23 May 2015

Birds of New Zealand: part 4

I am not a twitcher – they have lists of birds and do anything, go anywhere at the drop of a hat to add to the ever-increasing list of birds they’ve spotted, to the point of being obsessive and often to the detriment of the birds they’re trying to see – but I am becoming much more serious about and dedicated to bird watching.

Naturally enough that also means my collection of bird photos continues to grow apace, which also means it’s about time I posted another blog about some of our wonderful New Zealand birds (my three previous blogs on the subject can be seen here and here and here).

This post covers a rather eclectic selection of birds, in this case based on the Western Springs location where I photographed them (though some photos were taken in other places on other days).

Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae)
Called the parson bird by the early European immigrants to New Zealand, presumably because of the resemblance of the white tufts of feathers at the front of its neck to a priest’s clerical collar, the tui is anything but pious. In fact, it has a habit of imbibing so much nectar from blossoming trees that it becomes quite intoxicated and sings uproariously. Its song is one of its most endearing qualities, highly variable, pleasingly melodic but also including a comprehensive vocabulary of clicks, creaks, cackles and groans.

Beautifully plumaged in shades ranging from iridescent greens and blues through dark browns to an inky black, the tui has quite a distinctive flight pattern, with louder flapping than most other birds due to its relatively short wide wings. Chances are, then, that you’ll hear the tui before you see it.

Left: tui. Right: New Zealand pigeon.

New Zealand pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae)
Our native pigeon, also known by its Maori name kererū, may be a plump critter but, in the breeding season, its aerial displays can be spectacular, flying high, swooping fearlessly earthwards, then stalling and pulling swiftly up before a potentially fatal impact with treetops or the ground. I presume female pigeons are suitably impressed!

With feathers of metallic green and a crisp clean white, with red eyes and red feet, New Zealand pigeons are essential to our forest environment. By feasting on the fruit of forest trees and shrubs, then flying around pooping a lot, they ensure the seeds of those trees and shrubs are widely dispersed. Sadly, though illegal, humans have been known to feast on the pigeon, meaning its numbers are not as high as they once were.

Male brown teal

Brown teal (Anas chlorotis)
The brown teal is listed ‘at risk’ so I consider myself very lucky to have seen this little beauty. Once widespread throughout New Zealand, the brown teal is now mostly confined to the northern parts of the North Island because of the predations of introduced species like rats and stoats and the loss of their habitat. You can read more about efforts to conserve these pretty little creatures on brownteal.com.  

When you get the opportunity, it’s an easy bird to identify – it’s slightly smaller than a mallard and predominantly dark brown. At breeding time, the male has a distinctive iridescent green sheen on the back of his head, as you can see in the photo at right.

Paradise shelduck (Tadorna variegata)
According to my bird guide, the paradise shelduck is ‘highly sexually dimorphic’ – for the uninitiated, that’s not some kind of kinky fetish; it just means the male and female look very different, as you can see from the photos below. It’s a large duck, somewhere between the size of a mallard and a goose.

The paradise shelduck’s Maori name, pūtangitangi, gives a clue to the sound of its distinctive and incessant calls: ‘pū’ means the ‘origin of’ and tangi is ‘to weep’ or ‘to utter a plaintive cry’. The chicks aren’t quite so maudlin though and cheep like any other duckling. And, as you can see from the photos here, they are extremely cute little bundles of fluff.

Paradise shelduck chick at various stages of development

Paradise shelduck: female at left and male at right

Black swan (Cygnus atratus)
Many people think of the black swan as an Australian bird – it is, after all, both are the state symbol and the state emblem of Western Australia. However, scientists have discovered that the black swan was present here in New Zealand at the time of first human settlement, but had been hunted to extinction by the time Europeans first arried. In the 1860s, they were deliberately reintroduced from Australia and, judging by how quickly the local population grew, they may, at the same time, also have re-colonised New Zealand naturally – flown or been blown across the ditch from Australia.

Appropriately enough, the black swan’s Latin name atratus means ‘to be clothed in black for mourning’. Perhaps that’s why some people believe it to be a harbinger of bad luck. Personally, I think the swan dressed all in black is a very stylish and elegant-looking bird.

Much of the information about these birds came from my much-thumbed copy of Paul Scofield and Brent Stephenson, Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic Guide, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2013.

Black swan, adult at left, cygnets feeding at right

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