The Kingfishers of the Lebombo Concession

Kruger National Park | February 2017

The Kingfisher is a long-time symbol of peace and prosperity. It has many legends and superstitions surrounding it. In ancient Greece the body of the Kingfisher (if dried) could ward off thunderbolts and storms. It is also said that sight of a kingfisher brings with it the promise of abundance, prosperity and love that is about to unfold within one’s life.

Kingfishers fall into the Order Coraciiformes, which includes (in southern Africa) the bee-eaters and the rollers. These are some of the most beautifully coloured birds in the area. The name Coraciiformes comes from the Latin words “corax”, meaning “raven”, and “forma”, meaning “form”. This is a bit of a misnomer as kingfishers are not closely related to ravens at all and are not even passerines. (Passerines are birds that usually have three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing backwards, are considered to be singing birds, and are birds that usually have altricial chicks i.e. they are blind, featherless, and helpless when hatched from their eggs).

There are 87 species of kingfishers in the world, ranging in size from the large kookaburras of
Australia (weighing nearly half a kilogram), to the miniscule African dwarf kingfisher (which weighs only 9–12 grams).

In southern Africa there are ten common species of kingfishers. In the Lebombo Concession we find eight of the ten species. These are the giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima), the pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), the brown-hooded kingfisher (Halcyon albiventris), the striped kingfisher (Halcyon chelicuti), the malachite kingfisher (Alcedo cristata), the grey-headed kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala), the African pygmy kingfisher (Ispidina picta) and the woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis). Although half-collared kingfishers (Alcedo semitorquata) can be found in the Kruger National Park we have not seen them here, yet.

Most kingfishers are brightly coloured birds, with large heads, with long, sharply pointed bills, with short legs and syndactyl toe-arrangement (two front toes are partially joined or webbed for much of their length). Although kingfishers are usually thought to live near rivers and eat fish, most species live away from water and eat small invertebrates. In this way kingfishers are often grouped into two categories based on their food preference i.e. those that are mainly piscivores (eat fish) and those that are predominantly insectivorous. Kingfishers mainly nest in cavities, either in tunnels dug into sandbanks / riverbanks or in holes in trees.

Many of the southern African kingfishers are spectacular in coloration and most of the southern African species have an obvious blue colour in the plumage. This blue colour is not caused by a pigment, but rather by the structure of the feathers. (which causes scattering of blue light – this is known as the “Tyndall effect”).

Kingfishers are generally divided into three families i.e. Alcedinidae (river kingfishers), Halcyonidae (tree kingfishers), and Cerylidae (water kingfishers).

Of the Alcedine kingfishers (river kingfishers) we find malachite kingfishers and African pygmy kingfishers in the Lebombo Concession. Both of these kingfishers are predominantly blue and orange in colour.

Although African pygmy kingfishers are considered to be river kingfishers they are usually found in woodland areas, and do not generally feed on fish but rather on insects and other invertebrates. The African pygmy kingfisher is so named because of its diminutive size. It’s scientific name (Ispidina picta) come from the greek word “Hispid”, meaning “covered with stiff hair or bristles” and the Latin word “pictus” meaning “painted or coloured”. Malachite Kingfishers, in contrast, are usually found at the edge of rivers or dams. They are usually seen perched on reeds overlooking the water searching for fish, which they catch and feed upon. The name Malachite Kingfisher comes from the colour on its crest.

The majority of the kingfishers that occur in the concession fall into the family Halcyonidae (tree kingfishers). This includes the brown-hooded kingfisher, the striped kingfisher, the grey-headed kingfisher and the woodland kingfisher. These kingfishers feed mainly on invertebrates (insects, spiders, scorpions etc. and small vertebrates such as lizards, small snakes, frogs and even small birds). Of these four kingfishers the woodland and the striped nest in holes in dead trees (often originally excavated by other birds such as barbets and woodpeckers), whereas the brown-hooded and grey-headed tend to nest in holes in river embankments or gulleys. Two of these kingfishers (namely the grey-headed and woodland), are intra-African migrants and are only seen here during the summer months. Just like the sound of cuckoos usually heralds the arrival of summer in Europe the sound that epitomises summer in our area is the high-pitched “Yip….Trrrrrrrr” call of the woodland kingfisher. When we hear that call we know that the season has finally changed.

The two “water kingfishers”or “Cerylids” that are commonly seen in the concession are the pied kingfisher and the giant kingfisher. The name Ceryle comes from the ancient Greek word “kērúlos”, meaning “fabulous sea-bird” (which is a bit of a misnomer as they tend to be found more near fresh-water bodies). The pied and the giant are both well-known kingfishers in Africa, and unlike the other kingfishers in the area they both do not exhibit the blue colour that is seen in the others. Another unusual characteristic of these two species is that they are both sexually dimorphic (i.e. the male and female are easily differentiated by their plumages). The male pied has two complete black breastbands, while the female has a single, broader band that does not quite meet in the middle of the breast. Male and female giants are equally easily differentiated. The male Giant Kingfisher has a chestnut upper breast and a white lower breast, and the belly is barred with black. In the female the lower breast and belly are chestnut and the upper breast is white, vertically streaked with black. Both of these kingfishers are found along rivers and at dams in South Africa, and are true “water kingfishers”, feeding predominantly on fish.

The giant kingfisher is the largest kingfisher in the area (with an average mass of 360g and measuring almost half a meter in length). It is usually seen perching on branches over the water, from where it searches for fish. When it sees its prey it launches itself into the water and spears the fish with it’s dagger-like bill. When it has impaled the fish it will often return to a perch and beat the fish against a branch or rock in order to kill it before swallowing.

The pied kingfisher forages from a perch or while hovering and then plunging into the water to catch its prey. Because of the pied kingfisher’s unrivalled ability to hover, it does not always require extensive woodland around its habitat for perching and can fly as far out as a few kilometres from the shoreline while foraging. Pied kingfishers are cooperative breeders, meaning that the breeding adults are assisted by helpers (previous broods) in caring for the young.

Another myth regarding kingfishers comes from Ancient Greece and the story goes as follows: Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, king of the winds. She was happily married to a sailor by the name of Ceyx. They were deeply in love and the couple often referred to each other as “Zeus” and “Hera”, which naturally infuriated the king and queen of the gods. It is said that whilst at sea, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at Ceyx’s ship, drowning the man. Ceyx then appeared before his wife, in her dreams, telling her of his fate.
Distraught, Alcyone threw herself into the sea in order to join him. The gods pitied the woeful couple and transformed them into kingfishers. The term “Halcyon Days” (which were the seven days in winter when storms never occur) is also derived from this ancient Greek myth. These were originally the 14 days each year (seven days on either side of the shortest day of the year) during which Alcyone (in kingfisher form) laid her eggs and made her nest on the beach and during which her father Aeolus, god of the winds, restrained the winds and calmed the waves so she could do so in safety. The phrase has since come to refer to any peaceful time or a lucky break.

Images: Giant Kingfisher (female – main image), Juvenile African Pygmy Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Woodland kingfisher, Grey-headed kingfisher, Brown-hooded kingfisher, Striped kingfisher, Female pied kingfisher hovering, and a female Giant Kingfisher with prey.