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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Limosa Novæ Zealandiæ. — (The Southern Godwit.)

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Limosa Novæ Zealandiæ.
(The Southern Godwit.)

  • Limosa baueri, Naum. Vög. Deutschl. viii. p. 429 (1836).

  • Limosa lapponica, var. novæ zealandiæ, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 13 (1844).

  • Limosa brevipes, Gray, Cat. Grallæ Brit. Mus. p. 95 (1844).

  • Limosa australasiana, id. op. cit. p. 96 (1844).

  • Limosa novæ-zealandiæ, Gray, Gen. of B. iii. p. 570 (1847).

  • Limosa uropygialis, Gould, P.Z.S. 1848, p. 38.

  • Limosa foxii, Peale, U. S. Expl. Exp. p. 231, pl. 65 (1848).

  • Limosa rufa, Temm. & Schl. Faun. Japon. p. 114 (1850).

  • Gallinago punctata, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7470.

  • Limosa baueri, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 198 (1873).

Native names.—Kuaka, and Hakakao (Bay of Plenty).

Ad. ptil. hiem. suprà brunnescens, pileo summo unicolore: colli plumis vix medialiter saturatioribus; dorsi plumis conspicuè medialiter saturatiùs brunneis, scapis nigricantibus, scapularibus cinereo lavatis: uropygio et supracaudalibus albis, fasciis brunneis conspicuis transnotatis: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus extùs fulvescente angustè marginatis, medianis et majoribus nigricante medialiter lineatis: primariis saturatè brunneis, intùs pallidioribus, scapis albis, secundariis cum tectricibus cubitalibus grisescenti-brunneis, albo terminatis: caudâ brunneâ, rectricibus centralibus cinerascentibus conspicuè albo terminatis: loris et genis albicantibus: corpore subtùs sordidè albo, collo inferiore et pectore summo cinerascentibus, hypochondriis vix brunneo fasciatis: subalaribus et axillaribus albis brunneo transfasciatis: rostro brunneo, ad basin rufescente: pedibus saturatè plumbeis: iride nigrâ.

Adult in winter. Crown, sides of the head, neck all round, and the entire upper surface dull stone-grey, obscurely mottled with brown, and darker on the back and mantle, where each feather has a broad central mark of blackish brown; quills dark clove-brown, with white shafts and freckled with white on their inner webs; the secondaries and their coverts tipped with white; tail-feathers blackish brown terminally edged with white, and with broken bars of the same on the inner web and towards the base; rump and upper tail-coverts white, conspicuously barred with blackish brown; a broad streak from the base of the upper mandible to the eyebrows, the chin, and fore part of throat pure white; fore neck and breast pale cinnamon-brown, obscurely mottled; abdomen and under tail-coverts fulvous white, the sides of the body shaded with stone-grey, and many of the feathers, particularly on the flanks, more or less crossed with arrow-head markings of dark brown; lining of wings and axillary plumes white, the former with horse-shoe markings, and the latter with broad transverse bars of cinnamon-brown.

Young. Crown of the head and sides of the face dusky brown, mottled with yellowish brown; throat, and a streak from the base of the upper mandible extending beyond the eyes, white; neck, all round, brownish grey, spotted with dark brown on the nape; upper part of the back rusty brown, with darker centre spots, and mottled with white; the scapulars light rust-brown, with a series of white triangular spots on each web; lower part of back greyish white varied with brown; rump and upper tail-coverts white, conspicuously barred with brown, these bars assuming on the outer feathers the form of arrow-heads; breast and sides of the body creamy white, sometimes stained with grey; abdomen and under tail-coverts pure white, some of the latter with irregular dusky bars; lining of wings prettily varied with brownish black; axillary page 41 plumes white, conspicuously barred with brown in their whole extent; primaries clove-brown on their upper surface, darker on their outer webs and towards the tips, light grey on their under surface, with dusky freckles; secondaries marked like the scapulars, but with the spots on the inner webs inclining to fulvous; the wing-coverts clove-brown, more or less tipped with white; tail-feathers brown, barred towards the base, and the middle ones largely tipped with white. Irides black; bill light brown, tinged with purple in its basal half, black beyond; tarsi and toes deep bluish grey; claws black. Length 18 inches; extent of wings 31; wing, from flexure, 9·75; tail 3·5; bill, along the ridge, 4; bare tibia 1; tarsus 2·2; middle toe and claw 1·5; hind toe and claw ·5.

