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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Botaurus Pœciloptilus. — (Black-Backed Bittern.)

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Botaurus Pœciloptilus.
(Black-Backed Bittern.)

  • Ardea poiciloptila, Wagl. Syst. Av. Ardea, sp. 28, note (1827).

  • Botaurus melanotus, Gray, in Dieff. Trav., App. p. 196 (1843).

  • Botaurus poiciloptilus, Gray, Gen. of B. iii. p. 557 (1847).

  • Botaurus australis, Gould, B. of Austr. vi. pl. 64 (1848).

  • Botaurus pæciloptila, Bonap. C. R. xl. p. 723 (1855).

  • Botaurus poicilopterus, Gray, Ibis, 1862, p. 236.

  • Ardea pæciloptera, Finsch, J. f. O. 1870, p. 348.

  • Ardea poiceloptera, Hutton, Cat. Birds of N. Z. p. 28 (1871).

Native name.—Matuku-hurepo.

xml:lang="la"Ad. suprà nigricanti-brunneus, interscapulii plumis paucis et scapularibus exterioribus irregulariter fulvescente transvermiculatis: uropygio imo et supracaudalibus clariùs fulvescentibus latiùs brunneo transnotatis: tectricibus alarum brunnescentibus ubique fulvescente transversim vermiculatis, minimis omninò nigricanti-brunneis: remigibus et rectricibus nigricanti-brunneis, sparsim fulvescente irregulariter notatis, illis intùs vix fasciatis: pileo summo et collo laterali saturatè brunneis, indistinctè fulvo transversim terminatis: supercilio lato cum regione paroticâ, genis gulâque fulvescentibus: lineâ, latâ ab oculo postico ad collum laterale ductâ brunneâ: corpore reliquo subtùs ochrascenti-fulvo, plumis brunneo irregulariter notatis vel transfasciatis, interdum quasi latè longitudinaliter strigatis, gutture et pectore superiore pallidè brunneo marmoratis: subcaudalibus fulvis: subalaribus fulvis ubique brunneo irregulariter notatis: rostro saturatè brunneo: regione oculari et pedibus pulchrè dilutè viridibus: iride flavâ.

Adult. Head and nape dark brown; superciliary streak and region of the ears tawny, the former freckled with brown; back of neck and lower part of back dark purplish brown varied with buff; mantle, scapulars, and secondaries dark brown with purplish reflexions, freckled, and mottled on the edges with tawny yellow; upper surface of wings pale buff, the longer coverts with broad arrow-head marks along their whole extent, and the shorter ones freckled and mottled with different shades of brown; primaries purplish brown, with dark shafts, marbled on their inner webs with buff; secondaries darker brown, marbled on both vanes, but more conspicuously on the inner; tail-feathers dark brown, margined and freckled with buff, especially on the outer ones; throat, front and sides of the neck, and all the under surface tawny buff, variegated with dark brown; on the throat the brown markings are very indistinct, being limited to a narrow freckled line down the middle; on the fore neck each feather has a broad mark of yellowish brown down the centre, with vandyked edges in some and lateral continuations in others; on the long neck-plumes which overhang the breast, and on the overlapping femorals, these markings assume the character of narrow zigzag lines and arrow-heads. The broad feathers covering the upper part of the breast are blackish brown in the centre with tawny-white sides; but these are usually concealed by the overhanging plumes of the fore neck; on the sides of the body there are irregular longitudinal streaks of dark brown; abdomen, inner sides of the tibia, and under tail-coverts yellowish buff without any markings; outer sides of the tibia tawny variegated with brown; lining of wings and axillary plumes pale buff, barred and mottled with purplish brown. Irides yellow; bill dark brown, whitish on the sides and towards the base of lower mandible; eyelids, naked loral membrane, legs, and feet beautiful pale green; the claws dark brown, with horn-coloured tips. Total length 30 inches; extent of wings 48; wing, from flexure, 14·5; tail 5; bill, along the ridge 2·75, along the edge of lower mandible 4; bare tibia 1; tarsus 4; middle toe and claw 5·25; hind toe and claw 3·75.

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Female. I think Mr. Gould is in error in his statement (Handbook to the Birds of Australia, ii. p. 314) that “the sexes are alike in plumage, but the female is smaller than the male.” So far as my observation goes, the female is invariably larger than the male, and is further distinguishable by its much duller plumage.

Varieties. A partial albino was shot at Moutoa, near Foxton, in the autumn of 1884, and I had an opportunity of examining it whilst in the hands of the taxidermist. The head and fore neck were pure white, the long neck-plumes overhanging the breast, as also the shoulders and the fore part of breast, largely but irregularly marked with white; the rest of the plumage as in ordinary examples.

A specimen which I obtained from Christchurch and presented to the Colonial Museum is of unusually large size, and has the whole of the fore neck and ruff tawny yellow, shaded with pale brown on the sides of the latter, all the markings being much obliterated, the plumage having a “washed out” appearance; the whole of the underparts dingy yellowish white, the axillary plumes and the femorals irregularly barred with brown; cheeks and sides of the head pale tawny brown, the plumage of the upper surface as in ordinary examples.

Obs. Individuals differ not only in size but in the details of their colouring—so much so, indeed, that the natives believe in the existence of two species, the smaller and darker of which they distinguish as “Matuku-karourou;” but having now before me a series of thirteen specimens exhibiting a considerable amount of individual variation, I am unable to recognize any such distinction.

