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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 12 (March 1, 1937)

The Birds of Rakiura — (Stewart Island) — Titi, Kiwi, and the Summer Bird

page 20

The Birds of Rakiura
(Stewart Island)
Titi, Kiwi, and the Summer Bird

He has a little blue-striped body, is nervous of visitors, calls with a high, sweet call, two syllables rather like “Pio-pio, pio-pio,” and is known to the Stewart Islanders as the Summer Bird. And they say that to see him—their shining cuckoo, a visitor from the warm north just when the honey is full in the wild red fuchsias again—is an omen of good luck. I saw him, walking in the evening past Old Mill Creek, to a turn of the road where outside a little farmhouse children were playing, and beyond lay apparently nothing whatever, but thick bush. This year's has been a very late summer, and on Stewart Island the clematis still made snowdrifts, white and golden masses, over the old rimus. All the cattle go belled, and you hear the thin tinkling of their bells before you turn the corner of the road, and see whatever there is to be seen, summer bird or other stranger …

The launch wasn't in commission, but rowing by dinghy a matter of five miles down Paterson Inlet isn't considered anything unnatural to the common lot of man. You can row (or travel by launch, but that is quicker and noisier), seventeen miles down a branch of this Inlet, which is true fiord country, utterly hidden in bush except where a curve of beach rounds out, soft yellow, sparkling in company with iron sand. And there on the little golden beach we landed and boiled the mussels which are small but quite toothsome; these plus thick new bread and butter, plus billy tea, while the thin curls of blue smoke, a veil in shimmering air, went up from a fire of sticks. The sea-swallows were nesting—the daintiest of the sea-birds, with their spotless white wings forked and crossed in true swallow style, their little bodies skimming about the rocks, filling the air with plaintive cries. They were rather annoyed, having been bereaved of one recently-laid egg … only one, a handsome greyish-lavender production, mottled with black. Young visitors to the Island are so interested in this aspect of nature study that an occasional egg is filched from the nests; but even in Half-Moon Bay, barely a stone's throw from shore, the seabirds nest so thickly on Bird Rock that their guano-droppings have killed off the shrubs which cover every other islet, and their shrewish scolding can be plainly heard as you go to buy your papers—which arrive six at a time, brought over once a week from the mainland.

On the waves the heavier bodies of penguins, little sandhoppers and another variety with yolk-of-egg waistcoat, bob grotesquely about, or dip out of sight as the dinghy comes near. And shags show how clever they are, staying under water until you can hardly believe that a black robber-bird (very plentiful all around this coast) will bob up again, greedy for another fish. To watch the shags fishing is amusing: as the old countrywoman said, “His eye's too big for his belly,” and frequently you notice wild gyrations on a wave-crest, as a shag wrestles with the flesh, trying to swallow a fish about three times his proper size. But with a pertinacity worthy of a better cause, he keeps on trying until the fish is in its proper place, and then immediately hunts about for a new one.

When people tell you that the New Zealanders' own bird, the emblem of its All Blacks, its butter, its woollens, and everything that is Its, is gradually becoming extinct—smile, and tell them to visit Stewart Island. An Islander who has been familiar with the beaches
(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.) The well-known Mountain Daisy of New Zealand.

(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.)
The well-known Mountain Daisy of New Zealand.

for the past forty years tells me that in many coves and bushy places where the bird was quite unknown in his boyhood, it is now a familiar sight—and not one kiwi, for the kiwi is no hermit, but founds colonies. Can you, with your own eyes, see a kiwi colony? The answer is “Yes”—if you're prepared to take a little trouble and hard exercise. Mason's Beach, on the western side of the isle, is the best place for kiwi-fans, and can only be reached by a trip which means the better part of a day's launch journey, followed up by nine stiff cross-country miles. These can be done either afoot, or riding in state, aloft on a small and shaggy pony. And when you get to the far side—where there are beaches lined with blue paua shells, glittering under the water, and the Devil's Cave, containing a camp despite its sinister name—you put up in a deer-lodge, sleeping in a bunk. Only if you're a real enthusiast, sleep should be your last consideration, because the kiwi is a night-goer, never seen by daylight, when he himself is dozing in his underground burrow, usually found beneath the roots of some big tree. After dark, and afar off, begin weird screeching noises; and as these get nearer, your time comes to forget how tired you are, and venture forth by torchlight. The kiwis are on their march….
That the Stewart Island kiwis really do have a night march, many of them moving together down to their feeding grounds, is a firm belief of the Islanders. There are three species of New Zealand's favourite bird—the little grey fellow, of the North Island, the larger kiwi of the West Coast Sounds, and the Stewart Islander, who is brown, and during the last twenty years has increased until it is calculated that thousands of his kind must be scattered over the southern and western parts page 21
(Photo, Theima R. Kent.) On the road between Lakes Hawea and Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand.

