NEWSLETTERS

Breeding Half-collared Kingfishers
ISSUE 14 | June 2021

I hope you are warm, well and getting chance to explore the magical outdoors!

We celebrated our first autumn in the Natal Midlands with the discovery of a breeding pair of Half-collared Kingfishers. After 6 months of searching for them in our estate in Balgowan, I was starting to give up hope when all of a sudden my luck changed. I was walking with my son; Joshua, when I heard the Kingfisher’s telltale call, followed by a flash of blue flying low over a nearby river course.

Little did I know that this first sighting was going to unearth a pair of courting Kingfishers and many weeks of observation. The following newsletter shares some of the insights I gained during this time, as well as a portfolio of images that hopefully do justice to these magnificent birds.

As always, I look forward to hearing what you think!

The newsletter’s featured image and a once in a lifetime photograph of two Half-collared Kingfishers caught in the act of mating. After many hours of observing this exquisite pair, I had the fortune of being in the right place at the right time for this incredible moment. The fact that these Kingfishers are uncommon and shy made the image even more special.

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/2000s | f6.3 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

THE STORY BEHIND THE SHOT
Breeding Half-collared Kingfishers

Introduction

I was convinced that the small river that runs into one of our estate’s dams, and then winds its way down a waterfall and along an avenue of beautiful oak trees, was the perfect habitat for Half-collared Kingfishers. It is well-wooded and has slow moving water with small fish in it. It has grassy overhangs on steep river banks, which will make for excellent nest sites. And it has many perches; from rocks to overhanging branches, from where the Kingfishers can catch unsuspecting prey. But after 6 months of searching for them, I hadn’t seen or heard a single bird and was starting to second guess myself.

Finding the shy Half-collared Kingfishers

After observing these birds for many weeks, I now know why it was so difficult to locate them! To start with, they are as shy as they are quiet. They sit in one place for ages, waiting silently for fish to swim by, before quickly diving into the water and heading off with their catch (or empty handed) to another nearby perch. If you didn’t know they were there or where to look, you would be none the wiser!

They also fly very close to the surface of the water; often below the banks of the river, which means you cannot see them flying off unless you are peering into the water itself. Moreover, they are very alert, which means they are likely to have moved off well before you get close to them. Added to this, they often select perches which are hidden from view and require you to be close to them or the river bank to notice their presence.

A Half-collared Kingfisher at low water levels.
A Half-collared Kingfisher at medium water levels.
A Half-collared Kingfisher at high water levels.

The top 3 images show the same Kingfisher, which I believe is the female based on the interactions I witnessed, standing on the exact same perch, photographed at different water levels (due to recent rainfall or lack thereof). This particular perch was situated right next to their nest hole and was the female Kingfisher’s favourite hangout for the first few weeks of observing them. It was also where I saw the pair mate for the first time. I used a portable hide and positioned myself low down; just a couple of feet above the water level, to get these intimate images. The top image in the series was my first encounter with the female and will remain one of my most cherished photographs as a result.
 

If that is not enough, they also don’t call that often and when they do it is usually when they are flying off or interacting with each other (and they are more often found alone than together). All these factors can make this species very tricky to find let alone photograph!

All this said and done, the best way to locate them, and find their habitual fishing locations, is undoubtedly via their call. I found the birds to be most vocal between 06h30 and 09h00 in the morning and my best tactic, before I identified their regular hangouts, was to walk up and down the river bank (as close to the edge as possible) in the hope I would hear their call. Once I heard one or both of them, I would then move stealthily towards where the call originated from and would try to spot the birds before they spotted me.

Getting close to Half-collared Kingfishers

After using this approach and observing the pair for a few days, I soon learnt their favourite fishing and perching locations. Instead of walking along the river, I then took a calculated risk and selected one of their perches as a place to set up my portable hide and wait. I had a hunch that this particular site may be more than just a place from where the birds fished! (For those interested I use the following hide from Lenscoat and have covered my 600mm lens in a camouflaged coat from Outdoorphoto)

I cannot begin to explain my excitement levels as I sat and waited for their arrival! The perch was a beautiful boulder in the middle of the river, surrounded by water and in close proximity to a grassy overhang. I knew that if the birds arrived at the site, I would have the chance to capture a unique photograph; in a setting that I hadn’t seen in any Half-collared Kingfisher images to date.

