Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Eight of a Dozen - Kingfishers around us

It has been a very long gap between my last post and this. In fact, the third part of the series, "Evolution of a Birder" lies incomplete! I will complete it this month but before that here is a small, colourful introduction to what has been my obsession for the whole of last year.

An introduction to the kingfishers

Some of the most common birds, besides the crows, eagles, kites and mynas that we run into very often, are the kingfishers. Of all the above-mentioned birds, they are perhaps the most vividly coloured and some of them, could vie for the top spot as the most beautiful! Their name itself is misleading. Kingfishers don't live on a diet of only fish. That qualification should go to the cormorants and darters. Kingfishers survive on a varied diet of insects, lizards, snakes, fish, crabs and even small mammals or birds!

 There are a dozen different types of kingfishers on the Indian subcontinent. The list, in alphabetical order,  reads like this.
  1. Black-capped KF
  2. Blue-eared KF
  3. Blyth's KF
  4. Brown-winged KF
  5. Collared KF
  6. Common or the small blue KF
  7. Crested KF
  8. Oriental-Dwarf KF
  9. Pied KF
  10. Ruddy KF
  11. Stork-billed KF
  12. White-throated KF
Of the twelve I have had the fortune to see and photograph eight; some very frequently and some very rarely. Here then is an introduction to the colourful eight. I will dispense with the alphabets here and go in an order in which, the chance of running into a particular species is more.

1.White-throated kingfisher


Perhaps, the most widespread species of kingfisher in India will be the white-throated and deserves to be called the 'common kingfisher'. Unfortunately, that name is reserved for another species, that will follow a little later. The white-throated is so called because of the large white patch running from its chin to breast.

In the pond in my compound, in Palakkad

The rest of the body is a deep chestnut brown with turquoise blue wings and tail. This bird is slightly bigger than the common myna, about 28 cm, (birds are measured from tip of its bill to the tip of its tail), because of its long coral red bill.

Overlooking a waterhole in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

It is a common urban visitor and can be seen anywhere from forests to parks and gardens. It is not particular about its diet and can pick off anything that can fit its throat, though insects, reptiles, crabs or fish are on its favoured menu.

Through my bedroom window, Palakkad

They will sit patiently on a perch before making a quick swoop to pick up its prey. Sometimes, they can be found walking on the grass looking for worms and insects and proving their adaptability.

In Malampuzha reservoir area, Palakkad
 They have a distinctive, loud cackling laugh like call that you can recognise even if you heard it once.

2. Stork-billed kingfisher

After the white-throated KF, the stork-billed is the other kingfisher that you can run into even in an urban environment. It is the size of a rock pigeon (around 38 cms) with an unmistakably enormous red beak. It has dull brown head, yellowish neck and brownish yellow chest and belly.


On a mango tree overlooking the pond in my compound, Palakkad

In Seethanadi Nature Camp, Hebri, Karnataka

In Seethanadi Nature Camp, Hebri, Karnataka

 Unlike the white-throated, it prefers the vicinity of water bodies and wooded areas. Rarely seen in built up areas unlike the former. It perches very quietly and more often heard than seen. When spooked it flies laboriously. Like the white-throated, its diet not confined to fish.
On a fallen coconut palm leaf, at home, Palakkad
 This was shot in my house and in the picture below, of the same bird, you can see the protective membrane; the nictitating membrane, sweeping the eye clean and moistening it.


It also hs a very distinctive call and serves as my alarm most mornings!

3. Common kingfisher or small blue kingfisher

The name is a misnomer. It is called so because it is the only kingfisher found in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the name stuck, though it isn't as common as the previous two. To put it in perspective; I see one or more white-throated at home DAILY. The stork-billed makes its appearance thrice a week at least but the so-called common is seen once in two months! I maybe wrong, if I take into account, its frequency outside of my house but it definitely is not as common as it is made out to be!

