Art. LVI.—New Zealand Bird-song.
[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 2nd November, 1910.]
The following additional notes and variations have been observed since publication of the 1908 Transactions.
On the 12th November, 1909, in company with Mr. T. D. Burnett, of the Mount Cook Run Station, I climbed Mount Burnett, 6,234 ft. in height. On the western slope of the peak, at a height of over 5,500 ft., we found a quantity of moa gizzard-stones. They were quartz, and lay in an earthfilled pocket of rock, near an amphitheatre or half-basin, a formation commonly found among the weathered tops of this range, the Liebig, which is composed in great part of clay slates and sandstone. Many large moabones have been found on the lower parts of the run, the homestead of which is 1,900 ft. above sea-level. On descending the eastern side we saw one kea just below the snow-line. Keas were formerly very numerous on this run, a tally kept for thirteen years showing an average loss of five hundred sheep a year through their attacks alone: the flock runs from five to six thousand. The consequence is, unrespited war against them has very considerably reduced the numbers of the kea. Mr. Burnett told me that it has a greater variety of calls than any other bird known to him. When worrying a sheep it emits a detestable chuckling sound; and he has lain through a night in an out-hut hearing this sound, exasperated at being unable to interrupt the feast he knew was going on above him. There was a high wind blowing when we saw this solitary kea, but, as the bird stayed close to us for a considerable time (thanks to the forbearance of my host), I was able to take the pitch of his characteristic cry.
No. (1) was the most frequent cry. It is most plaintive, as if the bird were the injured party. The cry differs at various times in several ways. Sometimes the slur is from a short note to a longer one, dropped a semitone, as (1); sometimes it is from a long note to a short one, without the semitone drop, as in (1a). This latter cry I heard several times over the moraine of the Tasman Glacier; and whereas (1) is plaintive, (1a) is more sinister. Again, the interval was often much less: it constantly varied, and was sometimes so slight that it sounded very like the mewing of a lost kitten. On the 18th November, 1910, we camped for a night at the terminal face of the Murchison Glacier, on the slopes of the Malte Brun Range, and before daylight on the 19th we heard several keas in the heights above. A most characteristic cry was as follows :—
The first note of (2) was long drawn out on the f, and slurred vigorously down through an octave. No. (2a) was most curious: the long d was
uttered with a rapid vibrato, as though it were bubbling through water, and slurred to f as in (2). In both instances the intervals between the long note and the short note varied, the pitch being anything apparently between a third and an octave above f. If the name of the kea be onomatopoetic, as seems almost certain, it should be spelt kia, not kea.
A bird regarded with quite different feelings is the paradise duck (Casarca variegata—putangitangi). This is very common on the Jollie and great Tasman River beds, and is never molested. It is a beautiful bird, and I never saw it but in pairs. The cries of the duck and drake are quite distinct.
Nos. (1) to (5) are cries of the duck. Her note varies exceedingly in pitch, sequence, combination, and duration. The notes are uttered both whilst at rest and on the wing. The sound is not a whistle, but is nearer a clear human cry, especially as regards No. (5). The drake's note is very different. It is represented in (6). The sound differs altogether from that of the duck—it can be very nearly reproduced with a piece of paper and a comb. There is an overtone of a third distinctly audible, and this overtone, very much softer and fainter than the deeper note, has a sound more allied to the cry of the duck. I did not hear this note of the drake's varied in 1909, but on the 16th and 17th November, 1910, in the same locality, it was varied as under :—
The quality of the note is as in (6), but the overtone is absent. It was repeated twice or oftener, both whilst the drake was at rest and on the wing. On the 21st November, 1910, I noted the following variations in the cry of the duck :—
She uttered the cry (9) whilst walking on the river-bed, changing to (10) on taking to the wing, and returning to (9) again whilst on the wing. Very often during flight the drake sounded his deep note whilst the duck cried the notes of (5), and one could not help imagining that she was then lamenting a lost brood or desolated home, whilst the old drake, with tears in his voice, was doing his utmost to comfort her. If, as is said, the native name “putangitangi” was given on account of the cry, then (5) is certainly the note whose plaintiveness touched the poetical nature of the dusky name-giver. Whilst on the Jollie River bed a duck suddenly appeared
before us, fluttering away on the shingle as if wounded and in the last extremity. “There's a nest somewhere,” said my companion, “and she is decoying us away from it.” We humoured her maternal instinct, and after preceding us for a dozen yards or so she rose in the air and flew off.
