Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

A History of the Birds of New Zealand.


page break


Clitonyx Albicapilla*,
(The White-Head.)

  • Fringilla albicilla, Less. Voy. Coq. i. p. 662 (1826).

  • Parus senilis, Dubus, Bull. Acad. Roy. Brux. vi. pt. 1, p. 297 (1839).

  • Certhiparus senilis, Lafr. Rev. Zool. v. p. 69 (1842).

  • Certhiparus albicillus, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, p. 6 (1844).

  • Certhiparus cincrea, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7465.

  • Mohoua? albicilla, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 220.

  • Orthonyx albicilla, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 253.

  • Orthonyx albicilla, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 101 (1873).

  • Certhiparus albicillus, Gadow, Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. viii. p. 75 (1883).

Native names.

Popotea, Poupoutea, Popokotea, and Upokotea.

Ad. pileo undique et pectore superiore albis: dorso toto brunneo, supracaudalibus pallidioribus: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus: remigibus saturatè brunneis, extùs dorsi colore lavatis, primariis paullò pallidiùs limbatis: pogonio interno flavicanti-albo marginato: caudâ flavicanti-brunneâ: pectore medio fulvescenti-albo: corporis lateribus brunneis, dorso concoloribus: subalaribus albis, brunneo lavatis: rostro nigro: tarso et pedibus plumbescenti-nigris, plantis pallidioribus, unguibus brunneis: iride nigrâ.

Juv. vix ab adultis distinguendus, sed coloribus dilutioribus et pileo brunneo lavato.

Adult male. Head and neck all round, breast, inner face of the wings, and middle of the abdomen white, slightly tinged with brown; sides of the body and flanks pale vinous brown; the whole of the back, rump, and upper surface of wings vinous brown, paler on the upper wing-coverts; quills blackish brown, the primaries narrowly margined on their outer webs with grey, and more broadly on their inner webs with yellowish white; tail-feathers and their coverts pale yellowish brown on their upper aspect, sometimes tinged with rufous, the shafts darker; paler on the under surface, with white shafts. Irides black; bill and rictal bristles black; tarsi and toes bluish black, with paler soles and brown claws. Total length 6·5 inches; extent of wings, 8·4; wing, from flexure, 2·9; tail 2·75; bill, along the ridge ·4, along the edge of lower mandible ·5; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw 8; hind toe and claw 6.

Female. Similar to the male but somewhat smaller. Total length 6 inches; extent of wings 7·75; wing, from flexure, 2·6; tarsus 9; middle toe and claw 6.

Qbs. In the male bird the palate and soft parts of the mouth are black, and in the female flesh-coloured.

Young. Upper parts pale vinous brown, whitish on the head; throat and underparts greyish white, shading into brown on the sides; wings tinged with yellow on their inner edges.

page 54

My account of this species in the former edition of this work commenced thus:—“This interesting little bird is distributed all over the North Island, but is replaced in the South by a representative species, the Orthonyx ochrocephala or Yellow-head. It frequents all wooded localities, but seems to prefer the outskirts of the forest and the low bush fringing the banks of rivers and streams. It is gregarious in its nature; and the report of a gun, the cry of a Hawk, or any other exciting cause will instantly bring a flock of them together, producing a perfect din with their loud chirping notes. It is a curious or inquisitive bird, following the intruder as he passes through the bush, and watching all his movements in a very intelligent manner. If he remains stationary for a few moments, it will peer at him through the leaves with evident curiosity, and will hop gradually downwards from twig to twig, stretching out its neck and calling to its fellows in a loud chirp, and approaching the object of this scrutiny till almost within reach of his hand.”

But alas! what of the Popokotea in this year of grace 1887? In the interesting account which Mr. Reischek has furnished me of a collecting tour he made through almost every part of the island lying to the north of Hawke’s Bay, he says:—“I found one pair of Orthonyx albicilla on Castle Hill, Coromandel, one pair in the Pirongia ranges, Waikato, and one pair in the Tuhua ranges, near Mokau; that was all.” So this is the rapid fate of the pretty, noisy, little White-head, once the commonest bird in all our northern forests!

