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Bird Life on Island and Shore

I. Porangahau—The Caspian Tern

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I. Porangahau—The Caspian Tern.

Although the winter movements of littoral and lacustrine species are largely dependent on weather conditions, yet probably during the whole dead season there may in varying numbers be found on the Porangahau dunes, lagoons, beaches, and river-bed, Caspian Tern, Pied Stilt, Wrybill, Godwit, Pied Oyster Catcher, Redbill, Kittywake, Black Shag, Grey Duck, Black - backed Gull, Banded Dottrel, Sea Swallow, and perhaps Little Tern. Three times during 1910 these beaches were visited by J. C. M'Lean and myself, or by myself alone. In October we found 1 pair of Caspian Tern, 5 or 6 pair of Pied Stilt, 12 or 14 pair of Wrybill in several small parties, 3 pair of Godwit, 7 or 8 pair of Pied Oyster Catcher, a page 2 couple of pair of Redbill, a few Kittywakes, and a few Black-backed Gulls. On snags embedded in mud, Black Shag were conspicuous; about the open sands rested armies of Grey Duck, well out of reach of marauders.

At that date the pair of Caspian Tern were the only two birds out of the lot definitely purposing to build. Probably they had just settled down; probably, too, the additional pairs noticed later were due to arrive within a few days. The Black-backed Gulls were doubtless residenters; the remaining species were in all likelihood made up of wandering parties, one of them, the Godwit, rarely, if indeed ever, breeding in New Zealand; another, the Wrybill—not believed to nest in the North Island. Watching the last-named feeding in the gleaming sands freshly uncovered by the retreating tide, it was interesting to speculate as to whether the sweeping scythe-like action in feeding, a skimming of the surface of the wet sand, had helped to modify the remarkable crooked bill of the species, or had been adopted in consequence of it.

A month later in the year during a second visit to these delightful beaches we found Wrybill and Godwit gone, Caspian Tern sitting, and Redbills courting.1

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Caspian Tern.

Caspian Tern.

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The Black-backed Gulls had selected their breeding sites. The Kittywake colony, though not intending immediately to lay, were yet annoyed at approach to their future nesting quarters, and in clouds swooped upon us with angry cries.

Ability “to look before and after” has been claimed as the special prerogative of man, proud man; but I can find no sharp line of demarcation. Doubtless he can recollect further back and foresee more clearly, that is all. We and our fellow-mortals, the beasts of the field, are digged alike from the same pit. There is no sudden break in nature. When it may seem so to our purblind eyes, we are no wiser than the child who marvels at the change from shell to chick. The Kittywakes of Porangahau foresaw the use to which that particular bit of beach was shortly to be put, as clearly as the architect when selecting the site of his future edifice.

Before proceeding further with remarks on the Terns, Gulls, and Kittywake haunting these dunes and shores, a few sentences may be devoted to the topography of the locality. The Porangahau River flows throughout its last reaches betwixt steep banks cut out of soft marl rock. Attempting page 4 to reach the sea, it is often forced, like many another New Zealand river, for some considerable distance to flow parallel to a banked beach, through whose loose shingle it percolates and filters. Not infrequently during heavy storms from the east, with even this escape blocked by high seas, the river waters are dammed back, and stored in a sort of reservoir or lagoon created by sand bar in front and dry land behind, such lagoon, however, always in the end breaking out, and the river again opening a fairly straight temporary gap. Normally the lagoon is daily filled and emptied by tides that pass up and down the tortuous, indefinite, ever-shifting, shallow course of the stream. On either side of the river mouth extend for miles narrow coast lines of sand and shingle.

Southwards there is no possibility of danger from floods and heavy seas, southwards there is no paucity of stony steppes, southwards there are no drifting dunes to harm the sitting birds. The southern side of the river is, however—and this outweighs all these beatitudes,—easy of access from the village and native pah. On the northern side, contrarywise, conditions are dangerous to avian life from occasional floodings of the lagoon, and from occasional over-toppings of the beach by heavy seas. It is nevertheless the north side of the river that has been chosen for nidification, page break
Caspian Tern, Male And Female.

