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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Rhynchaspis Variegata. — (New-Zealand Shoveller.)

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Rhynchaspis Variegata.
(New-Zealand Shoveller.)

  • Spatula rhynchotis, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii. App. p. 198 (1843).

  • Spatula variegata, Gould, P. Z. S. 1856, p. 95.

  • Anas rhynchotis, Bllman, Zool. 1861, p. 7471.

  • Rhynchaspis variegata, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 358.

  • Spatula variegata, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 252 (1873).

Native names.

Tete, Pateke, Putaitai, Kuruwhengi, Kuruwhengu, Papaunguungu, Kahoho, and Wetawetangu; “Spoon-bill Duck” of the colonists.

♂ suprà saturatè brunneus, æneo nitens, pilei dorsique postici plumis obscurè fulvescente marginatis: loris et mento nigricanti-brunneis: lineâ faciali latâ ab oculo ahteriore ductâ et infra gulam conjunctâ facie reliquâ laterali et nuchâ sordidè cinereis virescente adumbratis: collo postico sordidè cinereo: interscapulii plumis brunneis, latè fulvescente marginatis: scapularibus albis, fulvescente lavatis, quibusdam omninò brunneis, reliquis æneo-brunneo fasciatis aut maculatis: tectricibus alarum pulchrè cyaneis, majoribus exterioribus albo terminatis, fasciam parvam exhibentibus: remigibus æneo-brunneis, minoribus extùs pulcherrimè viridibus, secundariis elongatis versus apicem medialiter albis, remigibus dorsalibus extùs pulchrè cyaneis: supracaudalibus exterioribus lætè viridibus: caudâ brunneâ, rectricibus albido marginatis et terminatis: gutture imo et collo laterali albis, plumis plus minusve distinctè medialiter nigris: pectore superiore ochrascente, plumis ad basin albis et brunneo crescentim transfasciatis: corpore reliquo subtùs intensè ferrugineo, pectore superiore magis distinctè, pectore imo et abdomine obscuriùs nigro notatis: plagâ crissali utrinque albâ nigro paullulum vermiculatâ: subcaudalibus nigris, lateralibus et longioribus viridibus, quibusdam fulvo transfasciatis et terminatis: subalaribus albis, imis cinerascentibus, marginalibus fulvo maculatis et pallidè cyaneo lavatis: rostro nigro: pedibus aurantiacis: iride lætè flavâ.

♀ mari dissimilis, ubique sordidior: suprâ brunneus, uropygiò virescente, plumis omnibus latè fulvo marginatis: facie et collo lateralibus fulvescentibus brunneo striatis, gutture sordidè fulvescente: corpore reliquo subtùs ochrascenti-fulvo, plumis nigro medialiter notatis: tectricibus alarum cyaneis, angustè fulvo marginatis, majoribus albo terminatis: remigibus æneo-brunneis, secundariis latiùs fulvo marginatis.

Adult male. Crown of the head and space surrounding the base of the bill brownish black, edged with grey; in front of each eye a broad crescent of white, meeting and widening on the chin, where it is more or less speckled with black; cheeks, sides, and anterior portion of hind neck dark grey, with beautiful green reflexions, mixed with steel-blue in certain lights; a streak down the fore neck, and a circular zone bounding the grey portion, fulvous white, largely spotted and mottled with brown; neck below and fore part of breast fulvous white, varied with brown, each feather being pure white at the base, then marked with a broad crescent of blackish brown, and tipped with fulvous; on the sides of the neck, towards the breast, the white is very conspicuous, but higher up, and on the hind neck, it diminishes, till at length the dark colour predominates, each feather being blackish brown, with a lunate spot of white in the centre, and tipped with fulvous. The plumage of the upper surface is very beautiful, the whole of the back and rump being blackish brown, edged with pale brown, and glossed with green, while the scapulars, which are of a peculiar elongated form, are marked and varied in a very effective manner; some of the inferior scapulars are white, spotted and page 270 marked near the end with a crescent of shining green, while others are blackish brown, with irregular horseshoe marks of fulvous and white; the succeeding outer ones are white, bordered on the outer webs and largely freckled with purplish blue; while the corresponding inner ones are glossy green, with a broad lanceolate stripe of white, shaded with brown down the centre. The longer scapulars are still more brilliant: the outermost one is glossy purplish blue on its outer web, marked on the inner with a lanceolate stripe of satiny white bordered outwardly by shining green; the next is glossy purplish blue, changing to shining green at the base, and margined on the inner web with white; the corresponding inner ones are dull velvet-green, with a broad conspicuous streak of white bordered with brown down the centre; the whole of the small wing-coverts are of a delicate lilac-blue, glossed with purple; the secondary coverts are pure white in their exposed portion, purplish black underneath: primaries dark brown, with paler shafts; secondaries velvet-brown, glossed with green, the outer ones rich shining green on their outer webs, the long inner ones marked down the shaft on their inner webs with a lanceolate streak of pale brown; the closed wing presenting a large bright speculum of satiny green, bordered anteriorly above with white: under surface of wings and axillary plumes pure white; along the edges of the wings and towards the flexure a few irregular markings of steel-brown; lower part of breast and all the underparts rich castaneous, very glossy, and obscurely blotched and spotted with black; sides of the body and flanks deep chestnut, with a series of elegant crescent-shaped bands, which become more conspicuous on the long plumage overlapping the thighs; on each side of the rump a broad patch of white, freckled and vermiculated with brown; tail greenish black; upper and lower coverts rich shining green, like the speculum. Irides bright or golden yellow; bill black; feet orange-yellow. Length 21 inches; extent of wings 31; wing, from flexure, 9·75; tail 4; bill, from base to extremity of upper mandible 2·5, width at the base ·6, greatest anterior expansion 1·4, length along the edge of lower mandible 2·75; tarsus 1·5; middle toe and claw 2·1; greatest span of web 2.

