Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Bird Life on Island and Shore

VI. The North Island Robin

page 63

VI. The North Island Robin.

The Robin of the North and the Robin of the South differ little from one another. Both, when standing expectant of grub or insect, indulge in that curious palsied shake or shiver of the foot—a rapid stamp or twitch; both are tame and trustful; both make choice of the same type of building site; yet as there are dissimilarities, real, though not perhaps specially conspicuous between the plumage of the one and other, so there are contrasts of a minor kind in the habits of the species.

The North Island Robin, dark above and greyish-white below, in size slightly larger than the Robin Redbreast of the Old Country, haunts in a rather greater degree the interior of woodland areas, the heart of the bush where the biggest heaviest timber grows—the mighty puriri, the magnificent tarairi. He does not eschew its page 64 filtered light, its green gloom. Unlike his relative of the south, he seems to have a less marked preference for the fringes of the bush, where luxuriance of growth often deteriorates at sea-level into scrub, jungle, and fern, and on the high tops into alpine flora, rooted in peat and sheltered by naked rock. The North Island bird, too, seems to be rather less tame. Certainly it does not trust its nest and young quite so generously and unreservedly into the keeping of mankind. Huts and disused outhouses well adapted for building purposes, which in the south would undoubtedly have been utilised, are neglected. Crumbs, too, are not, I think, picked up quite unhesitatingly—without at least a due degree of inspection. The egg of the North Island bird is in my experience rather less elongated. The male bird in the north sings from a greater height; the female is a little more shy, her habits a little more furtive.

The most noteworthy dissimilarity, however, in the two species lies in their vocal powers, in the volume and variety of their song. In fact, since discovery of the glorious singing of the North Island bird, the small attention bestowed on it by New Zealand field naturalists has never ceased to amaze me. None have alluded to it with special praise, yet I say unhesitatingly that I have never heard from any other New Zealand page break
North Island Robin.

North Island Robin.

page break page 65 bird, or indeed for that matter from any English bird save the Nightingale, such delightful bursts of prolonged continuous song. My first knowledge of the North Island Robin was in the back country of Poverty Bay, where, in the late 'nineties, a considerable number still survived. Thereabouts Robins did not haunt the huge sheet of forest then spread over the highlands between Gisborne and Opotiki. They were to be noted rather in the narrow belts of tall manuka, and amongst the woods less high and less thick of the more open countryside. In these glades the males would sing at a surprising distance from the ground, pouring forth their song from the topmost branches of considerable trees. I remember on one occasion a male singing in warm soft rain for twenty minutes at a stretch. I have known another, so preoccupied, so engrossed, that attempts to bring him near did not appreciably distract or cause cessation of song for more than a second or two. Nearly as often I have listened to singers perched only a few feet from the ground. In the case of a bird thus in full view every motion could be noted, the tail quivering with excess of emotion, the inspiration ceasing only momentarily, ceasing only when from time to time the perch was changed. On many occasions my wife was with me during these delightful concerts. Comparing experiences on the spot, page 66 we came to the conclusion that some of the notes were as mellow as those of the English Thrush. Sometimes, too, the song recalled that of the Canary before it breaks into trill; sometimes it resembled the beginning of the English Robin's song. There were interrogative notes like the high parts of the Grey Warbler's pipe, and more rarely a sibilant note. These outpourings, as I have said, lasted up to twenty minutes, with only brief intervals of silence whilst the bird changed its perch—twenty minutes be it noted, not estimated by guess-work but timed by watch. I cannot indeed but think that these Robins of the Poverty Bay back country may have been specially gifted, for otherwise the reputation of the North Island Robin would have swallowed the reputation of all other New Zealand singing birds, as the rods of Aaron swallowed those of the magicians of Pharaoh. Such music once heard could never have been forgotten; field naturalists of early days could not have overlooked it. Fifteen or twenty minutes of uninterrupted song are woodland episodes too rare and sweet not to impress themselves indelibly on the listener's mind. That this clan of North Island Robins was endowed beyond the average was certainly corroborated by my experience in Little Barrier. There the Robin's song, though pleasant and though superior to that of the South Island species, never reached page 67 the sustained power and passionate melody of the Poverty Bay race.1

Nests of the North Island Robin were, in Poverty Bay, built in situations not normal, the type of site most desired by the birds being unobtainable. One which I got in October was in the heart of a shrubby low-growing carpodetus. Its architects, failing the propitious shelf, had used as substitute the sound mud foundation of an ancient English Thrush's nest. Three perfectly fresh eggs had just been destroyed by rats or weasels. The sitting bird, too, had probably been killed, for abundant dark feathers lay scattered beneath. Alas! that exquisite music now is mute, the green woods are no more, the birds are gone. There are a few more sheep in the world, a few more cattle—surely God must wonder at the relative values we put upon his creatures. The generations to come have been despoiled of something precious and irreplaceable.

page 68
In Little Barrier Island, where the Robin—though not this singing strain—is still plentiful, we witnessed in one particular pair, courtship, construction of nest, care of male for female during the nesting period, feeding of young, and finally, widowhood of the surviving parent. Courtship was already in progress during the first week of October, the cock from time to time offering small worms and small caterpillars to the lady of his heart, and she receiving them with drooped frame and flutter of wings. It was interesting to note the selection of material for the nest; it was chosen, not like a man shopping who takes the foremost article offered, but like a lady of mind and means who tries and tests. With her feet set and braced like a dog pulling at his master's stick, the hen would tug and strain at the dry brown aerial rootlets of tree-fern trunks; only the soundest stuff would serve her purposes. A dusty tangle, naturally strung together with cobwebs, was always an attraction, and could be steered nestwards with wonderful exactitude. On one occasion, whilst the nest was half constructed, she managed, like an animated kite, to trail behind her a yard long mass of web, amongst which dangled leaves and brittle husks of twig. This long-drawn train was navigated successfully through intricacies of greenery, sere tree-fern fronds, and jagged bark of all sorts of intervening page break
North Island Robin's Nest.

