Thursday, 4 May 2017

Kingfisher 2017; a story of survival

Penanti Pete

White-throated Kingfishers are relatively common in Malaysia and Singapore but like most birds are wary of human, and wisely so. Over the last 5 years I have formed a sort of relationship with a male White-throated Kingfisher whose base is a motocross track on mainland Penang. I think it the same bird as his behaviour would suggest although their lifespan is reported to be 8 years. Individuals have a different distribution of the white feathers on their bellies but this also changes on a day to day basis....depending a lot on weather conditions. We will call him Penanti Pete...or just Pete. Pete has had three partners that I know of. When I first met him his partner had toes missing and was easy to identify but was not very photogenic. The next year his new partner was the Elizabeth Taylor of female Kingfishers. She was beautiful with clean vibrant colours. That is her below. She was somewhat naive when they first paired up and was not the best hunter but she really stepped up and in the next few seasons raised broods of 3 and 5 chicks.


At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 Pete had a new partner. She was not the stunning beauty of partner #2 but she became a good partner. She had a characteristic white eyebrow above each eye....often found in fledged chicks. Was Pete robbing the cradle? 

This was Pete's new partner with the characteristic white eyebrow.


Pete likes to sit at the top of a large central tree in his domain. From there he can see the tiny movements of prey on the ground below. He can also assess if there are rivals in his domain.


The courting with his new partner occured through January and February of 2017. The species signal to each other by flashing the wings. This is done over a distance, when passing by and on arrival.




Below is an image of the couple together with the female below the male. Pete was very attentive and flew on many sorties to bring her edible gifts.



The gifts were often a prelude to mating and this occurred multiple time in various locations from 7th to the 21st of February.



Pete was more attentive than ever and brought gifts to his partner while she was in the egg-laying phase.



When Pete caught something he would take it to her and call her to come and get it. The exchange was very rapid.....the lizard is about to be handed over in the image below.




The pair usually scout out potential nesting holes in the months before the eggs are laid. Pete and his partner chose the hole that had been used successfully the previous year. This is the third hole I have seen being used in 5 years. They had started excavating another hole on the left of the existing entrance but had given up. They both made a number of flights into and around the hole. When the female made most of the flights I assumed she was laying eggs.




Hunting went on as normal and fed the pair for several weeks. Then the pattern changed...instead of eating the prey themselves they both took it into the nest. Careful examination of the nest hole on arrival in the mornings showed the female had three chicks and would sit in the cavity with them overnight. She appeared to have become a dedicated Mum. The newly hatched chicks were first seen on the 14th March. This means the eggs would have been laid around the 21st of February....the last date I noted mating.







On my next visit though I noted that only the male was feeding the nest. He did so diligently but I wondered what had happened to the female. I thought I saw her several times and the male kept calling her in between his feeding sorties. However she never reappeared..




The weather during the early months of 2017 was uncharacteristically wet. There was one depression on the motocross track that filled with water after heavy overnight rain. Although working hard Pete enjoyed diving into the puddle which he would do multiple times before drying off on a nearby perch.








 Pete even had time for a quiet puff when his partner was not looking.


The feeding of the chicks continued with various prey being hunted and taken into the nest.







One morning I visited after heavy overnight rain. I made my usual observation of the chicks and was stunned to find only one chick in the nest chamber.  It was only 2+ weeks since they hatched and it was too soon for them to have fledged. The eggs are laid over several days and hatch in the same order therefore one chick will be bigger than his siblings and more likely to get more food. I was very disappointed to find the body of one chick outside the hole. In the image below the nest hole is top, centre and the body was in the centre on the lower third of the image. There had clearly been surface water in a depression and the chick may have drowned. I assumed the other missing chick had met a similar fate but I did not find it.



Pete continued to feed the remaining chick like nothing untoward had happened.



It was well over a week before I was able to make another visit. I assumed the chick would be receiving prey near the entrance of the nest hole by this time. I was mortified on arrival to see the surrounds of the nest had collapsed over the entrance to the extent if the chick had been inside it would have been entombed and had a lingering death. It was just 23 days since the chicks hatched. From all accounts fledging in all Kingfisher species take 23-26 days. If the collapse had occurred within the 2 days prior to discovery it was possible that the remaining chick if well fed may have fledged against the odds.

I visited again the following week and Pete was around and still occasionally calling his absent partner. I was interrupted by turf cutters so left early thinking the kingfisher breeding cycle was sadly incomplete.

I was away for a week when my friend visited the location and reported that an adult kingfisher was feeding a juvenile in the central tree. The central tree was Pete's domain so I was very happy to know one chick may have survived.

I went back several days later and found Pete catching bugs in the early morning light and flying to the central tree where he was clearly feeding a juvenile. Pete is in the front in the image below. The fledgeling has a darker bill with a light coloured tip.



Pete is tolerant of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters and the Blue-throated Bee-eaters in his domain. He appeared to be learning from the latter when a swarm of flying ants passed through and created a bit of a feeding frenzy. Not to be outdone by the flight wizards Pete unleashed some flight maneuvers and continued to feed the fledgeling on ants. After the flush of insects had passed through Pete returned to seeking more juicy prey and continued to feed his offspring









Pete appears to call regularly for his partner but he is something of a hero since his ability to feed his surviving chick so well resulted in an early but successful fledging and a new life in the local kingfisher population.


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