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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Homage to Kingfishers: 1

Kingfishers truly are one of the joys of life, with 90-95 species to be enjoyed in every continent except Antarctica. Moreover they've been brightening the planet for a long time - indeed the fossil record suggests that 60 million years ago kingfishers and their close kin were the dominant birds to be found perching above the landscapes of the Northern Hemisphere. However while both North America and Africa have been suggested as the ancestral kingfisher home, it seems likely, based on the fact that the oldest and most distinctive members of the dynasty are to be found in the south-east Asia to New Guinea area, that they arose there and spread.
This Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus, in Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Canberra,
demonstrates widespread kingfisher characteristics. In particular the erect posture, long sharp heavy bill,
three toes forward and one back (like passerines) and bright colours are all recurring themes.
Also in perpetual dispute is whether kingfishers belong to one diverse family or three separate ones, though there is no argument about the three distinct sub-groups. The majority opinion is that the divisions are wide enough to merit family status, and I'm going along with that. These families, in descending order of size, are the Tree Kingfishers, Halcyonidae (approximately 60 species), the River Kingfishers, Alcedinidae (22-24 species) and the Water Kingfishers, Cerylidae (9 species, including all the American ones). (If we accept just one family it has to be called Alcedinidae, as the Common Kingfisher of Europe and Asia, the first to be named scientifically, belongs there.)

And, just before we get to the birds themselves, and to confirm the reputation of kingfisher taxonomists as a disputatious lot, there is also confusion as to which of the groups represents the ancestral kingfishers; while it has always been generally agreed on the basis of physical and behavioural evidence that the Tree Kingfishers are the oldest, and from which the other two families derived, recent biochemical work challenges that and puts the River Kingfishers in the chair of honour. The argument goes on but for now I'll adopt the majority view - which seems to coincide with logic - and stick with the Tree Kingfishers as the originals. Specialist behaviour, such as fishing, has been adopted by a minority of the group and seems likely to have derived secondarily from more generalist forest and woodland hunters of small animals. However the Common Kingfisher happens to be one of the minority and its habits gave the name to the whole group, even though most of them don't fish, or only rarely.

Today I'm going to introduce a few of the Tree Kingfishers, in deference to their numbers and their apparent venerability. Next time we'll meet the others, the fish-lovers. Why not start with the biggest ones, the kookaburras; I'm not sure if I have any African readers but I know they'll bristle at that statement. However while your Giant Kingfisher is a bit longer than the Laughing Kookaburra, the kooka is certainly more massive. 
Laughing Kookaburras Dacelo novaeguineae, Canberra. Highly sociable, they defend territories fiercely against
rival kookaburra clans with the famous territorial laugh and display flights and even physical contact if necessary.
Both of its scientific names are contentious. Dacelo is an anagram of Alcedo, the Common Kingfisher genus; such
levity was regarded at the time as in very poor taste. Novaeguineae is even worse; it isn't found in New Guinea and
Pierre Sonnerat who claimed to have collected it there was apparently being deliberately disingenuous to exaggerate
his travels - he had form, having also claimed to have shot a penguin there!
Laughing Kookaburra, south coast New South Wales. The bill can be used - as here - like a crowbar
to extract grubs from the soil. Most food is collected on the ground, as with most of the family, and ranges from insects and worms to lizards, snakes and mice.
It seems that the kookaburras arose in New Guinea and at some point the Blue-winged Kookaburra entered Australia, where it remains in the tropics, while the Laughing Kookaburra evolved as a separate species and moved south into the temperate forests and woodlands. 
Blue-winged Kookaburras Dacelo leachii (here at Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk NP, Northern Territory, behave similarly to Laughings,breeding cooperatively with the parents assisted in chick rearing by offspring from previous years,
and sometimes by brothers and sisters. The call has been justifiably described by Graham Pizzey, the author of
the preeminent Australian bird field guide, as "appalling".
The Sacred Kingfisher - featured above - is the common smaller kingfisher of southern and eastern Australia and is also found well into the Pacific and eastern Indonesia. Around here it is strongly migratory; soon we should be hearing its insistent 'ek ek ek' in woodlands, as it returns from far north Queensland and even New Guinea and beyond.
Sacred Kingfisher with frog, Canberra. They eat pretty much any animal suitable to their size.
(Faded old slide - sorry.)
Inland the Sacred Kingfisher is replaced by the similar and closely related Red-backed Kingfisher Todiramphus pyrrhopygius, found throughout the arid inland.
Red-backed Kingfisher, Kings Canyon National Park, central Australia.
From behind (below) we can just see its eponymous back, which is the red of a brick rather than a letter-box.
Unlike Sacreds, which usually nest in tree hollows, Red-backeds generally excavate a burrow in a bank.