Caspian Tern, Male And Female.

page break page 5 because it is the better shielded from human trespass, because it stands guarded by treacherous mud flats and extensive areas of private property. Perilous as may be waves and winds, it is the opinion of the local sea-fowl that the presence of man is more dangerous still. It has come about therefore that Terns, Gulls, and Kittywake chiefly build immediately below the crest of the northern beach and on the edges of the lagoon.

Thus although on the southern shore natural conditions favour the birds, yet the northern is chosen. Sea-birds breeding about this river estuary have been driven by settlement from the naturally safer to the naturally less secure locality; it is but an example of one of the many factors that throughout modern New Zealand lessen, season by season, the numbers of shore birds. The Caspian Tern, Sea Swallow, and Kittywake of this beach thus have the restricted choice of building beneath the crest of the beach, thereby risking the overwhelming of their colonies by specially heavy seas, or of planting their nests on the lagoon's edge, thereby hazarding its rise by the inrush of the ocean. Some of the birds elect the one danger, some the other. One great Ternery extends beneath the crest of the beach, another along the edge of the lagoon. The opinions of the three pair of Caspian Tern also appeared to differ as to which spot was the less perilous, one pair page 6 nesting near the lagoon, the other two pair beneath the crest of the beach. The Kittywake plumped for the lagoon edge, and, as we shall see, suffered the fate of those who carry their eggs in the one basket.

The nest of the Caspian Tern is a rough-and-ready structure, built sparingly of such sea wrack and flood débris as may lie handy. The eggs, three in a clutch, are laid in November, their ground colour stone-grey, with deep umber markings set chiefly on the thicker end; over the whole surface there are markings also of a fainter hue of brown.

Besides the breeding pairs, there were also in November six unmated birds. In one of the three nests the full number of three eggs remained as they had been laid; in each of the others the third egg had been blown out or otherwise dislodged, and lay a foot or two distant half buried in the sand. Both sexes sit; usually, perhaps always, the female quits her nest to be fed. The ceremony of changing places on the eggs is of a stately and decorous character, the incoming bird standing some feet away, bowing repeatedly, then again standing motionless, until, extending great wings, its partner rises directly off the nest. As in the case of many other species, the bird carrying in food, if unable to deliver its store at once, will swallow it and go off in search of fresh page break
Caspian Tern And Chick.

Caspian Tern And Chick.

page break page 7 fare. Unlike their more plentiful kinsfolk of the beach, Caspian Tern seem careless as to what airt they face; plates were again and again marred because of deranged plumage. The best pictures were obtained shortly after dawn, before the gale that persisted almost without cessation during each of our visits revived with stronger light. The Caspian Tern is able to emit the most harsh of screams whilst carrying fish in its bill. Often I have heard one of these splendid birds, enraged at some movement on our part, screeching in full flight, head and neck raised skywards. Little is required to excite solicitude. When the distant pairs were disturbed, their uneasiness was at once communicated to the couple immediately beneath the lens. Even on her nest the female of that pair would then often bark like a chained dog—like a dog, too, throwing up her head to do so more conveniently.

During our third or fourth day on the beach an egg hatched in the nest opposite the screen. This youngster enjoyed the terrific never-ceasing blast no more than we did ourselves. Whenever by the exigencies of plate removal or shifting of camera the hen was temporarily put off her nest, the chick would utter a sorrowful little wailing bark. Instantly on the return of her parent, like a rabbit skurrying to burrow, it would scramble again beneath its mother's breast for warmth page 8 and comfort. During the feeding of this chick by the male, it was the hen's custom to retire a yard or so distant, as if taking pleasure in seeing her offspring fed. There was an indescribable air of sober benevolence in the act very pleasant to contemplate. The chick becoming clamorous and no food forthcoming, I have seen the hen, as if to deprecate its annoyance, put the extreme tip of her bill into its little gaping throat.

