Notornis discovered at Te Anau

November 19, 1948

Last updated 05:00 06/12/2012

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Two Specimens Captured by Invercargill Party

Two specimens of the notornis, a bird which had not been sighted in New Zealand since 1893 and which was generally believed by ornithologists to be extinct, were located and photographed by a party led by Dr G. B. Orbell in the western Te Anau area at the weekend.

At odd times reports had been received that people had seen the birds' tracks, but there was no record of anyone having set eyes on them and it was doubtful whether they now existed.

Last April Dr Orbell's party found tracks of a bird, the measurements of the tracks appearing to be too big to have ben made by any bird other than the notornis, and Dr Orbell's contention that the tracks belonged to that bird were confirmed when they returned to the same locality this weekend.

The notornis is a flightless bird of the swamp hen family type, only it is considerable heavier.

In New Zealand one was first caught by some sealers on Resolution Island in 1845, and in 1878 a second bird was caught by a shepherd's dog at the junction of the Maraoa and Waiau rivers.

In 1893, the third and last time up to Saturday that the bird had been seen, a notornis was caught by a dog belonging to a Mr Ross, who was camping on the western shores of Te Anau near the mouth the middle arm.

Sometime later Mr C. Evans, a former ranger of the Southland Acclimatization Society, said he was certain that he had seen the bird's tracks on the beach on the Wet Jacket arm of Dusky Sound.

Description of bird:

The larger of the two birds captured on Saturday stood about 18inches in height and weighed about five pounds, its build being somewhat similar to a good table poultry hen.

The bird had a high and very powerful beak, this being two and a-quarter inches high at the base of the mouth and one a-quarter inches wide, with bright red colouring.

The main toe was four inches long and half-an-inch thick.

The head and breast were a navy colour and the back was turquoise.

Lower down it was teal blue with olive green tail feathers and a white tuft underneath.

The smaller bird, which appeared to be the female, was slightly more drab in colour and its tail feathers were frayed and worn, indicating that it might have been sitting on a nest.

A third bird was also sighted, but it could not be gathered in the net which was used to capture the birds.

Dr Orbell was accompanied on Saturday's quest by Messrs R. Watson and N.R. McCrostie and Miss J.L. Telfer, who could probably lay claim to the distinction of being the first white woman to see a notornis.

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After the discovery of the tracks last April the party had proposed to return to the spot early in May to make further investigations, but the snow came down so early that it would have been impossible to reach the place where the tracks were found, and it was left until last Saturday to make the trip.

Birds photographed:

The party left Te Anau at 3.30a.m on Saturday and, taking a fishing net and very light packs, set off on a very solid climb lasting three and a-half hours into the snowgrass slopes where the previous tracks had seen.

Dr Orbell was leading the party when a little clearing in the snowgrass he spotted a bird which looked very like a notornis.

"We immediately fell flat n the ground," he said.

"I applied the telephoto lens to the movie camera and proceeded to stalk around through the snowgrass to get a better look at the bird.

I stalked over with the camera, getting to within about 30 yards of the bird, then signalled to the others to get the net out, and they crawled through the snowgrass dragging the net after them.

"While they were setting the first net another larger bird joined the first.

While the net was being set in a straight line I walked around the birds, still taking photographs; then stood up in full view of them and not more than 15 yards away," he said.

All the time the birds were giving out a penetrating, gulping noise.

The birds apparently were not scared in the least and walked into the net of their own accord.

When Dr Orbell caught the birds one of them snapped at him with its jaws, but they were safely landed in the net and taken to a clear area.

They were then tethered to two stakes, and Dr Orbell proceeded to take 12 still pictures and three reels of eight millimetre colour film.

After the birds had been tethered in captivity for an hour and a-half they were released and they immediately ran into the snowgrass.

- The Southland Times

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