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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.


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Podiceps Rufipectus.
(New-Zealand Dabchick.)

  • Podiceps (Poliocephalus) rufipectus, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 198 (1843).

  • Podiceps rufipectus, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 17, pl. 16 (1844).

Native names.

Weweia, Totokipio, Taihoropi (Hokianga), and Taratimoho (Waikato).

Ad. suprà nigricans vix viridi nitens, interscapulii plumis scapularibusque pallidè brunneo marginatis: pileo nuchâque sordidè chalybeo-nigris, facie et collo lateralibus brunneis, genis et pilei lateribus filamentis pilosis albidis ornatis: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus cinerascenti-brunneis, secundariis conspicuè ad basin albis: gulâ brunneâ: jugulo et pectore anteriore rufescenti-brunneis: corpore reliquo subtùs argentescenti-albo, plus minusve brunneo lavato, corporis lateribus brunneis: rostro cyanescenti-cinereo, culmine nigricante: pedibus pallidè olivascentibus, suprà flavicante lavatis, unguibus cyanescentibus iride argentescenti-canâ.

Adult male. Crown and upper sides of the head black, with numerous white hair-like filaments having the appearance of pencilled markings; hind neck and all the upper parts dark olivaceous brown, margined on the back with paler brown, and glossed with green; lower sides of head, throat, and fore neck dusky brown; the cheeks pencilled with white, but not so thickly as on the crown; upper part of breast dark rufous brown; underparts of the body silvery white, stained on the sides and flanks with dusky brown; soft downy plumage at the lower extremities dull sooty brown. Irides silvery grey; bill bluish grey, shading to black on the ridge; feet light olive, marked with yellow on their upper surface, olive-brown below, the claws pale blue. Total length 12 inches; extent of wings 19; wing, from flexure, 5; bill, along the ridge 1, along the edge of lower mandible 1·25; tarsus 1·5; longest toe and claw 2·1; hind toe and claw ·5.

Female. In the female the pencilled markings on the head are not quite so distinct, and the rufous colouring on the breast is somewhat paler; but in other respects the sexes are alike.

Young. The following is the description of a young Dabchick in a transitional condition—that is to say, after it has ceased to be a nestling, but before it is fully fledged. On close examination a beautiful development exhibits itself: the body is covered with real feathers; but they are largely fringed with fine down, for the purpose of imparting greater warmth, and the whole of the plumage is soft and silky to the touch. The head is handsomely marked, the crown being blackish brown varied with rufous; sides of the head and throat fulvous white traversed with marbled veins of dusky black; hind part of neck varied with dull rufous; upper surface and sides of the body dusky brown; breast pale buff; abdomen yellowish white; bill dark brown; feet olivaceous yellow, with grey margins.

First year’s plumage. Head black, variegated on the crown with bright ferruginous, and marked on the sides with two broad streaks of buffy white, one commencing above the eye and passing round to the occiput, the other extending from the angle of the mouth down the side of the neck; throat and neck yellowish buff streaked with black; upper parts and sides of the body dusky black, indistinctly mottled with fulvous; breast and abdomen buffy white. Bill dark brown, crossed in the middle and near the tip with dull black bars.

Progress towards maturity. The head becomes dark brown, the facial streaks described above gradually disappearing, page 281 but the lengthened plumes with the white pencilled markings still wanting, these being characteristic of the fully adult plumage; chin whitish grey; lower part of neck and crop dull rufous brown; the breast, sides, and flanks much suffused with brown, and the white of the underparts without any lustre; upper parts greyish brown without any gloss.

Varieties. The following is a description of an albino presented to the Canterbury Museum by Mr. Thomas Waters:—General plumage pure white, the sides of the head and throat shaded with brown; crown, nape, and hind neck streaked and spotted with black; fore neck and breast varied with pale rufous; shoulders, back, and scapulars with numerous scattered black feathers, giving the upper surface a pied appearance; wings dusky black, more or less varied with white; bill and feet of the normal colours. Another abnormally coloured specimen in the same collection has the whole of the underparts dark buff, deepening into dull chestnut-brown on the breast and fore neck; the crown of the head and nape black with steel-blue reflexions, and with abundant white hair-like plumes on the vertex and occipital region all round.