Obs. Before the autumn livery is cast off the plumage of the upper surface becomes much worn and has a faded appearance, this being due to abrasion, the white notched markings being often worn completely out, giving the edge of the feather a serrated outline.

Summer plumage. In every considerable flock there are individuals known as “red kuakas.” These have the plumage of the upper surface darker and largely varied with rufous instead of white, the sides of the head, throat, fore neck, breast, upper part of abdomen, sides of the body, and flanks bright rufous. This is a phase of the summer dress only. It should be mentioned that although, strictly speaking, only a seasonal visitant, a few stragglers remain with us all through the year, and that specimens are sometimes met with in a transitional state of plumage.

A specimen in Mr. Seebohm’s collection, in full breeding-plumage (obtained at Shanghai in May 1873), has the frontal streak, sides of the face, throat, the whole of the fore neck, and the entire under surface uniform bright rufous, pointed with black on the sides of the chest, narrowly margined with white on the flanks, and varied with black and white on the under tail-coverts; the plumage of the upper surface is similar to that of the young as described above, except that the lighter parts are washed with rufous, which colour becomes predominant on the nape and upper tail-coverts; the lining of the wings and the axillary plumes are exactly as in the young bird. We may take it therefore that this is the first nuptial plumage.

A specimen in full summer plumage was obtained at Saltwater Creek, in the provincial district of Canterbury, at the end of summer or beginning of autumn.

Albino. The following is the description of an albino shot by myself at Ohau, on the west coast of the Wellington Province, in the spring of 1862:—The whole of the plumage white, tinged with brown on the head, back, and upper surface of wings; tertiaries and the primary-coverts partially brown; lining of wings, axillary plumes, and upper tail-coverts barred with pale brown; bill whitish; legs black.

Obs. In this species the length of the bill is very variable. A series of five examples, in a fine collection of birds made by Mr. W. T. L. Travers in the South Island, presents the following gradations in the bill:—3 inches, 3·5, 4·1, 4·4, and 4·5. The tarsi are of equal length in all five specimens, and there is scarcely any perceptible difference in the length of the wing. Nos. 1 and 2 are in partial summer dress, the former having scattered clouded spots of rufous on the underparts, the latter having the whole of the under surface stained more or less with rufous, especially the fore neck, breast, and sides of the body, where this colour predominates. The rest are in full winter plumage.

A specimen shown to me by Mr. Jewel, the local taxidermist at Christchurch, exhibited a still greater extension of bill than any of those mentioned above, the length from the base to the tip of the upper mandible being 5·1 inches.

Drs. Finsch and Hartlaub, in their excellent work on the birds of Central Polynesia, have correctly referred our bird to the species described by Mr. Gould under the name of Limosa uropygialis; but, as will be seen on reference to the historical synonymy given above, this name has no claim whatever to recognition. There are no less than five recorded names of antecedent date; and, in settling questions of nomenclature, I shall, as far as possible, adhere to the established rule of adopting in every case the oldest admissible title. In my former edition 1 adopted for this species that of Limosa baueri; but as this name, bestowed by Natterer, was only on a Museum label without any published page 42 description, I have now thought it best to discard it altogether in favour of L. novæ zealandiæ, Gray.

I have already, in the Introduction to Vol. I. (p. xl), referred to the extraordinary migration which this bird performs every year, spending several months in Siberia, where it breeds, and another portion of the year in the Malay Archipelago, Polynesia, Australia, and New Zealand, passing the coasts of Japan, Mantchooria, and China in the course of its weary pilgrimage.

Von Middendorff, who met with these birds in great numbers in Northern Siberia (74°–75° N. lat.), states that they appeared there on the 3rd June, and left again in the beginning of August. In the months of September and April Swinhoe observed migratory flocks on the coast of Formosa, and during the winter months he met with this species still further south. Von Middendorff found it also in summer on the south coast of the Sea of Ochotsk, although it did not appear to breed there. It has likewise been observed in China, Japan, Java, Celebes, Timor, Norfolk Island, Solomon Islands, and the New Hebrides, and its range doubtless extends much further; but it has never yet been met with in India, this being probably too far west of its annual course. It is met with on Prybilov Islands, coming in a straggling manner early in May, passing northward with little delay, and reappearing again towards the end of August in flocks of a dozen or fifty*.