(Photo, Theima R. Kent.)
On the road between Lakes Hawea and Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand.

of the island. He is a fair-sized bird, in weight averaging eight pounds; and unlike all the other birds in the world (we New Zealanders will go quite a long step out of our way, just to be different), apteryx maxima has nostrils at the tip, not the base, of his seven-inch beak, which he uses for grub-digging. His colony-burrows are always in high country, and his midnight march takes him down to the flat, damp feeding grounds. An island naturalist has noted his quaint method of walking; kiwi footprints are always found one directly behind another, which suggest a sort of tightrope-gait, as odd as all the other facts about him. The female succeeds in producing an egg, to which, on a comparative scale, the Dionne quintuplets were just a laugh—her egg averages 5 1/4 inches by 3 1/2. The naturalist I mentioned above, has spent many days puzzling as to why the kiwi should devote so much of its time to walking an imaginary chalk line in the heart of the bush, but can reach no conclusion: the facts just are, like many of the odd things noticeable in New Zealand fauna and flora. And can it be that kiwis have a “bush telegraph,” or are they gifted with an amazing power of scent? At Mason's Beach, some years ago, 400 blackfish went ashore. Local residents collected the oil and tried it out in the old whaling try-pots, which still stand about as the whalers left them. Some of the escaping oil soaked the ground, and apparently the grubs decided they had had about enough of a good thing, and started on a migration. It was an unfortunate effort: the kiwis got to know, and the new feeding-ground was simply raided by hundreds of large, solemn, long-nosed birds.

Kiwi in his native wilds is a friendly fellow, and has not the faintest objection to being observed by visitors, under the bright eye of the torches. He has no natural enemies, though his former scarcity suggests that perhaps the Maoris once hunted him, either for food or for down. (He is, of course, a strictly protected bird, and undoubtedly this has helped in his recent large increase. Eating him nowadays would be out of the question. But I heard from one Islander—who heard it from the Maoris—that of old the kiwi used to be considered rather like pork, but too leggy to be really a gourmet's dish.) Nowadays he stalks about where he wishes, and even if mischance brings him into contact with a ‘possum-hunter's trap, the feet are so tough and thick that he is quite uninjured.

(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.) The Railway Department's Steamer, “Earnslaw,” on Lake Wakatipu, South Island, New Zealand.

(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.)
The Railway Department's Steamer, “Earnslaw,” on Lake Wakatipu, South Island, New Zealand.

In this plight, he lies quite still until released. He can be handled, but if a suspicion enters his mind that your intentions are not all they ought to be, he lies on his back and kicks—a quaint way of defence, about which, however, prowling dogs think twice before they offer a closer acquaintance. Another queer thing about the kiwi: he has two calls, one a low, harsh, guttural screech, the other a shrill scream, repeated over and over, like the cry of the little weka, who is another well-known and popular Stewart Islander. Naturalists will have to decide whether the one bird utters the two calls, or whether the soprano is the lady….

Music can't be associated with these queer Island identities, but I think that in a preceding article I told you how the Stewart Island tuis and bell-birds, bloated with honey and an apparent sense of perfect security, tumble out of the trees, revealing the fact that their shining plumage is not pure black at all, but shot with a green and purple sheen, as well as garnished with a creamy bib and tucker. On Ulva Island, where the Government has preserved bush and bird so that one sees all manner of delicate, tiny growing things, unknown elsewhere, the music rings from daybreak till dark; and still the funny little scuttling noises of the weka go on, as he investigates camps or cottages, and decides whether any particular objet d'art would be a nice little present to take home to the wife. I think, if she hasn't been there, that Eileen Duggan, who wrote that delightful book, “New Zealand Bird Songs,” should be given a month on Ulva Island as a reward: she would meet many of her old bird acquaintances page 22 page 23 there, in a freer and happier state than in most places—and the birds could say “Thank you” in person.

