Art. XXVIII.—Notes on the Birds of South-western Otago.
[Read before the Otago Institute, 7th October, 1913.]
From the 6th July, 1911, to the 11th May, 1912, I had the pleasure of conducting a weekly “Nature Column” in the Southland Times. During that time many interesting letters dealing with our native birds were sent in, and I have thought it advisable that where these contained new or little-known facts such should be placed on record. In addition, I have given a few observations of my own. To my many careful correspondents my best thanks are due, and I have also to express my indebtedness to the editor of the Southland Times for the opportunity afforded of getting into touch with other observers. The names used are those adopted by Hutton and Drummond in “The Animals of New Zealand.”
South Island Crow (Glaucopis cinerea).
Mr. E. Stocker writes, “In the wooded parts of the high country above Pegasus (Stewart Island) the native crow is still plentiful and very tame, that part of the country being pretty well left to the native fauna.” This interesting bird is also to be found in the bush-covered coastal ranges west of the Waiau River, and probably has a secure and permanent home throughout the suitable portions of the National Park.
Grey Warbler (Pseudogerygone igata).
The grey warbler is one of the most common of the smaller bush-birds. It does not seem to be in any danger of extinction, the smallest patch of bush almost always sheltering a pair or two. It also visits orchards, gardens, plantations, and hedges.
South Island Robin (Miro albifrons).
Up to eleven or twelve years ago robins were common enough in the bush round Invercargill. In September, 1901, I found a nest containing two newly hatched young birds. It was built in a sapling some 12 ft. or 14 ft. from the ground. The parent bird left the nest and fluttered anxiously round almost within arm's length. On being offered a small worm in the palm of the hand, she, after a little hesitation, seized and swallowed it. Since about that time the bird seems to have disappeared from the neighbourhood of Invercargill.
The robin still holds out in some parts of Southland. Mr. Jules H. Tapper writing on the 20th July, 1911, says that a few are still to be found in the bush near Clifden, though he says, “I am sorry to say that the robins hereabouts are the only specimens that I have met with on this side of the Waiau River. It is only a few months ago that I went from the bottom to the top of Lake Hauroko without seeing any traces of them, and six months ago
I was on the Preservation Inlet track, with similar results.” With regard to the latter localities, the writer, in March, 1911, travelled through the bush from the Waiau to the inlet and back and has also since then twice traversed the bush between the sea-coast and the southern end of Hauroko without seeing any signs of the robin. Messrs. Crosby Smith and Gibb, however, visiting the lake in 1910, found a few robins there, so that it appears that the bird disappeared from the environs of the lake at quite a recent date.
From other correspondents I learn that the robin is still to be found at Grove Bush, Caroline, The Longwoods, Spar Bush, Kapuka, and Stewart Island. In none of these places, however, is the bird common, and it is therefore pleasing to hear from Mr. R. Gibb that at Waikaia the species is still plentiful. Writing under date of 12th March, 1912, Mr. Gibb says, “Last Saturday I had a trip to the Waikaia Bush, and found the robin the commonest bird there. Altogether I must have seen twenty in the space of three or four hours. Their song, too, was to be heard in every gully. Unfortunately, this bush had been badly burned about three years ago. The robins were right out on the edge of the birch forest, and even came and perched on the stumps and fallen trees in the cleared glades.”
From Mr. Jules Tapper comes an observation that I think is new in the life-history of the robin. I quote from a letter of the 20th July, 1911:
“A short time ago I was witness of a rather unique and pretty spectacle enacted by a couple of robins. One of the birds—presumably the female—was perched on a rotten stump about a foot from the ground, whilst its mate, with wings extended, was executing a series of movements for all the world like certain figures in the skirt-dance.” As far as I am aware, the love-dance of the robin at pairing-time has never before been recorded. It is well known that the males of different birds indulge in certain fantastic posturings with the apparent object of gaining the good will of the hen birds. The argus pheasant and several of the same family, the North American grouse, the blackcock, various humming-birds, snipe, and ruff are cases in point. But these are all, or nearly all, instances in which the male bird is considerably more ornamented than the female. In the case of the robin there is little apparent difference between the sexes, and it is the more interesting to find that in so homely a bird courting posturings have been developed.