Whilst resting after breakfast on the lateral moraine of the Tasman Glacier at the southern end of the Murchison Valley, on the 19th November, 1910, we were much pleased by the actions of a paradise duck and drake. A clear, gentle stream flowed along the foot of the moraine at our feet, and the duck waded fearlessly backwards and forwards not more than 15 ft. from us. She approached nearer and nearer each traverse, until she was no more than 8 ft. away. As she moved she constantly emitted a quiet, pleasing sound, the quack (though the term is too hard) of the paradise. After a time she rejoined her mate on the gravel beyond the stream, where they both settled down to sleep in the morning sun. We were delighted with their tameness: it gave us excellent opportunity of noting and admiring the beauty of their plumage. This Murchison Valley was extremely quiet: it has never been entered by stock of any kind, and bird-life was also very scarce at the time of our visit. Besides half a dozen paradise ducks, we saw only two seagulls, and heard the keas above mentioned. At dawn of the 19th, too, away up at the Murchison terminal, we heard a blackbird in the Malte Brun scrub, and lower down two more blackbirds and a ubiquitous chaffinch—an extremely common bird.
I was at Stony Bay, near Okain's, Banks Peninsula, late in December of 1909, and a solitary pair of paradise ducks had nested and brooded in the valley—a most unusual occurrence.
The blue duck (Hymenolaemus malacorhynchus—whio) is now rare, even on the river-beds away in the mountains, where it was formerly extremely common. It is too good a table-bird to escape the common run of rabbiter and station hand. I saw none in 1909; but on the 15th November 1910, whilst riding down the Jollie, I made the acquaintance of a pair. They were floating down the rapid stream, bobbing about on the broken water, apparently entirely at the mercy of the current; but by some dexterous movement both shot sideways out of the swift water into a comparative still stream behind a big rock. Here they dived and probed with their beaks for a time, when one made a dash at the rock, mounted half-way to its top, but slipped back into the water. It made a detour, and soon both were seated on the rock, preening their feathers. I dismounted, hoping to obtain a nearer view, and the birds allowed me to approach to within a few yards. In colour they were slaty blue, almost the colour of the water; their breasts were bronze; their bills pale yellow, almost white. Their note was a highly pitched cry—hardly a whistle :—
One of them uttered the cry in (1) three times whilst they were in the still pool diving and probing. It is a rapid vibrato, not a trill, and the duck thrusts out its neck when uttering the cry. It was varied as in (2), the quality of the note being the same.
We saw two grey ducks, but they were silent.
A very common bird on the Tasman River bed is the dottrel (Octho-dromus obscurus-tuturiwatu). Its constant cry, which I did not hear varied in 1909, was a in alt, slurred to a flat :—
This is an agreeable whistle, repeated at intervals. In 1910 (November) its cry as it ran before me on the river-bed was constantly a repeated at intervals :—
On the 18th November, whilst riding from the Hermitage, we started a young dottrel from the tussock, and it would persist for a long distance running before the horses, stumbling occasionally, but keeping up an amazing speed for so small and young a bird. Eventually it took to the tussocks again.
On the 20th November, whilst riding along the river-bed track on the Tasman, three miles from Mount Cook homestead, we started (or should it be “flushed”?) a dottrel. It arose almost at our feet, and we suspected we had disturbed a hen on her nest; but, search as we would, we were unable to find it. Next day my companion passed along the same way, and again the bird rose. He waited at some distance, and had the pleasure of seeing her return to her nest. It was immediately beside the track, sheltered by a tussock; and, whilst artfully concealed, it was a wonder it had never been seen or trodden on, as the track is in almost daily use. The nest contained three dark-brown eggs, blotched with intensely dark brown, almost black, and they lay imbedded, not loose, in the nest. They were about the size of a starling's egg.
