Ian’s Bird of the Week – New Zealand/Sub-Antarctic Snipe ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter ~ 2/29/12
My apologies for a late Bird of the Week. Lots of excuses are presenting themselves, as they do, but I won’t bore you with them. I’ve chosen another mostly good news conservation story from the Sub-Antarctic islands, the New Zealand or Sub-Antarctic Snipe. These are odd, dumpy, almost tail-less little snipe – length 23cm/9in – that occur now only on some of the islands south of New Zealand: Snares, Auckland Islands, Antipodes Islands and Campbell Island with a closely related species on Chatham Island.
We found them on Enderby Island, one of the Auckland Islands group, where the nominate subspecies (aucklandica) occurs. With their relatively short, curved bill they don’t look like your average snipe and they don’t behave like one either. Like the Auckland and Campbell Islands Teals they’re fairly confiding and allow close approach but, unlike the Teal, they can still fly, though are very reluctant to do so. When disturbed – and you have to nearly step on them to do that – they creep away mouse-like through the thick vegetation that they prefer and disappear with relative ease. Perhaps crake- or rail-like would be closer to the mark and the curved bill reminded me of the longer-billed rails such as the Virginia Rail http://www.birdway.com.au/rallidae/virginia_rail/source/virginia_rail_110552.htm .
By day they stay under cover, only venturing out onto more open areas at night. They feed on a wide variety of invertebrates that they the find by deeply probing the peaty island soil. The male, apparently, has a distinctive territorial call uttered at dawn and dusk and rendered as ‘queeyoo queeyoo’, and the extinct Stewart Island race is supposed to be responsible for the Maori legend of the hakawai or or hokioi, a frightening creature that called only at night (Heather & Robertson, Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand). The males also perform a nocturnal display flight, making, like other snipe, a humming sound by vibrating the tail feathers, which, given the short tails of this species, one can imagine as being very high-pitched.
The third photo shows a pair of the snipe sneaking past the abundant yellow-flowered Bulbinella or Ross Lily, one of the characteristic, so-called ‘megaherbs’ of these islands http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulbinella_rossii.
The good part of the news is that although the New Zealand Snipe became extinct on the main islands following the arrival of the Pacific Rat with the Maoris a thousand years ago and the recent extinction of two races on Stewart Island and Little Barrier Island (the latter, ironically as a result of the introduction there of the Weka http://www.birdway.com.au/rallidae/weka/index.htm ), the remaining races seem to be doing quite well with a total population estimated at 34,000, of which two thirds occur on the smaller of the Auckland Islands, including Enderby.
Yet another race was thought to have become extinct on Campbell Island after the brig Perseverance, responsible for discovery of the island in 1810, was wrecked there in 1828 leaving the usual legacy of rats. This race remained undescribed and unseen until a small population was discovered on an almost inaccessible, nearby, little island called Jacquemart in 1997 during a search for the Campbell Island Teal. Rats were eliminated on the relatively huge – 11,000 hectare – main island in 2001 and the snipe have recolonised it from Jacquemart unaided. The race is now called, paradoxically, perseverence. Some of the more intrepid members of our party found some snipe on an arduous walk there in wet conditions on our last day. I’d had enough of boggy, wet walks through unrelenting waist-deep tussock grass by then and didn’t join them. Alas!
To make amends for the late BoftW, here is a non-bird of the week, Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo.
This obliging animal made a greatly-appreciated appearance in the middle of a Birds Australia North Queensland committee meeting 11 days ago when we were just about to debate a controversial agenda item. The meeting was being held at a member’s house in rainforest on the Atherton Tableland. A delightful interlude with this placid animal led to a very harmonious and well-mannered debate. There’s an obvious lesson there for choosing a suitable venue for meetings.
He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, (Psalms 104:14 NKJV)
Another neat bird and adventure by Ian. The Tree Kangaroo is also an adorable addition. We have the Wilson’s Snipe in this area, which is the only snipe seen by us. I am glad Ian let’s in on his adventures around the world. Better him having his “walks through unrelenting waist-deep tussock grass” than us. Thanks, Ian, for sparing us.
See all of Ian’s Birds of the Week – Click Here