The explanation usually given to account for the disappearance of the robins is that stoats and weasels have been the agents of extermination. While it is undoubted that these vermin are the most bitter foes of many of our native birds, there are circumstances in the case of the robin which tend to modify such a conclusion. From Mr. A. W. Traill I learn that, though stoats and weasels have not yet made their appearance in Stewart Island, the robin is now only to be found far back in the bush, out of reach of settlement.
Mr. Gibb suggests that the main cause of the scarcity of the robin is to be sought in diseases introduced by imported birds.
So many instances of the interbreeding of R. flabellifera and R. fuliginosa have come under my notice that I am inclined to doubt the advisability of regarding the two forms as distinct species. In February, 1897, I came on a black fantail feeding its young. Two of the three young birds were black, and the remaining one pied. The other parent did not put in
an appearance. In November, 1910, a group of four young birds—three pied and one black—was observed. They were being fed by both old birds, one of which was pied and the other black. In the following February another family was found in the same locality, possibly a second brood of the former birds. In this instance also there were four young birds, but the varieties were equally divided. Only one parent was in attendance, and it was a black one. In December, 1911, another mixed brood was met with. Both parents were present, one black and the other pied, and of the young birds two out of the three were pied. During the summers of 1910–11 and 1911–12 I noticed three broods in which both old and young birds belonged to the pied form. At date of writing (6th August, 1913) a nest has been commenced by a black and pied pair, both birds taking part in its construction. In eight or nine days after leaving the nest the young birds begin to catch a few insects, and in the course of another week they are able to forage entirely for themselves.
Tawny Fern-bird (Sphenoeacus fulvus).
The fern-bird is becoming very rare in Southland, but is still to be found in some of the more extensive swamps.
Brown Creeper (Finschia novae-zealandiae).
The brown creeper is still common where there are fairly extensive tracts of bush, but near cultivated districts it is not so often seen as formerly. I have several times come across the old birds feeding their young early in February, so it is probable that they rear at least two broods in the year.
Bell-bird (Anthornis melanura).
The bell-bird is quite common in the neighbourhood of Invercargill; in fact, its numbers seem to be increasing. It can be found in almost every plantation, and in the season of fruit-tree blossom it visits gardens in the heart of the town.
On the 18th October a nest was found containing three newly hatched young ones. It was about 10ft. from the ground, and was well concealed under some dead hanging fronds of a tree-fern (Dicksonia fibrosa). The parents brought insects—chiefly Tipulidae, I think—every few minutes. If one parent was in the nest when the other approached, the latter gave a kind of low clucking call, which was at once answered, and was followed by the sitting bird leaving the nest. The female attacked me vigorously if I stood too near the nest, snapping her beak and buffeting me on the head and back. The male did not take much notice of my presence, nor did he give much help in feeding the young after the first few days. The hen bird is very careful to keep the nest clean, picking up and swallowing the smallest particle of excrement which falls within it, and pushing the nestlings from side to side in her search. When much alarmed she flies about near the nest with drooping wings, her fighting attitude, like that of many other birds. From this wing-drooping posture the tactics of feigned helplessness and broken wings have probably been evolved. I noticed no trace of the latter on the bell-bird's part; but her nest is quite hidden from view, so that such methods would have little value.
Though fed at first on a purely insect diet, the young birds soon learn to probe the fuchsia-flowers for honey, and they may often be observed
helping themselves to the nectar, while every now and then the parent appears with a supply of insects. Early in December the bush is full of young bell-birds learning to sing, their first efforts falling far short of perfection.
Rifleman (Acanthidositta chloris).
The rifleman is still plentiful in most Southland bushes. I have found the nest on several occasions, and it was always situated in the hollow of a tree, within a few feet of the ground, the entrance being so small that a finger could hardly be introduced.
Parrakeets are getting very scarce in the south. It has been suggested that the starling has interfered with their nesting habits by appropriating almost every hollow tree; but, though this may have been the case in those localities where the starling is plentiful, it does not account for the diminishing numbers of the parrakeet in extensive wooded districts where the starling does not occur.
I once found a nest of the yellow-fronted parrakeet (C. auriceps), containing five young birds, on the 22nd July.
Kakapo (Stringops habroptilus).
