‘Presumably no-one bothered to check till now whether Ogilvie-Grant knew one shag from another.’ Curator Colin Miskelly shares his research resulting in the addition of a new (or old) bird to the official New Zealand bird list.
‘Collect any specimens obtainable’ Lord Ranfurly
New Zealand’s 13th Governor, Lord Ranfurly, is most widely remembered for donating the Log o’ Wood to the New Zealand Rugby Union.
However, he is less fondly regarded by conservationists, due to the central role that he played in the extinction of a New Zealand bird.
In 1897, Lord Ranfurly received a request from the British Museum to collect examples of all known bird species from the Colony of New Zealand and surrounding territories.
He launched into the project with gusto, and in January 1901 and 1902, two voyages took him to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands on the government steam ships Hinemoa and Tutanekai.
The most sought-after rare bird at the Auckland Islands (460 km south of Bluff) at the time was the Auckland Island merganser, an unusual fish-eating duck.
The last known nine specimens of the merganser were collected under Ranfurly’s vice-regal aegis, with the final two shot by his butler, Mr Shattock, before breakfast in Carnley Harbour on 9 Jan 1902.
In addition to his own endeavours, Lord Ranfurly requested captains of British naval vessels in New Zealand waters to collect “any specimens obtainable” (Ogilvie-Grant 1905).
Among the captains who complied with the Governor’s request was Commander John Rolleston of HMS Archer, then based in Melbourne.
The Archer visited the Auckland Islands to look for shipwreck survivors in July 1901 and January 1903, and the bird specimens collected by Rolleston and his lieutenants were reported on by William Ogilvie-Grant in 1905.
Phalacrocorax traversi = Macquarie Island shag
Among the specimens collected at the Auckland Islands by Rolleston in July 1901 were two shag specimens that Ogilvie-Grant referred to under the now long-forgotten name Phalacrocorax traversi.
The eyes of most naturalists glaze over when confronted by defunct scientific names and the reasons why they had to change. However, it is part of a museum curator’s role to keep track of these changes, and it transpires that Phalacrocorax traversi refers to the bird now known as the Macquarie Island shag, which was not otherwise known to occur in New Zealand.
Macquarie Island is an Australian territory that lies about 620 km south-west of the Auckland Islands.
As Macquarie Island shag was not included in any lists of New Zealand birds after 1913, I expected that the birds had been misidentified by Ogilvie-Grant, or that the site where they had been collected had been wrongly attributed to the Auckland Islands.
Seeing the original specimens
However, as part of due diligence during preparation of a paper on the birds of the Auckland Islands, I contacted my colleague Joanne Cooper at the Natural History Museum in the UK, to ask if the specimens still existed.
Indeed they did! They were in a drawer with other Macquarie Island shags, and no-one previously had questioned their identity.
Macquarie Island shags are much larger than Auckland Island shags (the only shag species expected at the Auckland Islands), and they also have whiter cheeks and necks, with a patch of orange caruncles above the bill.
The two birds that Rolleston shot were clearly Macquarie Island shags, but did he collect them at the Auckland Islands?
Were the shags definitely collected from the Auckland Islands?
Fortunately, the log of the Archer was published soon after the shags were collected (Byrn 1904), and there was also much detail about the two voyages in New Zealand newspapers at the time (accessed via the Papers Past website).
These accounts make it clear that the Archer never visited Macquarie Island, and that the vessel was in Port Ross and Carnley Harbour (in the Auckland Islands) on the precise dates that Rolleston claimed to have collected the two shags.
This information was submitted to the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee late last year, and they announced their unanimous acceptance of the record in early March 2019.
The addition (or perhaps that should be re-admission or confirmation) of Macquarie Island shag to the New Zealand bird list was announced to delegates at the annual New Zealand Bird Conference in Wellington over Queen’s Birthday Weekend, 114 years after Ogilvie-Grant first published the record.
Why was the record over-looked?
Perhaps this was best summed up during an early 20th century New Zealand parliamentary debate, where members of the Statutes Revision Committee were of the opinion “that a shag was a shag” [i.e. that they were all the same] (Miskelly 2014).
New Zealand has a great diversity of shags and cormorants, and they have collectively been given numerous names over the years.
Presumably no-one bothered to check till now whether Ogilvie-Grant knew one shag from another.
Byrn, R.G. 1904. The commission of H.M.S. Archer Australian Station 1900-1904. The log series No. 9. London, Westminster Press. 88 pp
Miskelly, C.M. 2014. Legal protection of New Zealand’s indigenous terrestrial fauna – an historical review. Tuhinga 25: 27–103
Ogilvie-Grant, W.R. 1905. On birds procured by the Earl of Ranfurly in New Zealand and the adjacent islands. Ibis 5 (8th series): 543–602