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Birds of the Water Wood & Waste

The Kingfisher

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The Kingfisher

Although in parts of the run distant from the policies three or four pairs of Kingfishers have always bred, it is only of late that they have begun in any numbers to frequent the homestead and house paddocks. In the earlier days of the station, the birds would arrive in late autumn and remain during the winter, all of them, however, until two years ago, leaving us in springtime for various scattered breeding sites.

In 1908, however, one pair remained after the usual date of departure.

During early October we could see them flashing from tree to tree in the sunshine, page 60 or in the dewy mornings perched on the Stevenson screen and the rain gauge, apparently deep in meteorological calculations, and scientific reflections, but really quite alive to mundane promptings and not missing one chance in competition with Thrush and Blackbird for the early worm.

Later in the month, as they were still with us, I became certain they would nest, and watched the various banks and cuttings for the circular hole where claw marks on the lower edge denote the Kingfisher's breeding chamber. On this occasion, however, the choice of a nesting site fell on a half rotten willow knot, and presently their secret betrayed itself by the little yellow skee or slip of tunnelled wood-grain piled up against the knot's base.

This gnarled willow snag lay on the narrow strip of turf betwixt the lake shore and the public road, which here winds along its western edge, but neither riders, waggons, coaches, nor mobs of travelling stock seemed at all to scare the birds.

It is doubtful, indeed, if they were even noticed by the wayfaring public, and the precautions taken by the birds—the low warning note sounded upon the approach page break page break
Plate XI. Young Kingfishers—showing Nest in Sandbank.

Plate XI. Young Kingfishers—showing Nest in Sandbank.

page 61 of riders and the care taken to lure them away along the road by short decoy flights —were probably quite unnecessary.

Sitting birds may easily be scared from their nests, so it was not until the eggs were hatched that I ventured upon closer inspection; in fact, my first assurance that the smooth, very round, white eggs had changed into naked nestlings was gained by happening suddenly on one of the parents bearing a small inanga (I think) in its bill. We were scarcely five feet apart— for an instant face to face—the next the inanga was gone and the bird was regarding me with the brazen innocence of the school-child detected and who has swallowed his sweetie.

It was only upon a deeper knowledge of his worth that I could forgive the bird for the deceit thus attempted on a friend, and mentally afford him the more honourable similitude of the faithful pursuivant, who, rather than betray his sovereign's trust, swallows the incriminating document.

I may say here that these Kingfishers were my first attempt at bird photography, and that in addition to inexperience I had to contend with a shutter altogether too noisy.

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I knew something of the habits of birds, but nothing of the camera's. For me the perfect instrument is not yet in the market, the camera that will give good results through cap, closed shutter and undrawn slide.

To this day a glow of joy pervades my frame, when, in the developing dish, the first faint image dawns upon the plate. Humbly I thank Heaven for its appearance there, and plume myself on not being such a very great idiot after all.

After the completing of a hiding place, it was my custom in the morning to walk down to this shelter with a companion, enter it quietly while he retired whistling ostentatiously, and otherwise taking care that the birds should notice his retirement.

Birds apparently cannot count, and this simple ruse was successful, but though it was easy enough to deceive the Kingfishers' sight, their sense of hearing could not tolerate the burr and click of the machine —one whole morning, indeed, was spent winding up and freeing the garrulous shutter to accustom them to the sound.

Finally I broke the birds in so thoroughly to the shutter that it was accepted as normal, page 63 as one of the sounds of nature, the rustling of grasses, the patter of leaves, the lapping of water.

When our acquaintance began, the lizard season was at its height — the first brood being almost entirely reared on them. Later, lizards were practically “off” the bill of fare, and dragon flies “on” —lizards, say, during December; dragon flies during February. At any rate, lizards during the former month would supply the piéce de resistance, and during the latter, dragon fly.

Cicada and locust were also served up from time to time, but rarely.

