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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ardea Novæ Hollandiæ. — (White-Fronted Heron.)

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Ardea Novæ Hollandiæ.
(White-Fronted Heron.)

  • White-fronted Heron, Phillip, Voy. Bot. Bay, i. p. 163, pl. 27 (1789).

  • Ardea novæ hollandiæ, Lath. Gen. Ind. ii. p. 701 (1790, ex Phillip).

  • Ardea leucops, Wagl. Syst. Av. Ardea, sp. 17 (1827).

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

  • Demiegretta novæ hollandiæ, Gray, Hand-1. of B. iii. p. 28 (1871).

Native name.—Matuku-moana.

Ad. suprà dilutè schistaceo-cinereus, pileo cristato saturatiore: interscapulio scapularibusque pallidioribus, cinereis, quasi strigatis: tectricibus alarum dilutè cinereis: remigibus schistaceo-nigricantibus, secundariis clarè cinereo lavatis: rectricibus schistaceo-cinereis, versus apicem brunnescentibus; fronte et supercilio lato, facie laterali et gutture toto albis: regione paroticâ et collo laterali cinereis: subtùs pallidè cinereus, collo undique saturatiore, jugulo medio et imo pallidè rufescente: subalaribus pallidè cinereis, albicantibus: regione oculari pallidè virescenti-flavâ: rostro nigro, versus basin mandibulæ albicante: pedibus flavicantibus, tarsis imis digitisque virescentibus: iride Iætè flavâ.

Adult. Forehead, apace round the eyes, and throat white; crown of the head dark cinereous or bluish grey, the occipital feathers rather elongated, and lighter; sides of the head, neck, and all the upper parts bright cinereous, with a warm purplish tinge; the back ornamented with a series of long lanceolate plumes of a lighter colour, some of which extend beyond the scapulars; down the fore neck a stripe of buff, changing below to yellowish brown; the long plumes overlapping the breast very soft in texture, and of a roseate purple tint; underparts generally pale cinereous brown, slightly tinged with purple; quills and tail-feathers dark slate-grey. Irides bright yellow; edges of eyelids, bare part of lores, and membrane surrounding the angle of the mouth pale greenish yellow; bill black, the lower mandible whitish towards the base; legs yellow, tinged more or less with dusky green on the toes and lower part of tarai; claws pale brown. Length 25·5 inches; extent of wings 42; wing, from flexure, 12; tail 5; bill, along the ridge 3, along the edge of lower mandible 4; bare tibia 2; tarsus 3·5; middle toe and claw 2·6; hind toe and claw 1·75.

Young. Differs from the adult in having more white about the head and neck, and a darker tinge of brown on the underparts; the dorsal plumes, moreover, are scanty, and the delicate purplish tint on the breast is altogether wanting.

The White-fronted Heron is very sparingly dispersed over the New-Zealand coasts, being extremely rare at the far north; but, according to Gould, it is very abundant over every part of Tasmania, the Colonies of New South Wales, South Australia, and Swan River. “Low sandy beaches washed by the open ocean, arms of the sea, and the sides of rivers and lagoons, both in the interior of the country and near the coast, are equally tenanted by it; consequently it is one of the commonest species of the genus in all the countries above mentioned, and may frequently be seen walking knee-deep in the water of the salt marshes in search of food, which consists of crabs, fish, and marine insects. Its flight is heavy and flapping, like that of the other Herons; but it runs more quickly over the ground, and is continually moving about when searching for food, and never stands motionless in the water page 135 as the true Herons do: these active habits are, in fact, necessary to enable it to capture insects and crabs, upon which it mainly subsists.”

In the Hairini bay, at Tauranga, I saw a pair of these birds on the flats just above the bridge. They stalked about with a loftier mien than Ardea sacra, and were readily distinguishable, even at some distance, by the lighter grey of their plumage*.

The Blue Heron seems to prefer the rock-bound coast, springing from one jutting stone to another as it searches for its prey. The White-fronted Heron, on the other hand, is generally to be seen on the hard sandy beaches and mud-flats within the river-mouths and estuaries. You will see him stalking about alone on the beach, as if for the mere pleasure of exercising his limbs; then he flies off to a small rock standing out of the water and takes up a position for fishing. He balances his body horizontally, holds back his head and watches; then with the rapidity of thought he strikes forward, plunging his head into the water and bringing out a struggling victim. I have watched one thus engaged for a considerable time through a powerful binocular, and I have seen it catch minnows fully five inches in length, and in the intervals turn its attention to smaller fry, by snatching at flies or other insects passing within its reach. I have observed the same thing on watching some captive ones in the Acclimatization Gardens at Sydney; for they were perpetually chasing flies and other insects that came within their enclosure.

A pair of these birds which I obtained in the Porirua Harbour, near Wellington, in the month of April, had their stomachs filled with shrimps.

It is strange that although the Blue Heron breeds freely on the small islands lying off the Bay of Plenty, this species is never found nesting there. This may, however, be due to the relative scarcity of the bird.

“Some nests,” writes Mr. Gould (Handb. B. Austr. ii. p. 299), “I observed in the month of October 1838, on the banks of the Derwent, were placed on the tops of the smaller gum-trees, and most of them contained newly hatched birds. Mr. Kermode informed me that it annually breeds in the neighbourhood of his estate, near the centre of Tasmania. The nest is of a moderate size, and is composed of sticks and leaves. The eggs are four in number, of a pale bluish green, one inch and seven eighths long by one inch and a quarter broad.”

* Mr. Edward Wakefield, under the head of “Science Gossip,” writes:—“There is another bird, the White-fronted Heron (Ardea novæ hollandiæ), which is much rarer in New Zealand than the Blue Heron, but which is, nevertheless, not only not unknown here, but fairly well known. It is only found by accident, as it were, here and there. It is not properly a New-Zealand bird at all. It is a very common Australian bird, and is a mere passing visitor in this country. Still, it is a New-Zealand bird, in a sense, because it breeds here sometimes. But it is only very sparsely distributed on our coasts. A friend of mine at Collingwood, a digger, who knew a good deal about natural history, told me that he had observed these birds in the southern estuaries of Blind Bay for years, and gave me a description of their habits, which left me no doubt in my mind of the truth of his statements. I am quite prepared to admit, however, that the White-fronted Heron is a very uncommon bird, and that is why I bring it into notice here. It is very like the Blue Heron, except that it has a white forehead, space round the eyes and throat, and the colour of its plumage all over is ever so much lighter than that of the Blue Heron. To sum it up, I should say that Ardea novæ hollandiæ is like a washed-out specimen of Ardea sacra.

Mr. C. H. Robson writes to me from Portland Island:—“I ought to inform you that a peculiar-looking Heron comes to catch fish on some rocks at our landing-place, and I have a fine view of him from a cliff close to the house, about 250 feet high; he seems to me much larger than either Ardea sacra or A. novæ hollandiæ; his head and neck are much darker than in those birds, being almost black, and, except a white line over the bill, there seems to be no more white about him; the wings and back are a light slate-grey; legs and feet yellow. I should think he must be quite 4 feet long. Do you know such a bird? I shall make every effort to secure him. In the mean time I study his habits with a good binocular race-glass.”