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Birds of the Water Wood & Waste

Preface to Second Edition

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Preface to Second Edition

In bringing out another edition apology first and foremost must needs be offered for the continued use of the original title. For years that too grandiose designation has lain heavy on my heart; it must nevertheless remain as in the case of children begotten in the flesh, a name once given can hardly be changed.

The book should, of course, have been called “Birds of a New Zealand Sheep Station,” or some such simple title. Field naturalist notes of an elementary sort are the contents of “Birds of the Water, Wood and Waste”; such as they are, so they must remain.

Sixteen years have now elapsed since publication, during which period other volumes have been written by me on natural history in New Zealand.

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Only in the last of these have I been able to strike a more optimistic note as to the fate of our native birds—a more optimistic note that is as regards their survival in State Forests, State Reserves, and areas planted for commercial purposes. Another, however, and a more dolorous tale has to be told of farms and sheep farms worked privately as business concerns. Though it might not at first seem to be so, in both cases this comminglement of weal and woe can be ascribed to the more efficient management of land—whether owned individually or still held by the Crown.

The fact is that all State Lands suitable for farming have now been alienated; there remain only areas unfit for settlement owing to their elevation above sea level or to their soils.

Such districts can be turned to other use.

Proportionately to her size New Zealand is destined to be as great a producer of timber as of butter, wool and meat. On her ancient forests replanted, in her primeval woods allowed to rejuvenate themselves, her indigenous avifauna is, and will be, more and more a vital factor, an asset that can no longer be neglected. Trapping of vermin, page 9 interdict of shooting, encouragement of nectar producing, and berry bearing shrubs and trees will be further steps towards a desirable end. The study and protection of native birds will necessarily become part of a great general scheme of forestry; for the first time in the history of the Dominion their assistance will be considered indispensable. This more satisfactory state of affairs will not have been reached too soon, for on the farms and sheep farms of New Zealand conditions alter daily for the worse.

Concerning the owners of the former, I have already pointed out that they would scalp their parents for the sake of two extra blades of cocksfoot, but this desperate reckless cheating of the face of the earth, at one period confined to that class, is now imposed on one and all of us, on great and small of us.

In the seventies a species of insanity would seem to have permeated New Zealand; the country was apparently no longer to be New Zealand at all. God's work in the South Pacific was not good enough. The Dominion was to be transformed into a sixth rate Britain; our own native plants and native birds were unworthy of us. It was given out and widely accepted that the former page 10 were of no great beauty, that inevitably the latter must perish. The very Maori race was represented as doomed. Our forests were undervalued, their yearly growth underestimated, their hardihood denied.

The curious self depreciation of the Briton in regard to the world work of his race seems to have cropped up in the New Zealander in a no less curious depreciation of his indigenous possessions. The phase has passed, or if there yet exist persons who desire ling, deer, grouse and insignis pine on our national parks they are not more numerous than Scots in Scotland who would desire to see the field of the battle of Bannock-burn in prairie grass or white with manuka.

The damage, however, has been done, all sorts of vermin—weasels, deer, rabbits, sparrows, hedgehogs, “possum” have been loosed on the devoted land. Plants, too, have been deliberately imported, one of which, hinc illae lacrymae (the blackberry), is to-day the curse of the colony.

Introduced first from a sentimental recollection of its fruit, and later utilised as a hedge plant, it had even by the eighties begun to excite alarm.

Then, however, the factors of seed distri- page 11 bution were absent; at that date blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows, and starlings had barely spread from their original centres of acclimatisation. Then, therefore, the blackberry forged ahead but slowly. Now, the country swarms with undesirable alien birds—alas! that the Blackbird of Keats, the Thrush of Browning, should be condemned as pests.

For every blackberry then matured, a million ripen now; for every yard over which alien birds used to fly they now range a mile; no piece of ground consequently is safe where birds can perch, where there grow trees, shrubs or even tall herbaceous plants.

Farmers, and sheep farmers, therefore, who desire to keep their pastures clear of blackberry have been compelled, as it were, to strip naked their runs, to flay them alive.

Tutira is situated in a blackberry district. By cattle its marsh lands have been invaded, the edges of its creeks trampled and trodden, its sapling growth smashed down and destroyed; by goats its rock outcrops and cliffs almost precipitous have been bitten bare.

So great in fact during the last sixteen years has been the change, so deserving of emphasis the facts, that instead of recasting page 12 each chapter of the original edition I have thought the altered environment would be projected most conspicuously by leaving untouched the original text and merely adding such notes as seemed to illuminate a particular point.

Note on the Scaup.

Except by the now regretted introduction of trout into the lake, whereby the food supply of the Scaup may be minimised, I am not aware of any reasons not already mentioned why this diving duck should not continue to thrive.

Note on the Mountain Duck.

Later than 1914 I have not seen Blue Duck on Tutira waters. Up to that date the chief river—the Waikahau—ran from source to sea through six large sheep stations. Now it flows through three times that number of smaller holdings.

