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Bird Life on Island and Shore

X. Pegasus—The Giant Petrel

page 95

X. Pegasus—The Giant Petrel.

Our southern trip of 1913 was favoured by excellent weather, and a journey by sea accomplished in three days that might quite well have taken a week or fortnight. Early in October Foveaux Strait was crossed for the tenth time, and the well-remembered and well-beloved hills of Stewart Island again seen in the distance. As we opened Half Moon Bay, the light began to fail, and dark had fallen by the time we clambered on to the wooden wharf, redolent of all sorts of savoury sea smells. At dawn the following morning on board the Te Atua we picked up, on their own quay, the brothers John and Albert Leask, who were to be my companions during the forthcoming expedition. The weather was again propitious, and after running past Lord's River, Break Sea, and South Cape, late in the afternoon we passed through Whaleboat Passage into Port Pegasus.

Ingress to this harbour may be compared to page 96 that of the well-known Sounds of the west coast of the South Island. Picturesque, however, as it may be, the magnificent mountains and towering heights of the west coast Sounds are lacking. The several narrow entrances to Pegasus harbour lead direct from the ocean to vast expanses of deep still water. In one of its innumerable bays lies the tiny hamlet of half a dozen houses and huts, a small refrigerator for the preservation of fish, and a sawmill run by motor-power, used at the date of our visits chiefly in preparation of timber for tram-lines to the neighbouring tin mine. A certain liveliness—the phrase had not been invented then—was, however, added to the place during our stay by boats and fishing-craft anchored in the lee of the wooded islet that nearly closes the mouth of the little bay. Some of the houses are on its northern, some on its southern side. There is not a chain of roadway on the place; intercommunication is by boat alone. In other parts of the world men step ashore; at Pegasus they climb out of the ocean by ladders fastened to the cliffs that without a break edge the small cove. Pegasus is distinguishable from all other townships by the habits of its citizens. They arise perpendicularly from the ocean. They leap from sea-level to land. They are a pelagic folk. The ocean basin is a ship's hold, the surface of the earth its deck, and the perpendicular steps or page 97 stairs by which each individual climbs, his own particular companion-ladder; or it may be that this little southernmost community, subsisting on fish and never venturing far from the sea that nourishes it, is really of Penguin affinity. Thus viewed, the perpendicular ladders may be considered simply as modifications of the original Penguin habit of leaping when about to land, directly upwards from the ocean.

We had heard of a small outlying colony of Giant Petrel or Nellies on an islet in the harbour. Before therefore proceeding south we determined to visit the spot—Nellie Island it is called. Even approximately correct local information about birds is so rare that it was gratifying to discover that the reports concerning the Giant Petrel were comparatively correct. The islet really did exist. It had, moreover, at one period actually been used for breeding purposes. There remained, in fact, relics of nests that might have been in use within two or three years. In all probability the Petrels—locally known as Stinkpots, and, I fear, without rhyme or reason treated as such—had been harried and driven away from their tiny territory in wanton mischief.

Although Nellie Island was itself desolate, there still remained in its vicinity seven or eight pairs of breeding birds established in a small contiguous bay. At the appearance of our new craft, page 98 the Dolly, old birds in twos and threes began to fly off, until there remained probably only hens, parents of nestlings twelve or fourteen days old. Notwithstanding a careful quiet advance on foot, even they, when closely approached, scrambled off in ungainly fashion.

There is a time, as I have said, when many species will suffer near approach, risking all rather than desert their offspring: it is when the lives of the young, lacking mother-warmth, would be at stake. There are other times when the parent birds appear to be careless and callous: these are periods when their constant presence in the neighbourhood of the chicks can be of little or no avail. We happened to discover them in the careless stage. They were aware that their ungracious progeny could keep at bay the prowling Weka, the only foe which might at an earlier date have been supposed to be dangerous. Except as purveyors of food, the parent birds had now become useful only in shielding the chicks from such sun as could percolate through the tops of the scrubby trees, and in screening them from the sand-flies that do not willingly venture into the shade. They had been necessities to their young, now they were luxuries. Lacking pinion protection, however, and leaf-shade too whilst we exposed plates on them, the poor chicks were persecuted, so fiercely attacked by these insects that gouts page break
Young Of Giant Petrel.

Young Of Giant Petrel.

page break page 99 of blood oozed from the base of every nestling's bill. Even so small-seeming a fact as the habits and peculiarities of the sand-fly may affect the larger inhabitants of the woods. These tormenting insects cease to feed about dusk; they do not rise any great height above the ground. Without venturing to affirm that the habits of Kiwi and Kakapo, which during the hours of light dwell in dark holes and cavities, may have thus originated, these factors may well have helped to accelerate change. It is easy to believe that as the disuse of their wings became accentuated, the craving for other escape increased. Be that as it may, that the Nellie chicks were able to look after themselves, though not perhaps very comfortably, seemed to be the opinion of the old birds. Except occasionally and perfunctorily to scan the neighbourhood, they evinced no particular interest in our proceedings. They believed their chickens thus temporarily deserted could fend for themselves. They knew, furthermore, it was out of their power to drive us from the beach.

