Philesturnus rufusater

Physical Description

The Tīeke, or Saddleback, is a medium-sized passerine bird with distinctive plumage. It has a black head, throat, and upper body, while the lower body and underparts are rich chestnut in colour. The name "Saddleback" comes from the band of chestnut that crosses the lower back, resembling a saddle. They have a stout bill, strong legs, and a long tail. Males and females have similar appearances.

Habitat and Range

The Saddleback is endemic to New Zealand and is found primarily in native forests on the North Island. Historically, they were widespread throughout the North Island, but their range has significantly diminished due to habitat loss and introduced predators. They are now restricted to several predator-controlled or offshore island sanctuaries, including Kapiti Island and Tiritiri Matangi Island.

Feeding Habits

Saddleback are insectivorous birds that primarily feed on invertebrates, such as insects, spiders, and worms. They forage by hopping along the forest floor or climbing tree trunks and branches in search of prey. They have a sharp bill, which they use to probe crevices and leaf litter to find hidden insects. They may also consume nectar and fruit, especially during the breeding season.

Breeding and Nesting

Saddlebacks are monogamous and typically form long-term pair bonds. They construct cup-shaped nests of twigs, grass, and leaves, usually in tree forks or dense shrubs. The female lays a clutch of 2 to 4 eggs, which both parents incubate for about three weeks. Both parents participate in feeding and caring for the chicks until they fledge.

Conservation Status

The Saddleback is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They have faced significant population declines due to habitat destruction and introduced predators, such as rats and stoats. Conservation efforts, including predator control, habitat restoration, and translocations to predator-free islands, aim to protect and increase their populations.

Tree and Plant Preferences

Saddleback primarily inhabit native forests, including mature and regenerating ones, on the North Island. They rely on a variety of tree and plant species for nesting, foraging, and seeking shelter. Some common tree species associated with their habitat include rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), totara (Podocarpus totara), pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), and kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides).

Interesting Facts

  • The Saddleback was once considered extinct on the mainland but was rediscovered on Hen Island in 1949. Since then, successful translocations have helped establish populations on predator-free islands and fenced mainland sanctuaries.
  • They have a unique alarm call that resembles a distinctive "koekoe" or "kee-aw" sound, which helps alert other birds to the presence of predators.
  • Saddlebacks play an important ecological role in forest ecosystems by controlling insect populations and assisting in seed dispersal.
  • They are highly territorial and defend their nesting areas and foraging territories from intruders, including other bird species.
  • The Saddleback has become a popular species for ecotourism and birdwatching, attracting visitors to predator-free islands and mainland sanctuaries.