New Zealand doctor who rediscovered rare bird dies


New Zealand doctor Geoffrey Orbell, who rediscovered a flightless bird that was believed extinct almost 60 years ago, has died in the southern city of Dunedin, his family said Wednesday.

He was 98. No one had seen a live takahe — a unique blue-green, hen-like bird with a bright red bill — since the late 1890s, when Orbell and three companions found a small colony in Fiordland on South Island in November 1948. The discovery stunned the world of ornithology and made front-page news across the globe.

Geoffrey Buckland Orbell was born Oct. 7, 1908, at Pukeuri on South Island, and educated at Waitaki Boys’ High School and Christ’s College before attending Otago University. He graduated in medicine and chemistry in 1934, then went to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London where he received a Diploma in Ophthalmic Medicine and Surgery.

He later set up as an ear, eye, nose and throat specialist clinic in the southern New Zealand town of Invercargill where he ran a practice for 46 years. He also performed surgery at Southland Hospital and ran a private hospital. Orbell didn’t retire from medicine until he was 70.

In his leisure time, Orbell lived an outdoor life, fishing, hunting and exploring. As a boy, Orbell had been fascinated with the takahe ever since he spotted a photograph in Dunedin’s Otago Museum.

“From hearsay and from stories told around camp fires … I picked up little bits of information,” newspapers Wednesday cited him as saying in his journals. “These and other stories added circumstantial evidence of the existence of Notornis mantelli.”

Accompanied by experienced bush men Rex Watson and Neil McCrostie, and his fiancee Joan Telfer, Orbell went to the unexplored Murchison Mountains in November 1948 in hopes of finding the bird there.

Orbell shot a full roll of colored movie film as he followed two takahe across some tussock covered ground in the mountains.

“When I stood up, the birds were no more perturbed than hens and only moved a few feet into the snow grass where the (capture) net was quietly circled around them,” he wrote.