The graceful sea-marten, or sea-swallow (?), is fairly plentiful on the river-beds, though not so common as the dottrel. It is hailed in the back stations as the harbinger of spring. Its cry is usually a sharp whistle, as in (1) :—
I heard the cry No. (2) on the 25th November, 1910, when the bird was flying over the Fork River, on the Mackenzie Plains. It was repeated at intervals as the bird flew by. No. (3) I heard on the 15th November, on the Jollie River. There were four or five swallows wheeling round together, and, all coming close together on one occasion, they wheeled downwards whilst one uttered this quick gurgling cry, running down in chromatic sequence from d to g.
On the same day we saw two beautiful redbills (Haematopus unicolor—torea). Their cry is very simple, merely a sharply sounded f :—
The sound may be represented by the letters tsip, ending on the first part of the p (with lips closed). It was uttered both on the wing and at rest. One bird, which my companion, Mr. Burnett, said was a young one, had the same note, a semitone lower.
In the early morning of the same day, thirteen miles up the Jollie River, in Pinnacle Creek, we saw a native lark (Anthus novae-zealandiae-pihoihoi). A light snow was falling at the time, and the bird settled on a big rock close by, bobbing its tail up and down as he whistled an f, somewhat similar to the note of the redbill, but unlettered :—
On the lower course of the Jollie that morning Mr. Burnett pointed out, as we rode, that on each of five large rocks standing up at intervals along the river a seagull was standing sentinel. We crossed the Tasman on the 24th November, and had just crossed a fair stream in mid-channel when we noticed half a dozen black-billed gulls (Larus bulleri) wheeling above us, making great clamour. Besides the common cry shown in No. (1), one of the birds at least constantly and shrilly emitted the cry No. (2) :—
We presently saw the reason. Two young downy birds, scarcely able to run, for they constantly stumbled and fell on the sand, the river there being free from stones, were scurrying away from us towards the stream, into which they plunged. They were then in their element, for they swam perfectly, and had soon placed the stream between them and the supposed source of danger, when they stumbled up the sand on the other side. They were simply little balls of grey-brown down, and each could easily have been contained in a small teacup.
On the 18th November, 1909, I was on the west side of the Tasman River, in the bush on Bush Creek. Here I heard a single grey-warbler three times, and each time he sang the following variation of the usual warbler sequence :—
Here, in so far as the notes are in triplets, the scheme is similar to that of the variations (3) and (4) in the Transactions of 1908. The difference is
that a rest takes the place of the last two notes of every alternative triplet. Each of the three times I heard the variation it was as above. A month afterwards I heard a somewhat similar variation in the Stony Bay Bush, viz. :—
This was sung by itself, or as an introduction to the ordinary rambling indeterminate song: in the latter case, when the ordinary song commenced, it was on a, a drop of a third. Sometimes the town, song, varied to triplets (8), introduced the variation (7); or the latter was often sung as an independent fragment—
I had read in Buller's “Manual of the Birds of New Zealand” that “Layard compares the note of the grey-warbler to the creaking sound of a wheelbarrow.” I was never able to imagine which of the warbler notes induced this unmelodious simile. It was probably (7); but, whilst the pitch and slight occasional variation from g to f may coincide with the squeak of the wheelbarrow, there is absolutely no resemblance in the quality of the sound: the warbler's is sweet; the barrow's is shrill. The simile may also have been induced by No. (9), following :—
This song hovered about a flat, a semitone above or below, the phrases of three triplets being separated by a short rest.