Remarks. In this species there is no true crest, but the plumage of the crown and upper sides of the head is very soft, and the shafts are produced into hair-like filaments, the whiteness of which renders them more conspicuous. In place of a tail there is a tuft of black silky feathers about an inch in length. The toes are armed with flattened claws, resembling the human finger-nail; and that of the middle toe has a pectinate edge. The tongue is large and fleshy, filling the cavity of the lower mandible; and the palate is armed with two convergent rows of papillæ directed backwards.

Every country appears to possess at least one species of Dabchick; and the group does not admit of very much variety. The form inhabiting New Zealand, although readily distinguishable as a species, is very similar to Podiceps nestor of Australia; and its habits of life are precisely the same. It is very abundant in all the freshwater lakes and lagoons of the South Island, and equally so in the southern portions of the North Island. Strange to say, however, although the physical conditions of the country are the same, till late years it was rarely or never met with in the far north; indeed the only instance that had come to my knowledge of its occurrence in the district north of Auckland before 1869 was that of a pair shot by Major Mair in the Hurupaki lake (Whangarei) as far back as 1852. One of these was sent to Europe; and the other is in my old type collection in the Colonial Museum. Its rarity in that part of the country may be inferred from the fact that the Ketenikau and other neighbouring natives had never seen or heard of the bird before. In 1869, however, Major Mair on visiting Rotokawau, a very pretty lake at the far north, between Te Awanui and Doubtless Bay, found the Dabchick comparatively plentiful there; of late years it appears to have become even more so. The following is another interesting fact in connection with its local range:—Mount Edgecumbe is a high volcanic cone on the banks of the Rangitaiki river some fifteen miles from the sea. At the bottom of the now extinct crater there is a small pool of water about thirty yards across. In this pool Captain G. Mair, in 1868, observed three of these Dabchicks disporting themselves. Some months after the same number was seen again in the same place by Dr. Nesbitt and Dr. Manley, and again by another party of visitors a considerable time afterwards. There are lagoons at the foot of the mountain frequented by these birds; but the singular fact is that those inhabiting the basin must have climbed up the cone, which is thickly covered on the outside with dense scrubby vegetation, and then into the crater, which contains a heavy forest-growth right down to the edge of the pool.

Like the other members of the group, it dives with amazing agility, and unless taken by surprise will effectually dodge the gun by disappearing under the surface at the first flash, and before the charge of shot has reached it. It is capable of remaining under water a considerable time; and when wounded, it hides by submerging the body and leaving only its bill and nostrils exposed. When hunting for its food, which consists of small mollusca, among the aquatic plants at the bottom of the page 282 lagoon, it usually remains under about 20 seconds, and then rises to the surface for an interval of 7 seconds, repeating these actions with the utmost regularity, as I have observed by timing them with my stop-watch. It flies with difficulty and only for a short distance, skimming the surface with a very laboured flapping of its little wings. On the water it usually swims low, and with a rapid jerking movement of the head. The form of its body and the laminated structure of its feet are admirably adapted to its subaqueous performances; and in clear water I have watched the bird gliding easily along the gravelly bottom, with the neck stretched forward and moved from side to side, and the wings partially open, the feet being used as a means of progression. It utters, at intervals, a peculiar sibilant note, from which it derives its native name of Weweia. Although generally found in pairs it is gregarious also, and I have counted as many as twenty consorting together on a small sheet of water at Manawatu. Its natural element is the water, which it seldom quits; but when resting, as it sometimes does, on a bank, at the water’s edge, it assumes a very upright position with the neck stretched up to its full length.

