasional visitant.
Of the family of the Turdidæ, or thrushes, we have no native representative, but rather an excess of enterprising British members of the family—the black-bird and common thrush, to wit. Those of us who know the fascination of
an English hedge-row will remember finding occasionally flattened stones surrounded by piles of broken snail-shells. I found just such a thrushes’ killing-stone in the fennel jungle at the mouth of Sturm's Gully some months ago. It was a flattened slab of limestone, quarried at some time from the bluff-face—a grim relic of the Pliocene sea-floor put to the same use as the thrushes of the Plain of York put the worn boulders of the glacial drift.
Another well-known family, the Sturnidæ, or starlings, is wanting here in the native birds, save—as with the thrushes—in the less-known portions of our islands. It is a sturdy Britisher who, in his thousands, wheezes and whistles from bluff-face or telegraph-wire, intensifying the heat of our sunlit days.
The parrakeet, the kaka, and the long-tailed cuckoo are, like the tui, but occasional visitors, but the beautiful little shining cuckoo may be seen, or more often heard, yearly on the hill.
After these we come to those birds that frequent the marsh and the seaboard. The dotterel is common. The bittern, thanks to the pot-hunter, is fast becoming rare. I have only once seen one actually on the Scinde Island side of the swamp-channels. It is not till this bird rises in flight that one recognises him as a heron. His beautiful kinsman, the blue heron, has, I am afraid, disappeared from here. They were to be seen on the Napier beach of forty years ago, but have moved now to the quieter refuge of the Kidnappers and Mahia.
About the end of November flocks of a long-billed brown-plumaged wading-bird appear on the swamp—the godwit, or curlew as it is more commonly called. This bird is one of our few migrants, and takes a yearly course almost from pole to pole. I give an extract from Buller's “Birds of New Zealand”: “Our bird spends a portion of the year in Siberia, and visits, in the course of its annual migration, the islands of the Indian Archipelago, Polynesia, Australia, and New Zealand. Von Middendorff, who met with these birds in great numbers in Northern Siberia (74—75° N. latitude), states that they appeared there on the 3rd June, and left again in the beginning of August. In the months of September and April Swinhoe observed migratory flocks on the coast of Formosa, and during the winter months he met with this species still further south. Von Middendorff found it also in summer on the south coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, although it did not appear to breed there. It has likewise been observed in China, Japan, Java, Celebes, Timor, Norfolk Island, and the New Hebrides, and its range doubtless extends much further; but it has never been met with in India, this being
probably too far west of its annual course.” Sir Walter Buller says that the main body of these migrants leave the North Island about the beginning of April. I do not know how long stragglers have been known to stay here, but I saw a party of half a dozen of these birds wading off our Swamp Road on the third week of last May.
Both pied and black stilts may be seen occasionally working the sand-spits above the Petane Bridge.
I have put down the weka as an inhabitant of Scinde Island, but must admit that I have never seen his familiar brown figure on the Napier side of the swamp-channels. I have seen that small kinsman of his, the striped rail, cross the Swamp Road a very short distance from the town.
The last of the rail family, the swamp-hen or pukeko, occasionally crosses on to the island.
Coming to the order of Swimmers, the first of them is the grey-duck. If this bird were not “game” we should probably have the pleasure of seeing them flocking the channels with the familiarity of their kinsfolk the gulls and terns. But, as it is, it is only an occasional glimpse that we get of grey forms stealing up the cut or the sheltered channels in the raupo behind the town—shy, wary pairs that have escaped the persecution of “the season.”
The great black-backed gull may be seen almost anywhere round the shores of the island, whether winging along in the trough of the breakers of the open coast or wading solemnly up the swamp-channels. I was much puzzled at first by the brown plumage of the young birds—in fact, I thought it was another species till I watched a tame bird in a friend's garden change from sombre brown to the black monk's robe and spotless vestments of the mature bird.
The mackerel gull is that dainty, cheerful little slate-backed sea-bird that congregates in such numbers on the tilted crags of the breakwater's end.
The terns I have noticed more on the Inner Harbour and the sand-spits and shingle-banks that lie naked with every tide above the Petane Bridge. The big Caspian tern is a bird of much dignity, and somewhat shier than his lesser relative the common tern, or sea-swallow, who is a jeering noisy fellow, a “larrikin” of birds, whose quick harsh note fits his rapid dashing flight, so different from the stately sweep and solemn clangour of the great gulls.
The gannet, that regal relative of the shag, is only to be seen on the wing here, as a rule. Now and again I have watched one fishing well out to sea off the Marine Parade. I hear that one was picked up in a Napier garden some time ago in an exhausted condition after a gale; and I saw a bird, full sized but still in his speckled youth, waddling about,
draggled and dirty, with his great wings drooping useless, in a garden down Emerson Street. How he must have longed for a cleaving dive in clean salt-water, and a clear fly home to the fish-strewn ridge of the Kidnappers.
Of the cormorants, or shags, we have two species—the black and the white-throated. The black shag is by far the commonest; one may see him all round the island, whether stolidly watching the waves buffet the breakwater or gliding low in the water up the swamp-channels. The white-throated shag I have seen perched on the buoy of the outer anchorage, and occasionally on the deserted punts moored above the Petane Bridge.
Of our local fishes I know too little to venture on a list of them. But it is interesting to note the meeting of river-fish and sea-fish on common ground (or rather water) in the channels about here. Of course, we all know that even our river-fish wend seaward yearly to spawn, but one needs the sight of them down here to realise it. This I had the pleasure of doing a few days ago at the mouth of the New Cut. There under the silt-banks opposite the brickyards, I found a host of the minnows or inanga, so common in our upland streams, feeding amongst the tresses of a matted water-grass. And with them were larger, darker forms that stole away into the depths of the channel at my approach. They were “spotties,” those voracious little sea-fish so well known round the wharves and harbours of our coast.
