One of the attractions of a visit to Rotorua from here in Whakatane is to stop by the lakes along the way to observe the bird life, particularly the New Zealand scaup and the more elusive dabchick. There, as one drives along the road around the lakes edge, the scaup can be seen in flocks resting on the water at some distance off shore or closer, near reed swamps.
Scaup is the most common of the small New Zealand ducks and is still found in many parts of the country, although its numbers have been greatly reduced compared with earlier days and in spite of hydro lakes offering additional habitat. They are diving ducks which have come to prefer large bodies of clean water. They can dive to a depth of 2–3 metres in search of fresh water snails and aquatic plants.
They are quite distinctive ducks, the males being black with a purplish, greenish sheen on the head and the rest of the body a brownish black with a green gloss. The eye is distinctly yellow. The female can be easily distinguished with her brown eye and brownish body. In breeding plumage, the scaup has a small white band on the forehead above the beak.
They are also a highly social species and may nest in close proximity to each other. There is an elaborate courtship display involving the male flinging its head backwards to lie along the back with the bill pointing up and extending its body flat across the water towards the female while whistling softly. While the female is nesting the male stays close by. Indeed the occurrence of a solitary male floating near the shoreline during the breeding season, is an almost sure indication of the presence of a nesting duck.
Charles Edward Douglas, writing around the late nineteenth century, called the scaup the Widgeon. “In the bush creeks, in lakes, lagoons and marshes, they swarm like vermin, going in flocks of hundreds in some places, and they can be driven ashore and hunted with dogs like the paradise duck, with this advantage that both young and old will leave the water. They are good eating, easy to catch, and are a happy chubby little bird troubled with few cares about danger from men or dogs.” Commenting on the predator naivety of New Zealand’s endemic birds, he goes on to say, “Tame and stupid as blue duck is, you have at least to walk to them to get a shot, but in waters where they have not been disturbed they will follow a boat or canoe imploring the occupants to shoot them.”
However, it is the inimitable Guthrie–Smith who has written the more intimately about the bird; “Although comparatively easy to locate the whereabouts of a scaup’s nest, its actual espial is by no means a simple matter. Indeed, the bird almost seems to disdain concealment of herself, so much does she rely on the difficulties of the discovery of her nest. Often she can be seen openly leaving the lake edge and swimming straight out from shore. You may be sure she has just quitted her eggs, and after a few trials be almost equally sure of your failure to find them. The nest is buried among flax roots and fallen blades half supporting layers and layers of rubbish of ten, fifteen, and twenty years accumulation.
“Often the bird sits entirely covered, deep in this dark mat of rotting fibre, and with barely room to raise her head. The bolt holes are so narrow and perpendicular, and the runs so tortuous that no rabbit would ever willingly take refuge in a thicket so liable to be blocked. The scaup sits, moreover, with extraordinary nerve. Before I spotted the third nest of the four I found this season, I had burrowed — corkscrewed — deep into years’ accumulation of old flax, and had actually got my nose within a foot of the sitting scaup. It was indeed the smooth shining horn of the bill that first drew my attention to the bird, motionless in the gloom beneath these mats of shredded fibre.
“The duck allowed me to gently remove much of this half rotten stuff; indeed, her head had become visible, and I was roughly focussing the position with a white handkerchief when at last she scrambled up her bolt hole, hustled along her narrow run, and presently splashed into the water.
“Another nest I found by microscopically careful examination of the lake edge, at first discovering a very distinct trail from water to flax, then in the dark shade of masses of fallen blades, a fairly distinct passage free of all cobweb widening beneath the dead stuff. I became more sure again, noting the traffic route, and especially where the birds had squeezed between a fork of a manuka and exposed flax root.
“The discovery of an infinitesimal shred of brown down that could only have come from the covering of the eggs made me certain, and presently the glimpse of eggs was my reward. When the nest has been carefully covered by the scaup before going off, discovery is even more difficult, as the brown down admirably matches the flax waste.”
Writing of an attempt to rear Scaup, he says further, “Little scaup ... were tiny brown creatures with disproportionate feet, enormous for their bodies’ size, and remind one of children wearing their father’s fishing brogues.” Scaup apparently take readily to captivity which will ensure their survival.
Other common names: —
Widgeon, black teal.
Male, black with purplish, greenish sheen on the head, rest of the body brownish black with a green gloss, eye is distinctly yellow; female, brown eye, brownish body; breeding plumage, small white band on the forehead above the beak.
Where to find: —
Patchy distribution, most are on dune lakes of Northland,, hydoelectric lakes in the upper Waikato, Rotorua District lakes, Taupo, Hawke’s Bay, West Coast, North Canterbury, and on high country lakes and tarns of the Southern Alps.
Illustration description: —
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1873.
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1888.
Readers Digest Complete Book of NZ Birds, 1985.
Guthrie-Smith, H., Birds of Water, Wood and Waste, 1927.
Pascoe, John, Mr Explorer Douglas, 1957.
Page date & version: —
Sunday, 10 October, 2010; ver2009v1