Even five years ago it was quite plentiful on Te Iwituaroa, at the north-east extremity of the Kuranui-whaiti range in the Waikato district; but now it has disappeared entirely. It is still numerous on the island of Kapiti in Cook’s Strait, and on the Little Barrier; but, strange to say, it no longer exists on the Great Barrier, Kawau, the Hen and Chickens, or indeed, so far as I am aware, on any of the other islands in the Hauraki Gulf. The only localities on the mainland in which I have met with it of late are the wooded hill-tops in the Upper Wairarapa district, and a clump of bush near the Owhaoko station in the Patea country, at a considerable elevation above the sea. It has a simple but very melodious song, some bars of it reminding one of the musical notes of English birds. Its loud chirp is not unlike that of the House-Sparrow, but sharper.

Its food consists of insects and minute seeds. It is very active in all its movements, flitting about among the leafy branches and often ascending to the lofty tree-tops; clinging by the feet head downwards, and assuming every variety of attitude as it prosecutes its diligent search for the small insects on which it principally subsists. I have frequently observed it inserting its beak into the flower of the Metrosideros, either for the purpose of extracting honey, or, as is more likely, to prey on the insects that are attracted by it. I have also known them occasionally caught on the tuke baited with these flowers to allure the Tui and Korimako, which are genuine honey-eaters.

I have found scores of nests of this species, and have made frequent but ineffectual attempts to rear the young in a cage. The nest is usually fixed in the fork of a low shrubby tree, frequently that of the Ramarama (Myrtus bullata), and is always so placed as to be well concealed from observation. It is a round, compact, and well-constructed nest, being composed of soft materials, such as moss, dry leaves, spiders ‘nests, shreds of native flax, and sometimes wool, all firmly knit together. The cavity is deep and well rounded, the walls being formed of dry bents and vegetable fibres, and thickly lined with soft feathers. The lip or outer edge of the nest is carefully bound in with these fibres, sometimes mixed with spiders’ webs, and often presenting a high degree of finish. The eggs are usually three in number, but sometimes four; they are of proportionate size, measuring ·8 of an inch in length by ·6 in breadth, rather rounded in form, and with a shell of very delicate texture. They are creamy white, minutely speckled or marbled over the entire surface with reddish brown, the markings being denser towards the thick end, where they sometimes form an irregular zone. During incubation the hen bird sits closely, and leaves the nest with reluctance, almost permitting herself to be touched by the hand before quitting it.

page 55

I have before me now a beautiful nest of this species, which was taken on the Little Barrier in December, and contained three young birds. It is almost spherical, except at the top, which is flattened, measuring in its largest part 4 inches by 3; and its structure is very close and compact, all the materials composing it being well felted together; the cup or cavity is rather deep and rounded with an overhanging lip, the edges being very closely bound and interlaced; and the opening measures just two inches in diameter. The nest is composed of many coloured mosses and lichens, dry leaves, grasses, vegetable fibres, and here and there a feather closely interwoven with the web; and the interior is lined with fine grass-bents and a few feathers.

For the rapid disappearance of our indigenous birds it is hard to assign any special cause. The introduced rat is undoubtedly an important factor in the business by preying on the eggs and young of such species as habitually nest in places accessible to them; but we can hardly account in this way for the almost total disappearance of the pert little White-head, once the commonest denizen of our woods. The introduced bee gets a share of the blame in the case of honey-eating and treehole nesting birds, like the Korimako and Stitch-bird on the one hand, and the Kaka and Parrakeet on the other; but with even less probability than the Norwegian rat can this agent be credited with the destruction of the White-head. The disappearance of the Quail we are accustomed to attribute to the introduction of sheep and the prevalence of tussock fires; the diminution of the Wild Duck to the extensive draining-operations of the farmer; and the thinning of the Wood-Pigeon to the wholesale slaughter of these birds by both Europeans and natives, and in some districts without cessation all the year through. But we find it extremely difficult to discover any sufficient reason for the wonderfully rapid extinction of the White-head, or Popokatea, in most parts of the island. No doubt it is due to a variety of causes, operating with more or less force, all round, and thus furnishing another illustration of what appears to be an almost universal natural law—that indigenous forms of animal and vegetable life sooner or later succumb to, and are displaced by, more vigorous types from without. As the Maori is being rapidly supplanted by his Anglo-Saxon neighbour, as the rat has exterminated and replaced the Kiore maori, as the native fern and other herbaceous vegetation disappears in all directions before the spreading grass and clover of the colonist, so in like manner the native birds, or at any rate many of the well-known species, are giving place to the ever-increasing numbers of Sparrows, Linnets, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers, Starlings, and other introduced birds that are now to be met with in every part of the country.