After the fishes we come to the reptiles. Though of few species, we have this class well represented in numbers by the little brown lizards that swarm in the crannies of the limestone. Turning to the Maori middens again, in them have been found the bones of a great ancestor of these lizards—in fact, the last living representative of those early lizards the great Saurians. I allude to Sphenodon punctata, the tuatara of the Maoris. Though once abundant, it is now extinct on the mainland of New Zealand, being found only on a few of the outlying islets.
Of the Batrachians we have no native species on the island, but are well supplied with a beautiful immigrant—a Frenchman, I believe—the golden-eyed green-garbed frog of our marshes. I remember how delighted we were when the first hoarse notes of a pioneer pair rose from our Woolshed Swamp, some seventeen miles inland. Now, in their numbers, their prelude blends to a low roar, sustained the day long and far into the warm summer nights, making one understand the feelings that prompted the French seigneurs to send their peasants nightly to thrash the marshes.
The reptiles are the last and lowest of the vertebrates. Of the invertebrates, the highest members are the Tunicata
Tunicaries, or “sea-squirts” as they are termed, may often be found sticking to the rocks cast up by the tide on the Sturm's Gully beach. I have also dredged them up in the Inner Harbour, fast to the dead shells and fragments of the great Pinna neozelanica. In form they are a cone of a tough, leathery substance, pale-brown in colour; the cone is filled with sea-water, which they expel with considerable force when captured, thus earning their name of “sea-squirt.”
The next step downwards is to a family familiar to every one in the form of shells—the Mollusca. I will not attempt any detailed description of this great class. As in the case of the birds, our joint possession of fresh and salt water, dry land and swamp, gives us a splendid variety, from the waifs of the open sea that are whirled ashore with gales, and the hosts that creep and crawl between the limits of high and low tide, to the familiar brown-mantled pest of our gardens. Between beach and hill, salt tide and fresh-water stream, we can find, besides the types of settled, orderly habits, strange intermediates, sea-shells climbing so far shorewards that it is only a daily splash of spray that they need, land-shells turning again to their original water life till they can take air at one inhalation to last them for many hours’ submersion in the depths of the river-pools.
Below the Mollusca comes that great group the Arthropoda, consisting of the Insecta, the Myriapoda, the Onychophora, the Arachnida, and Crustacea. Of all these classes save one (the Onychophora) we can find abundant representatives in the small patch of untouched native ground that I have already referred to—Sturm's Gully. Beetles, flies, butterflies and moths, and other members of the insect class abound. Under dead twigs and leaf-mould are Myriapoda in plenty. These are mostly of the harmless “thousand-legged” species, whose only protection appears to be to curl themselves into a spiral and emit an evil-smelling fluid; but one occasionally gets one of the “hundred-legs,” or “Meggy-monny-legs,” who, with his well-armed, fierce appearance, has gained the reputation of being poisonous. Of course, “thousand-legs” and “hundred-legs” are both great exaggerations. I believe the Arabs come nearest to scientific correctness in calling them “arba-wal-arbarin,” which, translated, signifies “forty-four legs,” some of the tropical species having forty-two legs, and, counting the poison-claws, forty-four. The Persians call them “worm-rosaries.”
Spiders hurry away, carrying their precious silken bags of eggs. But a spider-like form amongst them, on being disturbed, shuts all his legs tight upon his body and shams death. If you examine this animal you will find that his abdomen is formed of a series of hard horny rings, like many
insects. He is a curious connecting-link between the spiders and insects, and, though harmless with us, the family is much dreaded from its poisonous bite in tropical countries. You may also find a harmless member of another notoriously poisonous branch of the spider family—the scorpions. It is a very tiny fellow, with a body scarcely ⅛in. in length; the same formidable nippers of the scorpion, but devoid of the lengthened stinging tail. It is fitly named a pseudo-scorpion—Obisium, sp.
Most of the Crustaceans are water-animals, only a few having adopted the dry land as a habitat; and then it is usually in damp shady places that we find them. I think of the land Crustaceans the best known to most of us is the common slater, or woodlouse. Now, you never find a wood-louse in dry open ground; it is always under some form of shelter—firewood, old sacks, dead leaves (or the living masses of our garden plants), always under something that gives dampness and coolness. In the Sturm's Gully mould you will find two species—one the familiar, dull, armoured imported slater, the other a smoother, shinier animal, a native species. Like the shells, one may follow the family out to the habitat of their primal ancestor, the sea. The slater-pauses under the stones at the gully's mouth, and goes no further seaward; but under the rocks that are splashed by the spray of high tide you will find a slimmer more active member of the slater family, with the shining armour of the native slater, but with long antennæ drooping backwards over its segments and a pair of tail-like appendages nearly the length of the body.
Lastly, in the pools left by the tide on the shores of the Inner Harbour, and working right up into the brackish water of the sea-creeks, is a pretty little yellow Crustacean, broader, shorter, and shallower than either of these others, whose hinder segments are furnished with lobes, with which it swims with considerable rapidity. It curls itself up into the same protecting roll as do its land representatives.
Of the crabs proper we have the countless hosts of little brown-green fellows that haunt the shallows of the harbour, besides numerous species on the open coast. About the handsomest of these last is a great purple-and-pink fellow that you may see occasionally as he vanishes with a rattle of arms into the rugged caves of the tide-touched limestone boulders of the Sturm's Gully beach.
It is a far cry from the vertebrate rat to the invertebrate crab that he devours, and from the crab to the primal life-form as a blob of jelly is farther still, so I will leave the lower forms for another paper by abler hands than mine.