Art. I.—On the Nesting Habits of Rhipidura flabellifera.
[Read before the Manawatu Philosophical Society, 19th March, 1908.]
The native fantails or fly-catchers are, by their abundance and airy and graceful evolutions on the wing when in pursuit of their tiny prey, perhaps the best-known birds at the present time in the New Zealand avifauna. By reason of there being few ornithological observers in the early days of settlement, and the rapid extinction of species proceeding meanwhile, the latter have nearly all vanished without science knowing anything—or, at least, very little—of their nesting habits, or of the respective periods of time occupied during their incubation. Although the late Sir Walter Buller has given a good general history, with very perfect delineations of each species, only in three cases has he referred to their approximate time periods of incubation. His great industry during his early life in compiling general and accurate histories of all species coming under his observation occupied his full time, and frequently prevented him from observing and noting their several and perfect habits and full periods of hatching. It may therefore be of interest to members of our Society to have complete and accurate notes on the nesting habits of the fantail, from the hour of lacing the first twig on to the forked site of the nest to that of the four young fledglings reared therein leaving it for the first time.
For many years two pairs of these charming little birds have built their nests in Mr. W. Park's garden at “The Wattles,” Palmerston North. On hearing of this a year ago, and being much interested, I requested Mr. Douglas Park to observe and make absolutely accurate notes of the brood or broods of young fantails. With kindly and commendable patience and perseverance Mr. Park, jun., daily closely observed and accurately noted all phases of life of the parent birds when engaged nesting.
On the 9th August, 1907, a pair began to construct a nest in the fork of a climbing rose trained on the outside of a summer-house in the shade of native trees. After working earnestly and many hours per day for four days the birds apparently became displeased with their work and discontinued operations. Inside the roof of the summer-house some stems, of clematis have grown down through the air-passages and formed a small compact network of growth. On one of these stems the fantails chose a site for
a new nest, and immediately began to demolish the unfinished structure, and use the same materials with which to rebuild it. “The work of constructing the second nest,” writes Mr. Park, jun., “was started on the 14th August, and was finished on the 31st. They laid four eggs—the first on the day they completed, the nest, and one on each morning following until the 4th. At 10 a.m. they commenced sitting—each parent taking turns on the nest until the young birds were hatched on the 21st. The young ones were full-fledged and flew away at about 10 a.m. on the 30th September.” The time-period of incubation of the New Zealand fly-catcher therefore occupies a full day less than that of any European species of the genus as recorded in the works of British ornithologists.
Whilst engaged dismantling the partially finished nest, and utilising the materials with which to build the new one in the dome of the summer-house, the birds would alight occasionally on the side of the nest, and, fixing their feet thereon, would use their full strength in drawing asunder with their beaks the tightly and closely woven materials. They displayed great activity at their work, meanwhile uttering notes of apparent instruction and approval to each other. The male performed most of the work of carrying the materials to the new site, while the female did most of the work in building the nest. When the young birds were hatched the parent birds continued to hunt vigorously on the wing for tiny insects with which to feed them. When not hunting on the wing for their own sustenance the parent birds—especially the male—frequently sat close to its mate hatching, and occasionally on the rim of the nest. The habit is practiced by many species of birds, but more especially by those of the group to which the fly-catchers belong. Mr. Park states that the weather, being very wet and boisterous while the nest was in course of building, retarded considerably the progress of their work at it.
On the 16th January last we observed a pair of fantails hunting assiduously and passing frequently into a “lacebark” tree (Hoheria populnea) growing on the Victoria Esplanade, Palmerston North. On looking up through the branches I located, the nest, which contained three young birds. They remained in the nest until about noon the following day, when they left it and fluttered along towards the extremity of the bough bearing the nest. The weather being hot and calm, they remained sitting near each other for nearly two days, and were well fed meantime by their active parents. On the 21st they separated, and were fed at times for several days after leaving the “lacebark” tree in which they were reared. It was indeed interesting to observe these young fantails flitting gracefully from bough to bough or from tree to tree, as if training and developing their wings, by which they were soon to become self - dependent. These birds are now expert fly-catchers, and belong to a group of about twenty individuals regularly inhabiting the Esplanade and its environs. Nearly all trees of Hoheria populnea and its varieties lanceolata and angustifolia, with Plagi-anthus betulinus, have been extremely floriferous on the Esplanade during the late-early and midsummer months. The great masses of scented white flowers they produce are a great attraction to all classes of insect. On calm days, when insects were plentiful at the flowers, the fantails were generally close to them on the wing, having a royal time subsisting on the numerous email insects, chiefly Diptera, passing to and from the flowers. After feeding for several minutes on the wing on the minute flies frequenting the blossoms, the birds would dart through the outer branches, and, resting for a few minutes within them in the shade, would again dart swiftly
out in pursuit of their prey as it hove in sight. These graceful little birds, possess remarkably quick and clear vision, while their minute and delicate beaks may occasionally be distinctly heard snapping at their prey as they flit near the observer.