The site of this small rookery, if it can be so far dignified, was a chain or two inland from an expanse of granite slab, by winter storms washed bare of peat and sand. The nests were at irregular distances: sometimes a few feet, sometimes a few yards from one another. They were shaded by the thick top leafage of gnarled bare-boughed page 100 puheretaiko scrub. Above each great heap of dead twigs, pine-like dracophyllum needles, island grass, and débris of mountain flax, sat, ready to defend itself, a single chick. Nellie chicks must be approached with caution, for when startled they have the power of ejecting an oil from their bills, at first clear, but becoming with repeated use tinged with red, probably from food but partly digested. This liquid, which can be ejected several feet, judging by the caution with which Wekas approached the premises, is used as a means of defence. Though seemingly not a very terrible weapon, the mere knowledge that the chicks are dowered with some mysterious gift may suffice. At any rate, the Weka—for Weka—appear unwontedly diffident and unfamiliar. As the woodlands in the vicinity are miserably poor, the presence of this colony of food producers must have been vital to the local Woodhens, by whom all scavenger work is done, and whose nests are built within a few yards of those of their overlords. Besides half-devoured Kuaka, the prey of every Gull, Petrel, and Molly-mawk of the southern seas, all fatty matters ejected by the chicks were continuously gleaned from the edges of the nests.

Nellie nestlings have a curious habit of lying on their sides, one cheek pressed close to the rude nest, much in the attitude of a man asleep with ear close-pressed to pillow. I had hoped that at page 101 sunset the old birds might return, and that we should witness intimate greetings and interchange of food. They never came. At last, in despair at their phlegmatic apathy, we hauled our anchor and moved off, not indeed without regret, but without enthusiasm for the breed. There was nothing ingratiating in the vomiting of the nestlings.

The day, nevertheless, had not been ill-spent. How indeed is it possible to misspend time in the wilderness? We had seen a little—a very little—of a new species, and could carry away mental pictures to be afterwards pondered on pleasantly.

Nets set in the sea-weed beds had yielded a rich harvest; our deck piled with fish in shape and colour previously unknown, we bade farewell to the southern end of the harbour. The cleaning and scrubbing of our catch, the swilling of our decks from time to time with water bucketed overside from the sea, the screams of Gull and Kittywake scrambling and quarrelling in the vessel's wake, half diving for liver and roe; the chat of the sailor-men over the chances of their craft, the mystery of fading day in a new land, the smell of the unpeopled tracts—each of them was a part of a glorious first experience of Pegasus at night.

The following morning we left for Kotiwhenu, and were not again on the mainland for many page 102 weeks. In the interval we had been spoiled. During our second visit to Pegasus we had not time to readjust ourselves to want and poverty. On Kotiwhenu we had revelled in birds. Its area was so restricted that industry only was required for the discovery of every nest built. At Pegasus, on the other hand, the land was miserably poor, bird foods were consequently deficient, and birds themselves but sparsely scattered through its vast areas of timber. The very scope of the woods was a discouragement. A feeling of hopelessness was engendered by the prospect of penetration into their untenanted recesses. Penetration, furthermore, was exceedingly difficult; the branches of the low-growing scrub were rigid almost as wire, and advance possible on the high slopes only by means of axe and slasher.

In addition to lack of birds and difficulty of locomotion, I was uneasy on another score. The date of our departure from Pegasus was fixed by the sailing of the fish-boat returning to the Bluff, and gave me then only sufficient time to catch the liner taking us to England. Should we locate at the last moment the nest of an Orange-wattled Crow, its discovery would have forced on me a painful decision. This was our fourth season of search for the species. During two previous expeditions I had seen the bird; during each page 103 I had failed to find the nest. Now at Pegasus on all hands we heard of it. Indeed it was principally because of the Crow we had fixed our headquarters there.

Every one of the residents knew the breed, we were sure of that; for though errors can be made in the description of many birds, the Crow is unmistakable both in appearance and habits. We were certain, therefore, that it bred in that part of Stewart Island, and by every open way searched for the elusive bird. Of these ways there were three—one, the overland route by Table Mountain and Paterson Inlet; another, the track connecting the settlement with the heights, where tunnelling for tin was in progress; and thirdly, the harbour itself, its bays and arms and creeks. In vain, trembling with hope and fear, we trudged the forest from daylight to dark; in vain we climbed the Remarkables; in vain we beat through the seaside scrub. We never heard or saw the Crow. We never did get the nest. I never did have forced on me the fateful alternative of renunciation of the study of the nesting habits of this long-sought species, or the forfeiture of five berths on the Orient liner Orvieto. Had, however, the nest been vouchsafed to us, I trust I should have been guided to the proper choice, and known where my duty lay.