Hunting the last huia
An archival project has uncovered a possible “new” record of a huia being spotted 17 years after the last confirmed sighting. By Caroline Wood.
Ecologist Nikki McArthur recently came across an intriguing hand-written note while documenting historical bird records collected by RHD Stidolph, one of the founding members of Birds New Zealand.
It is a second-hand report of a male huia spotted near the boundary of Whareroa Farm, on the Kapiti Coast, in mid-1924. According to Stidolph’s records, a shepherd spotted the bird when it was attracted by his whistling (he was calling for his dogs).
He reported the sighting to Forest & Bird founder Captain Val Sanderson, who passed it on to Stidolph, who recorded it in his diary. Whareroa Farm is now a recreation reserve between Paekakariki and the Akatarawa Forest, north of Wellington.
The last confirmed sighting of a huia was on 28 December 1907 in the Tararua Ranges, also north of Wellington. It’s likely a few stragglers persisted into the 1920s, according to New Zealand Birds Online.
“This [shepherd] sighting appears to be a ‘new’, unconfirmed record as I can’t find any mention of it published elsewhere,” says Nikki, who is the Wellington Regional Recorder for Birds NZ.
The huia’s last refuge?
Nikki says the best source of information about post-1907 sightings of huia is WJ Phillipp’s The Book of the Huia. In it, he mentions that Captain Sanderson was actively following up huia sightings during the early 1920s and made a couple of expeditions into the Akatarawa Forest to try to confirm the persistence of huia there.
A Mr CWG Betts made several reports in late 1923/early 1924 of huia he’d encountered in the Akatarawa River valley. This triggered an expedition party that spent several days searching in the area in February 1924.
Mr Betts went as a guide, and the expedition members included our own Captain Sanderson, Stan Wilkinson (Kapiti Island ranger and Stidolph’s brother-in-law), Harold Hamilton (Dominion Museum), and JG Myers (Department of Agriculture).
Phillipp’s book suggests that this was “perhaps the last major official expedition in search of the huia”.
However, Stidolph records details of what appears to be a later expedition that was carried out on 20–21 September 1924, following up on the sightings by the unnamed shepherd near Whareroa Farm. This later expedition consisted of himself, Captain Sanderson, and someone named Birch.
Sanderson set up the The Native Bird Protection Society (later Forest & Bird) in 1923 after despairing at the loss of birds such as the huia and their forest home.
“Unfortunately none of these expeditions were successful at confirming the persistence of huia in the Akatarawa area. How different things may have been if they had!” says Nikki.
Bird observer extraordinaire
RHD (Bob) Stidolph was a founding member of Birds NZ (the Ornithological Society of New Zealand) and was a meticulous and prolific recorder of bird observations between the 1920s and 1970s. After his death, his daughter, Diana Stidolph, donated his diaries (and hundreds of bird photos) to the Wairarapa Archives.
Nikki has been working with Forest & Bird Wairarapa committee member Joanna McVeagh and Gareth Winters, from the Wairarapa Archives, to digitise RHD Stidolph’s Ornithological Diaries and enter his 50 years of bird observations into eBird, an open-access bird observational database supported by Birds NZ.