For the second time I had the pleasure of seeing a warbler whilst actually singing. The first I saw sat still, devoting all its energy to its song; this one, on the contrary, moved briskly about in an apple-tree, prying under the still remaining autumn leaves, and whilst thus busily searching for its food it kept up the continuous minor melody. On the 28th March I noted a variation, as under :—
This is the ordinary town song, varied in the second and third notes. These are usually semiquavers, both of the same pitch as the opening note; here
they form a triplet, the middle note being a third below the others. Later in the season I noted the following :—
This, again, is the commoner song in triplets, varied by the omission of the third note of two of the triplets and the dropping of the third note of the third odd triplet, as above. The dropped note, f, in the above is usually softer than the others, so it may be that in cases where the notes appear to be omitted they may be only very subdued. I heard on the 27th March a call and reply which, from the pitch of the notes, their quality, and the appearance of the birds, I took to be warblers' :—
I saw the bird uttering the call, and heard the reply several times before the second bird appeared. They sat together on the same bough for a few seconds, and then flew off without giving further notes of identification.
I visited the Stony Bay bush again in December, 1910, and several times heard the warbler open its song with the fantail's tweet-a-tweet, or tweet-a-tweet, tweet, tweet-a-tweet-tweet. I again saw one whilst actually singing, and it behaved as described with variation (2) in 1908 Transactions. The song usually lasts about five seconds; I heard one that went on for eight, and one for twelve seconds.
I heard several parrakeets in the Stony Bay Bush this year—December, 1909, and January, 1910—but only one new note, a quick chuckling cry, uttered when the bird was at rest in a tree :—
Moreporks were also plentiful. One evening I heard two crying together. The sounds came from the same direction, but I could not say if the birds were together. The one emitted the ordinary cry of “More-pork,” a flat to g; the other repeated f :—
On the evening of Christmas Day, 1910, I heard the following calls :—
This (4) was a slurred cry, vibrato, and sounded like grreh (German r), followed by kou kou; (5) differed in the first cry. No. (6), following, was many times repeated, at intervals of about five seconds, the full cry of four notes being uttered in one second. There was a trace of vibrato, almost making the cry krou krou instead of kou kou. No. (7) varies the opening of (1) in pitch :—
Wekas were plentiful, their call varying considerably in pitch and interval. I noted the following differences in December, 1909 :—
The following, sounded when the bird appeared to be running off, may be a danger-cry :—
I this year heard the “drumming” sound emitted by the weka. It has been described as the sound made by knocking the head of an empty cask; it may also be described as the pizzicato of a double-bass violin. Sometimes, however, the note was sustained: on one occasion each note lasted for two seconds or more.
On the 2nd January I was particularly struck by the resemblance of some of the thrush's opening notes to the ordinary call of the weka. I had noticed this apparent imitation in the bays before, but not, so far as I can remember, about Christchurch. On several occasions I thought a weka called, but the call continued into a song, and I recognized my friend the thrush. I noted the following openings (all three were followed by full songs) :—
It will be noted that in one instance (c) the interval and pitch are exactly the same as the weka-call (5) above.
The bell-bird was either silent or there were very few in the bush this year: during a week I heard it only on one day, and then only four times. Neither was the tui so often heard. I noted that this year the gutturals were again kree kraw krurr, not tiu tiu aurr.
At the end of 1910, however, both tui and bell-bird were in exquisite song. This year the sweet explosive note (5) was d instead of f, and the bell-beat of (1) was g instead of b flat. The sound aurr aurr was constantly repeated, many times in succession. I was one bird singing the soft bubling song between the aurr sounds; its neck was outstretched, and the notes were soft, and highly pitched as a wren's. I was unable to distinguish any intervals—the notes glided one into the other; and there was little range—certainly not two tones. On the 25th December I heard two notes possessing a new quality :—
These notes bubbled like water running from a bottle, but they were melodious, and resonant, almost as a short string would be. On the 26th a tui kept up for several minutes an incessant trr trr trr, a dulled sound, somewhat like a cork being turned in the neck of a bottle. The sweet slur (2) was this year from g to f, and had a sound that may be represented by the letters tweeah. The following song was very common, all the variations being noted on the one day, the 26th December, 1910 :—
The usual song was as in No. (12), the concluding note being at times g and at times e. Often the concluding g was dropped an octave to the ordinary treble g; this was made quite evident when a high g followed the dropped note, as in No. (11). The last g had a sound like gug, but was very clear, open, and bell-like; it was separated from the preceding note by a pause twice as long as that note. Nos. (13) to (16) are simply variations of (12). It sounded curious to hear the krau breaking into the bell-like chime, as though the bird were clearing its throat (16). The effect was rather disagreeable; otherwise the chime is most beautiful. The usual song (12) occupied about a second and a half in utterance. On the 27th December the following was noted :—
These three notes were full and deep, like a muted harp. The following is a variation of the usual bell note :—
Here each note was followed by a very light note, just audible, two octaves higher. The bell notes were this year followed by kree kraw krurr, with the following occasional variations :—
Here the notes inserted give the relative duration of the sounds. The sweet bubbling song was again heard. I took down the following :—
A curious click often broke the song; or an explosive note, a sweet d, an octave lower than the bubble, would burst out, as though the bird were quite unable to suppress the full sweetness of its song altogether.