The habits of this species are in no respect different from those of its European ally. As already stated, it is migratory; and towards the end of March or beginning of April large flocks may be seen at the far north taking their departure from our country. The departure from any fixed locality usually begins on almost the exact date year after year; and for a week or ten days after the migration has commenced fresh parties are constantly on the wing, the flight generally taking place about sunset, and sometimes after dark. The main body fly in silence, but the straggling birds cry out at intervals, while endeavouring to overtake the flock in advance. Near the North Cape, Captain Mair has observed them flying northward in tens of thousands, and always in considerable flocks, numbering from 700 to 1200 birds in each, and the wonder is where they all come from. During the period mentioned, this excitement of departure is unabated—flocks forming and following each other in perpetual succession.

The seasonal migrations of this species over a third of the globe’s circumference in search of a congenial climate, and then back again to its distant home for breeding purposes, are astonishing facts in natural history, and to those who have not studied the subject might well appear incredible. But it is this romance of real life that so often forces upon the naturalist the conclusion that “fact is stranger far than fiction” .

Though the greater number of the birds migrate, some remain with us during the winter, and it is not unusual, even in mid-winter, to see a flock of several hundred consorting together on the sand-banks. It has been remarked that at this season they are much tamer and more approachable than at other times. A pair continued to frequent Sulphur Point at Ohinemutu for two or three years; but they were ultimately shot at the request of the resident natives, who looked upon their constant appearance as an “aitua,” or omen of some impending evil.

On their return to this country they do not make a sudden appearance, but come in straggling parties during the month of October, and gradually become more plentiful after the first week in November, and about Christmas they are in full force again all along our sea-shore.

Some of the flocks on their arrival are very tame and approachable. Captain Fairchild found them particularly so at Kawhia, a somewhat unfrequented place on the east coast. He advanced to page 43 within twenty feet of them, and upon throwing an iron nail in amongst them, instead of being alarmed they crowded up to examine it.

Capt. Mair has sometimes observed a party of stragglers in Sulphur Bay, in the Rotorua Lake (about forty miles from the sea-coast), no doubt brought inland by the easterly gales, which sometimes prevail for a considerable time without intermission. On the Tauranga coast he has obtained large “bags” during the shooting-season; and on one occasion, at Cemetery Point, killed ninety-seven at a single shot with a heavy charge of No. 5 from an ordinary fowling-piece. This will give some idea of their numbers, and of the close manner in which they were packed together. Thousands were crowding upon each other on an insular sand-bank, and numbers more were hovering overhead in the vain attempt to find a footing among their fellows. As he was “shooting for the pot,” he concealed himself with floating kelp, and crawled up under water till the birds were within easy range.

As may be supposed from the character of the bill, their manner of feeding is peculiar. Sometimes the birds may be seen thrusting their long pliant bills deep into the mud or sand, working them to the very hilt, and sometimes burying the fore part of the head in the soft ooze; at another time they may be seen taking three or four hurried steps forward, and then halting for a moment to pick up some small object from the surface; but generally speaking they walk along with much deliberation, picking as they go. It may be inferred from this that their food consists of aquatic insects, marine worms, small mollusks, and crustaceans. The objects, however, which they select must be very minute, for on opening their stomachs it is usual to find only a mass of comminuted matter having the appearance of mud or slime.

The natives catch large numbers of them by spreading flax snares horizontally on manuka sticks twelve or fifteen feet high, and arranged in the following manner:—A number of stakes are driven into the ground at equal distances so as to cover the area of the customary resting-place. A perfect network of flax loops or running nooses, about twelve or fifteen inches in diameter, are then spread or hung in such a way as to form a canopy or roof supported by the stakes. The birds on assembling in the evening fly low and take up their position on the resting-ground to wait for the ebb of the tide. At this conjuncture the natives spring out from their concealment with lighted torches. The birds at once rise vertically, in confusion and alarm, and large numbers become entangled and caught in the running loops, sometimes as many as 200 being captured at one time in snares covering a space of twenty by forty yards. These snares are only set on calm and dark nights, for the obvious reasons that, if there was any wind, the loops would become disarranged, and that on moonlight nights the birds would see the nets and avoid them. Sometimes during wet easterly weather in summer the feathers of these birds become so saturated that they are unable to fly. The natives take advantage of this and capture large numbers of them by running them down.

From what has been said, it may be inferred that they are esteemed good eating by both settlers and Maoris. The latter always cook the bird unopened, and devour the contents of the stomach with a relish. When very fat they are potted in the orthodox fashion and “calabashed” for future use.