It is naturally a very curious or inquisitive bird, and if an object is kept moving within sight, or something is done to arrest attention, the Dabchicks, after swimming about for a time, will approach nearer and nearer, jerking the head forward in the manner already described as they advance. Sometimes they swim so low that the back is scarcely visible above the water; at other times the whole body seems to rise above the surface. They indulge, too, in a habit of standing bolt upright in the water and flapping their wings, apparently for the purpose of shaking the water out of them. Recently, three were shot in a deep freshwater lake not far from Hokianga Point; these had their stomachs crammed with a species of leech, about an inch in length and of a pale yellow colour.

Captain Mair states that this bird is very plentiful in the Hot Springs district, and especially in Kaiteriria and Rotorua lakes. On its habits he has furnished me with the following note:—“In 1869 I was riding along the shores of Tikitapu lake with H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, when our attention was arrested by a pair of Dabchicks with their young. We drew up and watched them for some time. Taking alarm at our approach, the female took her five young ones on her back and made several dives with them, coming up after each submersion at distances of ten yards or more. The young birds appeared to nestle under the feathers of the parent’s back, and to hold on with their bills. In this manner they continued to dive till they were entirely out of sight, and H.R.H. appeared to be much interested in this singular performance.”

The Dabchick is very properly included in the schedule to ‘The Wild Birds Protection Act,’ and the wanton killing of the bird is punishable by fine. Notwithstanding this, however, a few find their way into the market; and it was the sight of one of these birds hanging in a poulterer’s shop at Wellington that drew from the vigorous pen of Mr. Edward Wakefield, in the ‘Evening Press,’ a very pathetic appeal concluding thus:—“Anyone who deliberately slaughters a Dabchick, must surely be of that ruthless quality which would have achieved for him a distinguished position in the service of Herod the King. But to all sportsmen, and to all colonists, whether sportsmen or not, we would say, Spare the poor little, defenceless, inoffensive Dabchicks! Have the manliness to deny yourself a moment’s selfish excitement, for the sake of helping to prolong the existence of any of those few races of God’s dear creatures which we found in possession of New Zealand when first we intruded ourselves upon its solitudes.”

The nest of this species is a large and somewhat clumsy structure, formed of the roots and leaves of various aquatic plants, but always well concealed. The eggs of the Dabchick, usually two in number, are of a perfect elliptical form, and greenish white when first laid, with a granulate surface, and often presenting round warty excrescences. Examples vary slightly as to size; but an average specimen measures 1·7 inch in length by 1 in breadth. After long incubation the surface of the shell becomes smeared and stained to a yellowish-brown colour.

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Podiceps Cristatus.
(Great Crested Grebe.)

  • Colymbus cristatus, Linn. Syst. Nat. i. p. 222 (1766).

  • Colymbus urinator, Linn. Syst. Nat. i. p. 223 (1766).

  • Podiceps cristatus, Lath. Ind. Orn. ii. p. 780 (1790).

  • Colymbus cornutus, Pall. Zoogr. Rosso-Asiat. ii. p. 353 (1811).

  • Lophaithyia cristata, Kaup, Natürl. Syst. p. 72 (1829).

  • Podiceps mitratus, Brehm, Vög. Deutschl. p. 953 (1831).

  • Podiceps patagiatus, Brehm, Vög. Deutschl. p. 955 (1831).

  • Podiceps longirostris, Bonap, Faun. Ital., Ucc. p. 18 (1832–41).

  • Podiceps australis, Gould, P. Z. S. 1844, p. 135.

  • Podiceps hectori (var.), Buller, Essay on N.-Z. Orn. p. 19 (1865).

Native name.—Pateketeke.

Ad. suprà nigricans, remigibus brunnescentibus, minimis albis: pilei plumis utrinque elongatis, fascias duas erectas-formantibus: loris et lineâ superciliari augustâ cum facie laterali gulâque albis: regione oculari, collo laterali guttureque cristatis, ferrugineis, nigro marginatis: corpore subtùs argentescenti-albo, lateribus brunneis: rostro cinerascenti-brunneo, versus apicem pallidiore: pedibus olivascenti-nigris: iride coccineâ.

