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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Sterna Antarctica. — (Black-Fronted Tern.)

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Sterna Antarctica.
(Black-Fronted Tern.)

  • Sterna antarctica, Wagler, Isis, 1832, p. 1223.

  • Hydrochelidon albostriata, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terr., Birds, p. 19, pl. 21 (1844).

  • Sternula antarctica, Bonap. C. R. xlii. p. 773 (1856).

  • Hydrochelidon albistriata, Bonap. C. R. xlii. p. 773 (1856).

  • Sterna cinerea, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7473.

  • Hydrochelidon hybrida, Finsch, J. f. O. 1867, p. 347.

Native name.—Tara.

Ad. æstiv. suprà saturatè cinereus, uropygio conspicuè albo: capite summo nuchâque nigris: lineâ faciali a rostri basi directè per regionem paroticam ductâ, albâ: genis et corpore subtùs toto pulchrè cinereis, subcaudalibus albis: remigibus extùs cinerascentibus, intùs albis, scapia albis, primario primo extüs nigricante: caudâ dilutè cinereâ, rectricibus versùs basin albis, rectrice extimâ ferè omninô albâ, versùs apicem cinerascente: rostro lætè flavo: pedibus lætè flavis, unguibus saturatè brunneis: iride nigrâ.

Ad. hiem. similis ptilosi æstivæ, sed fronte et pileo cinerascenti-albis, nigro variis.

Juv. pileo summo et laterali saturatè cinerascentibus: lineâ a basi rostri per oculum ductâ et ad torquem nuchalem angustam conjunctâ, nigricante, albo variâ: tectricibus alarum, scapularibus et secundariis intimis brunneo subterminaliter notatis: rostro nigro, versùs apicem brunnescente: pedibus sordidè flavis.

Adult in summer. Top and sides of the head and nape velvety black; from the gape a broad streak of white passes under the eyes, and is continued to the nape, forming a border to the black plumage; upper and lower tail-coverts pure white; the rest of the body beautiful pearl-grey, darker on the upper surface; wing-feathers darker grey, with white shafts, the first primary margined on the outer web with dusky black; tail-feathers dark pearl-grey, the outermost ones inclining to white, and all of them white on their under surface. Irides black; bill bright yellow, sometimes shaded with brown towards the base of the upper mandible; legs and feet bright yellow, the claws dark brown. Total length 12 inches; wing, from flexure, 10·25; tail 4·5 (middle feather 1·75 inch shorter); bill, along the ridge 1·1, along the edge of lower mandible 1·5; tarsus ·6; middle toe and claw 1; hind toe and claw ·2.

Adult in winter. Differs only in having the forehead and crown greyish white, mottled with black.

Young. Top and sides of the head dark ash-grey; the lores, a mark beyond the eyes (sometimes the vertex), and a narrow nuchal collar obscurely mottled with black; throat whitish; upper wing-coverts, scapulars, and long inner secondaries with a subterminal mark of brown, and with paler tips; the rest of the plumage as in the adult. Bill black, inclining to light brown towards the base; legs and feet dull yellow.

Younger state. Crown and nape greyish brown mottled with black; a small spot of black in front of the eyes, and a larger one behind covering the ears and spreading outwards; plumage of the upper parts much darker than in the adult; upper wing-coverts, scapulars, and inner secondaries blackish brown, darker towards the end and terminally margined with dull ochreous yellow; tail-feathers blackish brown in their apical portion and narrowly tipped with white; underparts clouded with grey; throat, part of fore neck, and under tail-coverts pure white. Bill brown, changing to yellow towards the base of lower mandible.

page 71

This handsome Tern is very common in every part of the South Island, but is not so plentiful to the north side of Cook’s Strait.

In the Canterbury Province it is particularly abundant, frequenting all the river-courses, and often spreading far over the plains. Within a few miles of the city of Christchurch I have observed it, in large flights, following the farmer’s plough and picking up grubs and worms from the newly turned earth. I once saw a Hawk swoop down amongst a flock occupied in this manner and single out a bird for pursuit, but the active Tern easily evaded its enemy and then returned to its occupation behind the plough. It also frequents the cornfields and pastures, and, by devouring caterpillars and other insect pests, proves itself a valuable friend to the agriculturist.

It is remarkably active on the wing, performing very rapid evolutions, and often chasing its fellows in a playful manner and with much vociferation. When resting on the ground, the members of a flock stand closely packed together, and may be seen constantly stretching their wings upwards in the peculiar manner already noticed in treating of Sterna frontalis.