We hear a great deal about exodus to the towns; is it wonderful when no trouble is taken to make country life agreeable and lovely to children, when every bird large enough to fill the pot is shot, when natural science is taught out of books instead of in page 13 the fields? In a properly conducted community there should be no place for such a book as “Birds of the Water, Wood and Waste.” Every child should have discovered for himself ten times the details registered in that unfortunately named volume.

I imagine the food supply of the Blue Duck is still plentiful; trout have not yet stocked the local streams in sufficient numbers to do harm; it is doubtful if ever they will. They are drowned in the yellow spates that from time to time sweep clean the river beds. The Mountain Duck, though shot off the bigger rivers, will nevertheless, I believe, still maintain itself in the deep ravines of the central run.

The Grey Duck.

Although the Grey Duck on Tutira barely holds its own as a New Zealand species it is safe. All waters preserved as sanctuaries, however much in the world, however near towns and centres of population, are thronged with grey duck during the shooting season. Besides thus trusting their friends they have become more cautious of their enemies; certainly the Grey Duck is a wilder bird than he was forty years ago.

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The Brown Duck.

Knowing the extraordinarily furtive habits of the Brown Duck I am not prepared to state that it is altogether and absolutely gone from Tutira. Representatives of the breed have, however, not been seen by me for years; more ominous still, footmarks may in vain be looked for in the drying mud of creeks and along the margins of summer-shrunken water-holes. No other duck has been so adversely affected by the increase on a great scale of cattle. These iniquitous beasts, now a necessary evil on every sheep run, trample in the banks of the slow flowing shallow watercourses peculiarly the haunts of the Brown Duck, their great marauding mouths break away the friendly shade of sedges, shrubs, and grass, they tread down the Raupo beds growing tall and green from their moist beds of sud and mud. Cattle on Tutira have been fatal to the Brown Duck.

The Kingfisher.

Throughout any stretch of undulating or steep countryside such as Tutira, road cuttings are necessary parts of the highway, whilst parallel to the main line of traffic must page 15 run telegraph wires, and parallel to the wide roads telephone lines. For the Kingfisher the one provides dry banks into which to burrow, the other convenient perching poles. The Kingfisher has also found out that in New Zealand no respectable person walks on a country road, that the only bipeds who upon their feet utilize the King's Highway are surfacemen and swaggers, the last named lapped during their earthly pilgrimages in dreams of drinks and distances, the surfacemen preoccupied with the more material problems of metal and mud. These warm, well drained road cuttings, therefore, especially their extra dry projecting hummocks, Kingfishers have learnt to look upon as property peculiarly their own. The eggs are incubated, the young birds reared, literally within inches—twenty-four or thirty-six inches—of motor lorries and motor cars that pass, not in twos and threes, but in tens and twenties, pillars of dust by day, and of fire by night. As the clutches laid do not grow less it may be assumed that the Kingfisher's food supply is still ample. There must be more than a sufficiency in spite of the hordes of imported insectivores that now crowd the station, for certainly minahs, and pro- page 16 bably starlings, are devouring one item of the original bill of fare—the dragon fly— whilst both are feeding on another—the cicada. A species, however, so adaptable as the Kingfisher is not likely to go hungry where sparrows are to be obtained. In the meantime local representatives of the breed continue as of yore to draw much of their supplies from the lake, usually diving straight from their perches, though on occasions hovering for a moment preparatory to the splash.

The Weka.

Previous to 1914 there were grounds for belief that the Wekas of Tutira were being drawn away in a northerly migration; at any rate, upon my return after the war not a bird remained. Twice since 1919 pairs have been liberated on Tutira, but these also have disappeared. They were set free in admirable covert, but never once has the wild ringing curlew call of the bird been heard; however, late in the day they, too, may have hurried northwards to join their fellows, now plentiful in Poverty Bay where thirty years ago the species was unknown. Nevertheless, although thus temporarily lost, some future migration may again include Tutira in its page 17 spread. It must, however, be taken into account that during each successive pilgrimage the numbers of these travelling hordes will decrease, it must happen that in their treks areas are traversed from which forest fern and scrub have been clean wiped away. The Weka's itinerary must furthermore include closely settled districts where, regardless of their prior claim as indigines, the luckless birds are pelted by boys, chased by dogs, hunted by poultry keepers and gardeners, and regarded generally as a nuisance. Allusion has elsewhere been made to the extraordinary number of Wekas on the Te Anau-Milford track in Westland during January of 1914. I was there again during the same month seven years later; then, except for a pair or two of semi-domesticated birds, not a Weka was visible. I may add, whilst on this subject, that another Weka migration is in progress at the present date—1926—along the east coast of the south island between Takaka and Collingwood.

The Pukeko.

In one or other of the years immediately prior to my last visit Home, that is during 1912 or 1913, I had counted as many as page 18 seventy of these handsome waterhen in one lot. Then, I believe, there must have been three or four hundred pair on Tutira. At that date too, judging by the alacrity with which after any accident pairs rebuilt and laid fresh clutches feed must have been more than ample. Then came the war, during which period the place was managed by my brother; no shooting, therefore, can have occurred; there was no change in station policy, covert was untouched, as great a space as formerly of rich alluvial land lay open to the birds. Whilst thus at home news reached me that the Pukeko were gone, nobody knowing why or where.