North Island Robin's Nest.

page break page 69 brush and bough. Suitable sticks and bits of branch were grasped by their centres, thus minimising the chances of jar and jerk. Fragments of twig-tip, chewed as a preliminary into the shape desired and perhaps afterwards oiled, mouth-fuls of moss, dry leaves, soft grey pappus of shrubs and creepers, were also carried. As the work proceeded we could see her seated within the nest bulging it out with neck and breast, sewing and tucking in frayed fibre and web. To ensure the proper shape, she would half - circle first one way and then the other. At a later stage, with the nest reaching completion, still sitting, she would spread her wings nearly to the full, and with weight and force beat down the edges smooth and firm. The male bird meanwhile occupied himself in the collection of food, from time to time calling his companion away from her labours, and at a few yards' distance regaling her with various insects, hard-looking brown grubs and caterpillars. On 19th October eggs had been laid, their number unknown, as we feared to disturb the bird. This nest was plundered by rats. A second nest containing eggs was found on 6th November. It also was destroyed. A third was found on 23rd November with two eggs. These hatched out, for on 10th December a pair of youngsters had chipped the shell. This third nest was likewise ruined and the hen killed, page 70 for we found over the dead brood the tell-tale pluck of feathers that mark the handiwork of the rat. For weeks afterwards we used to see the solitary male as we passed up and down the creek which served as our trail inland. These three nests were placed within five and ten yards of one another, and were the property of one pair of birds. In spite of early disaster, they had chosen to stick to the area—a very favourable one—over which they had acquired rights; doubtless, too, the marauding rat after his first discovery, and still more so after his second, was aware of the fact, and laid his plans accordingly.

The first of these ill-fated nests was arranged on, rather than secured to, a flat projecting kohe-kohe bole, deeply shaded by fronds of the silver-backed tree-fern. The second was established on the surface of a considerable limb—also a kohe-kohe,—broken but not wholly wrenched from the parent tree, and still green-leaved and full of sap. On the broadest portion of this split, the nest was seated rather than built, the space of several inches betwixt its inmost edge and the main trunk being blocked and wedged with stiff brown leaves gathered from the ground. There they stood close-packed like upright shingles or layers of paling one against another, making the nest appear large and cumbrous. The third nest built by this unfortunate pair was likewise page 71 placed on a sort of shelf formed by an accumulation of the midribs of tree-fern fronds consolidated by decay and rain. A fourth nest belonging to another pair was planted on a similar site, a gentle incline caused by the break of a huge limb from a puriri. In its fall away nearly two feet of its substance had been torn out, leaving a dry ledge at right angles to the magnificent trunk. Upon this the nest was deposited like a tart on a plate, so detachable that in order the more easily to observe the parent birds in attendance on their brood we were in the habit of moving it to the ground and up again as required. Any flat surface, or shelf, or gently inclined plane with a back to it is favourably considered by the Robin; always on such sites nests may be looked for.

In the disintegration of many deserted and old nests the inner parts came out almost whole, as wooden Japanese bowls fitted one within the other can be detached separately. The outer layer was composed of fresh-pulled fibre, small twigs, skeleton and dry leaves, bark, scraps of aerial roots of tree-fern, sere fragments of fronds, lichen, moss, and living trails of polypod, arranged so that the green ovoid fronds lay flat as if clinging naturally. The second nest within a nest was a wrapping of soft green moss; the innermost cup of all, a mass of the dark-brown hair page 72 gathered from uncoiling tree-fern fronds. In one instance one or two seedling plants of another kind of small polypod had been utilised in the structure of the exterior cup; the innermost lining, instead of the usual tree-fern hair only, had that substance intermixed with layers of soft frayed grass and carex. The edges of all Robins' nests are, as already described, beaten hard by the outstretched wings of the female, and firmly netted with spider-web. The hen sits closely; only the impudent obtrusion of a Pied Tit or the inadvertent approach of a Whitehead rousing her to anger and brief chase of the offender. Two or three times an hour during the progress of incubation the hen is called off into some convenient greenery, there to receive the offerings of the male, who, after feeding her, mounts high on a neighbouring tree and sings delightfully.

1 Although the above is an extreme case, there is nothing remarkable in the variation of song in different localities. The notes, for instance, of the Tui of the west coast of Stewart Island differ from the notes of the Tui of Hawkes Bay. I have listened in vain for that “organ note of surpassing richness “credited to the New Zealand Crow by one observer; for that “flute-like note” attributed by another to the Saddleback. As in song, so in degree of shyness are there great variations in races of the same breed. The Banded Rail, for instance, is in the north an exceedingly shy and wary species, yet I have reason to believe it to be quite the reverse, strangely and remarkably tame indeed, on at least one very limited area.