Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Larus Scopulinus. — (Red-Billed Gull.)

page break

Larus Scopulinus.
(Red-Billed Gull.)

  • Larus scopulinus, Forst. Descr. Anim. p. 106 (1844).

  • Larus novæ hollandiæ, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terr., Birds, p. 18 (1844).

  • Lestris scopulinus, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7472.

  • Larus jamesoni, Hutton, Cat. Birds of N. Z. 1871, p. 41.

Native names.—Tarapunga, Makora, and Akiaki.

Ad. pileo undique albo: corpore suprà clarè cinereo, tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus, tectricibus primariorum albis versùs apicem cinereo lavatis: primariis nigris, albo apicatis, duobus exterioribus subterminaliter plagâ magnâ albâ notatis, interioribus plerumque albis intùs cinereo lavatis nigro subterminaliter transfasciatis: secundariis dorso concoloribus: dorso postico cum uropygio caudâque albis: subtùs purè albus, subalaribus cinereo lavatis: rostro cruentato, culmine et apice pallidioribus: pedibus pallidiùs cruentatis: iride argenteoalbâ: annulo ophthalmico cruentato.

Juv. scapularibus et tectricibus alarum brunneo maculatis et marmoratis: primariis albo minùs notatis, secundariis conspicuè brunneo lavatis.

Adult. General plumage pure white; the back, scapulars, and upper surface of wings pale ash-grey; anterior edge of wings and four of the large outer coverts white; first primary white at the base, black in its median portion, the shaft and then the whole surface becoming white, finally banded near the tip with black; the second similar to the first, but with more white at the base, the inner web being margined with black, the median black less extended, and the shaft wholly white, with the same extent of white beyond, but a broader subterminal band of black; the third primary for two thirds of its length white, edged on the inner web with dusky black, the rest of the feather black, the white, however, being continued on the shaft till it spreads into a paddle-shaped mark on the inner web, about halfway down from the tip, which is also white; the fourth primary white, with the inner web wholly covered towards the base and margined towards the end with dusky black, with a subterminal band of black fully an inch in width; on the fifth quill the dusky black changes to dark ash-grey, which spreads over both webs towards the base, and the subterminal band is about half an inch in breadth; on the next quill the extent of white is considerably diminished, and the subterminal band is not only less in breadth but is interrupted by a shaft-line of white; the succeeding quills and the secondaries are wholly ash-grey, slightly paler at the tips. Irides silvery white; bill dark arterial red, lighter on the ridge and towards the tip; eyelids and feet pale arterial red, the claws brownish black. Length 14·5 inches; extent of wings 34; wing, from flexure, 11·25; tail 5; bill, along the ridge 1·25, along the edge of lower mandible 1·75; bare tibia ·5; tarsus 1·75; middle toe and claw 1·75.

Obs. It should be observed that the markings on the primaries vary slightly in different individuals. The above description is taken from a fine specimen in perfect plumage.

In the nuptial season the male birds (if not both sexes) have the plumage of the breast and sides suffused with a delicate roseate tint. When the sun is shining on a group of these pretty birds, as they rest on the sands, this hue is visible even at a distance of twenty yards or more.

Younng*. The young bird of the first year has the upper wing-coverts shaded and blotched more or less with page 56 brown; scapulars even more so, the dark colour occupying the centre of the feather, the margins being whitish; the first primary white at the base, then entirely black in its whole length, excepting only a fusiform spot of white about ·75 of an inch in extent in its apical portion; the next quill is similar, but with more white at the base and a much smaller apical spot; the three succeeding quills white on their outer webs, in their basal portion, entirely black beyond; the secondaries are ash-grey at the base, blackish brown in their apical portion, and tipped with lighter grey. Irides purplish brown; bill yellowish brown, blackish at the tip; legs and feet pale flesh-red.

Fledgling. The following scries collected by myself, at one time and in the same nesting-place, exhibits the development of the fledgling:—

No. 1. Is just feathered, but with tufts of blackish-brown down still adhering to the plumage of the head and neck and above the tail; the quills are about four inches long, and their coverts as well as the scapulars are blackish brown, edged with fulvous; irides, bill, and legs black.

No. 2. More advanced but unable to fly; has the irides black, the bill dull brown, with a darker tip, and the legs paler brown; the first primary marked with a fusiform spot of white about the centre and having a minute terminal spot; tail-feathers with a subapical bar of blackish brown on their inner web.

No. 3. Just able to fly; has scarcely any indication of brown spots on the wings, but they are conspicuous on the scapulars, and reappear on the inner secondaries; the first primary is marked as in No. 2, but, owing to the development of the feather from its sheath, being much nearer to the distal end, the second primary with a smaller white spot about an inch from the tip, and the third black, but all of them having white terminal points; tail white.

No. 4. Similar to No. 3 and of same age; but having the wing-coverts blackish brown largely margined with fulvous, and the dark markings on the scapulars reduced to a rounded subapical spot.

Obs. It ought to be mentioned that the size and form of the apical spots on the primaries, and the extent of the brown markings on the secondaries, are very variable in different examples. I have seen a young bird with the white apical markings described above entirely wanting in one wing, and represented in the other only by a small round spot on the inner web of the first primary.

