A History of the Birds of New Zealand.
Himantopus Leucocephalus. — (White-Headed Stilt.)
Himantopus leucocephalus, Gould, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 26.
Himantopus albus, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7470.
Tutumata and Tuturipourewa; Torea (of Arawa tribe).
Ad. suprà niger, pileo undique, collo laterali et postico torquem collarem formante albis: dorso postico et uropygio albis: alis omninò nigris dorso concoloribus: caudà albà, cinerascente lavatâ, pennis duabus centralibus omninò cinerascentibus: corpore toto subtùs purè albo: rostro nigro: pedibus cruentatis: iride rubrâ.
Juv. suprà niger, brunneo tinctus: collo postico sordidè griseo-albo: tectricibus alarum et supracaudalibus albo terminatis.
Adult. Back of the neck, middle portion of back, scapulars, and entire upper surface of wings glossy greenish black; lining and under surface of wings sooty black; the rest of the plumage pure white, with the exception of the tail-feathers, which are more or less tinged with smoky grey. Irides and eyelids brick-red, bill black, sometimes horn-coloured at the tip; legs and feet deep pink flesh-colour, and sometimes beautiful pale lake-red; claws black. Length 14 inches; extent of wings 26·5; wing, from flexure, 9; tail 3; bill along the ridge 2·4, along the edge of lower mandible 2·6; bare tibia 2; tarsus 4·25; middle toe and claw 1·7.
Obs. Individuals vary considerably in size. A specimen in my collection from Hawke’s Bay gives the following measurements;—Length 15·75 inches; extent of wings 29·5; wing, from flexure, 10; tail 3·5; bill, along the ridge 2·75, along the edge of lower mandible 3; bare tibia 3·25; tarsus 4·5; middle toe and claw 1·75.
A fine specimen in the Colonial Museum has the head, fore neck, and all the underparts white; hind neck and upper parts generally satiny black; across the shoulders there is some indication of white, which disappears in the hinder part; nape and fore neck freckled with black, the margins of the dark colours being indeterminate.
Young of the first autumn. Crown of the head, nape, and hind neck dusky black mottled with white; shoulders spotted with black, darkening towards the back; upper part of back and scapulars brownish black; upper surface of wings glossy black; the median coverts, as well as the feathers of the back, narrowly tipped with brown; lower part of back and rump white; tail-feathers dull black, tipped with brown, their coverts (which are very fluffy) plumbeous at the base, white in their apical portion, and tipped with yellowish brown; lining of wings black; the rest of the plumage pure white; bill black, brownish towards the base; irides reddish yellow; legs pale yellow; the claws brown. Upper mandible 2 inches; tibia 1·75; tarsus 2·75.
Progress towards maturity. A more advanced bird in my collection has the crown, nape, and sides of the head sooty black mixed with white, which increases on the back and sides of the neck; the rest of the plumage as in the adult, except that there are white markings on the inner edges of the wings, the lining of which is blackish brown.
Younger condition. Crown of the head, middle portion of back, scapulars, and upper surface of wings and tail dull sooty black tinged with brown; nape greyish white, blending on the shoulders into the darker plumage; feathers composing the mantle, upper wing-coverts, and tail-coverts tipped more or less with greyish white; inner lining of wings and axillary plumes sooty black, tipped with white; the rest of the plumage pure white.page 22
Chick. Covered with short soft down of various shades of fulvous yellow, varied on the upper parts with brown, and with a series of square black spots down the back, and a broad streak of the same colour on each thigh. (See woodcut on next page.)
The White-headed Stilt, which appears to be also widely distributed over the continent of Australia, is a comparatively common bird in the middle and southern portions of New Zealand; but I know of only a single instance of its occurrence as far north as Auckland.
Notwithstanding the extraordinary length of its legs, this bird is most graceful in all its movements; and it is a pretty sight to watch a flock of them on the edges of a lagoon, stalking about in the shallow water in search of their food, which consists of aquatic insects and small mollusca, and displaying their well-balanced bodies in a variety of artistic and graceful attitudes. When on the wing, the legs are trailed behind, with a slight swaying motion as if to preserve the equilibrium; and the bird utters a sharp, quickly repeated note, like the yelping of a small cur.
