(2234) Gorsakius melanolophus melanolophus.
The Malay Bittern.
Gorsakius melanolophus Baffles, Trans. Linn, Soc, xiii, p. 326 (1822) (Sumatra). Gorsachius melanolophus. Blanf. & Oates, iv, p. 398.
Vernacular names. Raj-bog (Assam).
Description. Forehead, crown and crest black with a grey wash; chin and throat pale fulvous, the latter with a central black streak; sides of head and neck, back, scapulars and wing-coverts chestnut-cinnamon; the wing-coverts and sometimes the back very finely vermiculated with black, obsolete in old birds, pronounced in the younger birds, in which they form bars; edge of wing and inside shoulders mottled rufous, black and white; bastard wing and greater wing-coverts black with white tips primaries greyish-black, tipped white, then a little brown mottling and next a chestnut bar; secondaries greyish-black with chestnut tips; lower back, rump and upper tail-coverts mottled brown and rufous; tail black, slightly rufescent at the tip; longest tail-feathers rufous-black; fore-neck and breast rufous, the centre streaked with black and whitish, remainder of lower parts mottled chestnut-black and white; thigh-coverts rufous, vermiculated black.
Colours of soft parts. Iris golden-yellow; bill fleshy-yellow, the culmen and tip horny-brown; orbital skin greenish-slate, suffused red in the breeding-season; legs and feet dull green, brownish in front.
Measurements. Wing 255 to 281 mm.; tail 96 to 112 mm.-, tarsus about 67 to 79 mm.; culmen 43 to 49 mm.; birds from Palawan are very small, the wing measuring only 250 to 255 mm. but they have the culmen up to 52 mm.
Young birds. Upper plumage dark brown, the head nearly black; nape and long crest-feathers streaked with white, rest of plumage spotted with white, the wings and scapulars having numerous wavy bars of pale buff; chin and throat white with a central streak of dark brown; remainder of lower surface white, buffy-white or pale buff, each feather spotted and barred with dark brown, densely on the breast, less so on the abdomen and posterior flanks.
Distribution. Ceylon, the Malabar coast to the Southern Bombay Presidency, Assam, Manipur, Burma South through the Malay States to Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Formosa.
Nidification. Coltart and I found this Bittern breeding in some numbers in Assam during May and June, whilst Stewart found it to be even more common in Travancore, where he took many nests in June. It is a solitary bird and we never found two nests any-where near one another. Most were built in forest trees at a considerable height from the ground but occasionally they were placed in reed beds on the top of broken-down rushes and elephant-grass. All were in dense virgin forest but nearly all were on trees on the banks of rivers and streams. The nests are made of small branches and twigs and sometimes lined with rushes and leaves. The eggs are four or five in number and differ from most Herons' eggs in being dead white, the texture smooth and close but not very glossy. In shape they are very broad ovals, both ends almost alike. Forty eggs average 46.2 x 37.2 mm.: maxima 49.1 X 38.3 and 48.0 x 40.0 mm.; minima 44.0 x 37.2 and 46.4 x 36.0 mm.
The female sits very close and when approached rises on the nest and displays just as the Painted Snipe does, raising the far side wing and depressing that next the intruder, spreading both fan-shape. Whilst thus displaying she hisses and croaks alternately. Curiously enough the display and sounds are exactly the same as those of the male when courting.
Habits. This Bittern is extremely shy and retiring and is never, I believe, found outside heavy cover, either forest or reeds. It is nocturnal like all the family and a deep booming call, not unlike that of a Common Bittern which I sometimes heard at night in the forest, was said by the Mikirs to be made by this bird. It flies like the Herons with flapping wings but much faster, whilst it often utters a croak when on the wing. The stomachs of those I have examined contained frogs, lizards and cicadae but it must certainly also eat fish, as I have often turned it out of reeds at the edges of streams in the early mornings and late evenings.