Although on a shore-line nearly clear of drift-wood it was impossible to erect any natural-looking hiding-place, we were nevertheless allowed gradually to approach, gradually to attain our ends. Upon our first discovery of the nests, I was relieved to see one of the incubating birds return even at eighty yards' distance. As a further test of the approachability of this pair, a kenspeckle log was rolled towards their nest, and as the birds again returned after a brief vociferous consultation, a preliminary screen built of manuka poles, which we had carried on our horses, was erected thirty yards from the nest. After an hour or so, to accustom the birds to new conditions, this screen was pulled up and replaced within twenty yards of our objective. By the evening of the following day we had got within seven yards; eventually at the distance of only a few feet, for many hours a day for many days, page break
Caspian Tern About To Alight On Nest.

Caspian Tern About To Alight On Nest.

page break page 9 we were able to note details of the housekeeping of the Caspian Tern.

Many breeds learn to tolerate the stranger within their gates; the Caspian Tern is not amongst the number. I may say at once that we were never in doubt as to the big Tern's feelings towards us. Frankly, they were those of implacable spleen. Throughout our acquaintance there was no movement that did not call forth shrieks and screams; almost every picture taken reveals the species scolding open-mouthed. The sight of us was an abiding exasperation to the fierce birds, our connection one long enduring duel. Certainly they failed to drive us off the beach by their remonstrances, but then, on the other hand, they did not themselves budge a foot; more than once they distinctly worsted us.

Man to man, the male, from whom many of the pictures are taken, twice succeeded in putting me into positions unworthy of my nobler self. The earlier of these humiliations was inflicted only a few days after we had met, whilst I was still desirous of getting a picture of him sitting on the eggs. It was blowing as usual, and by a bit of ill luck the pressure of the gale had pinned and flattened a flap of the screen material across my conning-hole. This obstruction I found impossible to rectify from the interior of the frail topee. The focussing I knew was correct, but page 10 I had to discover if my Tern was sitting in the position required. In order to gain sight of him, it was necessary to peep round the screen. This—after a proper interval of prayer and supplication—I attempted, moving as gently and gradually as a lizard can move its head. Alas! it was ordained that one eye of his should meet with one of mine. For the briefest fraction of a second he held me, guilty, taken in the very act, beneath his malevolent ken. Then in one long roar his feelings were vented. He had foreseen his triumph, and, waiting for the psychological moment, had been storing up suitable imprecations for persons who haunt lonely beaches and spy on the privacies of incubation. When as I leaned slowly out of the fluttering bellying tent and the tip of my ear first appeared, the bird must have foreknown my coming demolishment. As my cheekbone became visible he must have been whetting his beak, so that the first syllables should come trippingly. When our eyes met—one of his and one of mine—he had still, brooding in fierce silence, controlled himself long enough to let the disgrace of detected espial of his unborn chicks—of course I knew as a gentleman I should not have been there—soak and steep into my soul. He had not been content, as a shallower nature might have been, at the earliest chance to shame me. The tip of my ear, my whole ear, part of my page break
Caspian Tern Sitting.

Caspian Tern Sitting.

page break page 11 cheek, my half cheek had not been sufficient for this remarkable bird. He had waited for the eye and a full triumph. On another occasion, when during another gale the thin blinding of my screen had been fairly blown out in fold on fold of galloping cloth, again I stood worsted before this implacable Tern. Had I been caught in any human upright attitude, standing erect, man-like, god-like, this mishap might have been passed over as a mere bit of bad luck, I should have suffered frustration, not abasement. Owing, however, to the lowness of the tent, the blast revealed me to the Tern's malignant gaze in a ludicrous undignified stooping position—like that of Thwackum behind the curtains of poor Mollie Seagrim, or the habitual attitude of Baillie Macqueeble in the presence of his superiors. Thus standing exposed for the second time, I heard the great bird roar forth a torrent of malediction.

As pointed out, indeed, nearly every photograph portrays the Caspian Tern in belligerent mood, yet not a nest was deserted. It is satisfactory to be able to state that all the eggs known to us hatched safely. On the Porangahau beach that season there were added to the sum total of New Zealand shore birds six young Caspian Terns.

1 No more striking example perhaps could be cited of the dangerous adaptability of the feeding habits of birds than that of the Redbill—Hæmatopus unicolor. Our three tame specimens of this breed, free, of course, and with the run of Tutira Lake, its shores and marshes, would habitually share with tame Pukeko fragments of hard biscuit and wheat as fed to poultry.