Rufous-collared kingfisher in forest
Like so many other species, the rufous-collared kingfisher of Southeast Asia’s lowland and montane forests is threatened by habitat loss. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The unsociable harlequins


“The river is such a tranquil place, a place to sit and think of romance and the beauty of nature, to enjoy the elegance of swans and the chance of a glimpse of a kingfisher.” – Jane Wilson-Howarth, Snowfed Waters.

Ah, yes. The sight of a perched kingfisher bobbing its head excitedly, plunging for prey or just flying by in a blur of colour never fails to get my juices flowing.

In fact, when it comes to photography, the kingfisher family is second only to waders as my bird of most interest.

According to Wikipedia, there are 114 species of kingfisher on the planet, ranging in size from the tiny African dwarf (just 10 cm long), to the kookaburra (the heaviest), and the daddy of them all, the African giant kingfisher at 42 cm-plus.

Infuriatingly difficult

For a family so species-rich and widespread, they can be infuriatingly difficult to find, and even harder to photograph well. (Remember Alan McFadyen? He’s the Scottish wildlife photographer I blogged about last year whose extraordinary commitment to ‘the perfect shot of a flawlessly perpendicular kingfisher at the exact point its beak touched the water took him six years and 720,000 frames before he was satisfied.)

The thing is, outside the breeding season, kingfishers are usually solitary birds – to the point where they can’t stand each other and fiercely defend their territories. Mated pairs soon go their separate ways and the young birds must find their own territories. The parents want the kids out of their sight and the siblings want nothing to do with one another.

Tiny rufous-backed kingfisher
The rufous-backed kingfisher of Malaysia might be tiny (13 cm long) but it regularly hunts prey bigger than itself. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Collective nouns

Despite their unsociable tendencies, and the unlikely event that a ‘flock’ of kingfishers will ever pass your way, they are represented by a number of collective nouns, including: a concentration, relay, clique (my favourite) and rattle.

Speaking of taxonomists, I have always thought it lazy and rather insulting that they use the adjective ‘common’ to distinguish so many birds within species.

Bad enough to be called a loon or a coot, but to be labelled ‘common’ into the bargain is hardly fair. And there are 60-plus species flitting about out there carrying the psychological burden of being branded humdrum by ornithologists.

Take, for instance, the sparrow-size common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) – widely distributed across Eurasia and North Africa, but anything but common in the southern hemisphere.

Crab-eating sacred kingfisher
A member of the Cairns Esplanade gang (clique) of specialist crab-eating sacred kingfishers. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The crab hunters

A ‘clique’ of sacred kingfishers (Todiramphus sanctus) regularly works the mudflats along the Cairns (Queensland) foreshore, not far from my home. Specialist small crab hunters, they swoop down from the waterfront shade trees to make an immediate catch, or to perch on a rock or mangrove stem to wait for the right moment.

Although the sacred kingfishers on the Cairns Esplanade are a common (that word again) sight for much of the year, they appear to have adapted to cheek-by-jowl city living – maintaining demarcated hunting areas, sometimes within a few metres of each other.

Revered for centuries

Not surprisingly, the sacred kingfisher was so named because it has been worshipped and revered for centuries by various cultures, including Polynesians who believed it to have power over the ocean and waves.

A target bird for an upcoming photography trip to Sri Lanka is the oriental dwarf kingfisher – about the size of the little kingfisher, and the rufous-backed kingfisher from Malaysia (pictured).

©Natural Images 2019

Stork-billed kingfisher, Sri Lanka
This impressively endowed stork-billed kingfisher was photographed in Sri Lanka, but they are found from India to Indonesia. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


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