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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Podiceps Cristatus. — (Great Crested Grebe.)

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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.