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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Hæmatopus Unicolor. — (Black Oyster-Catcher.)

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Hæmatopus Unicolor.
(Black Oyster-Catcher.)

  • Hæmatopus unicolor, Wagler, Isis, 1832, p. 1320.

  • Hæmatopus fuliginosus, Gould, B. of Austr. vi. pl. viii. (1848).

  • Hæmatopus niger oceanicus, Bonap. C. R. xliii. p. 420 (1856).

  • Hæmatopus niger australasianus, Bonap. C. R. xliii. p. 420 (1856).

  • Hæmatopus niger, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7469.

Native name.—Torea-pango.

Ad. ubique niger, remigibus et caudâ brunnescentibus, scapis primariorum ad basin albidia: rostro corallino, apice flavicanti-corneo: pedibus pallidè rubris: iride et regione oculari coccineis.

Adult male. The whole of the plumage glossy brownish black, with faint metallic reflections on the back and wings. Irides and bare eyelids crimson; bill coral-red, changing to yellowish horn-colour at the tips of both mandibles; tarsi and toes pale red. Length 19 inches; wing, from flexure, 10·5; tail 4·25; bill, along the ridge. 3·5, along the edge of lower mandible 3·6; tarsus 2·25; middle toe and claw 1·75.

Female. Similar to the male, but somewhat smaller and more strongly tinged with brown, especially on the under surface.

Young. Uniform dull brownish black, the feathers of the back and the wing-coverts narrowly margined with fulvous brown. Bill and feet dull red, the former brown in its outer portion.

Chick. Covered with down of a uniform blackish-brown colour; bill and feet dull brown.

Var. Mr. Robson informs me that he saw a perfect albino of this species at Portland Island, in the month of October. It came near enough for him to observe the red colour of its irides, but he was unfortunately without a gun at the time, and never saw it again.

Obs. Examples are not unfrequently met with exhibiting a white abdomen and a dull whitish bar on the wings, or with this alar bar wholly wanting. It is not unlikely that this is due to hybridism; for the two species are often seen associated. The following is a description of one of these parti-coloured birds in the Canterbury Museum:—Head, neck, fore part of breast, and all the upper surface black; an indistinct alar bar and the tips of some of the upper tail-coverts white; lower part of breast, sides of the body, flanks, abdomen, axillary plumes, and under tail-coverts largely varied with white.

This species, which also occurs in Australia, is far more abundant in the southern parts of New Zealand than the Pied Oyster-catcher, and not uncommon in the northern parts also. On the oceanbeach between Waikanae and Otaki, within a stretch of ten miles, I have counted as many as fifty in the course of a morning’s ride. Its habits are precisely the same as those of H. longirostris, with which it associates freely, frequenting the same feeding-grounds and often breeding in the same locality. It swims with facility and when wounded will elude pursuit by diving, often remaining under the surface a considerable time.

It has the same peculiar habit of courtship as that mentioned in my account of H. longirostris; page 19 and it is really amusing to watch the male bird waltzing round his spouse with his back arched and his long red bill pointing to the ground.

At Baker’s Hotel, Waipawa, I was interested in seeing a perfectly tame bird of this species, of which I made the following note:—It is a young bird, and has been in the possession of the landlord for about nine months, frequenting the open paddock, and consorting alternately with a tame Paradise Duck (apparently the favourite) and a flock of Domestic Geese. Sometimes it associates with a pair of Black Swan, but seems rather indifferent to their companionship. It can fly with facility, but hardly ever leaves the paddock except to enter the fowl-yard, where it appears to be on perfect terms with all the other occupants. Regularly every morning it comes to the gate and waits for the gardener to bring its meal of fresh meat, and having partaken of this it spends its time strutting about the grass, and hunting with its long bill for the worms and grubs upon which it subsists for the rest of the day.

The only cry I heard it utter was a call like ‘Phillipic’ in a high key.

It is not an uncommon occurrence to see this species paired with the Pied Oyster-catcher. I have described above what I take to be the hybrid result of such a union. Further observation only tends to confirm this view. I have seen a dimorphic pair followed by two young birds, both of them in the indeterminate black-and-white plumage, and I have more than once seen a black bird followed by a single young one in the same parti-coloured garb. On several occasions I have seen a similar hybrid, more or less pronounced, with a group of black ones. It would seem from this that, as in the case of our pied and black Rhipiduræ, which often breed together, the general tendency in the offspring is to follow the former of these types.

As the breeding-season approaches the little groups are no longer met with on the ocean-beaches, the birds having paired and gone off to their nesting-grounds on rocky islands or in the less frequented parts of the coast. This will account for their almost total disappearance from the well-travelled beaches between Wellington and Wanganui during the spring and early summer months.

The young usually quit the nest early in December, but I have found birds breeding on the Rurimu Rocks as late as the 17th January, the young at this time being fully fledged and following the old birds but unable to fly. On capturing one of the latter it uttered a feeble squeak, and the parents evinced their solicitude by flying in circles overhead with an excited cry of keria, keria*.

On their sanctuary being invaded the old birds feign lameness, or roll and tumble over on their backs in apparent agony in order to entice intruders away from their nesting-ground, whilst the downy chicks looking (as a friend expressed it) “like little boys in night-gowns,” make a bee-line for the sea, and on reaching it dive into the surf and swim out into deep water. If unable to reach the sea they take to the rock-pools and dive under the projecting ledges, hiding themselves in the crevices till all danger has passed.

An egg of this species in my son’s collection is ovoido-conical in shape, measuring 2·25 inches in length by 1·5 in breadth, and is greenish white thickly and irregularly spotted and smeared with inky black and dark brown, with washed-out markings of the usual kind interspersed. But there is a wide scope of variety in the tints and markings, these being, in a very perceptible manner, adapted to the surroundings: for example, on the Rurimu Rocks, the eggs that were deposited on the white sand were lighter in colour with very small markings on their surface; those found in nests placed among the drift seaweed above high-water mark, or among the rocks, were much darker and more or less blotched in the manner described.

* The Rev. W. Colenso, F.R.S., writes:—“The Maoris believe that this bird knows of an approaching storm, which he indicates by a difference in his note; crying keria, keria (dig, dig,—i. e. for shell-fish out of the sand, by the waves, as food for himself) before a storm, and tokia, tokia after one.”