Story: Wading birds

Page 6. Snipe

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New Zealand snipes

The endemic New Zealand snipes (Coenocorypha species) are among the least known native birds. As their Māori name, tutukiwi, suggests, they resemble small kiwi with their long bills, stout legs and probing method of finding worms, insect larvae and other invertebrates. They are considered waders, but live and feed in forest and shrubland, not near water.The Snares Island snipe (Coenocorypha huegeli) and subantarctic snipe (Coenocorypha aucklandica) are about the size of a blackbird, measuring 23 centimetres and weighing 110 grams. The Chatham Island snipe (Coenocorypha pusilla) is smaller at 20 centimetres and 80 grams.

New Zealand snipes have been described as living fossils and the most primitive of snipe-like birds. Like the northern hemisphere snipe and woodcock, they stay among dense vegetation, moving out at dusk to feed in more open areas. However, these southern cousins are not migratory, remaining year-round on their own small island groups.

Night fright

So alarming was the snipe’s night-time call that it gave rise to the Māori tradition of the fearful hakawai or hōkioi – 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. 

Island populations

Snipe existed on the mainland until Pacific rats and dogs exterminated them before European settlement. Four populations live on southern islands: the Snares Island snipe (estimated at 1,000 birds in 1987), and three subspecies of the subantarctic snipe, one on each of the Auckland Islands, Antipodes Islands and Campbell Island. 

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. Thirty birds were released on Codfish Island in 2012.

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 eradicated the rats from Campbell Island. In 2005 snipe were found to have recolonised naturally. By early 2006 there were 30 snipe there, and they were considered to be on the way to repopulating 11,000-hectare Campbell Island. The Campbell snipe was named as a separate subspecies of subantarctic snipe (Coenocorypha aucklandica perseverance) in 2010.

Snipe extinction

As recently as 1964 there was another species of New Zealand snipe, the South 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. It was later found that they were both males.

Chatham Island snipe

Described by one observer as 'pygmy kiwis'1, Chatham Island snipe once inhabited most of the islands in the group, but from the 1890s were confined to Rangatira (South East) 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 Rabbit islands. Like all snipe, they find food by probing their beak into soft soil.

Breeding occurs from September to January with the laying of two pinkish-brown, blotched eggs, which the parents incubate alternately. Like the Snares Island and subantarctic snipe, each hatchling follows one parent and is fed for several weeks. They feed on worms, amphipods and a variety of insects.

Footnotes:
  1. Richard Sibson, Birds at risk. Wellington: Reed, 1982, p. 123. › Back
How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Wading birds - Snipe', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/wading-birds/page-6 (accessed 29 April 2017)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015