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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Gallinago Pusilla. — (Chatham-Island Snipe.)

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Gallinago Pusilla.
(Chatham-Island Snipe.)

  • Gallinago pusilla, Buller, Ibis, 1869, p. 41.

  • Gallinago aucklandica, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 196 (1873).

  • Ad. G. aucklandicæ similis, sed minor.

Adult. Upper surface dark rufous brown; variegated with irregular spots of fulvous and black, these markings being most conspicuous on the back and scapulars, the feathers on these parts being margined outwardly with pale fulvous, and marked with a large subterminal spot of black; underparts fulvous; on the sides of the head and breast numerous spots of rufous brown, of which colour there is also an irregular line from the base of the upper mandible to the anterior edge of the eyes; sides of the body and flanks variegated with crescentic marks of rufous brown. Bill greyish brown; feet pale brown. Total length 8 inches, extent of wings 13; wing, from flexure, 4; tail 1·5; bill, along the ridge 1·75, along the edge of lower mandible 1·5; tarsus ·75; middle toe and claw 1·2, hind toe and claw ·2.

Young. Darker on the upper surface, the fulvous margins being reduced to mere lines, with an inner border of black forming a distinct crescent; on the scapulars and larger wing-coverts there are three such crescents in succession, but these markings are only observable on the plumage being disturbed; there is less fulvous on the underparts, the sides of the body, abdomen, and under tail-coverts being marked with crescents of rufous brown, which are broadest and most distinct on the flanks.

Note. “Judging from the measurements of specimens recently obtained in the Chatham Islands (cf. Finsch, J. f. O. 1874, p. 197) I am inclined to regard G. pusilla as a smaller species than G. aucklandica, which from its constantly lesser dimensions may be well kept distinct.” (Sharpe in Voy. Ereb. & Terr. 1875, p. 30.)

In 1868 I received from Dr. (now Sir James) Hector a small Snipe obtained by Mr. Charles Traill during a visit to the Chatham Islands, the specimen being accompanied by the following memorandum:—“Found on a small rocky islet off Chatham Island.” A second specimen, in no way differing from the first, and procured from the same locality, was deposited by that gentleman in the Colonial Museum. On comparing these birds with Mr. G. R. Gray’s description of Gallinago aucklandica, I considered that the species was a distinct one, and characterized it accordingly (l. c.) as Gallinago pusilla, in allusion to its small size. The next record of its occurrence was from the Gulf of Hauraki, near Auckland; and Mr. Henry Travers subsequently brought further examples from the Chatham Islands.

Having brought with me to England one of Mr. Traill’s original specimens, for illustration in my former edition, I carefully compared it with a series of eight skins of Gallinago aucklandica in the British Museum brought from the Auckland Islands by the Antarctic expedition, and with another from the same locality in the possession of the late Mr. Gould, and I came to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the great difference in the length of the bill, they were referable to one and the same species—or, at any rate, that till further specimens had been obtained it would be unwise to separate them. I summarized the results of my examination thus:—

In his description of Gallinago aucklandica, Mr. Gray gives the following measurements:—“Length 9 inches, wing 4½, bill 2 inches and 4 lines.” In the type of my G. pusilla the dimensions are appreciably smaller in every way; and in the specimen which I brought to England for comparison they are as follows:—Length 8 inches; page 34 wing, from flexure, 4; bill along the ridge 1·7. Mr. Gould’s specimen has the same length of wing, but the bill measures 2·45 inches. Of the eight examples in the British Museum, one corresponds very nearly with the last mentioned, in four of them the bill measures 2·25, in two others it barely exceeds 2 inches, and in the remaining one it is only 1·8 inch; while in none of them does the wing vary, in any material degree, from the standard length of 4 inches. The slight individual differences of plumage are only of the kind we are accustomed to look for in members of this group.

In 1875 Baron von A. Hügel, in a letter to ‘The Ibis,’ giving an account of his collecting-tour in New Zealand, said:—“In Invercargill I was very fortunate in procuring good things. I got two specimens of a Gallinago there, which I thought interesting enough to send to you… . As you will see, the one is from the Snares (south of Stewart Isle); and after comparing it with specimens from the Chatham Isles in the Otago Museum, I have not the slightest doubt that the two are identical. But the Snipe from the Auckland Isles seems to me different in size and colouring… . . It struck me at the time that after all there might be differences between Gallinago aucklandica and G. pusilla, which I believe are at present considered synonymous.” A year later Mr. Sharpe, in the Supplement to the ‘Birds’ of the ‘Erebus and Terror’ (as quoted above), treated the species as distinct. It was not, however, till I received this year from Canon Tristram two specimens of Snipes, which he had obtained from New Zealand and the Auckland Islands respectively, that I felt disposed to rehabilitate my Gallinago pusilla. Before doing so, I took the precaution of submitting the two skins to Professor Newton, who returned them to me with the following note:—“The smaller one has, to my eyes, many if not all the characteristics of a young bird; but hereby I do not mean to declare it to be the young of the larger one. There is to be borne in mind the possibility of a species retaining the plumage of immaturity in its adult condition—in other words, of being permanently immature in this respect. But, on the whole, I am strongly inclined to think that this smaller specimen is the skin of a young bird, though I cannot persuade myself that it is the young of Gallinago aucklandica, supposing the larger specimen to be rightly named. I demur to what you say as to the bill of the smaller specimen not being that of a young bird, for I well remember being very much struck with the large size of the bill of a nearly full-grown Jack-Snipe (of which I made a careful drawing, that I now possess, in Lapland many years ago), and I have seen the same amount of development in the young of our Common Snipe. Thus you will see that my impression is that the two specimens belong to different species, but that one is young and the other adult. I much wish I could speak more positively on the matter, but in any case it would be useful to figure the smaller specimen.”

Mr. Sharpe, to whom I also submitted these specimens, pronounced unhesitatingly in favour of two species. On communicating the above results to Canon Tristram, he wrote to me:—

“I am much interested in your report of my South-Pacific Snipes. I am now sending you the young of Gallinago aucklandica for examination. You will see that it confirms our view of the distinctness of the two species, for it would expand into G. aucklandica but never into G. pusilla. Of the latter I have never seen the young.”

Mr. Cheeseman writes, under date June 2, 1884:—“I have a specimen of Gallinago pusilla in the Auckland Museum, obtained by Mr. T. B. Hill in the Raglan district many years ago; but I have never met with the bird myself.”

It appears to me that Gallinago pusilla is now fairly entitled to take rank as a good and valid species, and I have accordingly figured, on the same Plate as Limosa novæ zealandiæ, Canon Tristram’s specimen, although apparently in younger condition than my type, which has been sent back to New Zealand. It is only right, however, to mention that Mr. Seebohm, to whom Canon Tristram had previously shown his specimens, expressed (and I believe still holds to) the belief that both birds are referable to the same species, the differences presented by the smaller one being due to immaturity.