Adult male. Crown, hind neck, and general upper surface, as well as the sides of the body, blackish brown, slightly glossed with green; a streak in front of the eyes, the throat, sides of the head and lower part of fore neck fulvous white; underparts of the body silvery white, stained deeply on the sides of the breast and slightly in front with chestnut. The feathers of the nape are produced in soft filamentous plumes, forming two black occipital crests, nearly 2 inches in length; the corresponding plumage of the neck is developed in a similar manner, forming a thick ruff of a beautiful silky texture, bright chestnut in its anterior portion and then jet-black; on the neck below there is a wash of the same bright chestnut. The primary quills are greyish brown, with black shafts, the webs stained more or less and tipped with pale rufous; secondaries pure white, excepting the outermost ones, which are black on their exposed webs and are largely marked with rufous; bastard quills pure white; outer wing-coverts greyish brown; secondary coverts much produced and almost black; edges and lining of wings white, with rufous stains. Irides red; bill dark brown, yellowish along the lower edge and at the tip of the lower mandible; legs and feet olivaceous black tinged with green on the edges and near the joints; claws greenish black, with a pectinate edge of transparent horn-colour. Total length 22 inches; wing, from flexure, 7·5; bill, along the ridge 2·4, along the edge of lower mandible 3; tarsus 2·75; longest toe and claw 3·25.

Female. Similar to the male in plumage, and adorned in the same manner with ruff and crest, but having the breast more or less stained with pale rufous and brown.

Young. Crown of the head and nape black, with dull steel reflexions; the feathers of the forehead and those immediately over the eyes tipped with white; hind part of neck, back, and general upper surface blackish brown; throat, fore neck, breast, and underparts of the body silvery white. The occipital feathers on both sides are lengthened, forming an inconspicuous crest: there is no ruff; but the plumage of that portion of the neck is somewhat longer than on the surrounding parts, and is lightly washed with chestnut and marked on the sides with black: there is an absence of the chestnut colouring on the breast, which is pure white; page 284 but there is a tinge of rufous on the dark plumage of the sides immediately under the wings; the primaries are of a uniform blackish brown, with darker shafts; the secondaries, tertials, and a broad band on the anterior edge of the wings pure white; primary and secondary coverts blackish brown; lining of wings and axillary plumes pure white.

Younger state. No appearance whatever of crest or ruff, but the position of the future growth is indicated by a pale wash of rufous on the sides of the neck.

Obs. The above descriptions are taken from fine examples of this bird in the Colonial Museum; but it should be mentioned that individuals exhibit slight differences of plumage, especially in the amount of chestnut and rufous colouring. A fine adult male in my collection has the sides of the neck and shoulders, as well as the sides of the body and thighs, pale rufous, whilst the rest of the underparts are silky white.

Nestling. Covered with soft down; the head, neck, and upper parts generally, pale buff, with numerous longitudinal stripes of black, which are broadest on the back; the underparts yellowish white. Bill yellow, crossed at the base and in the middle with black, changing to white near the tips of both mandibles; legs and feet light olive-brown. (Obtained by Sir James Hector on Lake Whakatipu.)

A down-covered chick killed by Mr. Cheeseman (out of a brood of seven) on Rotoiti lake, South Island, in January 1881, is preserved in the Auckland Museum:—Upper parts buffy white with longitudinal stripes of brownish black running the whole length of the body; on the hind neck these stripes become darker, but narrower, and somewhat broken or irregular; on the sides of the crown they spread out into broad patches, meeting again acuminately at the base of the upper mandible, and enclosing a small triangular spot of bare skin; on the wings a narrow irregular stripe of black; throat, fore neck, and underparts white. Bill blackish brown, with a white horny tip; feet apparently greenish black, but faded in the dried specimen.

More advanced stage. Little or no occipital crest, but a perceptible ruff which is white clouded with chestnut-red; throat marked with interrupted streaks of brown. (From a specimen in my own collection.)

Progressive state. An immature bird in the Otago Museum has the occipital crests only about half an inch long; there is scarcely any ruff, and what there is of it is white with faint reddish blotches; and in the wings, which are open, the white on the secondaries is very distinct.

