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A History of the Birds of New Zealand.

Diomedea Melanophrys. — (Black-Eyebrowed Albatros.)

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Diomedea Melanophrys.
(Black-Eyebrowed Albatros.)

  • Diomedea melanophrys, Boie, in Temm. Pl. Col. v. pl. 456 (1828).

Native name.—Toroa.

Ad. albus: interscapulio et scapularibus cum alâ totâ schistaceo-nigris: dorso postico, uropygio et supracaudalibus albis: caudâ schistaceo-nigrâ, scapis albidis: regione oculari delicatè cinereâ, suprà oculum saturatiore, supercilium formante: rostro sordidè flavo: pedibus flavicanti-albis, cyanescente vix lavatis, plantis etiam cyanescente tinctis: iride pallidè brunneâ.

Adult. General plumage pure white; middle portion of back and upper surface of wings slaty black; in front of the eyes a broad patch of bluish grey, which passes into a darker streak over and behind them; tail dark ash-grey, the shafts of the feathers white. Irides light brown; bill dull yellow; legs and toes yellowish white, the interdigital webs and the joints washed more or less with pale blue. Total length 34 inches; wing, from flexure, 20·5; tail 8; bill, along the curvature 5·25, from gape to extremity of lower mandible 4·75; tarsus 3; middle toe and claw 4·75.

Obs. Individuals vary in size, and in one of my specimens the bill measures along the culmen 6 inches, and from gape to tip, in a direct line, 4·75.

Young. Differs from the adult in having the head and neck ash-grey, and the upper surface of wings and inter-scapular region brownish black, the smaller wing-coverts with paler margins, the bill blue-black, and the legs and feet bluish grey.

Progress towards maturity. The grey gradually changes to white; according to Prof. Hutton’s observations “first on the cheeks, then spreading to the top of the head, leaves a collar round the neck, which breaks first in front, and gradually spreads upwards until the whole is white.” He adds that “the bill remains dark blue for some time after the plumage has assumed the colours of the adult.” Although mainly correct this does not exactly accord with my own observations. I have a specimen in which the old colour presents only an irregular wash of ash-grey on the crown and sides of the head, whilst the dark bill is undergoing a rapid change, the culmen, bilge of hook, and outer edge of lower mandible being dull yellow.

Another in my collection has the bill blackish brown, changing to dull yellow on the ridge and again on the hook, also, less distinctly, along the edge of the lower mandible. The crown is white; occiput and hind neck pale slaty grey, forming a sort of half-collar around the neck.

A third specimen has a yellow bill; the vertex is still clouded with grey, forming a sort of nuchal cap; there is the usual dark streak through the eyes, and the hind neck is entirely white. Bill measures 4 inches; following curvature 4·75. (Sex ♀.)

In a fourth, which has fully assumed the adult plumage, the bill is yellowish grey, lighter on the hook, but with a dark band around the base and another extending to the nostrils.

Nestling. Covered with long, thick woolly down, of a pale grey colour; bill brownish black with yellowish horn-coloured tip; legs and feet yellowish white. In form plump, and having a comfortable aldermanic appearance.

This species of Albatros is far more common in our seas than Diomedea exulans, and habitually page 199 approaches nearer to the coast, generally following a vessel to the entrance of the harbours, and sometimes to their anchorage. After boisterous weather it is sometimes picked up on the ocean-beach, not actually lifeless, but so exhausted by fatigue as to be incapable of rising.

Professor Hutton has observed that this bird “dives sometimes, but does not appear to like doing so, generally preferring, when any thing good to eat is under water, to let a Night-hawk fish it up; then giving chase and running along the top of the water, croaking, and with outstretched wings, it compels him to drop it, and then seizes it before it sinks again.” Mr. Gould refers to it in the following terms:—“Of all the species with which I am acquainted this is the most fearless of man, for it often approaches many yards nearer the vessel than any other; I have even observed it so near that the tips of its pinions were not more than two arms’ length from the taffrail. It is very easily captured with a hook and line; and as this operation gives not the least pain to the bird, the point of the hook merely taking hold in the horny and insensible tip of the bill, I frequently amused myself by capturing specimens in this way, and after detaining them sufficiently long to afford me an opportunity for investigating any particular point respecting which I wished to satisfy myself, setting them at liberty again, after having marked many, in order to ascertain whether the individuals which were flying round the ship at nightfall were the same that were similarly engaged at daylight in the morning after a night’s run of 120 miles; and this in many instances proved to be the case. When brought upon deck, from which it cannot take wing, it readily becomes tame, and allows itself to be handled almost immediately; still I believe that no member of this group can be domesticated, in consequence of the difficulty of procuring a supply of natural food.”

Much of what I have said of the Wandering Albatros applies equally to this bird, their habits in their common field of action on the mighty deep being very much the same. It has the same awkward style of dropping into the water, as if its back was broken, but once upon the surface it comfortably tucks in its wings and swims with as much buoyancy as grace, lifting its proud head well above the body, and glancing sharply around with its piercing eyes; then, as if impelled by a sudden thought, it stretches up its lengthy pinions and mounting in the air glides through space with the silence of a spirit, scarcely moving its outspread wings as it sweeps around in never-ending circles, but restlessly turning its head from side to side as it scans the water below.

