Yesterdays in Maoriland
Chapter VI The Search for the Ti-ora
Chapter VI The Search for the Ti-ora
'The instinct of caution must be strongly developed in this bird, to manifest itself thus in the most secluded part of a lonely island, where probably the face of man had never appeared before. My own private collection was deficient till I induced Reischek, in 1884, to make another visit to the Little Barrier in quest of it.' — Sir W. L. Buller (Birds of New Zealand, vol. i. 2nd edition).
You may be surprised that any man, instead of laying up a store for after-years, and devoting himself to wife and family, should go running after a rare bird that nobody had seen for years, and give up all his hardly gotten gains to such a purpose. But from the day I saw the first stuffed specimen of the Pogonornis cineta in Christchurch Museum, and learnt from Sir Julius von Haast that a few examples were still said to live in the virgin bush of one of the most mountainous islands of the Hauraki Gulf, I resolved to seek him out, or die in the attempt.
I was to find I needed all the energy and perseverance I could muster before I was able to locate this practically unknown creature, this bird of wonder, the ti-ora of the Maori. At last, after months and months of patient search, after traversing every part of this rugged island, and climbing up and down ranges 2000 feet above the level of the sea, in the deep and silent page 84recesses of the Hauturu bush it suddenly appeared before me — like the blue flower of Romance which at length crowns the efforts of the believing seeker.
I started for Little Barrier — as the colonial calls Hauturu — in October 1880, accompanied by my friend, Mr. E. Firth. We left Auckland by the schooner Rangatira, belonging to Chief Tenatahi, who piloted it himself. We struck a severe storm off Kawau, which tossed our little vessel up and down like a nutshell, and when towards evening we got near Hauturu, it was to find landing impossible on account of the breakers. We therefore put into Little Omaha to wait for better weather, and remained there two days, the natives amusing themselves diving for lobsters, which are very numerous here. Many a hand and face was scratched in the process, but that did not prevent further diving.
The third day we steered for the north-west of the island, where we effected a landing after one or two vain attempts. Bedding and stores were unloaded at a deserted native hut not far from the shore, and then the cutter sailed away before night came on. I spread my blankets out on the floor and tried to sleep, but a European goblin, which had established itself in numbers, gave me no rest. The camp was swarming with fleas! There was nothing for it but to turn out into the open till next morning, when I gave the place a thorough clean out.
Then my usual trail-blazing began. The island was precipitous and overgrown with luxurious bush, consisting principally of giant kauri trees (Dammara) page 85reaching skywards like mighty cathedral towers, while below the dark green arches of manuka and nikau palms, and the tender soft green veil of broad fern-tree fronds, were richly contrasted.
In May, 1882, I sent Dobson, my assistant, to Hauturu for the purpose of repairing old huts and building new ones, taking provisions for a prolonged mountain expedition, my intention being to follow him in June. I did indeed leave Auckland that month page 86in the cutter Water Lily, but the weather proved so boisterous that after two attempts to land, and five days battering on the open sea, we had to give it up.
The following month I made another attempt on the Rangatira, but with no better success, though on this occasion we only stuck it out for three days; so I put off my trip until October, on the 15th of which month I really did succeed in landing. Dobson was waiting for me on the rocks, and, after packing all my kit into a little boat, we towed her round to the southeast side. Here we carried our things ashore and dragged the boat up, as we thought, well out of the sea's reach.
That night we camped at the foot of a precipice, ate our primitive supper of ship's-biscuits and water, and lay down to rest. A glorious night arched over our solitude. A grey mist crept silently over, the sea's face, and above our heads millions of stars came out, twinkling like diamonds in a dark-blue sky. The roar of the breakers surrounded us like a mighty organ, playing the lullaby of an unspoiled world.
In this primeval paradise I felt the windows of my soul were opened, Nature's wonderful mantle lay spread out before me; as never before I realised the spiritual kinship between all living things, the connection and coherence of the manifold works of God. That night, lying there, I experienced a sense of shame, which those who swear by civilisation will certainly fail to understand, that civilised man can be the worst page 87vermin of the whole earth. For wherever he comes, he destroys the wonderful equipoise of Nature, and much as he bothers himself with his so-called arts, he is not even capable of repairing the damage he causes. As if in sympathy with my thoughts, about three o'clock a comet appeared in the sky, its long tail glowing with a pallid light.
Before dawn we commenced the formidable ascent. To give some idea of the difficulty of climbing here, I had to pull my dog — an experienced Alpine climber — up after me with a rope, then our gear and provisions, and finally Dobson. From the top we struck off valleywards, and up and down again, over two ranges, each above 2000 feet high, till towards evening we arrived at an old nikau whare, which my friend had previously built, at the foot of the last range.
It was dark before we finished mending the roof and preparing for a start the next day. On the morning of the 23rd, I first heard the whistle of the ti-ora. I was unable, however, to get a glimpse of it; and though we cut tracks to, the tops of most of the main ranges, and afterwards frequently heard the birds, we could never see them. Later experience taught me that their shrill whistle is very deceptive, and the sound travels a long distance.
I then shifted my quarters farther towards the interior; and on the 25th, while again wielding a slasher, my attention was arrested by the call of my dog at a short distance. On going towards him, I saw a male ti-ora hopping about in a very excited manner page 88in the scrub above him. I was thrilled to the marrow by my first view of this magnificently coloured rarity, which has a brighter plumage than any of its New Zealand compeers, and stood watching, its quiet and graceful movements without attempting to use my gun.
After this, though constantly exploring, I never saw another specimen till November 7, yet frequently heard them. Early that morning we travelled northwest to the top of a high, narrow range of precipices, overgrown with short, thick scrub and manga-manga, which made it so dense that I had to cut the way with my hunting-knife.
