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Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae)

Other name: Parson bird

Tui are a bold and conspicuous bird found throughout the New Zealand archipelago from the subtropical Kermadec Islands to the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands. The Chatham Island subspecies (P. n. chathamensis) is restricted to the Chatham Islands approximately 700 km east of the main islands of New Zealand.

Tui on flax flowers

Tui are important pollenators of many plants. Here, orange pollen from the flax (Phormium tenax) can be seen on the birds forehead.

Tui have adapted relatively well to human induced landscape changes, and as well as inhabiting intact native forest they can be found in forest remnants and urban areas. They belong to the honeyeater family (Meliphagidae) and have highly developed brush-tipped tongues which assist with taking nectar from flowers. A large part of tui diet consists of the nectar of plants such as kowhai, New Zealand flax, pohutukawa, rewarewa and puriri, but they also take fruit and invertebrates. They are great acrobats when feeding, often hopping actively from perch to perch, stretching and hanging upside down to reach difficult flowers. Tui are very aggressive and generally chase other birds from prime flowering trees. They are strong, often noisy fliers, especially during displays and chases. Many people incorrectly interpret the noisy flight as a sign of a poor flier. It is actually caused by special notches in the eighth primary feather of each wing. During winter many tui can be found feeding on flowering plants in urban gardens, especially winter-flowering exotics such as coastal banksia (Banksia integrifolia) and gums (Eucalyptus spp.). Research has recently revealed that many of these birds travel daily from breeding territories in areas of native forest 15 km or more away. It has also been shown that they are vulnerable to predation at the nest by introduced mammals such as ship rats and brush-tailed possums. Work to increase tui numbers in urban areas is now shifting from planting food plants, to pest control at breeding areas.

Tui on kowhai flowers

Tui are energetic and acrobatic when feeding. Bright yellow blossoms of the native kowhai trees (Sophora spp.) are a favourite with gardeners and tui alike.

The plumage is mainly very dark, iridescent green and blue, with lacy white-shafted feathers on the back of the neck and two tufts of white feathers on the throat. The attractive song is a variable mix of fluid bell-like notes and whistles, and harsh croaks, clicks, wheezes and chuckles. They can often be seen singing energetically at frequencies inaudible to humans. There are noticeable differences between local dialects and even some neighbouring individuals and they are also known to mimic a variety of sounds, from human speech and whistles to other bird species.

Feeding tui are generally not difficult to approach to within range of even a short telephoto lens of around 200 to 300 mm, but longer lenses give greater control of potentially distracting backgrounds, and help reduce the viewing angle when birds are above eye-level. When photographing dark birds like tui, care needs to be taken with exposure to ensure highlights are not overexposed. Metering off a mid tone object in the same light or using an incident meter both give a useful starting point. Depending on the light, reducing the exposure by a third to two thirds of a stop will often preserve detail in the white throat tufts. When using a digital body and reviewing images in the usual fashion in camera, it can be difficult to see clipped highlights in such as small area. I find that stopping down a further third from any highlight warning will preserve detail there, while keeping as much of the image as possible on the right side of the histogram. Exposing to the right like this is key to getting as much from a digital sensor as possible.

You can find these and many more tui photos in the gallery, available for licencing and purchase as prints.

References and further reading

The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, by Barrie Heather and Hugh Robertson. Published 1996 by Viking.

Birds of New Zealand Locality Guide, by Stuart Chambers. Published 1989 by Arun Books.

Reader's Digest Complete Book of New Zealand Birds. Published 1985 by Reader's Digest.

Department of Conservation

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