Mr. Drew sent me the mandibles of a Diving Petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix) found, together with a mass of feathers, in the stomach of an Albatros of this spepies, which had been cast ashore in a gale of wind at the Wanganui heads. Its ordinary food consists of minute occanic animals, such as medusæ and mollusca, and floating refuse of any kind thrown overboard from ships, whose course these birds descry from an amazing distance, and follow persistently for many days together. Whilst thus employed they appear to fraternize freely enough with the larger species.

Some months ago there was a live one in the Zoological Society’s Gardens, which had become quite tame, knowing its keeper and following him, with a gurgling note or deep croak and much awkward flapping of its wings, on the approach of feeding-time. It spent most of its time resting placidly on a grass mound, and apparently quite indifferent to its banishment from the sea.

On the nesting-habits of this species of Albatros Mr. W. Dougall has communicated (through Mr. Collison-Morley) to the ‘Southland Times’ some very interesting notes, from which I have culled the following extracts:—“Every six months the New-Zealand Government sends a steamer to the following uninhabited South Pacific Islands, namely, Stewart, Snares, Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty Islands (the last being 415 miles south-east of New Zealand), to overhaul and replenish food depôts maintained for those who may unfortunately be shipwrecked upon these remote islands; and the following observations were made when accompanying one of these trips.

“At Monumental Head (Auckland Island) we picked up our hunters laden with Albatroses living and dead, and Albatros eggs in abundance. At Campbell Island I ascended one of the highest page 200 hills, Mount Honey (1866 feet), amidst hundreds of nests of the Albatros, surrounded by nothing save the unvarying tussock fern and ti-tree scrub. We came on the first Albatros at about 800 feet above sea-level, and after reaching the crown of the hill, 1000 feet, found them sitting in their nests and flying about close to the ground in hundreds. The Albatros apparently lays but one egg each year, but one of the party found two nests containing two eggs each. It was suggested that this was only a freak of nature, although it is known that the Gannet of New Zealand lays two eggs, one of which is hatched by the male bird. All up the sides of the hill wild parsley was growing luxuriantly, often two feet high, while everlasting daisy clothed the ground like a carpet. The cotton-wood plant in full bloom was also plentiful. As the top (1866 feet) is reached, this variety of vegetation ends and travelling becomes easier, as there is no growth to impede progress, but diminutive tussock among which are the Albatros nests and their tenants. These nests are built up of moss and earth about four inches above the surface of the ground. The material to form the nest is so taken from the soil as to leave a trench all round it, and this keeps things dry for the important object in view. The female never leaves the nest during incubation, a period of about sixty days, and is fed by her consort, who faithfully hunts for food for both. If by chance the nest is left unguarded for a single moment the Sea-Hawk, which is here in thousands, pounces upon the egg and ‘love’s labour’s lost,’ at least so far as the Albatros is concerned. The Albatros is a stupid bird, for it will sit, whether hatching or not, till you tumble it head over heels with your foot. At the same time it will resent such liberty, and, if it succeeds in getting a hold, it will take the piece out of trousers, hose, and skin. They are very strong birds. The best way to catch one is to make a feint at his head with the left hand, which distracts the bird’s attention, and then quickly seize it by the bill with the right; but be sure you get the grip, as they turn very quickly, and would snap your fingers off if they got the proper hold. They build on the flat plateaus of the hills; and so far as we have seen, never lower down than 700 feet from sea-level. At Antipodes Island, on Tuesday, January 31st, the day broke beautifully and the bay was like a mirror, but the glass was still low: as the day advanced we were enveloped for half an hour in one of those dense mists characteristic of this locality, and when it passed the hills were covered with snow. The height of the island is marked on the chart at 600 feet, but this is an error, as the principal hill, Mount Galloway, is 1200 feet above the sea-level. From seaward this hill looks conical or dome-shaped, but on reaching the summit a beautiful clear lake covering an area of thirteen or fourteen acres is found—a lake which a little later in the season than the time of our visit is much frequented by the Albatros, being virtually surrounded by thousands of their nests.

“We moved on northwards (Stewart Island) and came upon a perfect cemetery of dead Penguins lying rotting amidst black sand—thousands upon thousands—evidently cut off by some epidemic.”

Mr. W. Dougall’s principal object in visiting these islands was to obtain photographs, and he brought back with him a beautiful series of instantaneous views, some of them exhibiting most interesting groups of Albatroses and Penguins, in every condition of growth, on their nesting-ground. I have in my possession a set of these photographs (which may be obtained by purchase from Mr. C. R. Joplin, 4 Blackfriars Street, Stamford), and I have selected for reproduction one of them showing a group of these birds among the rocks in their island sanctuary. (See p. 293.)

In the Otago Museum there are two eggs of this Albatros (collected in November), the larger of which measures 4·3 inches in length by 2·2 in breadth; they are creamy white, irregularly marked or blotted with surface-spots of yellowish brown. The smaller of the two specimens presents more distinct blots in its middle portion, and has its larger pole studded with spots presenting a reddish-brown surface.