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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Himantopus Novæ Zealandiæ. — (Black Stilt.)

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Himantopus Novæ Zealandiæ.
(Black Stilt.)

  • Himantopus novæ zealandiæ, Gould, P. Z. S. 1841, p. 8.

  • Himantopus melas, Hombr. & Jacq. Ann. Sci. Nat. 1841, p. 320.

  • Himantopus niger, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7470.

  • Himantopus melas, Hutton, Cat. Birds of N. Z. 1871, p. 30.

Native names.—Kaki and Tuarahia; Torea-pango (of Arawa tribe).

Ad. ptil. ætiv. suprà nitidè virescenti-niger: subtùs fuliginoso-niger, loris et facie laterali pallidioribus: rostro. nigro: pedibus cruentatis: iride rufescenti-brunneâ.

Ad. ptil. hiem. dissimilis ptilosi æstivæ: pileo postico et cervice toto nigris: fronte, gutture et pectore albis : dorso, alis et caudâ nigris: abdomine fuliginoso-nigro.

Juv. similis ptilosi æstivæ, sed dorso postico et uropygio albis: subtùs etiam albus: cervice et collo postico sordidè cinerascentibus saturatiùs variis: interscapulio, scapularibus et tectricibus alarum nigricanti-brunneis, fulvo marginatis: primariis pallidè cinerascente terminatis: caudâ cinerascenti-brunneâ, rectricibus exterioribus versùs basin pogonii interni albis.

Adult in summer. Head, neck, and all the under surface brownish black, inclining to slaty grey on the face and towards the base of lower mandible; back, rump, and upper surface of wings and tail glossy greenish black. Irides and eyelids crimson; legs and feet pinky red, the claws black. Length 15 inches; extent of wings 28·5; wing, from flexure, 10; tail 3·25; bill, along the ridge 3, along the edge of lower mandible 3·25; bare tibia 3; tarsus 3·75; middle toe and claw 1·5.

Adult in winter. Crown and sides of the head, hind part of neck, and the whole of the abdomen sooty black, or marked more or less with white; back, wings, and tail glossy greenish black; the rest of the plumage pure white.

A specimen in the Auckland Museum has a band across the shoulders, the scapulars, and upper surface of wings and tail black with greenish reflections; the lower part of the abdomen black, without any gloss; the upper and lower tail-coverts black, with white feathers interspersed; rest of the plumage white, mixed or spotted with black on the crown and sides of the head, and on the hind neck; the line of division between the white and the black on the shoulders and on the abdomen not distinctly defined.

Young. Forehead, sides of the head, fore part and sides of the neck, and all the underparts pure white; crown of the head, mantle, and scapulars blackish brown, each feather margined at the tip with fulvous; hind part of the neck and between the shoulders dark grey, mottled with paler grey; back and rump white; upper and lower surface of wings, as well as the axillary plumes, black; the upper wing-coverts and the long inner secondaries margined with fulvous, and the primaries tipped with light grey; tail-feathers greyish brown, the outer ones white on their inner webs, with an apical spot of brown.

Chick. Covered with dark brown down; bill and legs greyish black.

Varieties. In the Colonial Museum there is a remarkable albino variety. The entire plumage is white, clouded with smoky grey on the crown and sides of the head, and on the upper surface of the body. There are a few page 25 straggling black feathers on the wings, back, and rump, and the under surface of the quills is mottled with grey. The primaries and secondaries, it may be further mentioned, are much abraded or worn on both sides of the shaft.

An example obtained by Mr. Hamilton at Petane in July 1884, and presented to the Hawke’s Bay Museum, is very remarkable:—Plumage black; the head, whole of the fore neck, breast, and underparts variegated with pure white feathers, giving the bird a pied or mottled appearance, the white slightly preponderating, and becoming dominant towards the base of both mandibles; the flanks, abdomen, and under tail-coverts sooty black, without any white feathers; mantle, back, rump, and upper surface of wings and tail satiny black, with greenish reflections. The specimen is marked ♀, and the condition of the legs indicates that it is an adult.

In the Canterbury Museum there is another (marked ♀) with scattered white feathers all over the underparts; another with white markings on the face and fore neck (no sex given); and two others (both ♂) altogether black.

Obs. The sexes are alike; but the summer plumage in the female has less gloss on the wings and tail, and a stronger tinge of brown on the underparts.

Two examples in the Auckland Museum, both in adult condition (the tarsi being fully developed), appear to be in transitional states of plumage:—

No. 1 has the head and neck white, clouded on the crown and hind neck with grey, these clouded markings becoming confluent and darker around the eyes; underparts white, clouded and marked on the thighs, vent, and under tail-coverts with slaty grey; mantle and upper surface of wings black; back and rump white.

No. 2 has the head and neck more thickly clouded, the ear-coverts and region of the eyes being entirely slaty brown; breast, and underparts as far as the flanks, white; thighs, lower part of abdomen, and under tail-coverts black; upper surface as in No. 1.

Three other specimens in transitional plumage (from winter to summer) are now before me:—

No. 1 has the forehead and chin pure white; the crown, lores, face, neck all round, and all the under surface black and white intermixed, the former preponderating on the sides, flanks, and abdomen; lining of wings and axillary plumes black, each feather minutely tipped with white; back, rump, and upper surface of wings and tail shining greenish black, the remnants of the old plumage on the wings dull blackish brown; a few straggling white feathers mingled with the black upper tail-coverts. Bill black, changing to brown at the base; legs reddish yellow.