Obs. The above description is taken from a fine specimen in my collection in the best condition of plumage; but it should be mentioned that examples of the adult male present much diversity in the details of their colouring. In some specimens the white crescents on the cheeks are broken or indistinct, and do not meet on the chin, while in others they are very broad and well defined, and at their junction spread over the throat in a long irregular patch. The extent of the white markings on the upper part of the breast and sides of the neck likewise varies considerably in different individuals, as also do the tints of the plumage generally. In birds that have not reached perfect maturity the dark crescents on the sides of the body are often wanting, being represented merely by a few transverse bars of dark brown. The size is likewise variable, an apparently fully adult male in my collection giving the following measurements:—Length 20 inches; extent of wings 27·5; wing, from flexure, 9·25.

Adult female. Crown of the head, nape, back of neck, and all the upper surface blackish brown, each feather broadly margined with fulvous; all the underparts pale ochre-brown, on the sides of the head and neck thickly studded with linear punctations, on the breast and sides largely blotched, and on the abdomen mottled with blackish brown; on closer examination it is seen that on the brest, where the dark colour predominates, each feather is blackish brown in the centre, with light margins; on the abdomen there is a basal and another, subterminal, spot of brown; and the long overlapping tibials are blackish brown, with a broad irregular V-shaped mark, and margined with fulvous; quills and wing-coverts as in the male, but with a duller speculum and a narrower border of white; scapulars velvet-brown, glossed with green, margined and tipped with fulvous, the shorter ones with a central letter-V mark of the same; under surface of wings and axillary plumes pure white, spotted with dusky brown towards the carpal flexure; tail and its upper coverts velvet-brown, with paler margins. Irides reddish brown, sometimes tinged with yellow; bill dark brown; feet pale brown. Length 18·5 inches; extent of wings 29; wing, from flexure, 9; tail 4; bill, from base to extremity of upper mandible 2·25, width at the base ·5, greatest anterior expansion 1, length along the edge of lower mandible 2·5; tarsus 1·25; middle toe and claw 2.

Young male. Head and neck as in the adult female, except that the punctations on the sides are more conspicuous, owing to the ground-colour being lighter; plumage of the upper parts as in the adult female; but the light margins are narrower, the feathers more strongly glossed with velvet-green, and the scapulars marked with a central longitudinal streak of dull brown; lower sides of the neck and the whole of the breast blackish brown, each feather marked near the centre in a crescent form and broadly margined with pale page 271 ochre-brown; underparts dark chestnut-brown, spotted and blotched with black, and marked on the sides with irregular lunate spots of blackish brown; long feathers overlapping the thighs dusky brown, crossed by broad undulating bands of fulvous; spot on each side of the rump white, with numerous crescents and freckles of brown; under tail-coverts pale brown, varied with darker, and vermiculated with black. Bill dark brown; feet pale brown.

Young female. Punctation on the sides of the head and neck more distinct thau in the adult; the whole of the upper surface blackish brown, only faintly glossed with green, the scapulars and upper tail-coverts narrowly margined with paler brown; breast, sides of the body, and the whole of the abdomen dull greyish brown, darker on the former, each feather margined with fulvous brown; under wing-coverts and axillary plumes pure white; the long feathers overlapping the thighs dark brown, with paler edges, but without any markings; upper wing-coverts dull purplish grey; the secondaries merely glossed with green, and their coverts tipped with white.

Nestling. The nestling is covered with thick down, with long produced filaments on the upper parts of the body. The downy feathers composing the tail are rather long and have broad spreading plumelets. The upper surface is bright olive-brown; a broad stripe over the eye, another less distinct immediately below the eye, a conspicuous spot on each side of the back behind the wings, and another on each side of the rump, fulvous yellow, shading into brownish olive on the sides of the body and on the breast. Bill brown, with a yellow nail.

Albino. There is a partial albino in the Canterbury Museum—a fine male specimen. Head and nape very highly glossed; a pure white patch crosses the lower fore neck, where the white line should come, then spreads upwards and entirely covers the shoulders and mantle, with only a broken dividing stripe of greyish brown, and is then continued on the scapulars, where it narrows down to a point; the white thigh-spot is exaggerated, and the lateral tail-feathers are margined with white; but in other respects the colours are as in the normal plumage.