There is a spot of great beauty on the Waikato river where the Karapiro creek empties its placid waters into the turbulent stream of the “tua-whenua.” The place I refer to is just below the bridge on the outskirts of the township of Cambridge—the furthest point on the river navigable for steamers. Immediately below this bridge there is a rocky obstruction in the bed of the river which causes an eddy of considerable force and velocity. The basin below is comparatively smooth, the river widening again at this point; and the banks, clothed with rank verdure, rise abruptly on both sides of the Waikato. Beyond are the well-kept homesteads of the settlers and far away in the background the rugged outlines of Maungakawa and Pukekura. In this picturesque spot, for the best part of a fine Sunday afternoon in spring, my thoughts absorbed “with the fairy tales of science and the long result of time,” I watched a pair of these birds disporting in the air. For hours together they coursed up and down this little reach in the river, never once dipping to the stream—indeed the water was too rapid at this point to allow of surface fish being found there: high above the water, now with a winnowing Pigeon-flight, now hovering a moment in the air—rising and falling with the play of their changeful fancy—coursing first up stream to near the bridge, then wheeling round; sometimes skimming low at the place where the rapids were boiling over their rocky bed, as if to take a closer observation, and then, on reaching the bend in the river, sharply wheeling back again; and so on and on, now higher now lower, regulating their more rapid actions by a dexterous movement of their swallow-tails, and at every turn showing the snowy whiteness of their tail-coverts and their lovely coral bills. So these pretty fairy beings for hours together, without a rest and apparently for sheer enjoyment, continued to beat the air with their pointed pinions, seldom uttering a sound except when in close proximity to each other, and then ke-e was the simple watchword.

From watching these aerial performers in their fantastic flight till the sun had declined and its shadows had vanished, I ascended the high bank overlooking the river and witnessed one of those gorgeous sunsets on the Pirongia range for which this part of the North Island is so justly celebrated. No artist’s brush can depict the glory nor human tongue describe the splendour of this sunset display. Presenting to the eye mountains of burnished gold in a sea of matchless colours and brilliant effects, the illusion lasts but a little while and then melts away in ever-varying coruscations of golden light till the sky is bathed in a soft grey twilight, to be quickly succeeded by the shades of night. Even Mr. Procter, the famous astronomer, declares that although in the sunset displays of America and Australia he has seen colours more striking, yet “for combined beauty and grandeur” the sunset which he once witnessed in New Zealand surpassed anything he had ever seen.

From Hamilton Bridge, lower down the river, on a subsequent occasion, I watched a pair of these Terns engaged in the more serious business of fishing. Here, again, nothing could be more pretty than the arrowy flight of this bird up and down the stream. Skimming near the surface and page 72 almost touching the water, it would ever and anon poise itself in the air for a few seconds, as if to take steady aim, and then drop upon its finny prey—a small kind of Galaxias. Immediately on capturing this it would sweep upwards so as to have some play in the air as the little fish fell from its beak and had to be caught again in the right position for swallowing. Up and down the open reach these birds kept up this untiring flight for hours together, their lively grey and white plumage shown off to the best advantage against the dark banks and deep waters of the Waikato.

On one occasion, however, when travelling in the Lower Waikato, I observed a very considerable flock in a meadow quite close to the railway-line, where several ploughs were at work. I have also met with smaller flocks at Onehunga, Maketu, Hastings North, and at the mouths of the Rangitikei and Wanganui rivers.

Mr. Kirk writes that the local name of this bird, in the neighbourhood of Cape Kidnappers, is the “Plough-bird” or “Plough-boy,” given on account of the persistent manner in which it follows the farmer’s plough for the purpose of picking up the grubs and worms that are exposed in this operation.

On the habits of this species far inland, Captain Mair has sent me the following interesting note:—“During the calm summer evenings in December, 1879, I observed hundreds of these little birds flying round the clumps of black birch trees which here and there dot the course of the Takiahuru stream, running through the Murimotu-karioi plain on the S.E. base of Ruapehu mountain. My curiosity being aroused, I climbed to the top of one of these trees, just after sunset, and obtained a close view of these birds hovering round the trees, and ever and anon darting hither and thither, very much in the zigzag manner in which bats pursue their prey. I found that the birds were chasing small moths, beetles, &c., and now and then when a large green beetle came booming along in its flight from the plain seeking a resting-place in the trees, a score of these pretty little birds would dart after it, uttering soft plaintive cries, till one more lucky than the rest carried off the prize. Both in that month and in the preceding one I found numbers of the young of this species lying, or squatting, on the sand-banks far up the course of the Whangaehu river.”

Like the other Terns * this species breeds in colonies, placing its eggs (usually two in number) on the bare ground, without any attempt at forming a nest. It defends its breeding-place with a considerable amount of spirit, darting towards the intruder’s head, and uttering at the same time its harsh cry. The eggs are of an elegant ovoido-conical form, measuring 1·6 inch in length by 1·2 in breadth; and they present a considerable amount of diversity in their colouring and markings, varying from a pale yellowish brown to a dull olive, and marked over the entire surface with blackish brown, the spots being generally more numerous at the thicker end, but sometimes confluent in the middle, forming an irregular blotched zone. A specimen in the Canterbury Museum has the ground-colour of a pale greenish white, minutely speckled all over, but particularly at the thick end, with purplish brown; another (collected on the 22nd of October) has the entire surface covered with small round spots. One of the specimens in my son’s collection is somewhat ellipto-conical in form, measuring 1·9 inch in length by 1·25 in breadth, and is of a pale cream-colour, thickly and irregularly spotted with blackish brown, in different shades, over the entire surface.