Secretive marsh crake seen on Chatham Islands

The tiny, secretive marsh crake (Porzana pusilla affinis) known to iwi as koitareke or kotoreke is known from the Chatham Islands on the basis of one specimen collected by Henry H. Travers in 1872 and a 1997 report of a bird calling in response to a tape played at Te Awāinanga River, Te Whanga. During September 2019, this elusive bird was seen again by Chatham Island Conservation Board member Peter de Lange during a survey for Chatham Island linen flax (Linum monogynum var. chathamicum) by Chatham Island, near Waikato, Te Whanga.

Marsh crake are tiny birds in the rail family so distantly related to weka. An adult bird excluding the legs is about half the size of blackbird. Marsh crake have very short tails, and long spindly yellowish legs, bright red eyes, and a short, dull, greenish bill. They are colourful birds, the upper parts of their plumage is a rich chestnut-brown with flecks of black and white, whilst the under parts are grey with black-and-white bars towards the flanks. Shy and reclusive marsh crake are best seen by sitting quietly on the margin of ponds and wetlands, at dawn or dusk. The birds have a range of calls described by ornithologists as ‘kreeek, trrrrrrr’, ‘krakrakra-gagaga’. and ‘krehehehe’.

The bird observed in September was noted by accident as it was carefully and almost soundlessly traipsing through a dense oioi (Apodasmia similis) reedland. The observation has been reported to and accepted by the Rare Birds Subcommittee of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand.

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Associate Professor (Botany, Ecology, Plant Conservation, Biosystematics) at Unitec in Auckland and a former Department of Conservation scientist. Peter has been visiting the Chatham Islands since 1996 and is a current member of the Chatham Islands Conservation Board.