The above three images show a Half-collared Kingfisher regurgitating a fish bone pellet. The process was quite an ordeal with lots of opening and closing of the mouth and a final shake of the head to throw the pellet into the water. I have absolutely loved observing these Kingfishers and have become completely enamored by them.

After an hour of waiting, I suddenly heard their high pitched “seet” and one of the birds flew and landed directly in front of me. I couldn’t believe my fortune and quickly filled half my memory card with as many images as I could muster. As luck would have it, my hunch was correct, as after a few minutes the bird flew straight up and into the grassy overhang behind the perch. I had just discovered the site where they were busy excavating their nest. Water droplets and sand would fall down from the river bank at regular intervals, followed eventually by the Kingfisher, who landed once again on the boulder in front of me. I walked home that morning with a massive smile on my face!

A Half-collared Kingfisher sitting on one of its favourite perches and showing off its dazzling blue uniform. This image is a small crop, as this particular perch is only a couple of metres from where I set up my portable hide each morning.

Half-collared Kingfishers lay eggs from July to March with efforts peeking around September and October, hence this particular pair were starting early (as it was mid-May)! The birds usually lay 3 to 4 eggs, which they take turns in incubating. As in this case, nests are dug into vertical river banks, with most of them concealed by overhanging vegetation.

The mating behaviour of Half-collared Kingfishers

Little did I know that this was just the start of my time with them and that I was in for many more incredible encounters. One of the highlights took place a few days later while I was staking out the exact same location.

I had been watching the female, who had been lifting her head up and pushing her tail out at regular intervals, as they do quite often, in a bobbing-like action, when all of a sudden the male flew directly at her, landed on her back and mated with her.

The interaction was over in a handful of seconds and seemed quite combative in nature. As you can see from the below photographs, the female first braces herself for the impact and then ends with her head being jammed into the water. She didn’t look very impressed after the event and sped off after him. I would have given good money to have heard their conversation up stream! :)

The featured image and the below series are some of the more fortunate photographs I have taken as a wildlife photographer, and I can really thank the Canon R5 and its “animal eye” focusing system and high ISO performance for them! Without it, these images would have been near impossible.

Interestingly, these river jewels, which can be separated from other Kingfishers by their medium size (around 18cm), their black bills, iridescent blue back, wings and head and buffy-orange underparts, are monogamous and mate for life. Given this latter fact, you would have thought that the male would have learnt to be a little more gentle in his approach!

These four images give you a good idea of the mating behaviour of these adorable Kingfishers; it is very fast, somewhat combative and intense. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my bird photography journey to date.

The mating interaction took place around 08h00 in the morning, which is when the pair seems to be at their most active. Besides this event, I have only seen the pair together on 6 other occasions (over a 6 week period), either fishing within close proximity to each other or landing together on their “nest site” perch.

Fishing locations of Half-collared Kingfishers

Most of the time, they are separate from each other and found fishing from four main locations along their river habitat; the most reliable spots being where the sun first lights up the river in the morning, which is also where the water reaches the estate dam and at their nest site. These sites all have a few things in common; the water level is no deeper than a foot or two, the area has deep river banks with numerous overhangs and possible perches to fish from and the banks have large trees growing in close proximity to them and providing significant shade.

As much as this is where I have found the Kingfishers 80% of the time, I also discovered them about 250 metres from each key location and along two different river tributaries, making their overall territory at least 1 to 1.5km in river length.

The birds have used a variety of perches from which to hunt; including small boulders or rocks in the centre of the river, low down branches or reeds projecting out from the side of the river bank and high up branches in the trees surrounding the river.