This year the vesper bell (7) was g d, g d, each pair being uttered in a second; the bell-like tone was perfect, most delightful to hear. I heard it on the 28th. And on that day, too, I saw two tuis in a totara, the one wooing or cajoling the other. The wooer sang the chime of (12) closely at the ear of his companion, following it with the high soft notes—
This was sung in a very subdued manner; and, as the silent bird retreated, the other, singing, followed it flutter by flutter over short distances. Its cajoling was unsuccessful, however, so far as my observation went, for the one so sweetly persecuted flew off.
The high-pitched song was also varied as follows :—
The break in the song, which was almost vooal, was occupied by a sound which could be very well represented by the words nut cracker.
I still found the notes of the bell-bird the most difficult of all to catch, chiefly because they are so quickly uttered that I lost the first note by the time the last was sounded, and also because the pitch varies so considerably. The following songs were repeated at intervals on the 25th De cember; it occupied little, if anything, over a second in utterance :—
No. (8)-was a very cheery song; and it is, like most of the notes of the bell bird, much nearer a whistle than the bell-like notes of the tui; indeed, so far as I have heard, it is the tui that should be called the bell-bird.
In this song (9), there may be a drop to the b as there is to the b of (7); I could not distinguish for certain. As may be seen by the vocalization, however, the b of the two songs has each a different quality, the latter being much richer: whilst (7) is a whistle, (9) has more of a mellow flute sound; and the prolonged final d has certainly the suggestion of a sweet bell.
On this day, the 25th December, 1910, I heard a duet between a tui and a bell-bird. They sat in the same tree, a totara. The tui would beat his four or five bell notes, when the bell-bird would at once start the phrase (9), the aurr aurr of the tui forming the undersong. Sometimes the bell-bird allowed the aurr aurr to go unaccompanied.
On the next day I heard a variation of No. (6) :—
This variation (10) occupied a second and a half, perhaps less, in utterance. No. (11) introduces a very high note.
On the 28th December I heard a variation of (5), the twilight call to rest. Two or more birds joined, the combined chorus making a great noise. The sound was somewhat like the rapid unwinding of a fishingreel. The variation runs as follows :—
After hearing this call I left the darkening depths and sat at the edge of the bush to hear the last sounds. On most evenings the thrush was
exceedingly voluble, and I often almost anathematized the song that otherwise I so like to hear: it was out of place in the native bush; the thrush was an interloper. On this evening all was quiet at 8 o'clock, but at 8.15 a tui broke into the following pretty melody :—
The first two notes were loud and slurred; the following part was the bubbling song, its final a flat being drawn out, softening away into silence. A tui answered with (14a), omitting the aurr aurr, and dwelling longer on the final d; another answered with kree kraw krurr, whilst from a fourth came the full song of (12). That was the last sound of bird-song: the fantail, said to be the last bird heard in the evening, had ceased long since. Moths had begun fluttering in the deepening twilight, and low in the grass beetles kept up a most audible underhum on f (bass), some flying high and occasionally striking the leaves of the trees with a loud tap. A few drops of rain were falling, but, few as they were, their beating on the thousands of leaves emitted a faint murmur as of wind; but the leaves were quite unruffled; there was no wind whatever. At 8.35 came the first cry of the ruru; and at 8.40 a weka prophesied rain, which came heavily before morning.