While the parent birds were still shy of my shelter, I used to notice that after one or two attempts at the nest—they would balk just like boys “funking” at high jump—the particular lizard carried during these unlucky attempts would be got rid of and another substituted. This, I could tell by the differing sizes of the little beasties. It was pathetic, indeed, to watch these poor reptiles held always by the scruff of the neck—if, scientifically, lizards have necks— and with their toes—if they are toes—clearly defined against the light. They were very, page 64 very limp, too, for it is Kingfisher fashion to beat and batter his prey before presentation to the nestlings.

The Kingfisher's vocabulary does not seem to be voluminous—a jarring screech, not translatable into human spelling, always greeted my appearance from the tepee, and well expressed terror and rage. Cli-cli-cli, several times repeated, signified “safe now,” and always immediately after this note one of the parents would light on the knot, momentarily pause, and then, with a quick little run, enter the hole with supplies for the hungry garrison.

Then there was the low note of warning already mentioned, and another cry similar to that of rage, only lower in pitch and less harsh. It expressed caution, “All right I think,” from the male perched high on the broken cabbage tree; “All right? All right?” from the hen to encourage herself. Then the male would call again, “All right! All right! But you try first” (just like a man!) and the hen would pitch within a yard of my head right on the log, hesitate, and her heart fail, perhaps, at the last moment, or perhaps she would successfully run the blockade; an action, when page break
Plate XII. Kingfisher and Tailless Lizard.

Plate XII. Kingfisher and Tailless Lizard.

page break page 65 you came to consider it, really appalling to her imagination, for as these Kingfishers always backed out tail foremost, there was the dreadful chance of being caught defenceless by the rump.

Then there were, besides, long, low toned, earnest guttural conversations of “klue-e, klue-e, klue-e,” repeated or exchanged again and again and again.

In emerging from the screen, my sudden reappearance must have been an amazement to the birds beyond any amazement experienced by Kingfishers since the world began, and no doubt when, as racial custom ordains, and the birds repair to winter quarters, these two will scandalise the respectable community with their tales. They will relate how a leafy cocoon grew up in two days near their willow snag, how their nest was investigated, yet spared, how for hours a single unwinking Cyclopean eye would glare at their front door, how the four nestlings were taken out of their trodlogytic home and placed in a row before the magic optic, how the strongest youngster, resenting the uncanny rite, flew fully thirty yards on his first flight, fell into the lake, and was rescued by a boat, page 66 how on two occasions their nesting hole was blocked at dusk, and other stories so much stranger than truth as to be indubitably false.

With a reverence for science—almost a passion it might be said for the screen and raingauge—it is sad to have to relate the Kingfisher's neglect of the elementary duties and decencies of life. The birds know neither how to keep a cleanly house or rear a mannerly family; in fact, the schoolboy's condensation of some work on savage life—manners none and customs beastly—would be strictly apposite to their house-keeping. The nest swarms with gentles, and from it there emanates a really noisome stench, the young sometimes sitting amongst food unconsumed and in the last stage of corruption.

It may here be added that owing to the tumultuous sanitary habits of the nestlings, close inspection of a Kingfisher's burrow is a highly adventurous method of learning wisdom.

Then the young birds quarrel without cessation from daylight to dark, hour by hour, girning like bad - tempered children, the squabble alternately dying to a drone page break
Plate XIII. A Kingfisher Quartette.

Plate XIII. A Kingfisher Quartette.

page break page 67 and heightening to a twangling chorus of treble shrieks. The nestlings might be Jew's harps, loosely strung, and perpetually twanged. I imagine that in their dark chamber, when the bickerings have sunk to a sleepless drone, the least movement of a single bird awakens the savage circle again to recrimination. The young literally never stop quarrelling, girning when on their best behaviour, and screaming in sibilant chorus when at their worst. My experience with these wild Kingfishers bears out a friend's statement that they make the most greedy and most fierce of pets, fighting incessantly, and even chewing off each other's tail feathers.

At night neither parent stops in the breeding chamber. After dark, if their snag was jarred or shaken, the indignant nestlings used to twangle and hiss and shriek their loudest. If, however, the jarring continued, they would lapse into dead, utter silence.

