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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Aedea Sacra. — (Blue Heron.)

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Aedea Sacra.
(Blue Heron.)

  • Sacred Heron, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 1, p. 92 (1785).

  • Ardea sacra, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 640 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Blue Heron, var. β, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 1, p. 79 (1785).

  • Ardea cærulea, var. γ, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 631 (1788, ex Lath.).

  • Ardea matook, Vieill. Nouv. Dict. d’Hist. Nat. xiv. p. 416 (1817).

  • New-Zealand Heron, Lath. Gen. Hist. B. ix. p. 128 (1824).

  • Ardea jugularis, Wagl. Syst. Av. Ardea, sp. 18 (1827, ex Forster MS.).

  • Ardea asha, Sykes, P. Z. S. 1837, p. 157.

  • Herodias matook, Gray, in Dieff. Trav. ii., App. p. 196 (1843).

  • Ardea novæ hollandiæ, “Lath.,” Licht. ed. Forst. Descr. An. p. 172 (1844).

  • Herodias jugularis, Gray. Cat. Grallæ Brit. Mus. p. 80 (1844).

  • Demiegretta concolor, Blyth, J. A. S. B. xv. p. 372 (1846).

  • Herodias pannosus, Gould, P. Z. S. 1847, p. 221.

  • Ardea pannosa, Gray, Gen. of B. iii., App. p. 25 (1849).

  • Ardea concolor, Gray, Gen. of B. iii., App. p. 25 (1849).

  • Herodias asha, Blyth, Cat. B. Mus. A. S. B. p. 280 (1849).

  • Ardea atra, “Cuv.,” Puch. Rev. et Mag. de Zool. 1851, p. 375.

  • Herodias pannosa, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. ii. p. 120 (1857).

  • Herodias atra, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. ii. p. 121 (1857).

  • Herodias sacra, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. ii. p. 121 (1857).

  • Herodias concolor, Bonap. Consp. Gen. Av. ii. p. 121 (1857).

  • Ardea (Herodias) albolineata, Gray, P. Z. S. 1859, p. 166.

  • Ardea cinerea, Ellman, Zool. 1861, p. 7469 (nec Linn.).

Native names.

Matuku-tai, Matuku-nuia, and Matukutuku.

Ad. suprà fuliginoso-schistaceus, pileo laterali, collo postico et scapularibus elongatis clariùs cinereis: alà et caudà fuliginoso-schistaceis, tectricibus alarum et remigibus extùs clariùs cincreo lavatis: subtùs omninò fuliginoso-schistaceus, gutture purè albo: subalaribus paullò dilutioribus: regione oculari virescenti-flavâ: rostro sordidè flavo, culmine brunnescente ad apicem corneo: pedibus viridescenti-flavis: iride flavâ.

Adult male. General plumage slaty grey, darker on the upper parts, tinged on the lower with brown; a broad line of white down the middle of the throat, and extending, in some examples, down the fore neck. The back is ornamented with a number of narrow lanceolate feathers of a bluish-grey colour, often 7 inches in length, overlying the scapulars; and there are a few similar feathers on the lower part of the neck, over-lapping the breast. The feathers of the nape are long and silky, and of a brighter tint than the surrounding plumage. Irides yellow; loral skin greenish yellow; bill dark yellow, shaded with brown on the ridge and sides, horn-coloured at the tip; tarsi and toes greenish yellow, the claws brown. Length 25 inches; extent page 130 of wings 40; wing, from flexure, 11·5; tail 4; bill, along the ridge 3·5, along the edge of lower mandible 4·25; bare tibia 1·5; tarsus 3; middle toe and claw 2·75; hind toe and claw 1·75.

Female. Has the pectoral and dorsal plumes smaller and duller in colour, with a brown tinge over the entire plumage.

Young. In the young of the first year the plumage is largely stained with brown, especially on the upper parts; all the wing-coverts are shaded with brown towards the tip, with a narrow terminal edging of a lighter tint; and, in certain lights, the entire plumage presents an appearance of vinous brown. There are no pectoral plumes; the gular streak of white, instead of being narrow throughout, expands in the middle; and the bill is dark brown, blackish on the ridge.

Nestling. Covered with slate-coloured down.

Albino. There is an albino in the Otago Museum; general plumage pure white, but with slate-coloured feathers cropping out irregularly all over the body, and more abundantly on the crown and back; the primaries pure white, with only a few touches of colour near the tips, whilst some of the secondaries are almost wholly slate-coloured; tail-feathers parti-coloured, the white, however, being entirely absent on two or three of them; bill and feet as in ordinary specimens. Professor Hutton has marked this as the young state of A. sacra, from the Society Islands. This, however, is a mistake. I have already described the young of that species from the nest. This is undoubtedly another example of albinism with the normal colour persistently endeavouring to assert itself.