When at Tirotiro-moana Valley, in Taranaki, on the 7th August, 1905, I observed a pair of fantails constructing a nest on a limb of tutu-shrub partly overhanging the road formed obliquely along the steep east, side of the valley. They were using mosses and lichens chiefly, and, as with the pair studied by Mr. Douglas Park, the male was carrying the materials, while the female wove them expertly and neatly into the nest. For about two minutes during the half-hour I watched them the male assisted in placing and fixing the materials it brought into the structure. They were working with great vivacity and vigour, meanwhile twittering freely to each other. The female seemed to work fretfully, but with perfect precision, and was a little fastidious in the selection of the materials brought by her mate wherewith to build the nest. They were working with great activity when I reluctantly left them.
When engaged preparing these notes I received an interesting letter from Mr. D. Sinclair, C.E., of Terrace End, Palmerston North, narrating a remarkable experience with a fantail's nest, which I have pleasure in reproducing here.
“While I was engineer for the Pohangina County Council,” writes Mr. Sinclair, “I was using a slasher cutting a line through the bush. In doing so I cut a small branch of a rather bushy tawhara, which often grows on the side of a tree-fern. The branch fell from the slasher upside down, when I noticed a fantail's nest, and, to my surprise, found that the bird was on, the nest, and, although it was upside down, the bird was clinging so tenaciously to the nest that it prevented the little eggs (four in number) from falling out. The little bird sat on the nest with its eyes closed, and seemed oblivious to the rough ordeal it was being subjected to. I lifted it partly off the nest to count the number of eggs, when it hustled-itself down again in the nest, saying in effect, if not in words, without sound or motion, ‘Do, what you will with me, I am going to stick to my nest.’ Maternity seemed for the moment to outweigh all sense of danger in the little fantail. I carried it a little distance in the bush from where the line was being cut. and inserted the branch in an upright position in the trunk of another ferntree, with the hope that the fearless little mother would be rewarded in due time with four little fantails.”
To Mr. Park, jun., is due the honour of first observing and ascertaining precisely the respective time-periods of nest-building, egg-laying, and hatching of the native fantail fly-catcher, which constitutes a valuable addition to our knowledge of the habits of the species. Though these birds are still fairly numerous, there is some probability of them becoming rarer as the native bush disappears. In parts of the South Island they adapt themselves to wholly altered conditions to those of the native bush during the winter months. On the approach of cold weather in the bush remaining in some of the valleys of the fore hills of other ranges in Canterbury the fantails migrate across the plains and live in the plantations and shubberies around the settlers' homes, until the nesting instinct returns with the warmth of spring, when they again repair to the bush to nest for the season.
The nest of the native fantail ranks amongst the neatest and best-finished of its class, and is an excellent model of bird-architecture. A closer examination of the methods of lacing together the soft mosses, lichens, tiny leaves,
and pappus with threadlike tendrils and roots, all collected in the bush, into a beautiful and compact structure, imparting great warmth, further enhances admiration of its instinctive work. The graceful habits and delightful twitterings when flitting through and on the outskirts of our perennially green forests in pursuit of minute prey are likewise some of the more pleasing scenes of native bird-life to be seen and enjoyed in this beautiful country. No words or language could adequately express the feelings of regret of the true naturalist and nature-lover to know that already, within the period of fifty years of settlement in New Zealand, some of the most remarkable species of birds man has seen or science known have vanished for ever from our green forests, grassy plains, and reedy swamps, which almost everywhere existed in their full native beauty when European settlement began.
It may be of interest to note some of the sites on which nests of the fantail have been observed in the North Island:—
On the matipo-tree (Myrsine Urvillei) in Mr. Park's garden, Palmerston North; September, 1905.
On a mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus) at Hawera; October, 1905.
On a tutu-shrub (Coriaria ruscifolia) at Tirotiro-moana, Taranaki: 7th August, 1905.
On a Magnolia grandiflora in Mr. Park's garden, Palmerston North; October, 1906.
On a young totara (Podocarpus totara) in Mr. Barton's garden, Fareham, Featherston; October, 1907.
On clematis inside roof of summer-house in Mr. Park's garden, Palmerston North; August and September, 1907.
On Hoheria populnea, Victoria Esplanade (an area of native bush); January, 1908.
On tawhara (Freycinctia Banksii), on trunk of fern-tree, Kimbolton bush; no month or year given. (Mr. D. Sinclair.)
On tutu (Coriaria ruscifolia), Pakekura Park, New Plymouth; October and November, 1906. (W. Pycroft.)
Having in view the rapid and inevitable passing of the native birds, it invariably seems to me to be the bounden duty of observers of the present time to place on permanent record all facts respecting them, for the information and delight of generations who are to follow us. To me there is no ornithological subject more urgent. The remark would also apply to many remarkable species belonging to other groups of the New Zealand fauna, and to many rare species of plants, now threatened with extinction.