On the other hand, how are we to account for the almost total disappearance of the introduced Pheasant from the Waikato and other districts, where a few short years ago they were excessively abundant, proving almost a plague to the farmers and Maori cultivators? Some ascribe it to the Hawks, but these were always as numerous as they are now; some to poisoned wheat laid for rabbits, but the Pheasant has disappeared from districts where there are no rabbits, and consequently no poisoned wheat. Others believe that the native Woodhen is responsible for the change; but the habit of feasting on Pheasants’ eggs, whenever it gets the chance, is by no means a newly acquired one with this bird. Doubtless there are agencies at work of which at present we have no knowledge. The fact nevertheless remains, and is quite as inexplicable as in the case of some of our indigenous birds.

For my own part, I deplore very much this displacement of the natural Avifauna, which appears to be almost inevitable, because many interesting types will disappear for ever. Efforts are being made to save some of them by means of island reserves, but I fear the task is a hopeless one. All therefore that remains to us now is to record their history as fully and minutely as possible for the benefit of science. This I shall endeavour to accomplish in the present work, describing faithfully their habits of life, and omitting nothing that may seem likely to prove of interest or value to the student of the future.

* Acting on Professor Newton’s suggestion, I have substituted albicapilla for albicilla; for the bird is white-headed and not white-tailed, and I cannot believe that Lesson ever intended to apply the latter name to it. Although it has hitherto been the practice to use it, I think Im justified in rectifying what was obviously a lapsus calami.

page break

Clitonyx Ochrocephala.
(The Yellow-Head.)

  • Yellow-headed Flycatcher, Lath. Gen. Syn. ii. p. 342 (1783).

  • Muscicapa ochrocephala, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 944 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Certhia heteroclites, Quoy & Gaim. Voy. Astrol. i. pl. 17. fig. 1 (1830).

  • Mohoua hua, Less. Compl. Buff. ix. p. 139 (1837).

  • Orthonyx icterocephalus, Lafr. Rev. Zool. 1839, p. 257.

  • Orthonyx heteroclitus, Lafr. Mag. de Zool. 1839, pl. 8.

  • Mohoua ochrocephala, Gray, List of Gen. of B. p. 25 (1841).

  • Muscicapa chloris, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 87 (1844).

  • Orthonyx ochrocephala, Gray & Mitch. Gen. of B. i. p. 151, pl. 46 (1847).

  • Orthonyx ochrocephala, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 103 (1873).

  • Certhiparus ochrocephalus, Gadow, Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. vol. viii. p. 76 (1883).

Native names.

The same as those applied to the preceding species: “Canary” of the colonists.

Ad. pileo undique et corpore subtùs lætè citrinis, nuchâ vix olivascente, abdomine imo cum cruribus crissoque cineraceis: dorso toto olivascenti-brunneo, flavido lavato, uropygio conspicuè lætiore flavo: tectricibus alarum et supracaudalibus olivaceo-flavis, illarum majoribus saturatioribus, potiùs olivaceo-viridibus: remigibus brunneis, extùs dorsi colore lavatis, primariis cano limbatis, pogonii interni margine lætè flavicante: caudâ olivaceo-flavâ, subcaudalibus et subalaribus olivaceo-flavis, his albido lavatis: rostro nigro: pedibus nigris, unguibus saturatè brunneis: iride nigrâ.

♀ mari similis, sed coloribus obscurioribus.

Juv. similis adulto, sed pileo et nuchâ olivascente lavatis.

Adult male. Head and breast, sides of the body, and upper part of the abdomen bright canary-yellow; shoulders, back, and upper surface of wings yellowish brown, with an olivaceous tinge; upper surface of tail and the outer margins of the secondary quills dark olivaceous yellow; the colours are blended where they meet, the nape being more or less mottled with yellowish brown; lower part of abdomen greyish white; thighs and flanks pale brown; upper and lower tail-coverts yellow; the whole of the plumage dark plumbeous at the base. Irides black; bill and feet black; claws dark brown. Total length 6·75 inches; extent of wings 9·5; wing, from flexure, 3·25; tail 2·75; bill, along the ridge ·5, along the edge of lower mandible ·7; tarsus]; middle toe and claw ·87; hind toe and claw ·75.

Female. Similar to the male, but with the tints of the plumage generally duller.

Young. The young bird differs from the adult in having the yellow plumage tinged with olivaceous, especially on the crown and nape, where the latter colour predominates; rictal membrane yellow.