Obs. A specimen in my collection (adult ♂)) obtained at Kaiwara, near Wellington, has the occipital plumes continued fully two inches beyond the head.

Remarks. The history of this species has been worked out in an exhaustive manner by Drs. Finsch and Hartlaub, to whose labours I am in a great measure indebted for the very complete synonymy at the head of this article. I am unable, however, to follow these authors in considering Mr. G. R. Gray’s Ardea greyi (Cat. Brit. Mus. Grallæ, p. 80) the same species in the condition of an albino. Mr. Gould once entertained that opinion, but was induced to alter it; and in his ‘Handbook’ (ii. p. 309) he quotes Macgillivray’s observations to the following effect:—“From the circumstance of my having always found this and the dark-coloured species in company, I considered them as the same bird in different states of plumage, their size and proportions being so similar, and was surprised that individuals exhibiting a change from blue to white, or vice versâ, never occurred. At length, while on Dugong Island, I was convinced they were specifically distinct by seeing that the half-grown young from the nest had assumed the distinctive colour of the parents. This was first pointed out to me by Dr. Muirhead, R.N., whose attention I had previously drawn to the subject. The habits of both species are similar; and they procure their food in the same manner at low water on the coral-reefs surrounding the low islands they frequent. The nest and eggs are precisely similar; but the young of this bird is white from the nest.” Although this white form is “abundantly dispersed over the northern and eastern coasts of Australia wherever low islands and reefs of coral running parallel to these coasts occur,” it has never yet been met with in New Zealand, which is a further reason for our refusing to consider it an albino of the common species.

The Blue Heron is not confined to New Zealand, but is found along the whole of the Australian coasts and throughout the Polynesian archipelago; its range extends also to India and Japan, the differences in examples from those countries being too trifling to warrant a specific separation.

In our country the Blue Heron frequents the rocks under the sea-cliffs, and the shores of the sheltered bays and estuaries, where it may be observed moving actively about in search of its food, which consists of small crabs and shell mollusks; or perched on some prominent point of rock, where its constant vigilance renders it difficult of approach except under cover. When disturbed it rises slowly and rather awkwardly, and makes a detour seaward, returning to a neighbouring station on the rocks, or, if alarmed, wings its way slowly across the bay or to some more remote part of the page 131 coast. When on the wing the long neck is doubled in, forming a protuberance in front, and the legs are trailed behind. When hunting for food among the rocks they walk briskly, with the body horizontal and the head drawn in, ready for action.

It is found all round the coasts of the North Island, but appears to be more plentiful on the eastern side.

It does not, as a rule, leave the coast, but a pair was seen on the Taupo Lake in October 1875, and I observed one on the wing at Lake Rotoiti in October 1884. It is tolerably common along the shores of the Bay of Plenty. My son found these birds particularly plentiful during a visit to Raglan in the summer of 1883–84. He writes:—“On one occasion I saw as many as seven flying in company. They kept well together, and about four feet above the water, performing their flight by a regular slow flapping of the wings, never swerving to one side or the other, and presenting a very curious appearance with their heads drawn in upon their shoulders.”

They appear to become attached to particular localities; and I remember a pair of them frequenting a rocky point in the Porirua harbour for several years. Another pair took up their station on the rocks near the Hutt Road in Wellington harbour. These birds, which were always a source of interest to me when travelling on this road, have attracted the notice of others, and are thus pleasantly referred to by Mr. Edward Wakefield, in a “Science Gossip” article, in the ‘Wellington Evening Press’:—

“Railway passengers, as a rule, do not take much notice of objects which they pass. They read papers or books, or stare at one another, or most commonly gaze into space in a melancholy way, evidently thinking of nothing but how soon the journey will be over. Yet it is often worth while to look out of window and observe natural features or peculiarities, if only for a moment or two, as the train creeps past them. We wonder how many travellers by the Hutt train have seen what I have seen, namely, a pair of Herons which frequent the rocks on the harbour beach about midway between Ngahauranga and Petone. These beautiful and uncommon birds have been there for months past and they seem to have taken up their abode there permanently… . . It is usually regarded as an extremely shy and wary bird, having its wits wide awake against danger on all sides, and rising heavily and flapping a circuit out to seaward long before man can approach it. But circumstances seem to alter its habits. I have read somewhere an account by a traveller and a naturalist who said he had seen Blue Herons on an island off the Australian coast so numerous and so tame and fearless that he could, and did, knock them over with a stick. Many birds, of course, which are not in the least shy when first found in lonely places, become so as soon as they know what a cruel destructive animal man is. I can remember when Shags and Sandpipers in New Zealand were so unsophisticated that they would allow themselves to be caught by the hand, and even Redbills would let us come so close that we could kill them with stones. Thus there is nothing in the story of the Blue Herons’ tameness on a desert island at all incompatible with their present reputation for wariness. The boldness of the pair I have seen near Petone is more remarkable, because not only do trains pass close to them many times a day, but the Hutt road is only distant from their haunt a few chains, and fishermen, children, and other intruders are always about. It seems to me a most extraordinary thing that these shy birds should remain there day after day, week after week, month after month, disturbed as they often must be by various visitors to the beach, without apparently betraying the least uneasiness… . . But to me the poor, harmless, beautiful comical creatures are very charming on their own account, popping about among the rocks, pecking here, stalking there, prying into a crevice a little further on, attitudinising gracefully on a rock close by—surely, surely, they are interesting enough in themselves, well worth observing, and—oh, ye pothunters—well worth preserving also!”