Forest Kingfishers Todiramphus macleayii, Darwin, Northern Territory.
This exquisitely blue kingfisher is found commonly across tropical and sub-tropical
northern and eastern Australia.
Still in the same genus the Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris (here on Selingan Island, Sabah)
is a mangrove specialist, scattered from the Middle East to India, then throughout south-east Asia to
tropical Australia and Micronesia.
 Halcyon is a mostly African genus of Tree Kingfishers - and 7 of the 16 African kingfishers species belong to it. There is much mythology surrounding kingfishers - many Polynesians believed that Sacred Kingfishers controlled the waves, hence the English name - and Greek mythology was rife with it. Ceyx was the son of Hesperos, the Morning Star, married to Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, the wind guardian. Blissfully happy, they made the mistake of comparing themselves to Zeus and Hera - big mistake actually, as Z and H turned out to be not at all happy, and punished their presumption by drowning them both with a storm. The other gods felt that this was a bit over the top and turned them into halcyons, birds generally agreed to be kingfishers. (I can't help but think they might have preferred to have been themselves again, but what would I know?) Not being very experienced in such things, Alcyone opted to nest on the beach near the waterline - her dad arranged for windless days to allow her to get away with it, hence Halcyon Days. We'll meet some of these names again next time among the fishing kingfishers.
The Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica is a lovely bird found across western and central Africa,
from primary rainforest (as here, in Budongo Forest, Uganda) to dry savannahs.
As well as the normal kingfisher animal fare, it is known to eat oil palm fruits.
The Grey-headed Kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, is another beauty.
This one is found widely across Africa and undertakes complex movements in different parts of this range.
Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis, Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda.
Another with a range right across sub-Saharan Africa, and migrating from the north and south into
the centre of the continent in the dry.

The Striped Kingfisher Halcyon chelicuti, central Cameroon, may not be as smartly dressed as some of its relatives,
and is smaller, but I think it has lots of character. It too has a huge distribution.
One which was until recently included in Halcyon but is now one of three large Asian kingfishers in the new genus Pelargopsis. At nearly 40cms long this is a very striking bird indeed.
Stork-billed Kingfisher P. capensis, Sepilok, Sabah.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for these wonderful birds - back next time to talk about some of their even flashier fishing relatives, from tiny to huge.


[If you'd like to leave a message, I'd love to hear from you. I've changed settings so that you don't have to have an account with Google or anyone else, and you don't have to identify yourself - though I'd love to know who I'm talking to. You only have to prove you're human by copying a number; they've made these much easier to read now than they used to be. I tried it for a while with no restrictions, but got swamped by horrible spammers. I know that lots of people read this, but very few comment. Please?]


Vicki Gillick said...

This is great Ian. I love kingfishers including laughing kookaburras - none of those here as far as I know?? You have extended my knowledge greatly. VG x

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Vicki - great to hear from you and thanks for the feedback. No, unlike us kookas don't like deserts - silly birds!

Susan said...

In French the vernacular names for kingfishers distinguish between those that do actually fish and those that don't, so you get martin-pêcheurs (fishers) and martin-chasseurs (hunters). Kookaburras are martin-chasseur géant (giant hunter kingfishers) in French. European Kingfishers are martin-pêcheurs d'Europe.

Peter said...

Hi Ian, just saying hello for your unofficial census.

I read your blog a bit from links from Goulidae's blog.

Thanks for the kingfishers too, one of our resident kookaburra family was hit by a car recently, he was quite friendly so we rather miss him. Interesting how much your first red backed kingfisher picture looks like a mini kookaburra too.


Anonymous said...

hello, i'm jenny of lyneham, i've never left a comment before because your knowledge of nature far outstrips my own - but i enjoy reading the blog.
last week at kaleen shops i saw a red wattle bird pursuing a possum across the carpark. the possum paused at the bottom of a gum tree, ran to the next gumtree and paused there too (possibly because the wattlebird still had his beady eye on it from above), then ran to the club building and disappeared into the shrubbery. i have never seen this sort of thing before.
what gives?

Ian Fraser said...

Hello and thanks for your input.
Susan: I find it fascinating that France, which doesn't have any Tree Kingfishers, has a separate name for them, while Australia, which has both groups present, doesn't!
Peter: Good to hear from you. Sorry to hear about your kookaburra. Yes, kingfishers really do have a distinctive stance right across the board, so all from kookaburras to the tiniest are instantly recognisable. THanks for putting me onto Gouldiae's blog too.
Jenny: thanks for taking the trouble to write, and I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I'm not surprised that a wattlebird would harass a daytime possum - Brushtails have no aversion to an egg or two if it comes their way, though they're mostly vegetarian. I assume this was a young possum without a safe permanent hollow or roof space, which had been chased from an exposed daytime sleeping spot. Good suburban drama!

David McDonald said...

Thanks Ian, fascinating info on kingfishers, and lovely photos!

In Where song began, Tim Low states that 'Australia is unusually well endowed with giant kingfishers, which include the world's largest - the laughing kookabura - ...' (p. 167).
- David McD

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks David - can't say fairer than that! (ie neither you nor Tim.) Maybe my senses of scientific rigor and fair play are overdeveloped...