Obs. The shafts of the tail-feathers are often found denuded at the tips. During the breeding-season the testes are enormously developed, attaining to the size of small marbles.

page 57

This bright-coloured bird is the southern representative of Clitonyx albicapilla. Its range is confined to the South Island, where it is quite as common as the preceding species formerly was in the North. A narrow neck of sea completely divides their natural habitat-a very curious and suggestive fact, inasmuch as this rule applies equally to several other representative species treated of in the present work.

The habits of this bird are precisely similar to those of its northern ally; but it is superior to the latter in size and in the richer colour of its plumage, while its notes are louder and its song more varied and musical. A flock of these Canary-like birds alarmed or excited, flitting about among the branches with much chirping clamour, and exhibiting the bright tints of their plumage, has a very pretty effect in the woods. Even under ordinary conditions it is very pleasing to watch their movements. Hopping from twig to twig, and calling to each other almost continuously in a short clear note, they pass quickly through the branches, moving the body deftly, first to one side then to the other, as they pry into every crevice for the insect food on which they live; then, after remaining stationary a few seconds, they utter a louder and more plaintive note and fly a few yards further to repeat these movements; and so on, all through the day, with never tiring persistence. Sometimes they may be seen hunting among the mosses and lichens that grow on the bark of old forest trees, on which occasions they will ascend the trunks in company, clinging to the hanging vines or any other projecting point, as they make their rapid search, and finally consorting together in the topmost branches. Their black eyes, in a setting of yellow plumage, have a pretty effect, and nothing seems to escape their close scrutiny. They love to move about in the thick foliage, indicating their presence when not chirping by an audible rustling of the green leaves.

The discharge of a collector’s gun, the snapping of a stick under foot, or the cry of a wounded bird, will sometimes bring a flock of forty or fifty of these bright-coloured creatures into the branches overhead, where they move restlessly about, peering down and chirping with noisy din, as if in eager consultation.

In all the specimens opened by me the stomach contained comminuted insect remains, chiefly those of minute coleoptera, and larvae of various kinds.

A life-size drawing of this species, by Mitchell, appeared long ago in the ‘Genera of Birds;’ but the attitude is unnatural, the bird being placed on the ground instead of a tree. The attitude in which Mr. Keulemans has depicted the bird is a highly characteristic one.

On comparing the nest of this species with that of Clitonyx albicapilla, it appears to exhibit more care and finish in its general construction, although composed of the same materials. It is a round and compactly built structure, composed chiefly of mosses, felted together with spiders’ webs, and having the cup lined with fine grasses. In the specimen under examination there are a few feathers of the Tui and Parrakeet intermixed with the other materials. Mr. Potts has “sometimes found it placed in the hollow trunk of a broad-leaf.” His son found a nest containing two young birds. It was built of moss, grass, and sheep’s wool, with a few feathers intermixed, and was placed in a cluster of young shoots on the side of a black birch, near a shepherd’s homestead.

The eggs differ in colour from those of C. albicapilla, but the type is the same. They are ovoido-elliptical in form, measuring ·9 inch by ·7 inch, although some specimens which I have examined were slightly smaller. They are of a uniform reddish cream-colour, minutely and faintly freckled over the entire surface with a darker tint, approaching to pale brown. In one of my specimens the entire surface is of a warm salmon-colour, without any freckled markings; and another is minutely freckled and dotted with reddish brown, of which colour there are also some irregular smeared markings towards the smaller end. The last-mentioned specimen differs also from the typical form in being almost pear-shaped, with the thick end rather flattened, and measuring only ·75 of an inch in length by ·65 in breadth.

page 58

As to the systematic position of this form, much doubt and uncertainty existed till the appearance of a paper. “On the Structure of the genus Orthonyx,” by the late Mr. Forbes, the Prosector to the Zoological Society, in which he gave the results of a careful dissection and comparison of the typical Orthonyx spinicauda of Australia with the so-called Orthonyx ochrocephala from New Zealand*. This examination convinced him that the two forms are not really congeneric, the New-Zealand bird, apart from its entirely dissimilar coloration, differing from the Australian in its more slender bill, less development of the nasal operculum, less spiny tail, and more slender claws. He states further that internally the skull and the syrinx exhibit differences, slight in amount, but greater than those usually found in birds of the same genus; and he concludes thus:—“Under these circumstances it seems that Clitonyx of Reichenbach will be the correct generic term for the New-Zealand birds, as Lesson’s name Mohoua, though of prior application, is not only barbarous but, what is more important, liable to be confounded with Mohoa, also a genus of Passeres from the Pacific Subregion.

