Sunday, January 9, 2011

SPOTLIGHT: New Zealand Scaup (Aythya novaeseelandiae)


It's been a while since my last post partly because of the time of year, the weather, and partly because I've been spreading out my time on a few different projects lately. One of which has been building a hide/blind to fit onto my kayak. After a bit of research I noticed that there weren't too many designs that would suit what I needed as a photographic-aquatic hide, so designing and building something from scratch has been a lot of fun. With the help of my grandfather we designed and built the 'kayak hide' over Christmas (so keep an eye out for shots taken from my new floating hide! =D). Another project which has swallowed up some time has been trying to capture one of my favourite NZ duck species - the New Zealand scaup (Papango). These beautiful diving ducks are a real joy to watch and I've spent a fair bit of time watching a few scaup families here in Christchurch bring up some ducklings. I noticed that black-backed gulls are a real predator of young scaup chicks and unfortunately due to predation only a small percentage of the ducklings watched survived. These small ducklings are amazing to watch when feeding as they leap right out of the water as they dive to feed on small aquatic plants and insects under the waters surface. 

The New Zealand scaup (papango) is endemic to New Zealand. At around 40cm it is New Zealand’s smallest duck. Scaup are our only true diving duck. Their legs are set back on their bodies and splayed which make them expert divers but a little awkward on land and therefore they live their lives almost entirely on the water.   
The birds are easily distinguished by their dark glossy plumage. The male has a striking golden eye and a dark coloured head with a purple/greenish sheen. The female can be recognized by her brown eye and brownish body - In breeding plumage, the female scaup has a small white patch above her beak.
They inhabit many deep freshwater lakes or alpine tarns where they can be often seen gathering in large groups especially during autumn.
Hunters in the late 1800s talked about the ease of killing scaup - they were apparently tasty, unafraid and oblivious to hunters and their dogs. Their numbers decreased rapidly soon after European occupation. With complete protection since 1934 the population is increasing and said to be approximately 20,000.

They can dive to a depth of 3 metres in search of small fish, aquatic plants, water snails, mussels and other invertebrates. They unusually remain submerged for about 15 - 20 seconds but can stay underwater to up to 40 seconds.
During the breeding season males can be seen flinging their heads back with the bill pointing up and their body towards the female while whistling softly in an elaborate courtship display.

They nest from October to March and lay six to ten eggs in a nest close to water often under a thick cover of vegetation. The nest is usually lined with grass and down. The female incubates the eggs for about 28 days.
The ducklings take to diving for food very soon after hatching and remain with the parents for up to eight weeks before dispersing. Young scaup have been described as “tiny brown creatures with disproportionate feet, enormous for their body size”.