The first recorded specimens of this beautiful Duck were forwarded to Europe by Mr. Walter Mantell in 1856; and Mr. Gould was thus enabled to give a figure and description of the adult male in the Supplement to his ‘Birds of Australia;’ but the female was then unknown, and no account of the species in the different conditions of plumage has hitherto appeared. Having myself enjoyed favourable opportunities for studying the bird in its native haunts, and having obtained numerous specimens from various parts of the country, I am enabled to give a very complete descriptive history of it from youth to maturity.

The species appears to come very near to Rhynchaspis rhynchotis of the Australian continent; but the late Mr. Gould assured me that, although probably a hundred examples of the latter had passed through his hands, he had never seen one with so much white on the sides of the neck and breast as the New-Zealand bird exhibits, and that he had no doubt whatever about their being specifically distinct. Although more familiar with our own bird than the Australian, my examination and comparison of a great number of specimens has brought me to the same conclusion. Whether the two species present other differences of plumage in their earlier states cannot at present be determined, inasmuch as no sufficiently complete account of the Australian bird has ever yet been given. I carefully examined the specimens in the Australian Museum; but these were all in adult plumage; and Mr. Gould’s own collection, being in Philadelphia, is, unfortunately, not readily accessible. The Australian specimens in the British Museum are all males in full plumage, and therefore do not assist the inquiry*.

* Since the above was written I have seen a young male of the Australian bird in the Natural-History Museum at Edinburgh (wrongly labelled Spatula clypeata): it very closely resembles our Rhynchaspis variegata in the same stage; but the breast is decidedly darker.

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On the wing it is more active than the Grey Duck, but its flight is more irregular. The white thigh-spot in the male is very conspicuous when the bird is swimming.

It is by no means a common species in any part of New Zealand, while in the extreme northern portions of the North Island, so far as I am aware, it has never yet been met with. Up to the time of the recent volcanic eruption, it was comparatively plentiful at Rotomahana and at Waihi, but not in other parts of the Lake district, and I have never heard of more than one pair being seen at Rotorua. It is often met with on the Waikato river.

Mr. Cheeseman writes to me from Auckland:—” Rare with us. I have heard of it on the lakes near the Kaipara heads; Mr. Hobbs has sent me a specimen shot on the Whangamarino creek, near Mercer, and it is occasionally seen on Lakes Whangape and Waikare.”

It frequents the shallow lagoons near the sea-coast, and the quiet bush-creeks overshadowed by trees, usually associating in pairs, but sometimes forming parties of three or more. It flies with rapidity, and often at a considerable elevation, descending to the ground or water in a slanting manner, and with the wings bent in the form of a bow. When disturbed on the water it produces a low whistling note; but it is far less suspicious than the common Grey Duck, and is easily approached and shot. It subsists on minute freshwater mollusks, aquatic insects, tender herbage, and the seeds of the toetoe and other plants; on opening the stomachs of several I have found a mass of comminuted substances of a greenish colour, among which could be distinguished fragments of vegetable matter, seeds, the remains of insects, and numerous small pebbles of white chalcedony. It no doubt extracts much organic matter from the slimy mud and sand in the places it is accustomed to frequent, inasmuch as nature has furnished it with a very remarkable spoon-shaped bill, from which it derives its popular name. The surface of the upper mandible is smooth, but slightly furrowed from the nostrils outwardly, and in its anterior portion is marked with numerous punctures; its nail is almond-shaped, and forms a strong overhanging lip with a hard cutting-edge; in the lower mandible there is a corresponding development, resembling in shape the human finger-nail, which fits into the upper process, forming, so to speak, a strong terminal beak; the lamellæ are highly developed in both mandibles, presenting a comb-like appearance; and in addition to this the lower mandible has a rasped outer edge. The tongue is large, fleshy, and of a very peculiar shape; it is fringed along its upper edges with a series of stiff, closely set bristles; towards the extremity it is deeply concave, and is furnished anteriorly and on each side with a horny semitransparent membrane. In the female the bill is appreciably smaller than in the male, and the spoon-like expansion is not so highly developed.

Mr. Donald Potts found a nest of this species near the Rangitata river, and he has furnished the following account of it:—“It was placed, not in a swamp, or even near water, but on the side of one of the low downs in Craig Phillips, sheltered by a couple of tufts of tussock, and a plant of Spaniard grass (Aciphylla); it was made of fine grass, in which was a fair amount of down, but not so much as is usually seen in the neat of the Grey Duck; it was deep and rather narrow across the top (about 7 inches); the eggs were ten in number, ovoido-conical in form, very smooth and fine in texture, creamy white, with a slight greenish tint, and measuring in length 2 inches 1½ line, with a breadth of 1 inch 5½ lines.” This nest was found on November 7; but as some of the eggs which it contained were hatched out, under a hen, on November 18, it is inferred that the Shoveller commenced her nest about the first week of October. The young bird so hatched greatly resembled those of the Grey Duck (Anas superciliosa) in colour, but could be readily distinguished by the peculiar form of the bill*.

The number of eggs is no doubt variable; for I have a note of the occurrence of a nest at Kaiapoi (Canterbury) containing no less than thirteen.

* Trans. N.-Z. Inst. 1870, vol. iii. p. 103.