A new bird for New Zealand – magpie-lark

New bird species are added to the New Zealand list on average once every two years. Many of these are vagrants that have been blown (or flown) across the Tasman Sea, with recent examples including Australian reed warbler (2004), straw-necked ibis (2009), Pacific gull (2010) and dusky woodswallow (2014). However, few new arrivals have a back-story to match that of the magpie-lark.

An adult male magpie-lark in flight – one of the most familiar and easy to recognise of all Australian birds. Image: Craig Greer, NZ Birds Online

An adult male magpie-lark in flight – one of the most familiar and easy to recognise of all Australian birds. Image: Craig Greer, NZ Birds Online

Robert Long (a.k.a. Beansprout) has lived in the wilderness at Gorge River, South Westland, since 1980, eking out an existence two-days’ walk from the nearest road-end. He was joined by his now wife Catherine Stewart a decade later, and together they raised arguably New Zealand’s most isolated family – about halfway between Haast and Milford Sound.

•An aerial view of the ‘settlement’ at Gorge River mouth, with Robert Long & Catherine Stewart’s house on the left, and the Department of Conservation hut on the right. Image: Robert Long

An aerial view of the ‘settlement’ at Gorge River mouth, with Robert Long & Catherine Stewart’s house on the left, and the Department of Conservation hut on the right. Image: Robert Long

Most of the vagrants that turn up at Gorge River are of the human kind, but it was a feathered vagrant that arrived following a westerly storm on 29 April 2008. Both Robert and Catherine grew up in Australia, and recognised the bird as a magpie-lark, a familiar species that is common in rural and urban areas throughout all but the dry interior of the continent. The bird was only seen on that one day at Gorge River, but Robert managed to photograph it, perched on the roof of the Department of Conservation hut near their house.

The adult male magpie-lark perched on the roof of the Department of Conservation hut at Gorge River, 29 April 2008. Image: Robert Long

The adult male magpie-lark perched on the roof of the Department of Conservation hut at Gorge River, 29 April 2008. Image: Robert Long

Robert and Catherine’s daughter Robin (then 16 years-old) delivered the image to the Otago branch of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, and it was published in the branch’s August 2008 newsletter. Catherine also mentioned the bird’s arrival in her 2012 book A Wife at Gorge River. But no-one took the next step of submitting the sighting to the society’s Records Appraisal Committee (RAC) for verification. This is the process that is required before a new bird species is officially added to the New Zealand list.

Further images of the magpie-lark at Gorge Rover. Images courtesy of Robert Long

Further images of the magpie-lark at Gorge River. Images courtesy of Robert Long

Many New Zealand bird-watchers were aware of the sighting, but as the years ticked on, it threatened to become another example of ‘one that got away’ – in this case through due process not being followed, rather than due to an absence of evidence. In March this year, I decided that it was time an effort was made to place the sighting before the RAC, and contacted Robert via his website, seeking details of the circumstances under which the bird was seen. Along with his photograph, the information was included in an Unusual Bird Report that was submitted to the RAC for consideration during May-June 2015.

An adult female magpie-lark photographed in Melbourne. Image: Sonja Ross, NZ Birds Online

An adult female magpie-lark photographed in Melbourne. Image: Sonja Ross, NZ Birds Online

The terms of reference for the RAC require the committee to be unanimous when agreeing to add a new species to the New Zealand list. This criterion was met, and I was delighted to be able to congratulate Robert on seeing the first (and so far only) magpie-lark to reach New Zealand (apart from a few introduced unsuccessfully over a hundred years ago – but that is another story).

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4 Responses

  1. robert long snr

    him fella that beansprout my lost yungfellla. . bigfella bob along aussie

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      halo bigfella bob..namba wan gut yu hanwas pikinini bilong yu..him painim pinis namba wan pisin!
      lukim yu behain..colin

  2. Colin Miskelly

    Thanks for your comment Adele

    Australian magpies are overgrown butcherbirds (Family Artamidae), whereas Eurasian magpies are long-tailed black-and-white crows (Family Corvidae). The naming of the Australian birds demonstrates a common practice among British settlers of applying names of the birds they were familiar with back Home to anything vaguely similar where they settled. Examples of New Zealand birds being given common names that do not reflect their familial relationships include our wrens, robins, tits, crows (kokako) and thrushes (piopio).

    Regards
    Colin

    Reply
  3. Adele Pentony-Graham

    oh what a lovely bird… do you realise the magpie’s we get back home in London are different to the ones we have here in NZ? Still black and white, but different markings.. I was looking at some in UK last year, and said to friends, different to the ones in NZ called Magpies!

    Reply

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