The winter habits of Kingfishers here at Tutira, depend on weather conditions; cold spells will drive them coastwards, and they will return with warmer airs. Twice during the present winter this has occurred. Up page 68 to mid-June the whole ten seemed to be about the orchards and lawn, then on the night of the 13th the thermometer dropped to 31 degrees in the screen, and next morning apparently every bird was gone.

I was able to obtain several medium photographs from this nest, of the parents carrying in lizards, and later in the season cicadas, and also one of the four full fledged nestlings seated in a row on a willow stick.

As I have said, this pair and their numerous offspring hung about the policies during the winter, but as spring came on again, disappeared one by one until at length, in September, only the original pair remained. On the fourth of the month they began to work on the old willow snag, their nesting site of the previous year.

It was now that I, again and again, regretted having tampered with the hole in order for purposes of photography to get out the four young nestlings.

The part removed, though carefully replaced and apparently secure, had, during the winter, shrunk and curled up, and the chamber itself was dank and damp, good enough still, perhaps, for vulgar Starlings and Minahs, but quite unfit for the fastidious Kingfisher.

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The pair, now again thinking of nesting, were, I am convinced, identical with the birds of the previous season.

Readers will be convinced, too, when they hear of the sites attempted, sites no birds would have thought of not thoroughly accustomed to man and broken to belief in him.

On September 4th, then, these Kingfishers were at work at the old original site. This was almost at once abandoned, and the birds then tunnelled in the same snag two other bores, each, alas, terminating in the old breeding chamber. There is practically no rotten timber on this part of the run, but I did get, after some trouble, a dry willow block at about the proper stage of decay, also two other logs, which, though rather waterlogged, I hoped might do. The first of these was securely wedged into a living willow's fork some five feet above the ground and within twenty yards of the original site in the willow snag. A narrow augur hole, slightly sloping upwards, was made, and the ejected wood grain allowed to be noticeably visible. About the same date one of the remaining logs was erected in a suitable position on the lawn, and the page 70 third was planted in a dry bank distant some half-mile across the lake.

Thereabouts, too, in the more suitable cliffs, augur holes were bored. These were, however, left severely alone, the sand not being of the proper kind, not the velvetsoft, cool, yet not dry, powdery, yet not too free, flood drift of river banks.

The log wedged in the living willow's fork, however, proved suitable, and in a few days the birds had excavated a fine tunnel, judged by the amount of wood grain thrown out.

I now thought all was well, and gave little more thought to the matter, until I noticed Starlings in the vicinity.

Upon inspection, it was found that these aliens had dispossessed the Kingfishers of their new bore, and also seized upon the original site, the poor Kingfishers having, I found, humbly attempted still a third bore beneath the Starlings' nest in the latter. Both chambers were full of horrid willow twigs and vulgar feathers of the tame villatic fowl.

They were promptly pulled out, and for a day or two either myself or McLean lay hidden in the flax, and each Starling arriving was duly shot.

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The Kingfishers, however, would not return to their new made hole, but almost at once again attempted the original snag, and again gave it up in despair.

My notes give the date of first work as September 4th. On the 15th they were tunnelling in the new log set up for them. On September 30th they were dispossessed by Starlings. On October 9th and 10th they attempted the log set up on the edge of the lawn.

This, it will be remembered, was another of the snags artificially established some weeks previously. On the afternoon of the 10th the pair were very busy taking turns at their work, the bird not occupied seated on a low bough close to the log, while the other tunnelled hard and scraped out with its little feet the refuse wood. A couple of minutes was about the duration of each spell of work. Ruberoid had been wrapped partly round the block, but in spite of this —perhaps because of original damp not properly evaporated, or perhaps because of insufficient decay, the birds ceased work.

