Monday, 23 July 2012

Hunting White-throated Kingfishers

The White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) is considered a large kingfisher at 28cm in length and is also known at the White-breasted Kingfisher or the Smyrna Kingfisher. It has a widespread distribution, ranging from Bulgaria in Eurasia, east through South Asia to the Philippines. There are four variations of plumage documented throughout the range where the kingfisher is often a resident often found well away from water where it feeds on small reptiles, amphibians, crabs, small rodents and small birds. In Malaysia generally and in many rural areas in Penang White-throated Kingfishers are seen of perches frequently along roadsides on telegraph poles and on tree stumps. During the mating season they announce their presence by calling loudly.
This kingfisher, albeit considered common, is a target for nature photographers because of the combination of iridescent blue and chocolate brown feather colors offset by a bright red bill and orange/red feet. I was happy to see at least one pair that was resident in the nesting ground of several species of Bee-eater that I was documenting. One pair communicated regularly with each other, mated and set up a nest and we follow their story.
The kingfisher pair had a favored perch on the tallest tree in the center of the nesting area and from here they made various forays into the surrounding trees to hunt for prey. Both birds were active shortly after dawn and could be seen scanning the ground for prey and making quick swoops to descend on and then consume an unsuspecting victim. On three early mornings over the span of a week the pair could be seen mating on their favorite tree. Prior to mating and often as a greeting the individuals, especially the male, would greet each other with rapidly deployed spread wings.

A male White-throated Kingfisher

The partners call often to each other
The male (left) and the female look very similar

A rapid wingspread is a common form of greeting between partners
               There were at least two kingfisher-constructed nesting holes in the surrounding undulating terrain and one of these was clearly the chosen nursery for our highlighted pair. Another pair of kingfishers briefly visited the other hole but seemingly went elsewhere to raise their brood. It appeared that the kingfisher holes were more permanent than the surrounding Bee-eater holes and thus they did not have to dig new ones each season, just some home improvement being required. The nest cavity was likely to be one to two meters long. 
              Bee-eaters and Kingfishers are not too distantly related and a number of similarities could be observed in their habits and behavior. Unlike the Bee-eaters the eggs did not seem to be tended regularly by one of the pair because mostly they were both outside the nest. A single clutch of 4-7 round white eggs is typical. An indication that chicks were hatched was announced when the parents started taking prey into the nest. The eggs take 20–22 days to hatch while the chicks fledge in 19 days, which is considerably less time than the bee-eaters. The young are fed mainly on invertebrates and a succession of insects was seen being taken into the nest, with the occasional lizard or skink. I did not see chicks fledging nor did I see juveniles in the area so I can’t confirm a successful fledging. 

Flying to the nest prior to the arrival of the chicks.
On the lookout for prey
The dive begins on unsuspecting prey 
A small grasshopper is brought to the nest
A skink is about to be fed to hungry chicks

               The first indication I had that the nesting was over was when the parental visits to the nest hole on one of my visits were lacking. The male arrived around mid-morning and landed on their favored pre-entry perch carrying a bug in his bill….to my surprise he suddenly tossed it in the air and swallowed it then flew off in the other direction.

A bug gets tossed in the air before being swallowed

Like their Bee-eater cousins kingfishers spend considerable time underground and fastidiously preen themselves in sessions that are punctuated with wing stretches, tail fanning and diving briefly into rain puddles (there was no permanent water in the vicinity).

I have seen some species of nesting kingfishers hit other birds that were remotely near their nests and I have seen them having screeching attacks on 2 meter long Monitor Lizards. These kingfishers were surrounded at times by a number of bee-eaters but were remarkably tolerant. On half a dozen occasions the kingfishers did seem to loose their patience and strafed a group of bee-eaters causing a moment of consternation. Red-wattled Lapwings were also nesting in the area and one was foolish enough to lay it’s four eggs in line with the kingfishers favorite perch and the nest entrance. Twice  the hapless hen was targeted by bullet-like attacks until it finally got the message and laid eggs elsewhere.

A wing-stretch during a preening session
Tail fanning
Spin-drying after a quick dip in a puddle
Wing feathers are groomed

 After the Kingfisher breeding season was over and before the bee-eaters were finished their parental duties our observed pair returned to a normal roster hunting in the early morning, bathing a preening a few hours later and perching in the shade in the heat of the afternoon. There were periods of showers during this time that seemed to encourage a local frog population to flourish. Both kingfishers seemed to welcome a more substantial breakfast (I will refrain from making references to Ihop). I observed, and sometimes photographed both the male and female each catch and gulp down two frogs in the space of an hour. This was quite impressive to see considering the size of the frogs; subsequent to capture the hapless amphibian was bashed on a solid object and several times swung into the air to get into a more aerodynamic position to swallow. Legs hanging out of the bill were soon sucked into the abyss.
I enjoyed the challenge of getting close to this kingfisher pair and they were perhaps more tolerant than most of their species. They were both starting to molt when I departed their domain until another time perhaps.

A frog is captured
Another frog becomes a victim.........
...........and is tossed into a favorable position to swallow
Graeme Guy July 2012


  1. Wonderful post of a common species. Well done, Graeme!

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  3. Hello, I would like to have a print of the kingfisher tossing the frog in his bill for my office. Do you sell prints or would you sell me a digital image that I can enlarge and print?

  4. Beautiful and intimate portraits of the Halcyon smyrnensis. Great job Graeme!