When associating in flocks, I have noticed that they all act together as by a common impulse. On passing from one feeding-ground to another they form into a compact column and rise to a considerable height, with their heads drawn in and legs trailing behind, and descend again in the most perfect order.
On more than one occasion in the summer months I have observed large flocks of this Stilt-Plover, associating with the black species, in the salt-marsh near the town of Napier. They are to be seen every day from the carriage-windows as the train passes up and down the Meane spit, and the sight is a very pretty one. Two excellent representative specimens (an adult male and a fledgling, with the enlarged tarsi) were shot in this locality and sent to me by Mr. Hooper on the 17th December. Their stomachs contained grubs about an inch long and numerous small aquatic insects of various kinds.
Although they do not appear to leave the country, they perform some sort of migration, for by the end of April or beginning of May the large flocks which I have mentioned (numbering sometimes two hundred or more) have entirely disappeared from the Napier marshes. All through the winter, however, straggling parties of three or four, and towards spring birds in pairs, are to be met with in all their customary haunts.
In the south they are not so plentiful, but I have often met with autumnal gatherings of forty or fifty birds.
Mr. Gould has given an interesting account of this species in his ‘Birds of Australia,’ but states that he was unable to obtain any information respecting its nidification. We have been more fortunate in New Zealand, as the following account will testify.
I have found it nesting both on the dry sands or shingle-beds at the mouths of our tidal rivers and in the grass-meadows of our cultivated lands near the sea-shore. I have also met with it breeding in small companies, but each pair well apart, on the dry river-beds many miles from the sea *. They are somewhat capricious in their choice, frequenting certain river-beds to the exclusion of others in the same district, the preference being probably determined by the presence of some particular kind of food. They seem particularly partial to localities where the shallow water is covered by the small red duck-weed (Azola rubra). The proximity of the nest, however well concealed, is at once made manifest by the behaviour of the birds, who mount in the air and perform an undulatory flight in page 23 circles overhead, with a cry of distress, sounding like que-que, the sexes crying responsively and in different keys.
The young can run nimbly almost immediately after quitting the egg. They often elude capture by squatting close to the ground; and their colours so exactly harmonize with their surroundings that it is almost impossible to discover them. One which I found, after an hour’s diligent search, squatting on the sand near the edge of a sea-pond, remained perfectly motionless till I had taken it up in my hand, when it struggled to escape and uttered a feeble cheep, cheep, whereupon the old birds became excited, flew round me in circles, and repeatedly darted up to within two feet of my head, uttering all the time a sharp yelping cry of remonstrance.
I have observed that the Stilt sometimes feigns lameness to draw intruders away from the vicinity of its nest. I have seen one limping or rather tumbling along the ground, trailing its long legs as if helplessly broken, and uttering short cries as if in an agony of pain, persistently keeping up the deception till it had drawn the trespassers to a safe distance from the object of its solicitude, when it rose high in the air with an unmistakable note of relief in quick repetition.
It usually commences to breed in October; but I have found newly hatched young ones as late as the first week in January. It forms a very rude nest, if, indeed, it deserves that name; and sometimes deposits its eggs on the bare ground, a mere depression on the surface being selected for the purpose. The eggs are usually four in number, decidedly ovoido-conical in form, measuring 1·7 inch in length by 1·2 in breadth, and are of a warm yellowish brown, handsomely marked and spotted over the entire surface with brownish black.
* “In a nursery on the Upper Rangitata River, about ten yards distance from a thickly spread carpet of Gulls’ eggs, was a long hollow in the flat by the narrow beach. In this natural rent, that gave something of a ditch-like shelter, were six small grassy nests of the Pied Stilt (H. leucocephalus). Five of these nests contained (December 14) in each four richly marked eggs; the sixth contained five, an unusual number and worth recording.”—Zoologist.