Titi, the muttonbird, is the only fowl who had the honour of having his name mentioned in the Treaty of Waitangi, when his taking was reserved for all time as the right of the Maoris, who are the only vendors. There is a very heavy fine on the taking of even one muttonbird by a white man: and certainly the restriction has given the bird protection against extermination, for what the Maori takes, in the autumn of every year, is a mere drop in the bucket. Millions of muttonbirds nest in burrows, not on Stewart Island itself, but on two long islands (one known as Mummy Island, from its odd shape), within a few miles of the mainland. Their burrows are sometimes occupied by terns and little gulls, though owing to their underground life, you cannot see from a distance, nearly as much of their activities as you can of the sea-swallows nesting on Bird Rock. When I went to the Island Titi had recently begun to nest: and from the thousands of burrows, the visitor to the special muttonbird islands would have heard the evening filled with a queer crooning, as the birds returned with food for their chicks. Titi (about whom the distinguished New Zealand naturalist, Guthrie Smith, has written a fascinating book), turns its food into oil, and feeds this back to the chicks who are soon to be knocked on the head to make a Maori feast-day. But while the early nesting season is in full swing, the islands are certainly worth a visit: and isn't it awful to think that New Zealand was really the inventor of the first crooner, pre-Jolson and “Sonny Boy?”

The taking of Titi seems to the white man like one big picnic for the Maoris, though a Maori whom I met on the homeward voyage told me that it involved plenty of hard work, especially the making of the kelp baskets in which the birds are salted down. The kelp is first dried to board-stiffness, then softened and made pliable again; if anything goes wrong with this “curing,” you might as well throw out the mutton-birds, for they turn rank very quickly unless popped away in the salty security where they will last for a year. The method of catching is for the hundred or more Maoris to thrust long sticks down the burrows: when they come in contact with the young bird, they either haul him out, or else, if he is a difficult customer, twine fibre at the end of the sticks, and tangle him in this. He is removed from this world by a pinch or bite on the soft part of the skull. Plucking follows, and finally the day's catch is salted away, and the kelp bags wrapped up in bark. I tasted muttonbird (salted), in Dunedin, and thought it rather like salt herring—perfectly palatable, though decidedly on the fishy side. But the Maoris themselves say that titi is best when eaten fresh—roasted, propped up on sticks which allow the oil to run out. However, that may be, titi, in all his white-winged strength of numbers, undeterred by the hungry people who wait outside his burrows, has nested on these islands as far back as anyone can remember,
(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.) The New Zealand Bush Clematis.

(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.)
The New Zealand Bush Clematis.

and will probably be both a source of food for the Maoris and of curiosity to all-comers in a hundred years' time. Sometimes the smaller fry among the birds, for no apparent reason, change their nesting place, but don't go far. Bird Rock has only been in favour with the gulls and sea-swallows for the past ten years: before that, all the smart people and charming “young marrieds” lived on another isle, about a mile across the harbour. This is now quite deserted except for a few harmless nobodies.

Which reminds me of the hermit horse of Pegasus Cove. Before the war, tin-mining enterprise made use of him, and somehow he was jettisoned there in the wilderness, in a very wild, steep-browed region. There is no way of getting him off, and there he abides, as far as the Islanders know, to this day, with only his very distant cousins, the sea-horses, to keep him company.

There are many things on the Island that I didn't see (Pegasus Cove was one of them), and I'm going back, perhaps in the season when the deer are roaring round the inlets of the surf-beaches on the western side. It is curious that Stewart Island seems to be one of the few places in New Zealand where they have not wreaked havoc with the bush: perhaps, on the wilder west, they may have been responsible for serious depredations, or perhaps the Island habit of living at least partly on venison keeps them down. But around Paterson Inlet and the other lovely bays I was able to visit, the bush was more unspoiled, soft and gracious than any other that I have seen, north or south. But there seems to be some wonderful recuperative power in the soil of Rakiura. Years ago there were milling interests on the island: to-day, thank heaven or the Government, the sawmills are stationary, and the trees spared. Very little trace of the places where they bit into the bush can now be seen. The old mill-chute used for bringing logs down still remains, a streak of grey on a hillside, but all around it climb the trees.

I am going back, perhaps to find a catseye at the Devil's Cave (New Zealand produces beautiful, queerly-marked green catseyes, and doesn't appreciate them at all, whereas, according to a famous traveller's reminiscences, in Ceylon, the Tom Tiddler's ground of semiprecious stones, the natives put such a value on catseyes that it is rarely possible to obtain a good specimen). Or perhaps another whale might come floating in from the feeding-ground of the great sperm monsters, twelve miles south-west of the Solander Islands, about thirty miles west of Mason's Beach: and prove, on investigation, to contain in its disordered interior, a quantity of ambergris like that found by the whale chaser Campbell in 1912. The full value of the find has never been told, but the first consignment sent to Europe was insured for £65,000.

Or perhaps, on another visit, I might learn the full story of King Topi's greenstone mere, which one of his descendants, still living on the island, allowed me to see. But only to hear the birds sing as they do in the afternoons would be sufficient reason.

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