Sunday, August 28, 2011

Kings of the catch

Kingfishers use their long, sharp bills to snag their prey. As the name suggests, they can be experts at plucking fish from the water, but many kingfishers do not eat fish at all. These non-fishing kingfishers are still pros at catching invertebrates and even vertebrates (I have seen a kingfisher eat another bird in Israel!). Let's take a look at some of East Africa's spectacular kingfishers.

The malachite kingfisher (Alcedo cristata) spends its time around marshes
and swamps and catches aquatic critters. Mabamba Swamp, Uganda

Same bird as above? Nope! Note that this species, the African pygmy
kingfisher (Ispidina picta), does not have the extensive blue on the back
of the head. Also, it does not spend its time fishing in water- it hunts
on dry land. Photographed at Entebbe Botanical Garden, Uganda. This
species showed up to ASYV's Nature Park on one occasion, and that is
the only kingfisher I have seen on the property. Malachite and pied
kingfishers live at Lake Mugesera a few kilometers down the hill.

Here is a bird that resembles the African pygmy kingfisher, but note
that it does not have a blue crown. The African dwarf kingfisher
(Ispidina lecontei) has orange on top of the head with just a black mark
above the bill. It also hunts on dry land. Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda

The blue-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon malimbica) is a species that hunts
in the forest. Mabira Forest Reserve, Uganda

The woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis) is very similar to the
blue-breasted kingfisher, but it does not have the blue chest. Details,
details! This species lives in woodland, which has fewer trees than the forest
and tends to be drier.

These pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis), which hunt exclusively over waters,
nest in the holes in the bank along the Nile River in Murchison Falls
National Park, Uganda. Most (if not all) kingfishers nest in holes in river banks,
termite mounds, or trees. 

A pied kingfisher gets ready for a dive into Lake Victoria, Uganda. Pied
kingfishers are a very widespread species; we first saw them in Israel.

A juvenile brown-headed kingfisher (Halcyon albiventris) in Arusha National
Park, Tanzania.

The giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) is actually the largest kingfisher
species in the world. Near Wildlife Education Center in Entebbe, Uganda

A striped kingfisher (Halycon chelicuti) waits in a palm tree in some
dry country, west of Arusha, Tanzania.

We did see two other species in Tanzania, the grey-headed kingfisher and the half-collared kingfisher, but we did not get pictures. You can probably find kingfishers near you, on any continent (ok, not Antarctica, but that is definitely not near you). In North America, the belted kingfisher is fairly common, but it is easy to miss unless you go looking for it. I have seen them at the New York Botanical Garden and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, New York City, and at Leawood City Park, right in suburban Kansas City.

For more information on kingfishers, you can get detailed information on their taxonomy at Don Roberson's Bird Families of the World. It is one of my favorite resources for information on bird diversity.

For information on the belted kingfisher, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds site.

Also, you can check a field guide to the birds of your area. For African species, I use the following three books (all are worthwhile and have distinctive strengths):

  • Fanshawe and Stevenson. Birds of East Africa. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. 

  • Pearson, Turner, and Zimmerman. Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania. London: Christopher Helm, 1999.

  • Ryan and Sinclair. Birds of Africa south of the Sahara. Struik Nature: Cape Town, 2003.

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