Story: Wading birds
Page 6 – Snipe
New Zealand snipe
The endemic New Zealand snipe (Coenocorypha aucklandica) is one of the least known native birds. As its Māori name tutukiwi suggests, it resembles a small kiwi with its long bill, stout legs and probing method of finding worms, insect larvae and other invertebrates. It is considered a wader, but lives and feeds in forest and shrubland, not near water. About the size of a blackbird, it measures 23 centimetres and weighs 105 grams.
This bird has been described as a living fossil and the most primitive of snipe-like birds. Like the northern hemisphere snipe and woodcock, it lies still among dense scrub, moving out at dusk to feed. However, these southern cousins are not migratory, remaining year-round on their own small island groups.
So alarming was the snipe’s night-time call that it gave rise to the Māori tradition of the fearful hakawai or hokioi – one of the spirit birds of Rakamaomao (the wind) that dwelt in space and came down to earth only at night. Muttonbirders have compared the noise to a cable chain being lowered into a boat. Preceded by a sequence of calls, this eerie sound is produced by vibrating tail feathers as the bird plunges from high in the air.
Snipe existed on the mainland until Pacific rats and dogs exterminated them before European settlement. Four populations live on southern islands: the Snares (estimated at 1,000 in 1987), the Antipodes Islands, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island. At least three are distinct subspecies.
The breeding season varies between islands, with laying between August and January. Two brown eggs are laid, incubated by both parents, and after hatching each parent takes one chick, which runs along behind. For several weeks the chick is fed, which is unusual for waders.
Each island population is threatened by any accidental introduction of rats. In 2005, 30 Snares snipe were transferred to rat-free Putauhinu Island near Stewart Island, to establish a back-up population.
Snipe on Jacquemart Island
As rats had landed on Campbell Island with sealers in the early 1800s, no snipe remained when naturalists arrived in 1840. However, in 1997 a few snipe were discovered on tiny Jacquemart Island, close to Campbell Island. To protect snipe and other birds, in 2001 the Department of Conservation undertook to eradicate the rats from Campbell Island and bring over some birds from the Jacquemart population. But before the helicopter transfer was begun, a breeding pair was found to have crossed the 550-metre gap unaided. By early 2006 there were 30 snipe there, and the Jacquemart birds are on the way to repopulating 11,000-hectare Campbell Island. Whether the Campbell snipe is a separate subspecies has not yet been determined.
As recently as 1964 there was another subspecies of New Zealand snipe, the Stewart Island snipe. A remnant population occurred on nearby Big South Cape Island, but when rats invaded the island from a fishing boat they soon killed most of the snipe. Two were rescued for release on a safe island but died.
Chatham Island snipe
Described by one observer as ‘pygmy kiwis’ 1, Chatham Island snipe (Coenocorypha pusilla) weigh just 80 grams and measure 20 centimetres. They once inhabited most of the islands in the group, but from the 1890s were confined to South East (Rangatira) Island, a refuge for several endangered birds. The snipe has since been reintroduced to Māngere Island, and has made its own way to Little Māngere and Pitt islands. Like all snipe, they find food by probing their beak into soft soil.
Breeding begins from September to January with the laying of two or three pinkish-brown, blotched eggs, which the parents incubate alternately. Like the New Zealand snipe, each hatchling follows one parent and is fed for several weeks. They feed on worms and a variety of insects.