On the rare occasion, I have observed the Kingfishers fishing from the branches of the Oak trees hanging over the river (as pictured above). This specific tree is approximately 100 metres from their nest site.
This is the only time I have found both Kingfishers fishing together from high up branches in one of the trees lining their river habitat. This particular tree is just a few metres to the left of their nest site.
More often than not I would find a single Kingfisher hunting from a few key perches. Most of these were located low down and close to the water, but every now and then they would fly up into overhanging tree branches (as is the case in this image). The beautiful autumn colours made for wonderful backgrounds to my photographs.

Camera and Lens: Canon R5 | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 6400 | 1/1600s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

A Half-collared Kingfisher fishing early in the morning from a relatively low down perch, approximately 50 metres upstream from its nest site.
A female Half-collared Kingfisher on one of her favourite perches, which was located a few metres from her nest site. The perch is no more than one metre above the water.
(Edited – I removed a small out of focus rock in the bottom right hand corner of the image)
Besides the “nest site” boulder and a few other large rocks further down stream, this was one of the lowest perches that I photographed the Kingfishers on. I never, however, saw them fish from this particular spot, and hence believe it was a stop off point before landing on the “nest site” boulder, which was a few metres in front of it.
Another image of the female Half-collared Kingfisher on her “nest site” perch; this time taken from a slightly different angle than the previous images.

Other Kingfishers and the birds that share the Half-collared Kingfisher’s habitat

It was interesting to observe that the pair of Kingfishers shared their territory with three other Kingfisher species; Malachite, Giant and Pied. The Giant Kingfishers hunted from high up in the trees that surrounded the river while the Pied Kingfishers competed with the Half-collareds around the periphery of the dam. The Malachite Kingfishers were the only ones that hunted from the same low down perches that extended from the river banks, and had the greatest degree of overlap in terms of territory.

I photographed this Giant Kingfisher a few metres from the Half-collared Kingfisher’s nest site. I often found the Giants within close proximity to the site, but always on much higher perches; including this dead tree stump.

Other than the aforementioned Kingfishers, the most common birds that could be found in the Half-collared’s environment (i.e. river course and surrounding foliage and trees) were Olive Thrushes, African Dusky Flycatchers, Village Weavers, Cape Wagtails, Red-eyed Doves, African Olive Pigeons, African Black Ducks, Reed Cormorants and Mountain Wagtails. I also had a very close fly over of a Black Sparrowhawk; a few metres above the Kingfisher’s nest site.

A beautiful Mountain Wagtail was a regular visitor to the river and would often hang out a few metres up and down stream of the Kingfisher’s nest. I loved watching them bob up and down and jump from rock to rock in search of insects to feed on.
The same Mountain Wagtail captured on the “nest site” boulder’, where many of my Kingfisher images were taken.
Mr. Wagtail having a good look around the nest location of the Half-collared Kingfishers and showing off his incredible balancing skills.

The diet of Half-collared Kingfishers

In all the hours of watching the birds, I only witnessed two successful hunts; one catching a tiny morsel, which looked like an aquatic insect, and the other catching an impressive fish.

From a dietary perspective, 80% of the Half-collarded Kingfisher’s food intake is made up of tiny fish; with tilapia, barbs and robbers being the most prevalent. They have also been found to eat aquatic insects and small amphibians.

This was one of the first photographs I took of the Half-collared Kingfishers on our estate in the Midlands. It is also the only time I have captured one of them with a recently caught fish (and what a fish it was!).

Hopefully more Kingfisher behaviour to come

With July approaching I am holding thumbs that I will be able to witness and document a future generation of Kingfishers being born and be able to provide more insights into these amazing birds and how they raise their young. Hopefully there will be a part two and another dedicated newsletter!

I love this particular pose as I feel  it captures the essence of this species. Before entering the nest the female was very alert and would look around to ensure there was no present danger. During this time, she would often bob her head and tail up and down. On occasions, she would freeze with her head up and tail out and hold this pose for a few seconds before settling down again and entering the nest.

I hope this newsletter has been as exciting for you to read as it was for me to witness, and I hope that some of my observations and images of these special Kingfishers have given you a wonderful window into their world.

These dazzling, blue birds, whose riverside habitats are under threat, are such an important reminder to us to protect our wild spaces and ensure that these birds and their environments will be around for future generations.

Yours in bird photography
 


 

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