Upon my arrival in New Zealand after the Armistice, my enquiries as to their disappearance elicited but little further information. I did find out, however, that about that date Pukeko had become “very plentiful” on certain swamps thirty miles distant from Tutira as the crow flies, also that not every Pukeko had gone but that two or three brace had remained near a certain cottage on the lake side. Why had these birds deserted their feeding grounds in a body? Since the irruption of weasels that passed up the East Coast and through Tutira in the early page 19 nineties, locally these small beasts have been almost unknown—one or two seen in twenty years. They were as scarce on my return, I, myself, having noticed but one in three or four years. That the Pukeko were not driven out by vermin I am confident, the more so because of the enormous increase in Thrush and Blackbird, the wonderful multiplication of a small native species—the Pied Tit—and lastly, the fully maintained numbers of the New Zealand Ground Lark. It will be remembered that Pukeko were in 1913 estimated to be three or four hundred pair. During the 1914 breeding season I was living on an islet south of New Zealand. Unnoted by me there must have been during that year a great increase, during the seasons of 1915 and 1916 a still further expansion. By that date the birds had probably found their breeding quarters becoming overcrowded, their feeding grounds fouled. As to the half-dozen birds remaining, they may have grown, in a sense, semi-domesticated, their self-reliance may have been sapped, their bond of union with their wild companions weakened. Nor is there difficulty in accounting for the suddenness of the Pukeko's disappearance from Tutira. It is a species page 20 that once well on the wing flies high. I imagine an uneasy dissatisfaction, a blind discomfort permeating the mass of birds, one of whom at last leads off the host. I may add in regard to the weasel, that a migratory movement is at this date—1926—passing through Tutira; the movement of Pied Tit already alluded to has passed its maximum and is now on the wane. In fact, the more I become acquainted with the wilds of New Zealand the more sure I become that migratory movements, great or small, are ever occurring. The whole subject, however, has been treated in certain chapters of “Tutira,” and need not be repeated.

The Harrier.

The numbers of the Harrier are fully maintained.

The Falcon.

If the average size of the Falcon's quarry has been decreased by the destruction of the forest, if pigeon and parrot are seldom seen nowadays, their places are supplied by scores and hundreds of Ground Larks, Minahs and Starlings. Often have I seen a Falcon raid a flock of the last-named, striking a single page 21 bird and producing in the survivors a vast chatter and outcry ere again they go about their business; his sudden appearance, just such a bolt from the blue, just such a taste of the inevitable as clouds our brightness when some poor mortal amongst us is suddenly stricken down by death.

The Ground Lark.

The Ground Lark is still very plentiful.

The Fantail.

Although the aggregate numbers may and must be less, the species is safe—about the homestead plantations there are always fantails. There still occurs, though in a lesser degree, a coastward movement of Fantails from the higher ranges.


Like the Fantail, the absolute numbers of the Waxeye are less than of yore. Always, however, representatives of the breed are to be seen—in mid-winter often probing the red blossoms of the Pyrus japonica, and gathering infinitesimal insects off the broad lines of white pinks.

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There is, and always will be, sufficient covert for this small breed, though in its numbers there is a woeful diminution.

Fern Bird.

The mystery of the disappearance of the Fern Bird must remain unsolved; one possibility does, nevertheless, suggest itself— weather conditions may have been responsible. During the 1917 flood over twenty inches of rain fell without a pause during three days. Twice, moreover, the raingauge overflowed, so that quite possibly two and a half feet or more may have fallen. This deluge was accompanied by a bitter gale: the flat lands—the principal haunts of the Fern Bird—were completely submerged at the time and afterwards covered with mud from six inches to three feet deep. The Fern Birds of Tutira may have been drowned or pelted to death in the bitter blast of that great flood.


The species is safe, owing to cliffs and gorges growing hill flax, kowhai and other plants and trees; the number of tuis is much decreased.

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A few pigeons are still to be seen in the gorges and small reserves, but, like nearly all other native species, are more scarce than in former times.

List of Species Described.

  • ScaupFuligula novae-zealandiae.

  • Mountain DuckIlymenolaemus malacorhyuchus.

  • Grey DuckAnas superciliosa.

  • Brown DuckElasmonetta chlorotis.

  • KingfisherHalcyon vagans.

  • WekaOcydromus earli.

  • PukekoPorphyrio melanonotus.

  • HarrierCircus gouldi.

  • FalconNesierax novae-zealandiae.

  • Ground LarkAnthus novae-zealandiae.

  • FantailRhipidura flabellifora.

  • WaxeyeZosterops caerulesceus.

  • WarblerPseudogerygone igata.

  • Fern BirdSphenaeacus penctatus.

  • TuiProsthemadera novae-zealandiae.

  • PigeonHemiphaga novae-zealandiae.

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