Mr. Layard writes from Levuka:—“I have just obtained (2nd November) a pair of young ones page 132 (male and female) from the nest of the species that inhabits this island, and they are dark slate-coloured—much blacker and glossier, in fact, than a slate-coloured bird in full plumage, although long filaments of white down still remain on the head &c. Europeans and natives assure me that they breed in both phases of plumage, and that sometimes a white bird will be mated with a blue one. It nests indifferently on rocks, on the ground, or in the mangrove or other trees that line the sea-shore… . . Now, if the Indian bird is always white when young, as alleged, and our bird is slate-coloured, may not that fact indicate that the two are distinct? Or are the white and slate-coloured birds only dimorphic varieties? Has any one seen the Asiatic race slate-coloured when in the nest, or observed the slate-coloured and white birds breeding together in India?”*

In ‘The Ibis’ for 1879 (p. 221) there appears a letter from the same naturalist (dated Noumea, New Caledonia, 5th December), in which, after referring to Mr. S. B. Dole’s ‘Synopsis of the Birds of the Hawaiian Islands,’ and to the author’s statement respecting A. sacra, “the young birds are wholly white, and the female whiter than the male,” he says:—“Now this is quite in direct opposition to my experience of the bird in Fiji, and accords with my statement of the Ceylonese species (cf. ‘Ibis,’ 1876, p. 176). This opens this very curious question once more, Are they distinct races or species, or are the young in some places white, and in others blue? I hope my brethren of ‘The Ibis’ will, as their opportunities permit them, keep this subject in view. We have the species here; but I do not yet know of any breeding-place.”

Canon Tristram, writing on a collection of birds from the New Hebrides, collected by the Rev. J. Inglis (‘Ibis,’ April 1876, p. 265), says:—“Two specimens in good state from Aneiteum are in the collection. They are considerably larger than Ardea sacra from Samoa. I observe that they sustain the remarks made by Mr. G. R. Gray, who would have separated them under his name of page 133 A. albolineata (P. Z. S. 1859, p. 166). The difference seems to be too slight and uncertain on which to found a species; but if not two species, there are certainly two races in these Pacific Islands, a larger and a smaller, and the two do not appear to be found in the same locality anywhere. Native name ‘Inpaing.’ Mr. Inglis observes that it wades in the sea rather than in streams.”

In the breeding-season I have heard these birds mewing like kittens as they hovered overhead, and were evidently concerned about their nests. On one occasion, when exploring the Rurimu rocks, in the Bay of Plenty, a Heron thus employed was fiercely beset by a colony of Terns (Sterna frontalis), who were themselves under some excitement about their nesting-ground and appeared to regard with suspicion this uncanny mewing in their midst. The Heron was speedily discomfited and put to flight.

Macgillivray states that it “inhabits the islands of the north-east coast of Australia and Torres Strait, and is abundantly distributed from the Capricorn group in lat. 23° 30′ S., as far north as Darnley Island in lat. 9° 35′ S. It procures its food at low water on the coral-reef surrounding the low wooded islands it loves to frequent. Although generally a wary bird, even when little disturbed by man, yet on one occasion on Heron Island I knocked down several with a stick. The nest is usually placed on a tree; but on those islands where there are none, such as Raine’s Islet and elsewhere, it breeds among the recesses of the rocks; where the trees are tall, as at Oomaga or Keat’s Island, the nests are placed near the summit; on Dugong Island they were placed on the root of a tree, on a low stump, or half-way up a low bushy tree. They are shallow in form, eighteen inches in diameter, and constructed of small sticks, and lined with twigs; the eggs are two in number, and of a pale bluish white.” Gilbert, who found this species nesting at Port Essington, says:—“On one small rock I found at least fifty of these nests, some of which were so close as nearly to touch each other. The eggs were sometimes two, and at others three, in number.”