The small blue kingfisher seems such an appropriate name for this beauty. My pond at Palakkad


Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad

Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad

It is one of the smaller kingfishers, measuring about 18 cms, Predominantly a brilliant shade of blue on the head, back and wings with a rusty orange cheek, chest and belly. It has a whitish chin and throat with a white patch on the neck. The bill is black unlike the previous two species.

Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad
 This beautiful bird makes a very shrill chee-chee sound as it flies and is also found around water bodies.
Perched over the pond in my compound in Palakkad

In Seethanadi Nature Camp, Hebri, Karnataka

4. Pied kingfisher

This beautiful, black and white kingfisher is found around water bodies, flying up, hovering in mid-air then plunging straight down after some unfortunate fish it has laid eyes on.
In Walayar reservoir, Palakkad

In Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad


Once the fish is caught it is swallowed whole, head first, without any fuss.


With a catch in Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad

In Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad

It is about 25 cms with black-and-white plumage, a long black bill and feet. It has a small crest not always visible when wet and usually found in pairs.

The small crest is visible. Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad

The small crest is visible. Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad
The kingfishers described above are the commoner ones that most of us are likely to encounter in our lives. The four that follow after this are rare and can be seen if we go searching for them in the areas they are likely to be found.


5. Black-capped kingfisher

Found on the coastal areas, mangroves and inland along the rivers. My first and only sighting was very brief and insufficiently long for a good photograph. Saw it from behind in the Seethanadi Nature Camp. About the size of the white-throated KF (30 cms), and as in its name, it has a black cap with a white collar and throat. The belly is rufous, with a deep blue wings and tail with a purplish tinge. The beak is coral red like the white-throated KF.
Black-capped kingfisher in Seethanadi Nature camp, Hebri, Karnataka.

6. Collared kingfisher

Another rare bird confined to some very limited coastal areas and Andamans. My sightings were on the Havelock Island and Chidiya Tapu in the Andamans. It is slightly smaller than the white-throated KF (about 24 cms) with a blue-green head and white collar. The underparts are white and wings are also blue-green. Its beak is black and smaller that the white-throated KF.

Collared kingfisher, Havelock island, Andamans.

7. Blue-eared kingfisher

One of the smallest kingfishers, at around 17 cms, it is only bigger than the ODKF. It has a very limited range and confined to the Himalayan foothills, the north-east and the south-west of India. Similar to the common KF but with darker blue upper parts and a brilliant blue back and tail. The dark wings have a brillant blue spangling.The underparts are orange-brown like the common. This has blue ear coverts, unlike the common KF which has is rufous.


Blue-eared kingfisher in Malampuzha, Palakkad
 They are usually solitary, and sit quietly along streams and pools, flicking its tail and bobbing its head occasionally.

Tail flick, blue-eared kingfisher in Malampuzha, Palakkad

8. Oriental-dwarf kingfisher

 The smallest, and to me the most beautiful of India's kingfishers. This tiny beauty has been appropriately called the "Jewel of the Western Ghats". At about 13 cms this is the smallest of our kingfishers. It is a resident of the western ghat area and summer visitor to the north-east. Unarguably, the most brilliantly coloured of our kingfishers, it is like God threw all the colours in his palette on its tiny body.

Oriental dwarf kingfisher, Malampuzha, Palakkad
A bright orange head, with black 'khol' lined eyes, iridescent purple, black and blue wings, mauve back, chestnut tail, white chin, an orange-yellow underside and tipped with a disproportionately large coral-red beak! That is how colourful this little bird is.

Oriental dwarf kingfisher regurgitating, Malampuzha, Palakkad

Like the blue-eared kingfisher, the ODKF is also solitary or occasionally in pairs. This bird is so tiny, it is often seen only when it flies past from its perch. A flash of orange, before it disappears into some dark spot again. It's discovery in Malampuzha, along with many other species, has elevated the area into a birding hotspot.

These are the eight species of kingfishers I've been privileged to see and photograph. The remaining four are on my wishlist and to add them to my list I will have to move out of my comfort zone and travel north east and along the foothills of the Himalayas. Hopefully, I will add the rest of the dozen not too far into the future!

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