This place I found a favourite resort of these birds — which had cost me so much time, labour, and patience — for it had a warm aspect, exposed to the sun. There I saw a male and a female, the latter for the first time; and on the following day I saw a male at the same place. On going over a range, I heard another. Subsequently I went round it, and saw male and female near a nest, and endeavoured to observe them unnoticed, but they quickly saw me, and in the act of escaping I shot them. I then went and examined the nest, which was only half finished, built of very small branches, roots, and fine native grass, and lined with hairy substance off the fronds of the punga.
When our provisions were nearly exhausted, we made our way down to the ocean, only to find our boat was missing. After a long search we spotted bits of broken planks and the rudder among the rocks. In spite of the high position we had dragged it to, page 89the waves had reached it during a storm, and battered it to pieces.
There was nothing for it now but to clamber along the wild coast, humping our packs. In this way we managed after dark to reach the native settlement, where we stayed for a week, and then returned to Auckland by the Rangatira.
In 1883, summer being well under way, I again went to Hauturu, and had even more success in observing the ti-ora. In December of that year, I once more took possession of my little hut in the centre of the island, and setting out one rainy morn, I observed a pair of adults with three young birds. On the male noticing me, he uttered a shrill whistle, and the female immediately hid amongst the fern for a considerable time. I went partly at the request of Sir Walter Buller, for whom I procured specimens of which his collection was deficient.1
To my great joy I found this rare bird had increased since my last visit, which I put down to the fact that I had on that occasion shot a number of wild cats and the older male birds. I was able to watch whole families of them, and discovered that the young birds possess an intermediate plumage, especially noticeable in the males. I have only once seen these birds sitting still, and that was near the nest. They appear always on the move, carrying their heads proudly, their page 90wings drooped, and their tails spread and raised; and at each successive movement they utter that peculiar whistle from which the natives have named them Ti-ora. The female has a different note, sounding like Tac, tac, tac!' repeated several times.
They feed on small berries and insects, and suck the honey from the native wild flowers and trees, as many of the latter exude honey during the night. They are not strong on the wing, but very active in hopping and climbing, which enables them quickly to escape from sight.
The plumage of the male is as follows: Head and neck, shining velvet black, with a few long silvery-white ear-feathers; shoulders, golden yellow; upper secondary, white, with brownish-black points, and a slight splash of white under the wing covers; wings and tail, brownish black, each feather edged on the outer side with olive green; tail cover, greenish tinge, and a yellow band round the breast; abdomen, greyish brown; bill, black; eyes, dark brown; feet, light brown. The female is a little smaller, of olive brown colour on the top of the head, back, wing, and tail; ear feathers hardly perceptible, and a few other differences I won't mention. So far as I know, the plumage of the young, which differs from the adult bird, has never been described.
On December 16 I climbed to the topmost peak of the island, where a heavy thunderstorm surprised me. Flash followed flash, and the thunder rolled formidably below me through the ravines, which soon became raging torrents, through which I had to page 91struggle back to my nikau whare through a regular hail of stones and falling branches.
Close to the hut I heard two miro call, and going outside I found them anxiously hopping about on a manuka clump. I approached, and discovered their water-logged nest containing three eggs.
On the 19th I got my collection together, and made for the Maori settlement, where Chief Tenatahi related to me how he had lost his cutter Rangatira, with which he had previously won several races at Auckland Regatta. He had sailed to Catherine Bay to extract blubber from a whale which the natives had caught, and had been overtaken by a storm while at anchor there. In trying to run out, the anchor got wedged, and he and the crew had to jump overboard to save their lives, while their boat was battered to pieces on the rocks.
Tenatahi, his wife Rahni, two men, and a boy then set off in a whaling-boat for Tiharea, their Hauturu settlement, but some miles off the Great Barrier another storm came on. The boat turned turtle, and they lost an oar, whereupon Tenatahi ordered the men to keep her steady while he righted her, and baled her out. Rahni, who was a good swimmer, jumped in and swam after the oar, but by the time she brought it back, one of the men had been washed away. They had a frightful job to get the second man and the boy back into the boat, and the latter died soon after from exposure and cold. The man, too, would have died if they had not made him row for all he was worth to get warm.page 92
Three times after this the boat filled with water, and but for Rahni's skill and courage all would have been up. She was fourteen hours in the water without food or drink, battling with the waves, and when they finally reached the shore, was so exhausted that she could not move a foot. Rahni, I may say, is 5 feet 10 inches tall, and the possessor of a fine if muscular figure.
I paid my last visit to Hauturu on April 8, 1885, to procure specimens for the use of New Zealand museums. I found my old hut had been burnt down by Maori youngsters, so I went to live at their flea-infested settlement. In spite of not feeling too well, I pursued my observations unceasingly.
Again in the centre of the island I was successful in observing a pair feed their young (two males and a female) which must have been a late brood. I fear these very rare birds will soon disappear, even from these lonely depths of the bush where human beings had never hitherto penetrated, largely owing to wild cats, which have become very numerous and commit great havoc among them, and also the sparrow-hawk (Hieracidea nova-zealandiæ) and the little Morepork owl, in whose crops I have often found their remains.
I returned to Auckland in the middle of May; but before I left, Tenatahi, the owner of the island, invited me to a ball in the native runanga. All the inhabitants of the island were present, mostly Maoris, with two Portuguese and two white girls to represent the white race. Dance music was provided by a Maori playing page 93waltz, polka, mazurka, and quadrille music on an accordion. The polyglot Chief sang snatches of English, Maori, Portuguese, and even German songs, and about midnight we sat down to a supper of bread, honey, and tea.
1 According to Buller, only two European museums possessed specimens of the Pogonornis. Reischek gave some fine specimens to the Vienna Imperial Museum, along with the rest of his collection.—Ed.