In some localities these birds afford tolerably good shooting, although they are not much esteemed for eating. When spread over the sands or bare mud-flats in search of food they are somewhat shy and wary; but when the tide is high they consort together in large flocks near the water’s edge, and may then be approached under cover and killed by scores, a pot shot into their close ranks, and another as the flock rises confusedly in the air, generally proving very destructive. “Curlew-shooting” (as it is termed in the colony) sometimes, however, becomes more legitimate sport, as may be gathered from the following passage in a letter to ‘The Field,’ from a New-Zealand correspondent:—“Curlew-shooting has just begun; I had a day last week (early in March). The best locality for this kind of shooting is the upper part of Auckland harbour, where the river Waite-mata and the harbour of the Manukau are within a short distance of one another. The Manukau page 44 being on the west coast and Auckland on the east coast, the tide is, of course, rising in one harbour when it is falling in the other. The Curlew feed on the mud-flats after the ebbing tide, and the best plan is to choose the time when the flight commences from one coast to the other. This is at the moment of low water at either side. At that time the shooter takes up his station behind a fence and watches for the flight of Curlew. If the day be stormy, so much the better; for then the birds fly low. If the shooter has taken up a good post, he will have a full hour’s good fast shooting; and this will be the case at each turn of the tide. Last week was my first day this year, and in twelve shots I got nine and a half brace of Curlew. This was not very good sport; but the birds flew rather high and were not as closely packed as usual.”

It is a common thing to see birds with a single leg, or with a broken or truncated bill. Captain Mair saw one with both legs shot away. It kept with the flock, supporting itself on the stumps of the tarsi when walking, and crouching on the ground when at rest, but mainly using its wings for purposes of locomotion. The maimed and injured birds, of which each flock contains many towards the close of the shooting-season, habitually keep apart from the main flock, confining themselves to the high beach, and are known to sportsmen as the “sick brigade.”

At Katikati on the east coast, when their ordinary resting-places on the mud-flats are submerged by the high spring tides, these birds take refuge on the tops of the low spreading mangrove bushes; and thousands together may sometimes be seen in this position.

While resting on sand-banks at high tide, they always stand in the water so as to conceal the unfeathered tibia, and sportsmen say that they do this in order to keep themselves cool.

Great individual variation is observable, especially in the length of the bill and legs. There is also much difference in the plumage. The largest birds (probably aged ones) are generally much lighter than the rest of the flock, and are distinguished by the Maoris as the “kuaka-karoro.” In the autumn generally about the proportion of one third of the birds in every flock present the rufous-brown colouring on the underparts, which is more or less conspicuous, and sometimes extends over the entire plumage. These birds are called by the Maoris “pohokura,” in allusion to their bright colour, and both these and the “kuaka-karoro” are said to be always the fattest in the flock.

I have never met with a Maori who could tell me anything about the breeding-habits of this Godwit, and it has become a proverb amongst them: “Who has seen the nest of the Kuaka?”

For many years the egg of this bird was equally unknown in other parts of the hemisphere; but on the 18th January, 1868, Mr. Dall obtained two specimens at Kutlik, Alaska. “These differ,” Mr. Harting states, in the ‘Fauna of the Prybilov Islands’ (p. 27), “as much from each other as eggs of this species do from those of other species. The ground-colour of one is greenish olive-grey, of the other pale olive-grey. In the former the markings are all subdued neutral tints apparently in the shell; in the latter the markings are nearly all on the surface and quite bright chocolate-brown. In both cases the markings are numerous and of indeterminate shape, mostly small and generally distributed, though tending to aggregate at the larger end, where alone they lose their distinctness in coalescing to form a splashed area.”

As already mentioned in the Introduction, this species breeds in the high latitudes of Eastern Asia; but a few stragglers appear to remain with us all the year round. I have in my possession an egg obtained on the Island of Kapiti (Cook’s Strait) which I am unable to refer to any other bird; it is of a regular ovoido-conical form, measuring 1·95 inches in length by 1·45 in breadth, and the colour is a dull stone-brown, with numerous obscure markings, as if under the shell, over the entire surface, which is finely granulate, but changing to pale brown, with a polished surface, at the smaller end.

* Fauna Centralpolynesiens (1867), p. 181.

The late Mr. Henry Mair shot some of these birds on Suwaro, Manihiki, and Savage Islands. They seemed exhausted and unable to fly any distance. These were probably birds that were unable to keep up with the migrating flocks, and were consequently left on these islands en route.