HBW 14 - Species accounts: Stitchbird (Notiomystis cincta)

Stitchbird Notiomystis cincta  

French: Hihi de Nouvelle-Zélande

German: Hihi

Spanish: Hihi

Other common names: (The) Hihi, Ihi, Kotihe, Pogonornis  

Taxonomy. Meliphaga cincta Du Bus, 1839, Nouvelle-Zélande = North Island, New Zealand. Traditionally placed in the honeyeater family (Meliphagidae), but recent DNA studies, combined with morphology, indicate that it belongs in a monophyletic family of its own. Falls within a clade that includes the New Zealand wattlebirds (Callaeidae); affinities of this clade uncertain, but appear to be a basal assemblage that may include the berrypeckers and longbills (Melanocharitidae) and the cnemophiline satinbirds (currently Paradisaeidae). Proposed race hautura (described from Little Barrier I) said to differ from birds in rest of species’ former range in shorter wing and yellower breast of male, but some overlap in characters apparent. Treated as monotypic.

Distribution. Little Barrier I (Hauturu), in outer Hauraki Gulf, in N North I (New Zealand). Reintroduced on Kapiti I, off SW coast of North I.

Descriptive notes. c.18 cm; male 29–42 g, female 26–35 g. Medium-sized passerine with moderately long, slender and slightly decurved bill; moderately long tail, often held cocked. Male has velvet-black hood with short, erectile white nape-tuft, hood bordered by golden-yellow shoulder patch (including marginal secondary coverts) that continues as band across lower breast, where broken in mid-line; black of hood grades to grey-black on mantle, back and scapulars, and to dark brownish-olive on rump and uppertail-coverts; upperwing black, prominent white patch at base of tertials, narrow yellow fringes on outer greater coverts and thin yellow tips on median coverts, yellow edges of secondaries (forming wingpanel), and thin pale yellow distal edges of primaries (in flight, wing appears blackish with golden-yellow shoulder patch on inner leading edge and conspicuous white patch at base); uppertail blackish-brown, rectrices with yellowish edges; underbody below lower breast pale brownish-grey, diffusely streaked darker; underwing buff-white with broad dark grey trailing edge and tip, underside of tail dark brownish-grey; iris blackish-brown, narrow grey-black orbital ring; bill black; legs dark red-brown to grey-black, soles cream-coloured. Female is smaller than male, also duller and plainer (lacks golden shoulder patch and breastband), being dark brownish-olive above, with only tiny (rarely visible) white tuft on side of nape, upperwing pattern like that of male, including prominent white patch, but ground colour black-brown, and yellow areas duller, more olive-yellow; chin, throat and underparts off-white with brownish-grey wash and diffuse dark brownish-grey streaking. Juvenile is like female, but slightly browner above and uniformly dark grey-brown to brownish-buff below, pale patch on folded wing smaller and buff, pale fringes on secondary coverts dull yellow-brown, pale edges of remiges grey-brown, bill grey-black with dirty yellow or brownish-orange basal two-thirds of lower mandible, and gape swollen, yellow to orange-yellow; immature very similar to adult of corresponding sex, but retains juvenile remiges, primary coverts and alula; immature male sometimes distinguishable in close view by duller and browner greater primary coverts and alula with narrow yellowish edges (these wholly black in adult male), and in the hand retained juvenile plumage of immature female slightly duller and browner than adult female’s. Voice. Range of mainly high-pitched vocalizations, some given throughout year, others only in breeding season. Male has seven identifiable vocalizations, female five (most female calls quiet, audible only within a few metres); at least eight further calls shared by sexes. Common call of both sexes is warning call, a “titch” note, given singly or (with increasing alarm) in accelerating series, when may merge into alarm call, which a series of high-pitched “yeng” notes. Contact call (both sexes), heard often and throughout year, a high-pitched and plaintive single or double “wee” or “tseet”, usually answered by another. Other calls by both sexes include, among others, a soft warble, “Aggressive Chat”, high-pitched parental call directed at fledglings, and squeaks. Male song a loud, melodious high-pitched whistle of 2–3 notes, e.g. “wee-ah-wee”, “wee-ah”, or “ trr-ah-wee”, mainly or most frequently during the breeding season. Other male vocalizations include “chi-ching”, given only near nest; “Identification Chat”, a series of squeaky and warbling sounds given at meeting with mate; two cooing calls; and metallic call during display-flight. Female vocalizations include several calls associated with copulation or when being chased by males attempting forced copulation; short, soft, high-pitched “sweet” as identification call from nesting cavity in reply to mate; and hisses in aggression.

Habitat. Dense native forests, with some movement between forest types to exploit seasonal flowering or fruiting. On Little Barrier I prefers mature, moist, hardwood forest, particularly mixed forests of tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa) and northern rata (Metrosideros robusta) in valleys, and tawa with towai (Weinmannia silvicola) on steep slopes at higher elevations; found less often in kauri–hard beech (Agathis australisNothofagus truncata) ridge forest, regenerating valley forests of kanuka (Leptospermum ericoides), wet ridge forest of tawa, towai, tawari (Ixerba brexioides) and miro (Prumnopitys ferruginea), or coastal pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa) forest; least common in Leptospermum forest on ridges, and in stunted summit forests. Extinct population on North I originally inhabited broadleaf evergreen forest; mature forest of Little Barrier I thought to be very like undisturbed habitat of mainland North I formerly used by this species. Requires mature forest for breeding. On Little Barrier I recorded at all altitudes from lowest valleys to high summits (highest point 722 m), but mainly in valleys and lower ridges to c. 300 m.