Remarks. This bird has the faculty of expanding the plumage of the neck laterally; and the hind part of the neck, which is exposed by this action, is covered with a long fluffy or downy growth. When the body is quiescent the long side-feathers overlie this downy plumage and effectually conceal it. The claw of the middle toe is strongly pectinate on its inner margin, and in old birds the edges are often much worn and broken.

The Common Bittern is very generally distributed over the country, in places suited to its habits of life, such as raupo swamps, sedgy lagoons, and those “blind creeks,” covered over with a growth of reeds and tangle, which are so numerous in all the low districts. In some localities it is comparatively abundant—for example, along the whole extent of swampy flats lying between Waikanae and Rangitikei, on the west coast of the Wellington provincial district, where I have obtained half a dozen in the course of a single afternoon. It is likewise met with in all parts of the Australian continent, although very few specimens appear to have been sent to Europe; and Captain Sturt reports that he found it very plentiful in the marshes of the interior. It is said to occur also in the Chatham Islands; and there is reason to believe that its range extends to Polynesia.

It is a true Bittern in all its habits, being, in fact, the southern representative of the Botaurus stellaris of Europe. It appears to love a solitary life, being always met with singly; it remains concealed during the heat of the day, and at eventide startles the ear with its four loud booming notes, slowly repeated, and resembling the distant roar of an angry bull. It subsists on mice, lizards, eels, and freshwater fish, of various kinds; from the gullet of one that I had shot I extracted two headless eels, each measuring 16 inches in length, from which some idea may be formed of the capacity of a Bittern’s stomach!

It is interesting to steal up, under cover, and watch this Bittern alternately feeding and reposing in its sedgy haunts. When in a quiescent posture the body is nearly erect, the head thrown back and resting on the shoulders, with the beak pointed upwards, and the contracted neck forming a broad curve with the closed ruff depending, the attitude altogether being rather grotesque. The instant, however, any sound causes it alarm the whole character of the bird is changed: the neck is stretched to its full length, and every movement betokens caution and vigilance; unless immediately reassured, it spreads its broad wings and raises itself into the air in a rather awkward manner, with the legs dangling down, but gradually raised to a level with the tail; the flight then assumes a steady course, often in page 143 a broad semicircle, and is maintained by slow and regular flappings. If unmolested, it may be observed stalking knee-deep in the water in search of food, with its neck inclined forward, raising its foot high at every step, as if deliberately measuring the ground. A live one brought to me by a native, enclosed in an eel-basket, lived in my possession for a week; but it refused to take food of any kind, and died of sheer starvation, remaining fierce and untamable to the very last. On being approached it would erect or spread the feathers of the neck and throw forward the wings, thus presenting a very bold front to the enemy. On any object being placed near it, the bird would strike furiously with its pointed bill; and it made frequent assaults of this kind on the network of its temporary cage.

Layard writes from New Caledonia (Ibis, 1882, p. 531):—“We had heard of a wonderful bird that inhabited the swamps, even in the neighbourhood of Noumea, which frightened belated travellers and ‘made night hideous’ with its unearthly cries, and were therefore not astonished when our friend M. Saves presented us with a fine specimen of the Australian Bittern, shot at Ansevata. We subsequently obtained a few other examples; and we suspect that it is not very rare in suitable localities. From its retiring habits, however, it is seldom procured, unless purposely hunted, there being here no Snipe to tempt the shooters into swamps.”

Dr. Ramsay writes of this bird in Australia:—“It is far more plentiful in the Illawarra and southern districts of New South Wales than in any other part of the country I have visited. I have seen specimens from the lakes and marshes in the southern parts of Victoria, near Ballarat, and have also noticed it on the Herbert river, in the Rockingham Bay district, where it is considered a rare bird, although that part of the country is admirably adapted for its habits, abounding in extensive swamps and lagoons. They are still found to be not rare within a few miles of Sydney; but the Illawarra district is the great stronghold of this species.”

I have a note from Mr. A. G. Nicholls giving an account of the manner in which he was attacked by a pair of Bitterns whose nest he had unconsciously approached when eel-fishing one evening at Kaipara. The birds made determined thrusts at his face with their bills, ruffling up their feathers and quivering their wings in a state of the highest excitement; and so persistent were they that he at length seized one of them by the head and despatched it. On examining the place he found two well-grown nestlings, whose safety had undoubtedly been the cause of this unusual exhibition of temper on the part of birds habitually shy and recluse.

The Bittern breeds in swamps, forming its rude nest of raupo and other aquatic vegetation loosely placed together, and sometimes completely surrounded by water. The eggs are usually four in number, although Mr. French, who is an excellent observer, informs me that he once found a nest of five near the Kaiapoi river; they are generally of an even or regular ovoido-elliptical form, measuring 2·1 inches in length by 1·5 in breadth, and of a uniform pale brownish-olive colour.

A nest of this species in the Canterbury Museum is small, flat-topped, and rounded, with a diameter of about 9 inches and a depth of 3 inches. It is composed entirely of dry rushes and flags, and contains three eggs of a uniform delicate creamy stone-colour. There is a specimen of the egg, however, in the Museum, of a delicate dull green, and three others of a greenish-cream colour. The green tinge is no doubt more pronounced in the shell when fresh.