In the elevated country lying between Lake Hakapoua and the Kiwi Burn the kakapo is not uncommon. Near the coastal mining claims the bird is not now to be found, having been killed out by the miners' dogs.
Bush-hawk (Nesierax australis).
Mr. Jules Tapper furnishes some interesting notes on the hunting habits of the bush-or sparrow-hawk: “A short time ago I witnessed the killing of a skylark by a sparrow-hawk. The skylark took wing and began ascending in its usual manner, giving forth its glorious song. After it had reached a good height a sparrow-hawk came on the scene, and in circles also began ascending. When the lark noticed its enemy it stopped singing, but still continued its upward flight, with the sparrow-hawk in its wake. At last the skylark saw its chance, and took a sudden headlong dive, but the hawk, with a quicker movement, struck it, raising a small cloud of feathers, and, alighting in a patch of tussock, commenced its dinner.”
The sparrow-hawk displays a deal of cunning when on the hunt. I was on one occasion driving in a gig, and at a certain spot was surprised to notice a sparrow-hawk flying low close behind. This position it kept up for a hundred yards or so, when it shot forward and caught a sparrow, which with others had been feeding in the middle of the road, before it could reach the shelter of the gorse hedge which grew alongside.
Thirty years ago the weka was quite common in the neighbourhood of Invercargill, but now, as far as Southland is concerned, it is almost extinct. It is, I think, probable that sawmilling operations have had a large share in the extermination of the weka. The curiosity and pilfering habits of the bird led it to frequent the camps of the bushmen, and the bushman's dog found it an easy quarry. Poisoned grain laid for rabbits would also, no doubt, prove a deadly factor; but the weka had disappeared from some
districts before poisoned grain was introduced. The stoat and weasel, by robbing the nests and killing the young birds, probably aided only in a work of destruction already far advanced.
Mr. E. Stocker informs me that the weka is still fairly common in some parts of Stewart Island, but I am not sure whether O. earli or O. australis is referred to. From Mr. R. Gibb I learn that in 1889 he made a trip round Lake Hauroko without seeing or hearing a weka. In 1910 he again visited the locality and found the weka very common, in spite of the fact that stoats and weasels were then numerous. During the present year (1912), however, the weka, according to Mr. Jules Tapper, has again disappeared from the lake. These facts are interesting, and would appear to point to migratory habits on the part of the bird. Unfortunately, specimens were not secured, and it is uncertain whether the species may have been O. australis or the West Coast weka, O. brachypterus. The latter is quite common throughout the West Coast region, being particularly plentiful about Lake Hakapoua.
Pukeko (Porphyrio melanonatus).
Once, when walking along the bank of a small creek, I came suddenly on a pukeko. It had been making a meal of fresh-water mussels. One shell had evidently been wrenched open but a few moments before my arrival, fragments of the mollusc still adhering to it. About half a dozen closed shells were lying about, two or three of which showed marks of the bird's attempts to open them. Many empty shells were scattered around.
White Heron (Herodias timoriensis).
Though generally regarded as extinct in the south, I learn from Mr. E. Stocker that in 1910 two were known to frequent a certain locality in Stewart Island.
Blue Heron (Demiegretta sacra).
The sea-stacks and rocky islets on the coast of Fiordland are favourite haunts for the blue heron. Mr. John Gray informs me that this birds breeds on some of the inshore islets, usually in inaccessible places.
Banded Dotterel (Ochthodromus bicinctus).
It seems probable that this quaint little bird migrates from the south during the winter months. Mr. E. Stocker writes, “I may say that they pass over this town (Invercargill), as a rule at night, in the late autumn in large numbers. They seem invariably to select a break of still, drizzly weather for their flight, and for some years past I have heard their unmistakable ‘chip, chip,’ like the sound of two stones being sharply tapped together, passing overhead at no great height. I have also seen them on the foreshore of our estuary during the day at the same time of the year, usually in ones or twos, as though separated from the flock.” Early in August the dotterel is again present, and in some seasons it returns in mid-July.
Pied Stilt (Himantopus picatus).
Mr. Robert Gibb states that the pied stilt is not uncommon along the river-bed in the Waikaia Valley. It is also to be met with in fair numbers on the gravel beaches of the Mataura River, and Mr. Gibb thinks that the bird is certainly holding its own, if not becoming more numerous.
