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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Sphenœacus Punctatus. — (Fern-Bird.)

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Sphenœacus Punctatus.

  • Synallaxis punctata, Quoy & Gaim. Voy. de l’Astrol. i. p. 255, t. 18. fig. 2 (1830).

  • Sphenœacus punctatus, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, p. 5 (1844).

  • Megalurus punctatus, Gray, Gen. of B. i. p. 169 (1848).

Native names.

1 Mata, Matata, Kotata, Nako, and Koroatito.

Ad. suprà ochrascenti-fulvus, dorsi plumis medialiter nigris, lineas latas longitudinales formantibus: pileo rufe-scente, fronte immaculatâ, vertice angustiùs nigro striolato: loris et regione oculari albidis: facie laterali albidâ, brunneo maculatâ, regione paroticâ brunnescente: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus et eodem modo medialiter nigris: remigibus rectricibusque nigricanti-brunneis, ochrascenti-fulvo limbatis, his acumi-natis, scapis versùs apicem nudis: subtùs albescens, hypochondriis et subcaudalibus ochrascenti-fulvis, latè nigro striolatis: gutture indistinctè, pectore superiore magis distinctè, brunneo punctatis et pectore laterali nigro lineato: rostro brunnescente, mandibulâ flavicante: pedibus flavidis: iride nigrâ.

Adult. Upper parts dark brown, each feather margined with fulvous, shading into rufous-brown on the forehead and crown; streak over the eyes white; throat, fore neck, breast, and abdomen fulvous-white, each feather with a central streak of black, giving to the underparts a spotted appearance; wing-feathers and their coverts blackish brown, edged with bright fulvous; tail-feathers dark brown, with black shafts. Irides black; bill and feet pale brown. Total length 6·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 2·25; tail 3·25; bill, along the ridge ·4, along the edge of lower mandible ·6; tarsus ·75; middle toe and claw ·7; hind toe and claw ·6.

Young. The young assume the adult plumage on quitting the nest.

Obs. The tail-feathers have the barbs disunited in their whole extent.

This recluse little species is one of our commonest birds, butis oftener heard than seen. It frequents the dense fern (Pteris aquilina) of the open country, and the beds of raupo (Typha angystifolia) and other tall vegetation that cover our swamps and low-lying flats. In these localities it may constantly be heard uttering, at regular intervals, its sharp melancholy call of two notes, u-tick, u-tick, and responsively when there are two or more. When the shades of evening are closing in, this call is emitted with greater frequency and energy, and in some dreary solitudes it is almost the only sound that breaks the oppressive stillness. In the Manawatu district, where there are continuous raupo-swamps, covering an area of 50, 000 acres or more, I have particularly remarked this; for, save the peevish cry of the Pukeko, occasionally heard, and the boom of the lonely Bittern, the only animate sound I could detect was the monotonous cry of this little bird calling to its fellows as it threaded its way among the tangled growth of reeds.

Large portions of the North Island consist of rolling land covered with stunted brown fern, this being the characteristic feature for twenty miles at a stretch, broken only by little patches of bush in the gullies. Intersecting these fern-ridges are narrow belts of wiwi-swamp, of a dark page 60 green colour from the character of the vegetation. These beds of rushes, which form blind watercourses during the winter season, are dry in summer and are then a favourite resort for the “Swamp-Sparrow,” as this bird is sometimes called. In these localities it may always be found, sometimes in pairs but usually singly, the habits of the species being solitary, except of course in the breeding-season. But other places also are frequented by it. As already mentioned, it inhabits the raupo-swamps; and in the tangled vegetation which fringes our low-lying rivers, under a thick screen of native bramble and convolvulus, its melancholy note may frequently be heard, particularly towards nightfall. But it is never met with in the forest, or at any great elevation from the sea.

During my last visit to the Hot Lakes district, I found it still plentiful in all suitable localities. There are marshy tracts occurring at intervals along the road from Taupo to Ohinemutu, and the familiar note of this little bird was the only relief to those quiet solitudes. The pairing-season had commenced, and it was most pleasant to hear the couples singing their simple duet, the notes being always in harmony and responsive. When excited or alarmed its cry becomes sharper, being not unlike the call “Philip, Philip!” with a short pause between.

Like the other members of the group to which it belongs, it is a lively creature, active in all its movements, and easily attracted by an imitation-of its note; but, when alarmed, shy and wary. Its tail, which is long and composed of ten graduated feathers, with disunited filaments, appears to subserve some useful purpose in the daily economy of the bird; for it is often found very much denuded or worn. When the bird is flying, the tail hangs downwards. Its wings are very feebly developed, and its powers of flight so weak that, in open land where the fern is stunted, it may easily be run down and caught with the hand; but in the swamps it threads its way through the dense reed-beds with wonderful celerity, and eludes the most careful pursuit. When surprised or hard pressed in its more exposed haunts, it takes wing, but never rises high, and, after a laboured flight of from fifteen to twenty yards in a direct line, drops under cover again. Its food consists of small insects and their larvæ and the minute seeds of various grasses and other plants.

Major Jackson, of Kihikihi, who is a keen sportsman, assures me that this bird has a very strong scent, so much so that when he has been out pheasant-shooting his pointer has “stood” to it quite as staunchly as if it had been a game bird.

This pretty little creature is not exempt from the common ills that “flesh is heir to.” A specimen brought to me on the 8th March presented a remarkable diseased swelling, larger than a pea, at the root of the beak. After carefully examining it, I turned the little sufferer free, leaving Dame Nature, in this case as in others, to work out her own cure.

It is a matter of extreme difficulty to study the breeding-habits of species that resort to the dense vegetation of the swamps. Even a systematic search for the nests, in such localities, is of very little use, and the collector must trust to the chapter of accidents for opportunities of examining them. Although so common a bird, I have only once succeeded in finding the nest. This discovery was made many years ago, on the edge of a raupo-swamp, near the old Mission Station on the Wairoa river. The nest was a small cup-shaped structure, composed of bents and dry grass-leaves, not very compact, but with a smooth and carefully lined interior. It was attached to reed-stems standing together, and contained four young birds, which showed remarkable nimbleness, darting out of the nest and disappearing in the long grass on the first moment of my approach. I have, however, heard of others, containing sometimes four eggs, sometimes three. The eggs are ovoido-conical in form, measuring ·8 of an inch in length by ·6 in breadth, and are creamy white, thickly speckled over the entire surface with purplish brown.

Mr. Potts describes the nest as being composed of grass-leaves, with generally a few feathers of the Swamp-hen, and sometimes a small tuft of wool. The breeding-season appears to embrace the months of October and November; for on November 4 he found a nest containing three young birds, and three days later, but in another locality, a nest with four eggs in it.