In the present unsatisfactory condition of the systematic grouping of the Oscinine Passeres, it is impossible for me to point out clearly any definite position either for Orthonyx or Clitonyx, though both forms might, I apprehend, be safely placed in Mr. Sharpe’s somewhat vaguely defined ‘Timeliidae.”’

The above conclusions were based upon an examination of C. ochrocephala only from New Zealand. It will be seen that I have placed the North-Island form (C. albicapilla) in the same genus. I am aware that Dr. Finsch has proposed to separate these birds generically, and that his views have been adopted by one or two of our local naturalists. It appears to me, however, quite impossible to find any sufficient distinguishing characters. It will be seen, on comparison, that the wing-feathers present the same proportional arrangement in both species, and that the bill and feet of C. albicapilla, although somewhat more slender, are formed on exactly the same model as in C. ochrocephala. Apart from these external characters, the two forms agree in other essential respects. The peculiar feature of a black mouth (in the male) is common to both; their style of song is the same; the sexes are alike in both, and their habits of nidification are very similar. It is true that the colour of the plumage is different, and that there is some dissimilarity in the coloration of the eggs, but these differences have no generic value. On these grounds I adhere to my old contention that the two species belong to the same genus.

Dr. Gadow, in the ‘Catalogue of the British Museum’ (l. c.), while accepting this relationship of the two forms to each other, has grouped them together with the New-Zealand Creeper in the genus Certhiparus. So far, however, from adopting this arrangement, I have deemed it necessary not only to separate these birds generically but to place them in different Families.

* “Both forms are typical Singing-birds (‘Oscines Normales’.), with a well-developed. Oscinine syrinx with its normal complement of four pairs of muscles. Of these the short anterior muscle runs to the anterior end of the third bronchial semiring alone in O. spinicauda; whilst in O. ochrocephala this ring receives its muscular supply from a fasciculus of the long anterior muscle. They thus differ essentially from Menura, with which they have been associated, that bird having but three pairs of muscles peculiarly arranged. In this, as in all other points examined-with one exception in the case of Orthonyx spinicauda—these birds quite resemble the normal Passeres, as they do in having the bilaminate tarsus and reduced ‘first’ (tenth) primary nearly always associated with the normal Acromyodian syrinx. Orthonyx spinicauda, however, has a peculiarity quite unknown to me in any other bird, inasmuch as its carotid artery, the left alone of these vessels (as in all Passeres) being developed, is not contained anywhere in the subvertebral canal, but runs up superficially in company with the left vagus nerve to near the head, where it bifurcates in the usual manner. In Orthonyx ochrocephala the left carotid retains its normal situation, though the point of entrance into the canal is somewhat higher up than is usual in other Passeres.” (P. Z. S. 1882, pp. 544, 545.)

Handb. Spec. Ornith. p. 167 (1851).

Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. vii. p. 204.

page break


page break
page break

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.

page break

Sphenœacus Fulvus.
(Fulvous Fern-Bird.)

  • Sphenœacus fulvus, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 221.

  • Megalurus fulvus, Gray, Hand-l. of B. i. p. 206 (1869).

Ad. similis S. punctato, sed paullò major: ubique laetiùs fulvescens, plumis vix ita distinctè medialiter lineatis: pectore etiam minùs distinctè maculato: caudâ minùs acuminatà scapis plumarum haud nudis, sed ad apicem ipsum plumiferis.

Adult. Upper parts dark fulvous, each feather centred with black; forehead and crown slightly stained with rufous; line over the eyes, throat, fore neck, breast, and upper part of abdomen fulvous-white, obscurely spotted on the breast with brown; sides of the body, flanks, thighs, and lower part of abdomen bright fulvous; primaries and secondaries blackish brown, margined on their outer webs, and the three innermost secondaries broadly margined all round, with bright fulvous; tail-feathers fulvous, with a dark shaft-line, and lighter on the edges. Total length 7·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 2·5; tail 4; 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. An example in the Canterbury Museum, so immature that the tail-feathers are only two inches long, has more fulvous in the plumage and no indication whatever of a superciliary streak.

Obs. Mr. Sharpe says of the type in the British Museum:—“Similar to S. punctatus, but rather larger, and very much lighter and more ochraceous in colour. Both on the upper and under surface the black centres to the feathers are not so broad, and thus the plumage appears more distinctly streaked” (Cat. Birds B. M. vii. p. 98).