Southern Skua (Megalestris antarctica).
An interesting account of the predatory habits of the skua gull comes from Mr. A. W. Traill, of Stewart Island. He writes, “When passing along one of our ocean-beaches lately I heard the terrified screech of a kaka overhead, and found that the bird was being vigorously attacked by a skua gull, the kaka replying to its enemy's swoops by throwing itself on its back and presenting beak and claws, but making very poor fighting, though it succeeded in gaining the edge of the bush and darting into safety. It is not the first time I have noticed the same thing occur. Some years ago, when kakas happened to be very plentiful, and also very fat, a constant stream of these birds kept flying to and from one of our outlying islands, and quite a number of skuas had collected en route, and again and again I saw them strike at the unfortunate kakas, trying, apparently, to drive them into the sea. I never actually observed them succeed in doing this, but some fishermen, whose boats were lying near the island, assured me that they were often successful, and might be seen feeding on the bodies of their victims. I have seen the skua swoop down on a black-backed gull which had just obtained a choice prize in the fish line, and the gull would drop its catch and make off without any show of resistance. I do not think that the skua ever goes far inland, and, if so, this is fortunate, as on the Ruapuke Island headlands it has been found terribly destructive to young lambs.”
When rambling over some hilltops near Preservation Inlet last year, our party noticed many skeletons of small sea-birds—petrels and suchlike. We were puzzled to account for their presence there, but thought that they were possibly the remains of birds which had come inland to breed and had fallen victims to the harrier. Later, when we reported the matter to Mr. S. P. Seymour, the veteran naturalist of the inlet, he at once told us that it was the work of the skua gull, which pounced on these small seabirds and carried them inland to devour.
White-fronted Tern (Sterna frontalis).
This species is plentiful all round the coast, and at certain rocky points is to be seen in thousands. Mr. Jules Tapper writes of this bird, “They breed in large numbers on the gravelly reaches and islands in the Waiau River. I have seen their nests so plentiful that I have had to watch my footsteps in case I trampled upon them. About Christmas-time the parent terns are to be seen returning from the coast, each with a fish in its beak for its young. In February and March they migrate to the coast, and congregate in large numbers.”
Black-backed Guli (Larus dominicanus).
There seems to be no doubt that the common gull does considerable damage at certain seasons on sheep-farms. Mr. James Miller, writing from Clifden, says, “I have requently known gulls to destroy both sheep and lambs. I do not mean that, like the kea, gulls will attack sheep running at large, but at the time when sheep are in full wool they are liable to become ‘cast’—that is, they roll down an incline or lie with their backs in a slight hollow, and their bulky fleeces prevent them from rising. The gull starts opera ions on these helpless sheep by tearing out one or both of the eyes, scooping out the socket, and working its beak as far as possible into the brain-matter behind. In one or two cases I have found a cast sheep
with a gull hard at work, one eye being already out, and the sheep has recovered; but usually, if the sheep is found alive, it will be so weak from loss of blood that all one can do is to put it out of pain and save the skin. About three months ago, on a very rough morning, from my bedroom-window I saw a ewe trying to drive off two gulls from her lamb, which appeared to have been just dropped and to be too weakly to take to its. legs. When one gull would approach the lamb the ewe would try to butt the marauder and chase it away for a dozen yards or so, the gull avoiding the sheep with the greatest ease. As soon as the sheep's attention was taken up with one gull the other would make a dive for the lamb, so that when the poor mother turned from the pursuit of the first enemy it was only to find the second attempting to devour her lamb. The same manoeuvre was repeated, the first returning to the lamb while the ewe was driving off the second one. I hastily dressed, picked up my gun, and went to the rescue, but was too late to save the lamb, which I found to have one eye out and to be bleeding profusely. Here in Clifden I have never known a gull to attack a living rabbit, even in a trap, but in another part of Southland I have repeatedly seen them do so. This could be most readily seen after a wet stormy night, when the trappers do not trouble to go round their traps till the storm abates. Both gulls and hawks could then be seen fighting over and devouring the few unfortunate rabbits while they were still alive.”
