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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 12

From Issue No 12

Kingfishers – delightful birds of quirky colour

 

Kingfishers are distinguished by long, straight beaks and short tails, and most sport rather flamboyant attire, with a preference for blue. But not all of them live by fishing in water.

Of the seven resident kingfisher species in Southern Africa, five occur in the Western and Southern Cape. Another three species are migratory visitors to the country, but are limited to the northeastern parts. There are about 90 species in the world.

 

Giant Kingfisher

Megaceryle maxima (Afrikaans: Reuse-visvanger)

 

By far the biggest of our Kingfishers, the adult is 43 to 46 cm long. The beak is so powerful and long, in flight the bird looks like a beak with wings. The back is mainly black, the chest in the male is a brick red colour from the throat to halfway down the belly. The female is brick red from halfway down to the tail. Somebody said the male has a red T-shirt, the female has red hotpants!

Giant Kingfishers live on rivers and lagoons, and also along the sea. They fish by diving from a perch, branch or rock and can eat a 35 cm trout with ease; also crabs, rodents and sometimes small birds, lizards and small snakes. They nest in burrows dug in the river bank, up to two metres deep. Very noisy birds, they call loudly when flying off a perch or flying over the water.

 

Pied Kingfisher

Ceryle rudis (Afrikaans: Bontvisvanger)

 

A medium-sized bird, about 28 cm long, black back streaked with white, white chest with two black bands in the male, one broken band in the female, and a long thin black beak. It is the only Kingfisher that feeds almost entirely on fish, in rivers, lagoons and in the sea. Prey is sometimes caught from a perch, but mainly by hovering with fast wingbeats, the bird remaining almost stationary in the air, beak pointing straight down to the water.

Small fish are swallowed on the wing, but bigger fish are brought to a perch, usually a thick branch, then tenderized by banging with a sideways movement of the head. Pied Kingfishers also make burrows in river banks to nest, up to 1 metre deep.

 

Brownhooded Kingfisher

Halcyon albiventris (Afrikaans: Bruinkopvisvanger)

 

A medium to small Kingfisher, dark blue back, creamy white chest for the male, the female has a brown back, both have red bills, black towards the tip.

The Brownhooded very seldom catches fish by diving like other kingfishers. Their prey consists of insects like grasshoppers, lizards, crabs, mice, small snakes, grass frogs and even young birds.

They are often found in gardens where they can be seen looking for prey on the lawn, from a perch in a tree or a fence post.

They also nest in burrows made in a bank along a river, the hole being about a metre deep.

 

Halfcollared Kingfisher

Alcedo semitorquata (Afrikaans: Blouvisvanger)

 

A small blue bird, the only blue kingfisher with an entirely black beak. Its name refers to two blue patches on the sides of the chest which form half a collar.

The Halfcollared Kingfisher is quite rare in the southwestern Cape, seen mainly on lagoons. Feeds on fish and water insects, also small crabs. Nests in burrows dug in riverbanks, almost half a metre deep.

 

Malachite Kingfisher

Lorythornis cristata or Alcedo cristata (Afrikaans: Kuifkopvisvanger)

 

A very beautiful kingfisher, small, about 14 cm long, blue back, orange chest, green crest (hence the name), bright red bill and legs.

Fortunately quite common on all big or small streams, vleis, and marshes where there are reeds and tall grasses. Quite often visits goldfish ponds in gardens. Has a habit of bobbing its body and head up and down while waiting to dive from a perch. Food consists of small fish, tadpoles, frogs, shrimps and water beetles. Like the other kingfishers its nest is a burrow dug in a river bank, about half a metre deep. The nest becomes very foul with droppings, so much so that the poor bird is filthy when it emerges after feeding its young and it immediately dives into water a few times to clean up.

One day while photographing Malachite and Halfcollared Kingfishers from a hide on the Grootrivier Lagoon at Nature’s Valley I saw something I shall never ever forget. About 25 metres upstream from the hide was a Malachite Kingfisher sitting in what seemed a very awkward position on a flat rock about one metre above the water. It dived into the water and came up with a small fish in its beak. It then flew up above the rock, came down and crashlanded onto the rock. For a second or two it remained lying on its back before it wriggled forward to an upright position, and proceeded to “tenderize” the fish by beating it on the rock before swallowing it.

I just could not help creeping up in the thick cover on the bank to within 5 metres of the little bird. It was lying flat on the rock, looking over the edge into the water. Then in it dived again. Once more it came up with a small fish and again crash-landed onto the rock.

I could not believe my eyes – it had no legs at all!

Using its wings like paddles it worked its way to the end of the rock, again tenderizing its prey before swallowing it. In seven dives that I witnessed it was successful four times – a good average even for a normal bird.

To this day I wish I could have known more of this little bird’s life history. A tragedy or an inspiration; I could not help feeling sad, but I also had to admire this brave little bird. For wonders such as this, may our rivers and lagoons never dry up!

 

Back to birding index | Next bird

 

Giant Kingfisher (male)

Giant Kingfisher (male)

Pied Kingfisher (male)

Pied Kingfisher (male)

Brownhooded Kingfisher in flight

Brownhooded Kingfisher in flight

Halfcollared Kingfisher

Halfcollared Kingfisher

Malachite Kingfisher

Malachite Kingfisher

The little legless Malachite Kingfisher

The little legless Malachite

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