This species, as distinguished by Mr. G. R. Gray, bears a general resemblance to Sphenœacus punctatus; but, on comparing them, the following differences are manifest:—The present bird is larger and has the whole of the plumage lighter; the upper parts have the central marks much narrower, and on the hind neck and rump they are entirely absent; the white superciliary streak is less distinctly defined, the spots on the under surface are less conspicuous, and the tail-feathers, which are much paler than in S. punctatus, differ likewise in their structure, the webs being closely set, instead of having loose disunited barbs.

Several specimens have passed through my hands, all of which have been obtained in the South Island.

Mr. Potts distinguishes the eggs of this bird from those of S. punctatus as being “slightly larger and white, marked with reddish-purple freckles.”

Whilst, however, keeping the form distinct for the present, I am far from being satisfied that it can be separated from S. punctatus. I am more inclined to regard it as a somewhat larger local race, with a corresponding modification of plumage. But for the fact that the latter species is as common in the South Island as in the North, this might be treated as the representative form.

page break

Sphenoeacus Rufescens.
(Chatham-Island Fern-Bird.)

  • Sphenoeacus rufescens, Buller, Ibis, 1869, p. 38.

  • Megalurus rufescens, Gray, Hand-1. of B. i. p. 206 (1869).

Ad. suprá saturatè castaneus, pileo concolore: dorso paullò fulvescente, plumis latè medialiter nigis: tectricibus alarum medialiter nigris, dorso concoloribus: remigibus nigris, rufescente limbatis: caudâ rufescente, subtùs fulvescentiore, scapis pennarum nigris: loris et supercilio distincto fulvescenti-albis: regione paroticâ saturatè castaneâ, nigro notatâ: genis fulvescentibus, nigro maculatis: subtùs fulvescenti-albus, corporis lateribus castaneis nigro striolatis, dorso concoloribus: subalaribus stramineis, rufescente lavatis: rostro corneo, mandibulâ flavicante: pedibus flavicanti-brunneis: iride nigrâ.

Adult male. Upper parts dark rufous-brown, brightest on the crown and hind neck; streak over the eyes, throat, breast, and abdomen dull rufous-white, slightly tinged with yellow on the throat; sides of the head, ear-coverts, and a series of spots from the base of the lower mandible brownish black; sides of the body and the flanks bright rufous-brown, each feather with a central streak of black; wing-feathers dusky black, margined on both webs with rufous-brown; the wing-coverts and the scapularies broadly centred with brownish black; tail-feathers clear rufous-brown, with glossy black shafts, paler on their under surface. Irides black; bill and feet yellowish brown. Total length 7·25 inches; extent of wings 7; wing, from flexure, 2·25; tail 4·25; bill, along the ridge ·5, along the edge of lower mandible ·7; tarsus 1; middle toe and claw ·85; hind toe and claw ·75.

Female. Similar to the male, but somewhat smaller in size and with rather duller plumage.

Obs. Prof. Hutton states that two of the specimens collected by Mr. Travers are “variegated with white feathers, principally on the wings.”

This well-marked species is confined to the Chatham Islands, where it was first discovered, in 1868, by Mr. Charles Traill, a gentleman greatly devoted to conchology, who visited that group for the purpose of collecting its marine shells. He obtained it on a small rocky isle, lying off the coast of the main island, during one of his dredging-expeditions; but he was unable to give me much information respecting its habits or economy, merely stating that he observed it flitting about among the grass and stunted vegetation, and succeeded in knocking it over with a stone.

Mr. Henry Travers says:—“I only found this bird on Mangare, where it is not uncommon. Its peculiar habit of hopping from one point of concealment to another renders it difficult to secure. It has a peculiar whistle, very like that which a man would use in order to attract the attention of another at some distance; and although I knew that I was alone on the island, I frequently stopped mechanically on hearing the note of this bird, under the momentary impression that some other person was whistling to me. It also has the same cry as Sphenœacus punctatus. It is solitary in its habits and appears to live exclusively on insects.”

I am indebted to Mr. Walter Shrimpton for an egg obtained on Pitt Island, and assigned, I believe correctly, to this species. It is broadly ovoido-conical, measuring ·80 of an inch in length by ·65 in breadth, and has the entire surface covered with a speckled or marbled graining of reddish brown on a creamy-white ground.