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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Nycticorax Caledonicus. — (Nankeen Night-Heron.)

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Nycticorax Caledonicus.
(Nankeen Night-Heron.)

  • Caledonian Night-Heron, Lath. Gen. Syn. iii. pt. 1, p. 55 (1785).

  • Ardea caledonica, Gm. Syst. Nat. i. p. 626 (1788).

  • Ardea novæ hollandiæ, Vieill. N. Dict. d’Hist. Nat. xiv. p. 436 (1817).

  • Nycticorax caledonicus, Steph. Gen. Zool. xi. p. 613 (1819).

  • New-Holland Night-Heron, Lath. Gen. Hist. ix. p. 62 (1824).

  • Ardea sparrmannii, Wagl. Syst. Av. Ardea, sp. 32 (1827).

  • Nyctiardea caledonica, Gray, Hand-1. of B. iii. p. 33 (1871).

Ad. suprà dilutè cinnamomeus, dorso postico et uropygio paullò pallidioribus: pileo cristato et nuchâ nigris: plumis tribus occipitalibus pendentibus albis: strigâ superciliari, regione oculari et genis anticis albis: facie reliquâ et collo laterali delicatè cinnamomeis: alis et caudâ cinnamomeis omninò dorso concoloribus: subtùs albus, gutture antico et laterali delicatè cinnamomeis: regione oculari virescenti-flavâ: rostro nigro, versus apicem corneo, gonyde corneâ aut flavicante: pedibus sordidè flavis: iride aurantiacâ.

Adult. Crown of the head and the nape glossy black; three occipital plumes, consisting of extremely fine feathers, rolled in the form of a pointed queue, six inches long, pure white, with a narrow shaft-line of brown; sides and hind part of the neck, and the entire upper surface rich cinnamon-brown, this colour being deepest on the shoulders, quills, and tail-feathers; throat, streak over the eyes, sides of face, fore neck, and all the under surface pure white; on the sides of the neck and on the lower part of the body the cinnamon and white are gradually blended. Irides orange; the bare space surrounding them greenish yellow; bill black, horn-coloured or yellowish at the tip and along the lower edge of the under mandible; tarsi and toes dull yellow; claws dark brown. Total length 21 inches; wing, from flexure, 11; tail 4; bill, along the ridge 2·75, along the edge of lower mandible 3·5; bare tibia 1; tarsus 3; middle toe and claw 3·25; hind toe and claw 2·25.

Young. Mr. Gould states that the young bird of the first year has the whole of the upper surface striated with buff and blackish brown, narrow and lanceolate on the head and neck, broad and conspicuous on the back and wings; primaries and tail-feathers dark chestnut-red, deepening into black near the extremity, and tipped with buffy white; all the under surface buffy white, with a stripe of brown down the centre of each feather; irides yellow.

Obs. In some specimens the occipital plumes are tinged with buff and have black tips; in others, again, they are entirely absent; these differences being apparently due to age and season.

This species can only be included in our list as an occasional straggler from Australia, where it is said to be universally dispersed, although less abundant on the western coast than elsewhere. A specimen, now in my collection in the Colonial Museum, was shot in the Wellington Province thirty-one years ago; and several instances have since been reported of its occurrence in the South Island*.

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Layard, writing on the birds of New Caledonia (Ibis, 1882, p. 531), says of this species:—“This Night-Heron is found sparingly wherever we have been; but it is a curious fact that, though perhaps a dozen specimens have come into our hands to be skinned, not one has possessed the long white occipital plumes which have garnished the heads of all those we saw in Australia. It may be that they are only assumed during the breeding-season, and that they breed only in the north of this island.”

I quote the following interesting account of this Night-Heron from Gould’s ‘Handbook to the Birds of Australia’ (vol. ii. pp. 311, 312):—“In the southern latitudes it is only a summer visitant, arriving in New South Wales and South Australia in August and September, and retiring again in February. As its name implies, it is nocturnal in its habits; and from its frequenting swamps, the sedgy banks of rivers, and other secluded situations, it is seldom seen. On the approach of morning it retires to the forests and perches among the branches of large trees, where, shrouded from the heat of the sun, it sleeps the whole day, and when once discovered is easily shot; for, if forced to quit its perch, it merely flies a short distance and again alights. Its flight is slow and flapping; and during its passage through the air the head is drawn back between the shoulders, and the legs are stretched out backwards, after the manner of the true Herons. When perched on the trees, or resting on the ground, it exhibits none of the grace and elegance of those birds, its short neck resting on the shoulders. When impelled to search for a supply of food, it naturally becomes more animated, and its actions lively and prying; the varied nature of its food in fact demands some degree of activity—fishes, water-lizards, crabs, frogs, leeches, and insects being all partaken of with equal avidity.

“It breeds in the months of November and December, and generally in companies, like the true Herons, the favourite localities being the neighbourhood of swampy districts, where an abundant supply of food is to be procured; the branches of large trees, points of shelving rocks, and caverns are equally chosen as a site for the nest, which is rather large and flat, and generally composed of crooked sticks loosely interwoven. The eggs, which are usually three in number, are of a pale green colour, and average two inches and five eighths in length by one inch and a half in breadth.”

* Referring to these cases, Sir George Grey has lately informed me that, when Governor of the Colony, in 1852, he imported some of these birds from Australia and liberated them at Wellington; from which it might fairly be inferred that the stray birds captured here, although at intervals of many years, were only the introduced stock or their descendants. However, I find the following passage, evidently relating to the above species, in an interesting paper by the Rev. W. Colenso, F.R.S., published in ‘The Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science’ as far back as 1845:—“In crossing a very deep swamp [in the Waikato district] a beautiful bird, apparently of the Crane kind, rose gracefully from the mud among the reeds and flew slowly past us; its under plumage was of a light yellow or ochre colour, with a dark brown upper plumage. None of my natives knew the bird, declaring they had never seen such an one before.” For this reason I have the less hesitation in treating the Nankeen Night-Heron as a voluntary visitant.

In the same paper Mr. Colenso gives the following account of another bird, seen by him in 1845, which has never since been recorded in New Zealand:—“A little below Ngaruawahia (on the Waikato river) we met a man in a canoo with a live and elegant specimen of the genus Fulica. I hailed the man and purchased the bird, which he had recently snared, for a little tobacco. It was a most graceful creature, and, as far as I am aware, an entirely new and undescribed species. Its general colour was dark, almost black; head grey and without a frontal shield; fore neck and breast ferruginous red; wings barred with white; bill produced and sharp; feet and legs glossy olive; toes beautifully and largely festooned at the edges; eye light coloured and very animated. It was very fierce and never ceased attempting to bite at everything within its reach. I kept it until we landed, intending to preserve it, but as it was late, and neither material at hand nor time to spare, and the animal, too, looking so lovely that I could not make up my mind to put it to death, I let it go. It swam, dived, and disappeared… . Not a doubt, in my opinion, can exist as to its being naturally allied in habit and affinity to the Fulicæ; I have therefore named it Fulica novæ zealandiæ. In size it was somewhat less than our European species, F. atra.”