On October 15th I found noted in my diary, “Kingfishers in fowl run.” In this most unromantic spot stood an old dead page 72 pine bole. On it the Kingfishers now started their bores, tearing off great sheets of its outer bark in their eager efforts to penetrate the rotten layer beneath. Here, in spite of the henhouse door being five feet distant, in spite of the daily feeding of fowls and collection of eggs—the latter in itself surely an outrage on a wild bird's feelings,—regardless too, of the cow bail also within a few yards, the work of boring proceeded. Alas! here again conditions were unpropitious, the several tunnels all striking a hard inner rind of sound timber.

On November 1st, my diary records “Kingfishers still hanging about.” The poor birds were restless and unsatisfied, evidently seeking everywhere for a suitable site and visiting, sometimes one and sometimes another of the discarded holes.

On November 16th they “left the homestead,” moving some hundred yards away to the vicinity of the wool shed. Here, in turn, they attempted one after another of the willows, some of these the oldest on the run and full of holes, though not the holes that Kingfishers would select unless hard pressed, indeed.

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Plates XIV. a. Kingfisher carrying Lizard.

Plates XIV. a. Kingfisher carrying Lizard.

Plates XIV. b. Kingfisher with Cicada.

Plates XIV. b. Kingfisher with Cicada.

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On November 23rd, I note, “Kingfishers again at original willow snag.” On November 25th, “Boring again in fowl run.”

On December 7th great flying to and fro and exultant screaming announced the fact that in the fowl run the old pine bole had fallen in the previous night's gale. The birds were evidently hopeful that all this splintered timber on the ground must surely mean a suitable yard or two of rotten wood.

On December 18th they were still about the homestead, still loath to desert the scene of their former successful incubations.

On January 10th, and for some days afterwards, both birds were again about the homestead. They were evidently not sitting. In early February they were still about the place. I believe, in fact, they did not breed during the season of 1909–1910. The seizure, therefore, of their nesting site by the Starlings cost us locally eight young Kingfishers, for this strong, well-fed pair would have certainly again reared two broods of four. This ousting of the Kingfishers from their nesting site is just an instance of one of the minor perils our natives have now to adventure. Another is that they are driven by the page 74 pressure of foreign birds to sites not perfectly safe. Allusion has been made to the destruction by wind of the tree in the fowl yard. Another pair of Kingfishers this season in another part of the run suffered from a similar mishap, the birds themselves escaping, but the great pine bole selected for their breeding chamber being levelled with the ground. Though miles from any homestead, there, too, Minahs, Starlings and Sparrows were in full possession of the best sites. I notice, furthermore, that during the last few seasons Minahs, hereabouts at any rate, have taken to eating dragon flies.

Like other native breeds the Kingfisher has now to face a competition unknown before. On the other hand, I believe that anybody in the country who has a garden frequented in winter by Kingfishers, could easily induce the birds to remain to breed. He would be well repaid by their beauty, the interest of the tunnelling operations, the varying calls of the birds, and the working of their commissariat department.

As has been told, each of the two artificial log sections placed in the vicinity of the original nest was attempted, each was ex- page 75 plored and bored. The third block, too was burrowed into, and almost certainly by another pair of birds.

These sites, I am convinced, were only not completely utilised because they were not exactly suitable, but next season, “if its de las' act,” as Uncle Remus says, my Kingfishers shall have everything they require: blocks suitably decayed, three feet long by two in diameter, placed five or six feet above the ground, and sloped sufficiently to run off the rain. The logs shall, moreover, be augured three inches or so slightly upwards, and, as a further precaution, capped and wrapped with ruberoid.*

Sites selected should be quite open and some three feet from the orifice of each, and on a lower plane should be a stout perch, on which the birds can rest alternately during their burrowing operations. It will be serviceable, too, at a later period, when the parents are carrying in food, for the birds like to rest there a moment near the nest, before bidding daylight farewell and taking their plunge into darkness.

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During the past season one other Kingfisher's nest was got, but too near the public road, and at too great a distance from the homestead, to admit of putting up a screen. It was built in a sandbank, and in it two nestlings were reared.

* NOTE.—Neither of the timber yards in Napier hold any stock of suitably decayed blocks of white pine, nor can they be had at the country sawmills. Sometimes in the Colonies the most necessary articles are not easily procurable.