Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

New Zealand: Takahē

with 37 comments

Takahe 6341

Perhaps you remember the pūkeko that appeared here in the first round of New Zealand pictures. Well, this is its flightless cousin, the South Island takahē, Porphyrio hochstetteri. By the mid-20th century the species was believed extinct but, as Wikipedia tells it, “[Dr. Geoffrey] Orbell suspected it might survive. While taking time off from his Invercargill practice to search for the takahē, he discovered a set of unfamiliar footprints. After following the footprints with three companions he rediscovered the species on 20 November 1948 in a remote valley of the Murchison Mountains near Lake Te Anau.” Since then the takahē has been nursed away from the brink of extinction, as attested by this one that I photographed at the Zealandia Sanctuary on February 21st. The picture also attests to the fact these birds like to use their beak to peck the ground and pull out plants.

For much more information about this largest living member of the rail family of birds, you can read articles at New Zealand Birds, the unrelated New Zealand Birds Online, and Wikipedia.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 20, 2015 at 5:31 AM

37 Responses

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  1. He’s a rather ugly looking chap, though magnificent coloured feathers – indigo, purple, violet, blues and even greens. Glad to know he isn’t extinct after all.


    June 20, 2015 at 5:37 AM

    • I think he’s glad to know he isn’t extinct, too, assuming a bird can contemplate its existence and non-existence. I’d propose an existential avian motto, “I tweet, therefore I am,” but I’m afraid that’s taken and already describes the attitude of too many a human.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 20, 2015 at 5:49 AM

  2. That is a healthy looking bill. Ripping plants out by their roots, eh?

    Jim in IA

    June 20, 2015 at 6:09 AM

  3. This is the closest I have been to a takahe. Impressive.


    June 20, 2015 at 6:38 AM

    • I also saw takahē fairly close on Tiritiri Matangi. Both places are sanctuaries, so I wonder whether these birds have grown more used to people than they would be in the wild. This one was busy pecking around and eating, and it didn’t seem at all bothered by my presence. I zoomed my lens to its maximum of 105mm, which isn’t much of a telephoto, but it might have left the impression that I was a little closer than I actually was, which still wasn’t far.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 20, 2015 at 7:19 AM

      • Yes, I believe the birds in the sanctuaries are very relaxed about people presence. The only bird that has ever come up close to me, out of a sanctuary, is a fantail.


        June 21, 2015 at 6:17 AM

  4. never seen this one before !! impressive bird !


    June 20, 2015 at 7:27 AM

    • Till I started reading up on New Zealand in preparation for my trip, I’d never heard of the takahē either.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 20, 2015 at 7:42 AM

  5. The description of the birds stripping seeds from the heads of grasses made me think of us, eating corn on the cob. The management techniques described in the second article are very similar to those being used to increase our prairie chicken population.

    It’s interesting that the smallest flightless bird in the world also is a rail: the Inaccessible Island rail. The name alone pretty much explains its survival.

    All of these flightless birds on islands made me wonder if NZ had even more, and of course they do. There’s a nice summary page here that helps to explain why some birds evolved into flightlessness.

    Once I figured out that porphyrio refers to purple, I went looking and found that the scientific name of our purple gallinule is Porphyrio martinicus.


    June 20, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    • Randall’s has corn on the cob at 8 for a dollar, so I’ll likely be doing my share of takahē imitating this weekend.

      I also noticed that bit about the smallest flightless bird being a rail as well. After Polynesians and then Europeans brought predators to New Zealand, these birds may well have been tempted to rail against their fate, and your mention of the island rail can’t help reminding me of the Long Island Railroad.

      That is a good article about flying versus not flying. Thanks.

      As for Porphyrio, compare porphyry:


      I’m also reminded of the Mexican strongman Porfirio Díaz:


      Steve Schwartzman

      June 20, 2015 at 8:39 AM

  6. Seeing that bill I would have guessed seeds of some sort. In college we studied island bio-geography, the tendency of some creatures to develop extreme characteristics such as flightlessness. There were also dwarf members of some species. I seem to remember dwarf elephants…. ? But as I write this I question my memory. At any rate I do remember they could develop that way on islands because there was little predation but they quickly became extinct once humans found their island. It is cheering to learn of case where humans reversed the trend.


    June 20, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    • Yeah, when it comes to what this bird eats, seeds fit the bill all right.

      I hadn’t heard of dwarf elephants, but your memory proves correct. Here’s an article about them and insular dwarfism:


      As I see it, there’s a consciousness in New Zealand now of all the destruction that settlers caused there, and people are making attempts to redress the balance wherever possible. You brought up islands, and some have been put to use in those attempts because it’s easier to control access than on the mainland. The one island devoted to restoration that I visited was Tiritiri Matangi:


      Steve Schwartzman

      June 20, 2015 at 1:17 PM

  7. That’s a heck of a tough looking beak! Not exactly what we usually describe as a pretty bird, but I find it strangely appealing. Perhaps I like the battle-scarred, well worn exterior. These days I appreciate this far more than perfection. I suppose because I’m now rather worn around the edges myself and one learns that character is more important than appearances. 🙂


    June 20, 2015 at 10:01 AM

  8. I’m always amazed at the variety of life out there. Beautiful and amazing photos you post.

    Lavinia Ross

    June 20, 2015 at 12:04 PM

    • There’s plenty of variety in Texas, as you’ve seen, but New Zealand gave me a chance for some quite different things.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 20, 2015 at 3:38 PM

  9. Felicidades por este excelente macro, Steve. Saludos!

  10. I would assume that this bird has few if any predators to worry about. Knowing that you don’t carry a very long lens, you must have been fairly close for this nice full frame portrait. Those are some attractive colors in the feathers.

    Steve Gingold

    June 20, 2015 at 2:34 PM

    • This bird and various others, like the better-known kiwi, evolved with no ground predators, but once the Polynesians and later the Europeans arrived, there were predators aplenty, and that’s why the takahē almost got wiped out.

      I used my 24–105mm lens zoomed to the maximum, so I wasn’t as close as the picture might make viewers think (and in addition the photo is cropped).

      The feathers’ color goes well with the beak’s, says I.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 20, 2015 at 3:44 PM

  11. Nice shot. The DOC (Department of Conservation) takes our native bird life very seriously and it is nice to report a success story.

    Raewyn's Photos

    June 20, 2015 at 4:53 PM

  12. Fascinating. He looks like a real rough tough character! Funny that he looks very similar to our (non-native) Swamphens, though they don’t have quite such a coarse look.

    Birder's Journey

    June 20, 2015 at 10:00 PM

  13. Come across any Taniwhas yet? 🙂


    June 20, 2015 at 10:33 PM

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