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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).