Bird Watch – Kingfisher

The Kingfisher, watching for prey. Photo courtesy of Steve Attwood, Christchurch.

The Kingfisher, watching for prey. Photo courtesy of Steve Attwood, Christchurch.

When Christchurch photographer, Steve Attwood photographed this kingfisher, it was busy hunting a large New Zealand bush dragonfly.

The dragonflies were darting across the lake water and the kingfisher launched one attack after another, with only about one in five successful – not bad, given that dragonflies are among the fastest and most manouverable insects alive.

The kingfisher Halcyon sancta vagans, or kōtare in Māori, is well known throughout New Zealand for its colourful plumage and its large spear-like beak.

From its crown to its tail, its feathers bring together brilliant green, buff, black, dark green, and ultramarine blue. It’s found throughout New Zealand from coastal regions to forested areas and is usually monogamous with both parents sharing the incubation of their 4-5 white-coloured eggs.

The dagger-like bill is used in the breeding season to excavate a tunnel in an earth bank – initially by flying repeatedly at the bank at full speed with neck and beak outstretched to penetrate the earth; and then, once the hole is big enough to perch in,  the bird continues to excavate by pecking and scooping out loosened earth. The tunnel is sloped slightly upward and ends in a larger nesting chamber. Nest sites are usually on riverbanks, roadside cuttings, coastal cliffs or in tree cavities.

Despite their name, kingfishers do not necessarily eat fish. They do tend to populate coastal areas but some are entirely terrestrial. Those found in coastal areas eat small crabs and fish, and in freshwater areas, tadpoles, freshwater crayfish and other small fish are the favoured meal. In open country however, they eat earthworms, cicadas, weta, stick insects, dragonflies, beetles, spiders, lizards, mice and even small birds like silvereyes.

Early Māori admired kōtare for being like a watchful sentry. The bird perches motionless – often on power lines – then attacks its prey in a sudden blur. The word kōtare sometimes referred to the elevated platform in a pā, used to watch for enemies.