Mr. W. Philpott, of Moa Flat, also bears witness against the gull. He writes, “Re seagulls attacking sheep, I have seen them mo e than once pecking at sheep's eyes In every case the sheep was unable to get on its legs, being ‘cast.’ I remember once seeing a gull pecking a sheep's head, and when the sheep struggled the gull would run back a little, but as soon as it was quiet it would come up again. One morning, about four years ago, when I went to look through the ewes I found that one had lambed and could not get up, and, it being a cold morning, the lamb was nearly perished. There were two or three gulls round it pecking at it, and before I got there they had pulled its tongue out and torn it off close to the root, so that I had to kill it. I have never seen gulls attack chickens or rabbits in t aps.”
In support of my correspondents, I am able to say that I once saw what looked like a predatory act on the part of a gull. Some gulls had gathered to a ploughed field, and a starling that approached was set upon and chased by one of the gulls. The small bird was evidently terrified, and was followed in all its twistings and turnings for some little time. A trustworthy observer told me that he once saw a gull pick up one of a brood of young turkeys, and, carrying it to a post, proceed to make a meal of it.
Mr. A. W. Traill, of Stewart Island, gives some interesting particulars of the gull's nesting habits: “Two seasons ago, in early spring, I spent a week or more busy in my boatshed. It was calm weather, and a pair of seagulls spent each day either sitting on a rock or swimming in the still water. For hours they would sit perfectly still side by side, occasionally conversing (I can use no other word) in a low muttering or warbling note. This love-song, which is seldom heard, is very interesting, and so unlike their usual harsh or wailing cry that it is difficult to realize that it is produced by the same bird. The black-backed seagull builds in the latter part of November, but on one occasion I found a gull sitting on eggs in February, so they may occasionally rear two broods. The parent birds are very solicitous over their young—any coasting harrier that appears in the
vicinity is speedily driven far afield; and, though the young soon leave the nest, both parents watch over them and feed them until they are as big as themselves—in fact, I believe the family keep together for nearly a full year.” Mr. Traill also states that a gull kept in a garden for the purpose of keeping down slugs turned its attention to a vegetable diet, and disposed of its owner's tomatoes as fast as they came to maturity. Though having kept sheep for years, he has never known the gull to do any damage. He has, however, caught the weka in the act of picking out the eyes of a living sheep. Probably the ordinary food of the gull is so plentiful on the island that the sheep is unmolested.
Though often rearing its young near the seashore, the black-backed gull sometimes nests far inland. Mr. F. S. Oliver states that he found several nests containing half-fledged young birds on a mountain-side near Macetown, Wakatipu, at an elevation of over 5,000 ft. above sea-level. Mr. A. Tapper gives an instance of a river location being chosen as a breeding-ground. He writes, “On the Waiau, both above and below Clifden, there used to be two large colonies, which I have frequently visited during the nesting season. The island at the mouth of the Lillburn was approximately two acres in extent, and would have from a hundred to a hundred and fifty nests on it. Two eggs would be the average number, often one, sometimes three, seldom four. Of course, the nests with only one may not have had their full complement. The nests were raised on a kind of mound consisting of sand and white tussock, and I noticed that some were double the height of the others. Now, the question is whether the higher mounds were older nests that had been added to year after year, and the others of a later date—perhaps younger birds. It looked to me as if the old birds, with a little renovation—top-dressing, as it were—used the same nests year after year, as there were practically no old unused nests, as far as I can remember.”
Chested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus).
This bird is still to be found on Lake Hauroko and other retired waters to the westward.
Little Grebe (Podiceps rufipectus).
Mr. Jules Tapper reports the little grebe as not uncommon on Lake Hauroko, and it probably frequents all the lakes and lagoons between Hauroko and the west coast.
Southern Kiwi (Apteryx australis).
Writing under date of the 17th September, 1911, Mr. E. Stocker says, “The big kiwi is still to be found there [the back country of Stewart Island] in plenty. A shy bird, and only coming out at night from its hiding-place in dark clumps of scrub or hollow trees, it is somewhat difficult of observation; but if one waits for a moonlight night and follows up the weird raspy note, usually to the edge of some stream or bog, there the bird may be seen driving his long bill into the soft ooze in search of insects which live below the surface, and which, with worms, form its diet.”