New Zealand Birds Online – a few of my favourite things: Part 1

New Zealand Birds Online has been by far the largest and most complex project that I have been involved with since joining the Te Papa team 3 years ago. Now, one month after the launch of the website, is an opportune time to take a step back and reflect on some personal highlights of the project and website.

He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

The website exists because of the passion, energy and generosity of hundreds of people. Some of the statistics hint at this, with 111 authors and 254 photographers by launch day, but there were many more people whose names do not appear on the website as contributors. These included fellow Te Papa staff and the website designers, and also the volunteers (mainly from OSNZ) who entered data and tested the website. Many of the contributors were old acquaintances and familiar names in the New Zealand birding and ornithological research communities, but many more were previously unknown to me, including graduate students, OSNZ members, and wildlife photographers. Several authors expressed their pleasure at researching and writing about species that they had not had an opportunity or reason to work on for years or decades. An example was David Dawson writing about house sparrows 49 years after his first publication on them, and others whose careers had taken them away from their original area of tertiary training and expertise.

A New Zealand dabchick chick gets a ride on its parent’s back. Image: Ormond Torr, New Zealand Birds Online

A New Zealand dabchick chick gets a ride on its parent’s back. Image: Ormond Torr, New Zealand Birds Online

Stunning images

One of the strengths of the website is the archive of 6600+ images (and growing), illustrating every New Zealand bird. I am indebted to all our photographers, and especially those who submitted large numbers of superb images. It is hard to pick favourites among such a vast archive, but the most memorable are those that are technically excellent, difficult to get, and show insights into the lives of their subjects: the “How did they get that?” images. As a sample, check out Adam Clarke’s long-tailed cuckoo fledgling being fed by its much smaller whitehead foster-parent, Ormond Torr’s New Zealand pigeon/kereru captured at the top of its swooping display flight, Neil Fitzgerald’s bellbird feeding on flax/harakeke nectar, Phil Battley’s welcome swallow presenting a cicada to its fully-feathered chick, and Peter Reese’s insights into the family life of fantails. And while you are at it, try Craig McKenzie’s New Zealand falcon in flight, or Glenda Rees’s portfolio of tiny riflemen.

An adult whitehead is dwarfed by the long-tailed cuckoo chick that it reared from an egg. Image: Adam Clarke, New Zealand Birds Online

An adult whitehead is dwarfed by the long-tailed cuckoo chick that it reared from an egg. Image: Adam Clarke, New Zealand Birds Online

A symphony of natural quiet

NZ Birds Online is replete with bird songs and other sounds, benefiting from Les McPherson’s life-long magpie-like obsession. Over 90% of the 1121 sound files are from his McPherson Natural History Unit Sound Archive, but my pick among the sound files is a personal one – the ‘hakawai’ nocturnal aerial display of the Chatham Island snipe. The true hakawai was a mythical bird of the muttonbird islands around Stewart Island, but it became extinct with the South Island snipe when ship rats invaded Big South Cape Island in 1964. I have had the privilege of hearing both Chatham Island snipe and subantarctic snipe perform ‘hakawai’ displays, and of visiting the last stronghold of the South Island snipe. Unfortunately I was still in nappies when the latter bird became extinct.

A South Island snipe photographed on Big South Cape Island in 1964, the year of its extinction. Image: Don Merton (DOC), New Zealand Birds Online

A South Island snipe photographed on Big South Cape Island in 1964, the year of its extinction. Image: Don Merton (DOC), New Zealand Birds Online

Old fossils

New Zealand Birds Online is comprehensive in its coverage. In addition to native, vagrant, introduced and recently extinct species it even includes species known only from ancient fossils. The last New Zealand bird book to mention these in detail was published in 1991, when 16 species were known. There are now 40 named New Zealand bird species known from fossils over a million years old, including 19 fossil penguin species (54 – 3 million years old), and the biogeographically important St Bathans fauna (17 named species, all 19 – 16 million years old). All the St Bathans holotype specimens are held in the Te Papa collection, and it was a rush for Jean-Claude Stahl to get them all photographed in the last week before the launch.

New Zealand giant penguin (Pachydyptes ponderosus) holotype. Image: Te Papa, New Zealand Birds Online

New Zealand giant penguin (Pachydyptes ponderosus) holotype. Image: Te Papa, New Zealand Birds Online

The New Zealand Birds Online website was a collaboration between Te Papa, the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, and the Department of Conservation, and received funding from the Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information Fund (TFBIS).

Ka kite

Colin Miskelly

Other Te Papa blogs on New Zealand Birds Online

Crazy about kākā? We have the website for you!

For the love of birds

New Zealand Birds Online – a few of my favourite things: Part 2

3 Responses

  1. Barry Dent

    Hi Colin

    As you know we have been catching weka on Puangiangi Isalnd, Cook Strait Ecological District, and transferring them to the mainland so that we may re-establish petrel colonies in the near-absence of weka. Last trip I downloaded one of the McPherson audio files in the field, via a sketchy cell link, cranked up the playback on the iPhone to the max, and had a weka in the net 90 seconds later. Its mate also showed strong interest as was in the cage trap an hour later. After 32 of theri friends have already had a one-way trip off the island, they are getting a bit wary now, and I appreciate the easy access to another tool.

    Reply
  2. Colin Miskelly

    Thanks very much for your feedback Stuart. Great to see expat kiwi birders using the site!

    Cheers
    Colin

    Reply
  3. Stuart Nicholson

    Well done, Colin. to you and the team at Te Papa. Comprehensive (e.g. the fossils), thorough (a good structure for future development and expansion), and of good quality! … and marshalling the resources (people, organisations, IT). Best wishes from Up Over!

    Reply

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