The species described above is no doubt identical with that inhabiting Australia, and named Podiceps australis by Mr. Gould. On a careful comparison of specimens, however, I can see no reason for separating it from the well-known Podiceps cristatus of Europe; and I therefore agree with Dr. Finsch in the adoption of that name.

The specimen on which I founded my original description of Podiceps hectori was in an imperfect condition, and the supposed absence of white on the secondaries proved afterwards to be merely accidental; but, as I have already pointed out in a published paper*, there appears to be a distinct race inhabiting some of the South-Island lakes, and distinguished by the dark colour of the underparts. Sir James Hector considers this a good species, and states that he found it on the Whakatipu lake, accompanied by young, and exhibiting the double crest and red ruff which characterize the fully adult bird; while in brackish lakes by the coast, where old and young birds, as well as eggs, were obtained, none but white-breasted ones were ever shot.

On a comparison of the two forms, I find that the Whakatipu bird (of which there are several examples) is rather larger than ordinary specimens of P. cristatus, has the upper parts perfectly black, and the fore neck and underparts greyish brown tinged with rufous; the lores, moreover, are black, the rufous white commencing at the angle of the mouth and passing under the eyes to the ear-coverts. It will, of course, be necessary to obtain a larger series of specimens, establishing the page 285 constancy of these characters, before the question can be set at rest; but if the dark-breasted bird should hereafter prove to be a distinct species, I must claim from naturalists its recognition as the true Podiceps hectori.

The Crested Grebe is, generally speaking, a rare bird in both Islands, but is more commonly met with in the southern portions of the Otago country than elsewhere. The late Mr. Wilmer informed me that during an expedition with Major Goring to Waikareiti, in the spring of 1879, he shot seven or eight of them on that lake, and he sent me the skin of one he had preserved. This is a curious fact in the distribution of this bird, seeing that Waikareiti is at a much higher elevation than Waikaremoana, where this Grebe has never yet been found. Like the Dabchick its local distribution is quite unaccountable. I have already mentioned (on p. 281) a singular instance in the case of the latter species. Hurupaki is one of those deep, wood-fringed lakelets which lend such a charm to the bush-scenery of the North Island. I have before me now a large photograph of this picturesque spot, displaying through a gap in the forest a placid sheet of water, hemmed in to the very edge by a growth of underwood in rank profusion and reflecting on its mirror-like surface the sylvan beauty that surrounds it—a view of transcendent beauty and not to be excelled by any lake-scenery of its kind in the world. In this sequestered place, surrounded by woods and far removed from any other sheet of water, a solitary pair of Dabchicks had taken up their abode; and, as with the fly in the piece of amber, the marvel was how they ever got there. In the case of strong-winged birds no surprise is occasioned by the occurrence of stragglers in places remote from their ordinary range; but it is quite impossible to account for the appearance in such a locality of this little Grebe, which is altogether incapable of any prolonged flight, and is, moreover, from the position of its legs, very helpless on land.

Unlike the Dabchick, which is more or less gregarious, the Crested Grebe seems to love seclusion, being generally met with singly or in pairs. It is a striking object on the water and swims with much grace; and when two of them are associated or feeding together they have a pretty habit of meeting each other after each dive, and “touching bills” as if in token of their mutual confidence.

Mr. Travers has so well described the habits of the Crested Grebe from personal observation, that I cannot do better than transcribe a portion of his paper, merely adding that, although I have had less favourable opportunities of studying the bird in its natural haunts, I can myself verify much of what he has written:—

“Podiceps cristatus is found at all seasons of the year upon Lake Guyon, a small lake in the Nelson Province, lying close under the Spencer mountain-range, and upon the borders of which the station buildings connected with a run occupied by me are situated. The water of this lake is generally very warm, and even in severe seasons has never been frozen over. To this fact I attribute the circumstance that some of these birds are to be found upon it throughout the year. There are several apparently permanent nests on the borders of the lake, which have been occupied by pairs of birds for many years in succession, from which I am led to infer that, as in the case of some of the Anatidæ, these birds pair for life. These nests are built amongst the twiggy branches of trees which have fallen from the banks of the lake, and now lie half floating in its waters, and are formed of irregularly laid masses of various species of pond-weeds, chiefly Potamogeton, found growing in the lake, and which the birds obtain by diving. They are but little raised above the surface of the water; for, in consequence of the position and structure of its feet, and the general form of its body, the Grebe is unable to raise itself upon the former unless the body be in great measure supported by water.

