Birds of the Water Wood & Waste
Considering our opportunities the Tui has baffled us more than any other species attempted during the past season. Not that he is very shy or very timid; far less so, indeed, than we had anticipated. It is the extreme rapidity of his every movement, the gloss and sheen of his plumage, and to a lesser degree the brief period between laying of the eggs and development of the nestlings. The young, furthermore, are very restless and wild, and, when jarred and disturbed, and both are unavoidable, readily quit the nest, a proceeding in every way abetted and encouraged by the parents.page break page break page 167
In spite, therefore, of the many nests found, and the trouble taken in building Swiss Family Robinson platforms high among the trees, the photographic results have been poor. By ill luck, the only fairly good negative gave us the bird without his tail. He had, during the infinitesimal fraction of time necessary for exposure, turned from broadside to full face. Nor has such a case been exceptional; again and again has the image on the plate turned out utterly different from our anticipation, the bird, for instance, pointing north and south when we had expected it east and west.
In this alone, of course, there is nothing surprising, but it seems curious that several of these plates have come out sharp and clear and show no trace of motion.
The movements of some birds in particular are enormously rapid, and there seems to be a great lot of luck in very fast photographic work, and even with the most rapid lens; the most restless species may be secured in a quiet fiftieth part of a second, and the most phlegmatic and slow spoiled in a restless hundredth.
Then, again, when the parent birds of any breed have become suspicious, even page 168 though to the human eye, the rapidity of their movements has not been perceptibly accelerated, the dark room will tell a different tale. Contrariwise, that is why so often photographs will come out satisfactorily when the two parents appear together. Each has given the other confidence, with the result that their motions are more slow and leisurely. This, in part, also accounts for the superiority of a second over a first day's work.
The sunlessness of this last season, too, and its constant summer rainfall, also militated against us, the Jordan sunshine recorder showing eight perfectly sunless days during November, and nine during December. Then, also—and this is the best reason of all to account for my failure with the Tui—I had no intimate knowledge of its habits; I mean that real intimacy begot of watching unseen a bird, hour after hour, and day after day.
At the beginning of the season we did not dare to take liberties, which too late we found might have been successfully attempted. In our siege work we erred on the side of over-caution. Still, as a rule, the processes of sapping and mining can page 169 hardly be too gradual, and in our operations against the Tui it was, after all, rather the weather and the very rapid development of the young that beat us.
Among all species throughout the rearing of every brood there is a gradual increase of devotion to the nest and offspring, this devotion culminating a few days before the birds are fit to fly. A nest in building will often be deserted if looked at, neither when complete is it of much account in the eyes of the little builders; even eggs, when perfectly fresh, inspire no great ardour. As, however, they approach complete incubation, so in exact correspondence do the parental instincts of care and tenderness increase. Then, again, there is a great leap in parent love from the moveless, quiet shells to the pathetic little creatures that move and wriggle in the nest.
They become daily more and more precious, until the feathers are almost complete, when the old birds' affection begins slightly to cool, or, perhaps, rather, they know that their offspring can do without them for longer periods, and that closer attendance and constant feeding are no longer necessary. With species such as the Warbler, page 170 the Waxeye, and the Fantail, the camera will be least regarded between the third and tenth days. No generalisation is possible, of course, but after the young are a few days old, no parent birds, save, indeed, Harriers, will leave their brood unless driven off by very gross blundering and mismanagement.
The earliest Tui's nest got this year was on November 12th. I believe it was not finished, but did not care to climb up for fear of doing harm. On the 23rd the Tui was on the nest. She was sitting hard, and probably the eggs were just hatching. At any rate, I boiled my billy and lunched not far from the tree, and satisfied myself that neither of the parents was bringing in supplies.
On the 11th December the nestlings were gone, and inspection of the broken shell chips, fragments without doubt from incubated eggs, the soiled condition of the nest and its tilt all told of a brood safely reared.
There were, therefore, in all probability eggs in this nest on the 23rd, and they had hatched out and gone by the 11th, and, of course, possibly even earlier.page break page break page 171
I got another nest on the 26th November containing a single egg, and on the 11th of December there were young in the nest. How many of the young were at that time hatched, and what their age might then have been I cannot tell, as again I was satisfied with the knowledge that they were out of the shell and feared to disturb the parent birds.
Late in November and early in December is the height of the Tui's breeding season. About that date we knew of five or six nests, and four of them were in one patch of bush about a couple of acres in extent. I got a nest on January 1st with a fresh egg just broken, and McLean got the last nest of the season, with four eggs, on the 7th.
The Tui sometimes builds in a “cup” of small branches, often selecting a thick clump of side shoots for a site. Oftener the nest is placed among trails of supplejacks and bush vine or lawyers, never in too thick a clump, however, and always at twenty or thirty feet from the ground.
The nest is about the size of a Blackbird's or Thrush's, but not so deep or compact, and is always finished with an edge of manuka twigs. It is only loosely secured on its site, and many Tuis' nests page 172 are blown from their moorings during summer gales. The graceful eggs are much pointed and white, or white shot with a very pale rose or pink.
Both nests under the camera this year were built on matapos. The Tui feeds her nestlings on fuchsia, and probably other berries, and supplies of some sort were also gathered from the matapos in the vicinity.
The Tui very strongly resents the presence of other birds in the vicinity of his nest. In the Kaihekatearoa bush, where their nests were so numerous this season, McLean saw one pursuing a pigeon, nor did the persecution cease, even when it settled, the unappeased Tui sidling up the branch and digging his enemy in the ribs. During December we got a Tui's nest in a small spinney in the Waikahau river, and from above, off the hill's steep slopes, we could both see and hear the bird singing on her eggs.
Never before had I known any species sing on the nest, and this Tui's “O-coc-coc-coc-coc-coc,” each syllable rapidly enunciated, produced a distant and peculiar note, impossible to forget or confuse with any other. When her mate was expected— page 173 presumably she was the hen—the bird seemed to raise herself on the nest and stretch forth her neck as if in expectation of food. We were close to her, yet she sang as if her song could have no ending, as if the world was too full of the ecstasy of life for wrong and rapine to exist. The sun was shining above the flowing river, the leaves green, of every shape and shade, her great love had cast out fear. Much of the Tui's singing we cannot hear, the notes too high, I suppose, for our human ears, for I have often watched the bird's throat from but a few yards' distance swelling with song entirely inaudible.
Excuses have been given for our failures with the Tui, both in wretched negatives and scanty notes. The honest truth has been kept to the end. It was shearing time, and an extraordinary instance it is of the inherent perversity of human affairs that shearing should occur just at the busy period of the year, when all the birds are nesting, and during the very height of the breeding season. To it the Tui has been sacrificed; the fact is, I had to be about the shed and sheep yards when really I should have been working.