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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ortygometra Tabuensis. — (Swamp-Rail.)

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Ortygometra Tabuensis.

  • Tabuan Rail, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 1, p. 235 (1785).

  • Rallus tabuensis, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 717 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Crex plumbea, Gray, in Griffith’s Anim. Kingd. iii. p. 410 (1829).

  • Gallinula immaculata, Swains. Classif. of B. ii. p. 358 (1837).

  • Rallus minutus, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 178 (1844).

  • Corethrura tabuensis, Gray, Gen. of B. iii. p. 595 (1846).

  • Zapornia spilonota, Peale, U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 244 (1848).

  • Porzana immaculata, Gould, B. Austr. vi. pl. 82 (1848).

  • Porzana tabuensis, Hartl. J. f. O. 1854, p. 169.

  • Zapornia umbrina, Cass. Pr. Phil. Acad. viii. p. 254 (1856).

  • Zapornia umbrata, Hartl. Wiegm. Arch. 1858, p. 29.

  • Rallus minor, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7470.

  • Porzana? tabuensis, Gould, Handb. B. of Austr. ii. p. 341 (1865).

  • Ortygometra tabuensis, Finsch & Hartl. Beitr. Faun. Centralpolyn. p. 167 (1867).

  • Zapornia tabuensis, Gray, Hand-1. of B. iii. p. 63 (1870).

Native names.—Pueto and Putoto.

Ad. suprà obscurè chocolatinus, alis dorso concoloribus, primariis nigricantibus, extùs dorsi colore lavatis: caudâ nigricante vix dorsi colore lavatâ pileo sordidè plumbescente, obscurè brunneo adumbrato, facie laterali paullò pallidiore: corpore subtùs sordidè cinereo, hypochondriis crissoque obsoletè, subcaudalibus latiùs et magis conspicuè albo transfasciatis: subalaribus cinerascenti-brunneis albo variis: rostro nigricanti-brunneo: pedibus pallidè rubris: iride saturatè rubrâ.

Adult. Head, neck, and all the under surface dark slate-grey, shaded on the crown with dull brown, and fading into light cinereous grey on the chin; the whole of the back and upper surface of wings chocolate-brown, becoming darker on the rump and upper tail-coverts; wing-feathers blackish brown, dusky grey on their under surface; the first primary narrowly margined on the outer web with greyish white; tail-feathers dull brownish black; inner lining of wings slaty brown, largely varied with white; axillary plumes and feathers covering the flanks tinged with brown, the former presenting obsolete bars and the latter minutely tipped with white; under tail-coverts dark brown, with numerous transverse bars of white. Irides and eyelids bright red; tarsi and toes paler red; bill uniform brownish black. Total length 7·25 inches; wing, from flexure, 3·3; tail 2; bill, along the ridge ·7, along the edge of lower mandible ·8; bare tibia ·4; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw 1·4; hind toe and claw 1·55.

Young. Plumage darker and with less brown on the upper parts. Irides, bill, and feet black.

Chick. Covered with black down of a silky texture and delicately glossed with green. Bill black, with a minute white spot near the tip of upper mandible; irides and legs black.

Obs. The sexes are precisely alike in plumage.

Variety. An example in the Otago Museum has the throat white, with slight indications also of white down the fore neck and breast.

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This elegant little Rail has a wide geographical distribution. According to Mr. Gould it is universally spread over the whole of Australia, Tasmania, and the islands in Bass’s Strait. It also occurs in the Society, Tonga, and Fiji groups, and probably over the whole extent of the Polynesian archipelago. It is sparingly dispersed with us over both Islands, frequenting wet and swampy localities, and especially the dense beds of raupo (Typha angustifolia), which afford it abundant shelter. Its compressed form enables it to thread its way among the close-growing reed-stems with wonderful celerity; and although its low purring note (resembling that of a brood hen) may sometimes be heard on every side, it is extremely difficult to obtain a glimpse of the bird. Its body weighs only two ounces; and its attenuated toes are well adapted for traversing the oozy marsh in search of its food, which consists of small fresh-water mollusks, insects, seeds of aquatic plants, and the tender blades of various grasses. It seldom takes wing, and then only for a very short distance; but it runs with rapidity, swims very gracefully, and often dives to escape its enemies.

Mr. Cheeseman writes to me:—“I had supposed that this bird had disappeared from the vicinity of Auckland, but only a few months ago (1881) Mr. Symons sent me a specimen shot in the mangrove-swamps of Shoal Bay, quite close to Devonport. He assures me that he frequently sees the bird there. I have received specimens from Raglan and the Waikato.”

It is still comparatively plentiful in a marshy spot near the mouth of the Ngaruhe creek, in the Hawke’s Bay district. After leaving the Petane village for the Maori settlement a few miles inland, the traveller passes over a sandy belt of some extent separating the ocean from a picturesque lagoon called Tangoio, deeply fringed and almost choked in some places with the luxuriant raupo vegetation. At the time of my last visit the weather was beautifully fine, there being not a breath of wind to ripple the surface of the lake, on the glassy face of which the fern-clad hills above, with their patches of native evergreen, were reflected as in a natural mirror. Amongst these raupo sedges the Swamp-Rail has its home, and may be heard, on every side, producing the peculiar purring note which denotes its presence, although the bird itself is so rarely visible. From this locality I have received some fine specimens through the courtesy of Mr. Hamilton, who resides in the neighbourhood.

Mr. Gould was never able to find the nest or eggs in Australia, nor have I been more successful in New Zealand; but on one occasion I was fortunate enough to secure a brood of four newly hatched chicks. The old birds took refuge in a bramble-bush; but on hearing the feeble cheep of their captured offspring they left cover, and, under a good running shot, I secured them both. The young birds, before they were caught, ran briskly, and, taking immediately to a ditch of water, endeavoured to elude further pursuit by diving.

For specimens of this bird I have been chiefly indebted to a good-natured household cat, who was accustomed to bring them in killed, but otherwise undamaged, and allow herself to be robbed of her prey. Surely this cat merits an apotheosis in the Colonial Museum!

An egg of the Swamp-Rail in the Canterbury Museum is broadly elliptical in form, measuring 1·3 by ·95 of an inch, and is of a uniform pale creamy brown, minutely and obscurely freckled over the entire surface with a darker tint. The shell is slightly glossed.