“Both the male and female Grebe assist in the labour of incubation, although I believe that the chief part of this task devolves upon the female, and that she is only relieved by her partner for the purpose of enabling her to feed. Before the actual work of incubation commences, the eggs are page 286 usually covered with pond-weed, during the absence of the birds from the nest, but afterwards the nest is seldom, if ever, left by both birds, except under unusual circumstances.

“The New-Zealand bird, as might be expected from its more recent contact with civilized man, is far less shy than the European one, and easily discriminates between persons who may be dangerous and those who are not. The children of my manager frequently visit the nests during the progress of incubation, and as they have never injured the nests or eggs, or interfered mischievously with the birds themselves, they are allowed to approach quite close without the latter thinking it necessary to quit the nest. When they do so, they glide into the water with a quick but stealthy motion, diving at once and rising at a considerable distance from the nest.

“The eggs do not appear to suffer from immersion in water, even for a considerable time; for, on one occasion three eggs which by some means had been thrown out of a nest, and had sunk below it to a depth of several feet, and which must have been immersed in the water for twenty-four hours at least, were replaced by one of the children, and the parent birds having sat upon them, two out of the three produced chicks … . .

“When the water of the lake is rising in consequence of heavy rain the birds are seen busily engaged in procuring material and building up the nest so as to raise the eggs above the reach of the flood. This added material is afterwards spread out after the water subsides; but on some rare occasions the rise of the lake has been so great and so rapid that, the birds having been unable to meet it, the eggs have become addled. In such case no chicks have been produced that season.

“The young birds are of a greyish colour, striped with black, and, particularly when of a small size, are not easily detected whilst floating on the water. They take to the water immediately after being excluded from the egg, and both parents exhibit the greatest solicitude in tending and feeding them. When fatigued they are carried on the backs of the old birds, taking their station immediately behind the insertion of the wings, for which purpose the parent bird immerses itself deeper in the water.

“Mr. Yarrell, in his description of the Crested Grebe of Europe, says:—‘The parent birds are very careful of their young, taking them down with them for security under their wings when they dive.’ This is certainly not the case with the New-Zealand birds, for I have frequently observed the parents, both when engaged undisturbed in feeding the young ones, and when pursued by a boat for the express purpose of noting their habits. In no instance did I see the young ones being taken down by the parent when diving. It dives itself with great ease, and travels a considerable distance under water. From its inconspicuous colour and small size it easily eludes observation, more particularly if there be the slightest ripple on the water; and this is quite sufficient protection for it. When engaged in feeding their young, each parent bird dives in succession, the young ones remaining on the surface, but with the body fully immersed, so as to leave nothing but the small head and neck visible. The habit of carrying the young on their backs and of diving in order to shake them off when the young birds exhibit a determined disinclination to leave their snug station, has probably led to the error referred to.”

According to my experience the eggs of this species are very elliptical in form, measuring 2·25 inches in length by 1·45 in breadth; a small example in my son’s collection from Rotoiti in the South Island measures 2 inches in length by 1·4 in breadth. They are usually three in number, but sometimes more. When first deposited in the nest they are of a greenish-white colour, with a chalky surface, but they rapidly become discoloured and smudged, owing probably to some staining quality in the materials composing the nest. I have seen one so deeply discoloured as to be of a uniform reddish-brown colour. Whatever the cause may be, they are always found thickly smeared and stained with yellowish brown, and often presenting a very dirty appearance.

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. 1869, vol. ii. p. 388.