NATURE

by VIC JAKES

I love kingfishers. In the UK, where there was only one species, I never questioned the fact that kingfishers, as the name might suggest, simply caught and ate fish. Here in Australia, however, there are 11 different species of kingfishers of varying sizes, with only two of them feeding primarily on aquatic species, the others finding their prey almost entirely away from water.

One local bird with such feeding traits is the particularly attractive forest kingfisher, Todiramphus macleayii, which is native to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, with Australian presence across the top end of the Northern Territory and down a wide band of eastern Queensland from Cape York, extending into the northern half of New South Wales during the summer months.

Here on the Sunshine Coast it is a permanent resident, particularly enjoying the dry forest and moist lowland woodlands of the hinterland.

Forest kingfishers hunt from exposed perches, often favouring fence posts, as seen here, but they are probably most easily observed perching, singly or in a pair, on a roadside power or telephone line. Any favourable location that delivers a good supply of food is used on an ongoing basis for months on end. The diet largely consists of various invertebrates – spiders, bugs, beetles, grasshoppers and the like – while worms, small lizards, skinks and frogs are also welcomed. Diving rapidly from its hunting perch, the bird pounces on its victim, with any live prey being carried in its beak to a convenient location to be despatched by hitting it, in typical kingfisher style, against a branch or solid object.

It is easy, at first sight, to believe that forest kingfishers are simply a deep royal blue above, with a white underside. However, the actual range of colours in the plumage on the bird’s back is, on closer inspection, remarkably varied. Just examine the whole range of hues – from dark blue to pale turquoise – that can be seen on the back of this bird. We know it is a female as males have a white collar that extends completely around its neck, while the white spot in front of the eye is a useful distinguishing feature in both sexes.

Breeding occurs from September through to February, with nests being built by both males and females, sometimes in tree cavities or the earth and roots of fallen trees, but most frequently in the nests of arboreal termites, where nest building takes on a rather hazardous routine. The nest chamber is chiselled out of the extremely hard termite nest by continuous bombardment by the birds, bills pointed forwards, flying at speed into the solid surface, gradually chipping away small pieces of material until a short, slightly upward-pointing tunnel is excavated, at the end of which a nesting chamber is formed. Such impacting flights are not without danger and birds are known to have come to a tragic end as a result of their efforts.

Nest building safely completed, between three and six (but usually four or five) shiny white eggs are laid, with both parents incubating for around three weeks, in which task they may be assisted by previous years’ offspring. Feeding of the young, again by both parents and any wider family members, will see the chicks fledge after about a further four weeks.

Forest kingfishers are quite common in and around the Sunshine Coast but particularly in the Hinterland, so keep an eye on the roadside powerlines for a sighting of these delightful birds.

 

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