No. 2 has the general plumage black, the sides of the head and neck all round marked with numerous white feathers; lower part of fore neck wholly white; on the breast two or three scattered white feathers.

No. 3 is black with much less white than the former, this being confined to straggling feathers on the neck, shoulders, breast, sides of the body, and under tail-coverts. This bird measures:—Length 14 inches; wing, from flexure, 9·25; tail 3; tarsus 3·75; bill along the ridge 2·6.

In a decidedly young bird received from Otago the head and neck are entirely white with a mark of grey on the vertex; lower part of hind neck and shoulders mottled with grey; wing-coverts and scapulars brownish black, minutely margined with pale brown; rump and tail white, the latter faintly washed with grey. In another young bird, received from Canterbury, the crown, sides of the head, and nape are washed with blackish grey, which is darkest on the vertex.

Another adult specimen in my own collection has the crown and sides of the head mottled and clouded with black; the white collar irregular and somewhat splashed with black.

Remarks. Owing to the many transitional states of plumage in which this bird is found, both in its progress towards maturity and in its seasonal changes of dress, it is the popular belief that there are two species of Black Stilt in New Zealand distinct from the well-known Himantopus leucocephalus; and this view has been adopted in Huttcon’s ‘Catalogue,’ where the true H. novæ zealandiæ is first described in its winter plumage, and then, under another name (H. melas), in its black summer garb. But this supposed other species has no real existence. Dr. Finsch, in his remarks on a collection of skins received from Dr. Haast, states (Journal für Ornithologie, 1870, p. 349) that a bird labelled “Himantopus novæ-zealandiæ, first year’s plumage,” proved, on examination, to be a mature example of H. leucocephalus, readily distinguished by its longer tibia and tarsus, from which accidental mistake he seems to infer that Haast is wrong in his description page 26 of the young of this species. There can be no doubt, however, that the young of H. novæ zealandiæ is as I have described it, my examples exhibiting in every case that enlargement below the tarsal joint which, among birds of this group, is a sure indication of immaturity.

This species was originally made known by Gould, who afterwards figured it in the Supplement to his ‘Birds of Australia,’ his description being founded on two specimens “killed at Port Nicholson,” both of which, however, appear to have been in an immature state of plumage.

It may readily be distinguished from the preceding species by its darker plumage and by its somewhat shorter legs. Its habits, however, are similar, excepting that it is less gregarious, associating in pairs rather than flocks, while it appears to prefer the dry shingle-beds to the lagoons and marshy grounds which constitute the favourite feeding-resorts of the other species. It is, moreover, a much rarer bird, although it is generally to be found in all the river-courses of the Wellington district and further south. Sir James Hector met with a solitary pair at Parengarenga, near the North Cape; and Mr. Robert Mair saw a flock of five at Kaipara, where it was considered by the natives an extremely rare visitant. A few pairs have for several years past frequented the Rotorua Lake; but it is never seen on Lake Taupo, although the White-headed Stilt is extremely abundant there, single flocks sometimes numbering thirty or forty birds. In Rotomahana also, where the latter bird is very plentiful at all seasons of the year, the Black Stilt till within the last few years was rarely seen. Formerly rare, both this and the White-headed Stilt are now very plentiful in the Lake district. They appear to subsist chiefly on the dead gnats that float on the surface of the water in the sulphur springs. These Plovers are continually to be seen wading about in the warm yellow water of these springs, feeding on the floating scum and on the small salamander worms which abound in such places.

Captain Mair found them nesting on a small flat surrounded by hot springs; but this was before the Tarawera eruption had devastated the district and obliterated the waters of Rotomahana.

In a meadow near the pretty little township of Waipukurau I saw several perfectly black Stilt-Plovers associating closely with the White-headed Stilt, and feeding amongst the grass; they took no heed of the passing train, although within twenty yards of them.

During the breeding-season these Stilts resort to every kind of subterfuge in order to draw intruders away from their nests. On the first alarm they secrete their young behind a stone or in a tuft of grass, and then go through their sham performance, enacting the part of a wounded bird in dire distress, flapping their wings, as if unable to rise from the ground, then trailing their legs as if broken, and tumbling about within a few yards of their pursuers till a safe distance from the nest has been reached, when all disguise is thrown off and the birds mount in the air and make a long circuit overhead, to reconnoitre the ground. If surprised in a place where there is no cover, the young birds squat close to the ground, trusting for concealment to the harmony of colour, and so strong is this instinct of self-preservation that they will remain perfectly motionless even when touched by the hand.

Mr. Potts records a nest, with three eggs, on Rakaia river-bed, on the 13th of September, and another, containing two, in the same locality, on the 14th of December; and in a note to myself he adds that he has seen the young as early as the middle of October. The eggs are of an elegant ovoido-conical form, measuring 1·8 inch in length by 1·3 in breadth, and of a warm yellowish-brown colour, handsomely marked over the entire surface with conspicuous spots of brownish black. There are good comparative series of the eggs of both this and the preceding species in the Canterbury Museum; and the difference they exhibit is very manifest to the eye, although not easily described.

Mr. Seebohm suggests that this species is the result of “an intermarriage of Himantopus leucocephalus with H. melanopterus,” and he proposes to call it “Himantopus leucocephalus picatus;” but I think it would be extremely unsafe to adopt that view; for, as a matter of fact, no one has yet recorded an instance of the Black Stilt and the White-headed species breeding together, which would follow as a matter of course on the supposition of hybridism.