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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Ardea Maculata. — (Little Bittern.)

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Ardea Maculata.
(Little Bittern.)

  • Spotted Heron, Lath. Gen. Syn. Suppl. ii. p. 305 (1801).

  • Ardea maculata, Lath. Ind. Orn. Suppl. ii. p. lxiv (1801, nec Bodd., nec Vieill.).

  • Ardea pusilla, Vieill. N. Dict. d’Hist. Nat. xiv. p. 432 (1817).

  • Ardetta punctata, Gray, Cat. Grallæ Brit. Mus. p. 83 (1844).

  • Ardetta pusilla, Gould, Birds of Austr. vi. pl. 68 (1848).

  • Ardeola pusilla, Bonap. C. R. xl. p. 722 (1855).

  • Ardeola novæ zealandiæ, Purdie, Trans. N.-Z. Inst. iii. p. 99 (1870).

  • Ardetta maculata, Buller, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed. p. 235 (1873).

Native name.—Kaoriki.

Ad. ♂ pileo cæruleo-nigro: supercilio distincto, facie et collo lateralibus sordidè ferrugineis, regione paroticâ, stramineâ: dorso toto nigro, plumis quibusdam brunneo, ferrugineo aut stramineo extùs lavatis: tectricibus alarum ochrascentibus, minoribus dorsalibus et exterioribus ferrugineis nigro medialiter notatis: alâ cærulescenti-nigrâ, tectricibus majoribus, alâ spuriâ et remigibus ferrugineo limbatis aut apicaliter maculatis: caudâ cærulescenti-nigrâ: gutture toto albo, utrinque ferrugineo, plumis medialiter saturatiùs brunneis et stramineo conspicuè lavatis: corpore reliquo subtùs albicante, hypochondriis plumis medialiter nigris, quasi striatis, ferrugineo aut stramineo marginatis: subalaribus ochrascentibus, medialiter brunneis, margine alari undique albo: regione oculari flavicanti-viridi: rostro saturatè brunneo, lateraliter et versus basin flavicanti-viridi: pedibus lætè viridibus, tarso superiore digitisque brunneo tinctis: iride aureâ.

Juv. ♂ mari similis sed sordidior: tectricibus medianis alarum stramineis medialiter brunneis: gutture minus distinctè notato.

Adult. Forehead, crown of the head, and nape bluish black; throat and front of the neck tawny buff, each feather shaded in the centre with brown; from the chin and down the fore neck an irregular streak of reddish brown; on the sides of the neck the buff passes gradually into a rich chestnut; and this colour is continued on the sides of the head, forming a broad streak over the eyes, and another, less distinct, to the angles of the mouth, mixed with tawny yellow on the ear-coverts; underparts pale buff, each feather centred more or less with black; on each side of the chest the black predominates, forming broad acuminate stripes; the whole of the back and the feathers composing the mantle bronzy black, tinged more or less with chestnut, the scapulars margined with tawny buff; quills and tail-feathers bluish black, slaty on their under surface, the inner primaries, as well as their coverts and most of the secondaries, tipped with chestnut-brown; the primary coverts and a patch of feathers near the flexure pale chestnut, edged with fulvous, the former centred more or less with black; the small wing-coverts and the whole of the secondary coverts blackish brown, broadly edged with yellowish buff, and presenting a handsome appearance. Irides golden yellow; eyelids and bare space in front of the eyes yellowish green; bill dark brown along the ridge and at the tip, yellowish green on the sides and towards the base of both mandibles; legs and feet bright green, stained at the tarsal joint and along the toes with dark brown. Length 15 inches; wing, from flexure, 6·25; tail 2; bill, along the ridge 2·2, along the edge of lower mandible 2·75; bare tibia ·5; tarsus 2·1; middle toe and claw 2·5; hind toe and claw 1·5.

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Young. Differs from the adult in having the plumage of the back darker, and the wing-coverts of a rich tawny buff, shading into chestnut on the secondary coverts and towards the flexure.

Obs. The Otago Museum contains two specimens—one from Jackson’s Bay, the other from Lake Wakatipu. They are adult birds, but not “sexed,” and both are in the same plumage, all the wing-coverts having a broad wedge-shaped mark of brownish black down the centre. One has the neck-plumes a little brighter than the other, but they are alike in size and in every other respect.

Remarks. Mr. Gould, in his account of this species in Australia, states that “the sexes differ considerably from each other, the female being mottled and of a smaller size than the male;” and he gives the following description of the former:—“Head and back chestnut; wing-coverts very deep tawny, passing into chestnut on the tips of the coverts and secondaries; primaries grey, tipped with brown; tail black; sides of the neck pale chestnut; front of the throat and the under surface white, with a stripe of tawny down the middle, and a small streak of brown in the centre of each feather, the brown hue predominating and forming a conspicuous mark down the throat”*. No specimen has yet been obtained in New Zealand answering to the above account; but, so far as I can learn, the supposed example of the female in the Canterbury Museum (corresponding more nearly in plumage to the young as described above) was not dissected; and without this it would of course be impossible to determine the sex. The young bird from which I have taken my description exhibits one or two new feathers among the wing-coverts, marked, as in the adult, with abroad central streak of blackish brown, thus indicating a transition to the more handsome variegated plumage; and Dr. Garland, who dissected the specimen, informs me that it proved to be a male. The bird described by Mr. Purdie (l. c.) with “rufous-brown eyes and buff wing-coverts” was evidently in an immature state.

Note. Since the publication of my first edition, two more specimens have been received at the Canterbury Museum, and these proved on dissection to be male and female. If the “sexing” in these cases in to be relied on, it would seem that, in our New-Zealand bird, the sexes are alike, the plain tawny wing-coverts being only a sign of immaturity.

