08 June 2014

Birds of New Zealand: part 3

As my pleasure in bird watching has continued to grow over recent months so my library of photos has also increased, meaning it’s time to post another blog about some of our wonderful New Zealand birds (my two previous blogs on the subject are here and here). I say, ‘New Zealand’ birds but, in fact, a couple of those listed here are immigrants who have perhaps been blown to these shores on the winds of a particularly violent storm or hitched a ride on a ship and, finding the environment to their liking, decided to make New Zealand home … and who can blame them?

New Zealand scaup (Aythya novaeseelandiae)
The New Zealand scaup (aka Black teal) is a little cutie and quite the entertainer. When feeding for the little fishes, snails, mussels, insects and aquatic plants that make up its varied diet, it dives underwater, staying down for between 20 to 30 seconds and reaching depths of up to 3 metres.

Though its plumage isn’t striking, being mostly dark brown or black, its squat form and upward pointing tail give it a perky appearance. In the breeding season, the male likes to advertise his presence by changing his head plumage to iridescent green.

European settlement in New Zealand reduced the numbers of these natives for a while but they have recovered naturally in some areas and been reintroduced in others (North Auckland, Taranaki and the Wellington district). For Aucklanders, there are quite a number of scaup making their home at Western Springs. And a word to the untutored like me – I have just realised today that I have been pronouncing its name wrongly – apparently, it should sound like ‘scorp’ not ‘scowp’.

Spur-winged plover (Vanellus miles)

Here’s another bird whose name can confound the tongue as opinions differ on the pronunciation of plover. Some say plover as in ‘lover’, others says plover as in ‘over’. I’ll leave you to decide which you prefer!

The spur-winged plover is a self-introduced Aussie (in Australia, it’s known as the masked lapwing). It was first discovered at the bottom of the South Island in 1932 and is now widespread throughout the country. 

It’s a large stocky wading bird but can be found almost anywhere there is low vegetation. I’ve seen quite a few along parts of the Auckland coastline but I’ve also sighted several pairs on the grassy slopes of Auckland Domain.

Pied stilt 
(Himantopus himantopus leucocephalus)

This is another self-introduced Aussie which, since its arrival in the early 19th century, has interbred with our endemic black stilt to produce a bird distinct from its Australian cousins. I particularly like its elegant long pink legs – hence the ‘stilt’ name, and those legs are also the reason for its Maori name, poaka, from ‘po’ meaning small and ‘aka’ meaning long, thin roots. As those long legs suggest, this is a wading bird, most often found on wetlands and in coastal areas throughout New Zealand.

The pied stilt is a very social creature, so is almost always seen in large noisy flocks, often feeding near other wading birds like oystercatchers and godwits. As that beak indicates, they often probe for worms, aquatic insects and larvae but, when the light is good, they also catch their food by sight.

Sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus)

The aptly named ‘king of the fishers’ is another highly entertaining bird to watch, especially when fishing. It will sit patiently on a strategically placed branch, pole or railing overlooking a mudflat or estuary then, with a sudden flash of turquoise, it’ll be off to snatch, catch or grab whatever has caught its sharp eye.

With its loud ‘kek kek kek’ call, the kingfisher will be sure to announce its presence, especially if you stray within its territory during the mating season, when it will also dive-bomb other birds and even humans if it considers them a threat. Its burrows can often be seen up high in muddy cliffs and banks at the coast but it also nests in holes in trees. Luckily for us, the population is numerous and widespread so we can all enjoy its antics.

Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia)

I spotted the two birds in my photographs in Auckland’s Hobson Bay on 26 May – a very exciting first sighting for me – then didn’t see them again on further visits until 7 June. The Caspian tern is the largest tern found in New Zealand, about the size of the black-backed kelp gull but with quite different colouring. With an estimated 1300-1400 breeding pairs in New Zealand, sightings are relatively uncommon, hence my excitement.

I think these two are mother and fledgling, as the younger bird was continually begging for food, both through its supplicating posture and its constant begging calls. The very patient parent would tolerate this behaviour for about 5 minutes, then give up and fly off to fish for food, hovering over the shallow waters until she saw her target then diving rapidly down to swoop it up. They were an absolute delight to watch.

Eurasian (or Australian) coot 
(Fulica atra)

For me, the most fascinating thing about this Australian immigrant (first recorded breeding in New Zealand in 1958) is its bizarre lobed feet, a cross between the long toes of wading birds and the webbed feet of swimming birds like ducks. If you can’t see its feet, you will also be able to recognise it instantly by the white shield above its bill.

These coots have made themselves at home in those parts of New Zealand that have their preferred reed-edged freshwater lakes and ponds – the birds I’ve seen have been in Hamilton’s Lake Rotorua and at Auckland’s Western Springs, where they compete with ducks, swans, geese and gulls for the bread thrown by humans.

And that’s it for New Zealand birds: part 3 – there will undoubtedly be a part 4 in the future. I hope this post will encourage you to turn off your computer and head outside to check out your local birdlife. I guarantee you will be amused by their antics, delighted by their colours, and entertained by their merry tunes. Just remember the wise words of Robert Lynd, ‘In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.’

Much of the information about these birds came from my much-thumbed copy of Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic Guide, with a little additional help from co-author and master bird photographer Brent Stephenson.