Food and Feeding. Diet nectar, fruit and small arthropods. Arthopods mainly insects, including beetles (Coleoptera), but also spiders (Araneae). Proportions of main items in diet vary seasonally, geographically (between natural population on Little Barrier I and various translocated populations) and, where data exist, among different studies within populations; variation probably due mainly to availability. Differences between islands probably relate to differences in floristic composition and in flowering and fruiting phenology of respective flora. Invertebrate and plant exudates such as lerp, manna and honeydew also consumed. Takes fruit and nectar from wide variety of plants. On Mokoia I, nectar usually taken from plant species contributing greatest proportion of nectar standing crop at the time, and tended to avoid flowers comparatively low in nectar; proportion of time spent in feeding on different species of fruit not related to available store of carbohydrates in fruit. Forages at all levels, including occasionally on ground, but mainly in trees and shrubs; in one study on Little Barrier I, foraged mostly in middle and lower levels of understorey, but also often in subcanopy and canopy. Most foraging carried out among fine twigs, leaves and terminal shoots of trees and small shrubs; sometimes in canopy of trees, especially among flowering and fruiting mistletoes (Loranthaceae). Agile and acrobatic when foraging, often hanging upside-down to reach flowers and fruit. Nectar taken by probing flowers; invertebrates and plant and insect exudates obtained mainly by gleaning from foliage or branches, also by probing beneath bark, and sallies into air to catch flying insects. Usually in pairs or, particularly outside breeding season, in small groups of up to ten individuals. Sometimes associates with meliphagids, i.e. Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) and New Zealand Bellbird (Anthornis melanura), and often part of mixed-species feeding flocks. Will travel several kilometres daily between preferred feeding sites, and known to visit artificial feeders up to 1·5 km apart during same day.

Breeding. Recorded Sept/Oct–Feb/Mar, but not synchronous within populations; first eggs usually mid-Oct but annual variation (e.g. on Kapiti I first clutches laid 16th Nov–9th Dec in one year, 5th–19th Dec in next); up to two or, occasionally, four breeding attempts in a season. Nest almost invariably built by female alone, a platform of sticks and rootlets supporting a cup made from fern rhizomes, cup bound together with spider web, lined with fern scales and feathers, almost always placed in hollow or other cavity in trunk or branch of mature living tree, sometimes in dead tree or cavity in other site, and on islands where translocated artificial nestboxes used; on Little Barrier I nests c. 1–18·5 m (mean for nine nests 6·25 m) above ground. Clutch 3–5 eggs, sometimes 2, exceptionally 6, second clutch in season usually one egg fewer than first clutch; eggs laid at one-day intervals, in morning, laying 1 hour later each morning; incubation by female only, beginning with completion of clutch, period 13–19 days (mean 15·75 days); chicks brooded by female, male sometimes assisting, fed by both sexes, female doing considerably more of provisioning than male, both adults remove faecal sacs (but nest quickly becomes fouled), nestling period 26–32 days; young fed by parents for up to 2 weeks after fledging, contribution of each adult and rate at which young fed (and for how long) dependent on whether female making another breeding attempt. Juveniles join crèches c. 1 week after fledging.

Movements. Resident. Individuals move widely within home ranges, up to several kilometres daily, to exploit seasonally available nectar or fruit.

Status and Conservation. VULNERABLE. Restricted-range species: present in North Island of New Zealand EBA. Rare. Natural population confined to Little Barrier I, where current estimated population 500–2000 individuals; formerly estimated as high as 4000–5000 birds. Translocated populations on Kapiti I (c. 100 birds) and on Tiritiri Matangi I (c. 150 birds); introduced populations established on main North I at Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (translocation of 60 individuals in 2005, population estimated at 37 birds in Oct 2006) and at Cascade Kauri Park, in Waitakere Ranges, near Auckland (59 birds translocated in 2007 and a further 60 in May 2008). Unsuccessfully translocated to Hen I (in Hen and Chickens Group) and Cuvier I (Repanga I); also to Mokoia I (in L Rotorua), and that population later transferred to Kapiti I. Formerly widespread on North I and several adjacent offshore islands, but by mid-1880s natural population confined to a single island, Little Barrier I, in outer Hauraki Gulf. Causes of rapid decline and extinction on mainland and on Kapiti I and Great Barrier I not certainly known; suspected that main reason was a combination of loss of habitat, introduction and spread of mammalian predators, especially black rats (Rattus rattus), avian disease, and excessive collecting of specimens for museums, these factors having no doubt acted in concert. No translocated populations self-sustaining, but those on Kapiti I and Tiritiri Matangi I increasing through intensive and ongoing management. Translocated populations reliant on supplementary feeding, provision of nestboxes and, in the case of mainland population, intensive predator control. A small captive population is held at Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Sanctuary.

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