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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ortygometra Affinis. — (Marsh-Rail.)

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Ortygometra Affinis.

  • Ortygometra affins, Gray, Voy. Ereb. and Terror, Birds, p. 14(1844).

  • Porzana affinis, Bonap. C. R. xliii. p. 599 (1856).

  • Rallus punctatus, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7470.

  • Ortygometra pygmæa, Finsch, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. vol. viii. p. 202* (1876).

Native name.—Koitareke.

Ad. suprà ochrascenti-olivaceus, dorsi plumis medialiter nigris et albo vermiculatim aut irregulariter notatis vel marginatis: pileo paullulum obscuriore, nigro notato: tectricibus alarum dorso concoloribus ferè immaculatis, majoribus autem versus apicem albo ocellatis: remigibus brunneis concoloribus, primario extimo albido angustè marginato, secundariis medialiter nigricantibus dorsi colore marginatis et extùs maculis albis notatis: caudâ nigrâ saturaté ochraceo lavatâ: supercilio distincto, facie laterali et corpore subtùs toto cinereis, abdomine imo cum hypochondriis et subcaudalibus nigricantibus, albo aut maculatis vel transfasciatis: subalaribus cinerascentibus, albo notatis: rostro et pedibus pallidè brunneis olivascente tinctis: iride sordidè rubrâ.

Adult. Crown of the head, nape, and all the hind neck rusty brown, with a broad mark of black down the centr of each feather; lower sides of the neck and the upper wing-coverts pale rusty brown, some of the feathers tipped with white; back and mantle brownish black, varied with white and broadly margined with rusty brown; the secondary wing-coverts conspicuously ocellated on both webs, and terminally margined with white; upper tail-coverts dark rusty brown; sides of the head, throat, fore neck, and the whole of the breast pale cinereous grey, fading to silvery grey on the chin; sides of the body, flanks, abdomen, and under tail-coverts blackish brown, crossed by numerous irregular bands of white; wing-feathers dull olive-brown, dusky grey on their under surface, the first primary narrowly margined on the outer web with white; lining of wings greyish brown, obscurely marked with white; tail-feathers blackish brown, with rusty margins and obsolete spots of white. The tongue is furnished with a horny tip. Irides dull red; bill, tarsi, and toes pale brown, tinged with olive. Total length 7·5 inches; wing, from flexure, 3·25; tail 1·6; bill, along the ridge ·7, along the edge of lower mandible ·8; bare tibia ·5; tarsus 1·05; middle toe and claw 1·5; hind toe and claw ·6.

Young. Differs from the adult in having the plumage of the upper surface generally lighter and the sides of the neck and upper parts of the breast much suffused with pale rufous; the banded markings on the flanks are less distinct, the white bars being broken and the black more or less suffused with brown. Irides bright reddish brown; bill pea-green shading into black on the upper mandible; tarsi and toes pale olive, the joints and claws brownish; tongue bluish green. Total length 7 inches; extent of wings 10; wing, from flexure, 3·2.

Obs. The bands on the flanks are more conspicuous in the male, and the ferruginous of the upper parts is brighter; in other respects the sexes are alike. There is no appreciable difference in size.

This species closely resembles the Australian O. palustris, but is distinguishable by its somewhat larger size and the absence of white markings on the primaries.

* Dr. Finsch says:—“Ortygometra pygmæa, Naum. A specimen received from Dr. Haast, under the name of O. affinis, belongs really to this widely-distributed species. I compared it with specimens from various parts of Europe, Australia, and Japan, and cannot detect the slightest constant character to keep it separate.”

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Ortygometra pygmæa (another Australian species) differs from our bird only in having the chin, lower part of breast, and abdomen almost pure white.

Note. On comparing a specimen from Oamaru in the South with one from North Waikato, the former differed only in having the cheeks and the abdomen lighter.

This handsome little Rail is found in both Islands; but it is everywhere extremely rare and difficult to obtain. It frequents the sedgy banks of creeks and rivers and the reed-covered lagoons near the sea-coast. It swims with great facility, and, like other members of the genus, often eludes pursuit by diving. Its food appears to consist principally of aquatic insects and small freshwater mollusks, in the pursuit of which its compressed form enables it to pass deftly among the close-growing vegetation of the swamps. It is also light on its feet; and I have observed it on the Hotuiti lagoon run nimbly along a floating raupo-flag without even dipping its feathers. Except that it nests early in the season (probably about August or beginning of September), very little is at present known of its breeding-habits; but it may be safely inferred that they are in no respect different from those of the closely-allied species inhabiting Australia.

This is, however, one of those recluse species that may exist for years in an inhabited district without ever being detected; such birds, for example, as the Tristan d’Acunha Rail (Gallinula nesiotis), of which Sir George Grey gave me the following interesting account. He had incidentally heard of the existence of a flightless Swamp-hen in that island, and, at his instance, both Mr. Percy Earl and Mr. Edgar Layard had made a thorough search for it, without being able to find it or even to hear anything about it from the residents, who declared that the bird they described was a myth. In course of time a deputation from the inhabitants came to Cape Colony to seek relief from the Governor on account of a general failure in the crops, and a young girl (a native of the island), who had accompanied the party, remained behind as a servant at Government House. After several years’ service she was seized with a yearning to revisit the island of her birth, and begged for permission to go. Sir George told her she might go, but that he would never take her back again unless she brought with her some of the flightless Rails, with which she had professed to be quite familiar. A year afterwards the girl presented herself at Government House, bringing with her a cage containing five of these birds. They were put at once into the aviary, and during the night two of them had their heads torn off by jackals in an adjoining compartment. The three survivors were forwarded to Dr. Sclater, who then characterized and named this hitherto unknown species*.

Unlike the Banded Rail, which is on the increase, this bird is becoming almost extinct. At one time it was comparatively plentiful in the Hawke’s Bay district and further south. The only one I have heard of for some years past was captured alive at Waipawa. The frightened little creature had taken refuge in a bunch of tussock, where it attempted to conceal itself, but was caught by the hand without any difficulty.

It has always been very rare in the far north. The description of the young bird is from a specimen caught by my son’s dog when Pheasant-shooting in the Upper Waikato in November 1882. On dissection it proved to be a male. The stomach contained seeds and black comminuted matter, among which I detected insect-remains and an aquatic grub an inch long. There is a single specimen in the Auckland Museum which was obtained at Whangarei.

A broken specimen of the egg of this species, recently brought by Mr. Henry Travers from the Chatham Islands, is described by Hutton as ·77 inch in breadth, of an olive-brown colour, and highly polished.

* Proc. Zool. Soc. 1861, p. 260, pl. xxx.