This pretty little Gull is one of our commonest birds, frequenting every part of the coast and being equally plentiful at all seasons of the year. It is a bird of very lively habits, and its presence goes far to relieve the monotony of a ride over such dreary stretches of sand as the Ninety-mile Beach and the coast-line between Wanganui and Wellington. At one time you will meet with a flock of fifty or more in council assembled, fluttering their wings, chattering and screaming in a state of high excitement; at another you will observe them silently winnowing the air, turning and passing up and down at regular intervals, as they eagerly scan the surface of the water. Here you find them ranged apart along the smooth beach like scouts on a cricket-ground; there you see a flock of them packed together on a narrow sand-spit, standing closer than a regiment of soldiers—heads drawn in, one foot up, “standing at ease.” Then again, if you observe them closely, you may see them following and plundering the Oyster-catcher in a very systematic manner. Nature has furnished the last-named bird with a long bill, with which it is able to forage in the soft sand for blue crabs and other small crustaceans. The Red-billed Gull is aware of this, and cultivates the society of his long-billed neighbour to some advantage; he dogs his steps very perseveringly, walking and flying after him, and then quietly standing by till something is captured, when he raises his wings and makes a dash at it. The Oyster-catcher may succeed in flying off with his prey; but the plunderer, being swifter on the wing, pursues, overtakes, and compels a surrender. The gentleman of the long bill looks gravely on page 57 while his crab is being devoured; and having seen the last of it he gives a stifled whistle and trots off in search of another, his eager attendant following suit.

It frequents our harbours in large numbers, hovering round the shipping and associating freely with the Black-backed Gull; but although it often follows the vessel from its anchorage it does not venture so far out to sea as its larger congener. It also goes inland to feed, and large flocks, numbering several hundred birds, may sometimes be seen in the grass-paddocks, or following the plough on the settlers’ farms, miles away from any sheet of water. In the month of March I met with a considerable flock of them at Sulphur Point in Lake Rotorua.

The light hovering flight and pretty aerial movements of this bird around and amongst the shipping at its moorings is quite a distinctive feature of our ports. Its ordinary cry is cre-cre-cre; but when alarmed or excited this becomes prolonged into cr-e-e-ō cr-e-e-ō.

At Maketu, near the ancient landing-place, there is a conspicuous grove of karamu (Coprosma lucida). The Maori tradition is that these trees sprang from the skids brought ashore from the Arawa canoe and used for hauling her up, when the first inhabitants landed on this coast some five hundred years ago. In deference to this widely accepted tradition, this clump of trees has, from time immemorial, been strictly tapu. About the year 1845 a native named Hororiri, in a fit of melancholy, hung himself on one of the karamu trees; but so sacred was the spot that none of his friends would venture in to cut him down. His body accordingly dangled there till it fell; and when I visited the place in 1880, human bones were still to be seen on the ground. My reason, however, for mentioning the place in the present connection is this: at the season when the karamu-berries are ripe hundreds of the Red-billed Gull resort to this clump of trees and, perching on the topmost twigs, eagerly devour the fruit—a circumstance in the history of this species which has not hitherto been observed elsewhere. Captain Mair assures me that he has often been an eye-witness of this himself. He adds:—“They were so tame that I could have knocked them down with my walking-stick. I also saw them in great numbers in the corn-fields at Maketu, and again near Tauranga yesterday (May 12). I saw a man ploughing up a grass-field; a flock of three or four hundred of these beautiful little creatures followed his furrow so closely that they seemed almost to settle between his feet.”

By the end of January most of the young birds have started in life on their own account; although, owing to the gregarious instinct of the species, they often remain for months in association with the old birds. At Ohinekoau, a few miles south of Matata, I observed (as early as Jan. 17) a full-grown young bird following its parents. The latter were very tame, hovering within a few feet of us in an inquisitive fashion, whilst the young one, uttering a low whimpering cry, occupied itself in catching flies on a flowering shrub at the water’s edge. This was at the very spot where, in 1864, our faithful ally, Winiata Tohiteururangi, badly wounded in both hip and shoulder, during an engagement with the Ngatiporou, breathed his last,—telling his panic-stricken followers to fight on bravely under the British flag. The magnificent pohutukawa tree against which rested the body of the dying chief is still pointed out to the traveller.

During the breeding-season, which extends over December and January, this Gull resorts to the river-beds and to the shores of lakes a short distance from the sea, often nesting in large colonies, and depositing its eggs on the bare ground with little attempt at preparation. About the middle of January I visited one of these breeding-places in the Bay of Plenty. The young at this time, although fully fledged, were unable to fly, but took readily to the water. On catching one of them it disgorged from its throat some small fish with which it had just been fed. This food was in a semi-digested state, and had doubtless undergone some process of deglutition in the crop of the old bird before being served. The eggs are generally three in number, broadly ovoido-conical in form, measuring 2·1 inches in length by 1·5 in breadth; they vary in colour from greenish white to a pale yellowish brown, spotted and marked with greyish purple and brown, more thickly towards the larger end.

* Professor Hutton, in the “Critical Notes” appended to his ‘Catalogue of the Birds of N. Z.’ (p. 78), says that the young of L. scopulinus is similar in its colours to the adult, whilst the bird he distinguishes as L. jamesoni has brown feathers on the wings at all ages. In this he is absolutely wrong, for I have traced the young of the former from its earliest condition as a fledgling, and there can be no question of the correctness of my diagnosis as given above. The L. jamesoni of Prof. Hutton’s Catalogue is undoubtedly the young of L. scopulinus.