This Little Bittern is undoubtedly the true representative in our hemisphere of the Ardea minuta of Europe, to which it bears a very close resemblance both in appearance and in habits. It is a very rare species in Australia, where, according to Gould, only a few individuals have as yet been procured, and all of these from one locality. It is equally rare in New Zealand, and appears to be scarcely less local in its distribution. The first recorded specimens (two in number) were obtained by Mr. Shaw at Kanieri, on the west coast, in March 1868, and forwarded to the Canterbury Museum, where they are still preserved. Subsequently a third specimen was obtained in one of the swampy creeks that feed the Okarita lagoon—and another at the head of the Whakatipu Lake, above Queenstown, in the Province of Otago. I am indebted to the kindness of Mr. Clapcott and Dr. Garland respectively for the specimens of the adult and young from which the above descriptions are taken; both of these were obtained in the vicinity of the Hokitika township, in the autumn of 1871 .

Mr. Docherty, who collected some of the examples enumerated above, has furnished the following interesting notes on the subject:—“They are to be found on the salt-water lagoons on the seashore, always hugging the timbered side of the same. I have seen them in two positions, viz.:—standing on the bank of the lagoon, with their heads bent forward, studiously watching the water; at other times I have seen them standing straight up, almost perpendicular; I should say this is the proper page 138 position for the bird to be placed in when stuffed. When speaking of lagoons as the places where they are to be found, I may mention that I caught one about two miles in the bush, on the bank of a creek; but the creek led to a lagoon. They live on small fishes or the roots of reeds; I should say the latter, because at the very place where I caught one I observed the reeds turned up and the roots gone. They are very solitary, and always found alone, and they stand for hours in one place. I heard a person say that he had opened one and found a large egg in it. They breed on the ground in very obscure places; I never heard their cry.”

Dr. Ramsay writes of this bird in Australia:—“This beautiful little species is still plentiful in the neighbourhood of Cleveland Bay, and also in the Herbert river district; from both these places have I received specimens. The species was once tolerably numerous near Sydney; and there are still specimens in the Dobroyde collection which were shot at Botany Bay and near Newtown. I observe no difference in plumage or size in the Northern Queensland specimens and those shot near Sydney.”

Mr. Potts, in his account of the specimens in the Canterbury Museum, states that “they were taken alive without any very great difficulty, after which they were turned loose amongst the fowls in a poultry-yard. They were found dead shortly afterwards—it is alleged, from exposure to the keen frosty night air, being deprived of the accustomed protection afforded by the thickly-growing sedgy vegetation of their swampy habitat. They had been observed standing motionless on a bare stem or stalk, from which they overlooked the water… . . It is stated that the Little Bittern is so quiet in his habits that it will remain still when approached, and almost suffer itself to be taken by the hand.”

I had an opportunity of observing one of these birds in a state of captivity at Hokitika, in May 1871. It had been taken only a few days before, and was already comparatively tame. Its usual posture was one of repose, with the head drawn in and resting on the shoulders; but when alarmed or excited it assumed a very different attitude, standing almost bolt upright, with the body resting, as it were, on the tarsal joints, these being brought close together, the neck stretched upwards to its full extent and perfectly rigid, the beak elevated, and the eyes directed outwards and downwards in such a way as to command a full view in front without having to move the head. On being turned out in the verandah it ran quickly and spread its wings, but did not make any attempt to fly, and after a short interval endeavoured to re-enter its cage. It evinced great alarm on the appearance of a cat, stretching up its neck and emitting a peculiar snapping cry. At other times when molested it uttered a cry not unlike that of the Kingfisher, although not so loud. Mr. McNee, to whom the bird belonged, informed me that he could not get it to eat any thing till he produced a dish of water containing some “mudfish,” which it instantly seized and devoured. This singular fish (named by Dr. Günther Neochanna apoda) is very common in the Hokitika district, being found in all the creeks and surface-ponds in the woods which here cover the whole face of the country. The remarkable part of their history is that on the pools becoming dry these mudfish burrow into the moist soil or clay, often to the depth of two feet, remaining there for an indefinite time, or till the return of rainy weather has rendered their pools habitable again. Archdeacon Harper informed me that he himself dug up two of these mudfish in comparatively hard clay in his garden, at a depth of more than three feet from the surface, where they were occupying artificially formed chambers. Another curious fact, which I give on the testimony of Mr. McNee, is that several of these mudfish after being exposed in his verandah for a whole night, and apparently lifeless, recovered their vitality on being restored to a basin of water; and when shown to me on the following day they certainly exhibited a great amount of activity. I think it highly probable that the mudfish constitutes the chief food of the Little Bittern; for as many of the surface pools are never dry, there would be no difficulty in finding a supply all the year round. I may mention also that Mr. Clapcott’s bird, while alive in his possession, was fed on worms, and that it would only take them when placed in a saucer or other vessel containing water.

* Writing of the Dwarf Bitterns in India, Blyth says:—“The male acquires his final livery at the first moult, the female not before the third or fourth moult; in the meanwhile she presents an intermediate garb, which is ultimately exchanged for the same livery as that of the male.”

I am indebted to the Rev. W. Colenso, F.R.S., for the following note:—“As far back as the year 1836 the Rev. Mr. Stack obtained at Tauranga a specimen of the Little Bittern, and sent it to the late Gilbert Mair, Esq., J.P., who presented it to me. It was alive in my possession for some time, and I ultimately sent the skin to the Linnean Society. None of the natives in the district knew the bird.”