Captain Mair writes:—“On Whale Island I saw some thirty of these birds, and I found a number of their nests in a cave. Those that were fully fledged were a beautiful light blue colour, with bright yellow legs. It was very funny to watch them flying into the high trees, perching among the Shags, and looking very gawky; then, presently, the Shags, with loud guttural noises, would sally forth, chasing them far and wide.”

The “Cranes’ cave,” as it is called, is open to the sea at the entrance, but it extends inwards some 30 feet, and has an elevated or arched roof, and the nests of the Herons are placed on the projecting ledges of rock.

Mr. S. H. Drew, of Wanganui, sends me the following:—“On my last visit to Kapiti I noticed a pair of Blue Herons flying short distances near where we were camped, and from the general demeanour of the birds I concluded that we were not far from their breeding-place. We accordingly proceeded in our boat to a high rocky point protecting a cave into which the sea rolled even at low water. I climbed up about thirty feet, and there found the nest—a rudely constructed clumsy thing with three beautiful light blue eggs in it, one of which I send you. The nest was made of coarse grass and thin sticks, without lining of any sort, and the wonder to me was how the birds with their long legs could sit in such a nest without breaking the eggs, the shell of which is so fragile.”

There is a single egg of this species in the Canterbury Museum; it is of a regular ovoido-elliptical form, measuring 1·9 inch in length by 1·3 in breadth, and of a delicate greenish white. Another received from Hawke’s Bay is of a narrow oval form, measuring 1·9 inch by 1·35 inch, very finely granulate on the surface, and without any gloss. The colour in the dried shell is a delicate pale green, but it was no doubt brighter when fresh. The one in my son’s collection obtained on the Island of Kapiti, as mentioned above, is slightly smaller and of a pale blue colour.

* Hume says (‘Stray Feathers,’ vol. i. p. 254):—“Professor Schlegel and Mr. Gray are certainly wrong in uniting asha, Sykes, with jugularis, Forster; they are probably right in considering concolor, Blyth, as identical with this latter; but asha of Sykes is gularis, and not jugularis. The fact is there are two nearly allied species; the one occurs along the eastern and northeastern coast of Africa up to Suez down the Arabian Coast, and has now been observed by me at Muscat, along the Mekran Coast, and at Kurrachee, and again on the Bombay Coast at Teetul, near Bulsar; and Dr. Jerdon’s description shows clearly that this is the bird which he and Sykes found down the western coast of India. This is gularis; on the other hand, the second species is found in New Zealand, Australia, throughout the Indian Archipelago, and, I have reason to believe, though I have no specimens with me to compare, throughout Burma, up to Ramree Island, in the Nicobars and Andamans, and possibly on the eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal. This latter is jugularis, Forster, pannosa, Gould, concolor, Blyth, and probably sacra, Omelin, the name by which it should, according to Mr. Gray, stand. Both species are typically, when adult, deep slaty blue, becoming more or less black in old birds; both seem to have an allotropic white form, which is not necessarily the young, these having been taken from the nest of the same dark colour as the typical adult, and both have a light slaty grey stage, which appears to me to indicate immaturity, in which a good deal of the centre of the abdomen, vent, and lower tail-coverts are white… . . A very great deal remains to be ascertained in regard to the changes of plumage of both these species, and it is possible that jugularis or sacra may be found to include two species, but gularis and jugularis are clearly distinct, and can be separated at once … . . Gularis has the whole chin, throat, and sides of the head nearly to the gape, and quite to the base of the ear-coverts, white; jugularis or sacra has only a narrow white stripe down the centre of the throat.”

And again (op. cit. vol. ii. p. 304):—“This species is no doubt very variable alike in size and in plumage, even supposing that the white race, of which I shall speak hereafter, he separated as a distinct bird; but it is quite clear, with this very large series that we now possess of the ashy bird, that all those inhabiting the islands of the Bay of Bengal and its eastern coast belong to one and the same species…… Colonel Tytler notes:—‘A distinct specias, which I call provisionally Demiegretta candida, but which may prove identical with D. greyi, and which precisely resembles D. concolor, Blyth, has erroneously been assumed to be the young of this latter. I have had them from the nest, and can certify that the plumage is at all times white, just as that of concolor is always ashy …” And Macgillivray remarks of the bird in Australia:—“I was convinced that they were specifically distinct by seeing that the half-grown young from the nests had assumed the distinctive colour of the parents.”

As regards the white variety, Davison says:—“This species, if it really is a species, and not merely an albinoid variety of H. sacra, is not uncommon about the Andamans and Nicobars. It usually associates with H. sacra; but is so shy and wary that it is almost impossible to get a shot. In size, gait, habits, &c. it is identical with H. sacra, differing only in colour.”