On the 27th December I noted a variation of the song of the yellow-breasted tit :—
and one on the 25th :—
On the last day of 1909 I heard a new call. The note was much louder and shriller than any I had heard before, and I at once set off in the direction of the call, so as, if possible, to catch a glimpse of the new-comer. I located it high in a totara, and heard the call several times before I actually saw the bird. I at once concluded it was a cuckoo, a conclusion confirmed by subsequent correspondence with Dr. Fulton, of Dunedin, to whom I sent a description of the bird and its call. The bird appeared dark grey, long and thin, with long pointed beak, and when on the wing it looked like, a flying cross with depressed arms. Once, as the bird left the high branches of a totara, its tail, which seemed about a foot long, was spread fanwise for a few moments. It was a long-tailed cuckoo (Urodynamis taitensis— koekoea). and my inability to distinguish its colour-marks was due to the
height it maintained when I saw it, and my own myopic eyes. The call was most distinctive :—
It opened on a sustained and swelled g sharp, which was deliberately slurred up to d, on which it abruptly ended, as represented in (1). I fancied I could hear an overtone of an octave in the g, but as the note impinges very shrilly on the ear, with a burring throb somewhat like that produced by two dissonant whistles simultaneously sounded, I conclude the overtone to be either not quite an octave or a little over the octave—a semi- or quarter-tone one way or the other. In ruder similitude, it sounds as though the bird has a very quickly vibrating pea in its whistle. Happening to snap a dry branch with a sounding crack, off flew the cuckoo, uttering the danger-cry shown in (2) above. These notes are simple whistles, sounded in quick legato—that is, the notes blend without being slurred. I saw the bird several times afterwards, but never very clearly. Once two birds sat high in a totara, when I heard the subdued conversational notes—
On the 3rd January, 1910, I heard the cry (1) from a clump of bush at the head of the Little Akaroa Valley, several miles distant in a direct line from the Stony Bay Valley, so that this year the cuckoo was not uncommon on the Peninsula, though I was told it was several years since one had been seen in the Stony Bay Bush.
The cuckoo was again present in December, 1910. I heard it only on two or three occasions, and on one of these the call was g slurred to b :—
I secured a pretty variation of the song of the supposed hedge-sparrow recorded in 1908 :—
I record it as it has been suggested that the bird may be a native—the brown creeper (Finschia novae-zelandiae—toitoi)—though I am doubtful.
Fantails and grey-warblers have been very plentiful in the eastern parts of Christchurch this season; wax-eyes not so plentiful. I have never before, in the bush or elsewhere, heard the fantail so full of song as during April
and half of each month before and after. Previously I had rather a poor opinion of the bird as a songster, though a high opinion of him as a cheery companion. I can thoroughly appreciate the choice of Maui, the Sun-god, when he induced the small birds of the forest to accompany him on his last and greatest adventure—the conflict with the Great Woman of Night, the Western Darkness. And it is said that it was the laughter of a cheery fantail that awoke the Woman of Night to a sense of her danger—alas for Maui! On the morning of the 6th April, 1910, I awoke at the day-spring, and a fantail was singing vigorously just outside my bedroom-window :—
The notes were still the constricted, almost vocal sounds previously described, excepting the high e, which was nearer a sweet, pleasant whistle. Easter thoughts and feelings permeated all things, and the fantail's song at once carried me back to the days when, as a boy, Good Friday morning meant tea and hot buns in bed before getting-up time. I can well remember lying dozing, waiting to hear in the street outside, “Hot-cross-buns—ting-a-ling, ting-ting, ting-a-ling.” This fantail's song was exactly like the cry and bell of the H.C.B. man. I listened to it with pleasure for some time: sometimes it opened with the common tweet-a-tweet-a-tweet, sometimes directly on g. I heard a much more frequent variation of this song many times during the autumn :—
Here the lower notes were all g, the first two followed by a quick slur up to c, resulting in a pleasing variation of the tweet. The high notes e were almost invariably much softer and of less volume than the lower g, f, e, or g.