The guardians of the river
I have recently published some photographs of a juvenile male Common kingfisher and have been inundated with requests for information on where to view kingfishers in Portugal. Therefore, it was an obvious choice for this month’s article.
It is often a surprise when Common Kingfishers are mentioned as many people, even those living within a kingfisher territory, have never seen one. Kingfishers are very shy of humans and will usually try to avoid them. Although small at only 16cm, they are fast and nimble birds, usually flying low to the water surface with the appearance of a blue and orange flash.
In flight, they usually make their very easily identifiable and only call of a high-pitched whistle. Often when I am photographing them, I will hear the call before I spot them, which is a sign to get ready!
The Portuguese name is Guarda-rios, which translates as River Guardian, with the scientific name of Alcedo atthis. Both male and female are almost identical in colour with the bright blue-green wings with a bright paler blue back giving the impression of a “racing go-faster stripe”. The chest is a bright rusty orange with a matching eye-stripe. The front and sides of the neck have a creamy-white colour and legs and feet are bright red.
There is only one difference with which to identify the sex. The female’s lower beak is bright red whereas the male’s is black. Juveniles are very similar but can look less saturated, however, they have black legs at birth and gradually turn red over the first year. A juvenile female’s lower beak also takes time to gradually turn red and is easy to mis-identify as a male.
As you imagine, the kingfisher’s primary diet is small fish, but they will dive for anything they can catch. I have witnessed one flying with a crayfish in its beak.
They prefer to perch on an over-hanging branch of between one and two metres but will hover in flight if no perch is available. The head is usually pointed down and, once a target is spotted, the Kingfisher will bob its head up and down; this is to gauge the distance and, of course, they must also gauge the refraction of light. Water depth is normally around 25-30cm deep.
A third transparent eyelid closes for protection. Once in the water, the wings are spread to act as a brake and to propel it back to the surface, but the real magic is the retina. Each retina has two foveae (where most of the light receptors are), a monocular one for normal vision and a binocular one for continued vision underwater to ensure its target prey is still accurate.
Once prey has been removed from the water, it is taken to a perch, often the same one, and the prey is continually knocked against it to kill it before eating whole. Of course, during breeding it is taken back to the nest.
Kingfishers are solitary birds and very territorial over their fishing rights, however, springtime is a great time to watch pairs play “kiss chase” up and down the river before the mating season begins.
Kingfishers nest in long tunnels with a chamber dug into vertical riverbanks by both sexes and the female lays between two and 10 eggs; it is not expected for all eggs to hatch as the kingfisher is too small to incubate them all. Both sexes incubate, although only the female incubates overnight.
It takes almost three weeks for the eggs to hatch and usually more than three weeks longer before the young brave the outside world. Juvenile kingfishers are not taught to hunt and must rely on their instinct to learn and many do not survive – another reason so many eggs are laid. It is known for kingfishers to have up to three broods in a season.
I have no idea where the local kingfisher nests are, and nor do I wish to locate them. Being so shy of humans, kingfishers will abandon a nest if disturbed. In the UK, a licence is required to photograph a nest site due to this.
Many rivers dry in the summertime in the Algarve, but river pools usually contain enough food to last the dry summer. However, kingfishers will move towards the south coast if food begins to reduce. Only last week I was sitting in a friend’s garden near Almancil when I heard a kingfisher. The only water source nearby is a large garden pond. They will adapt if required.
Almost all the Algarve rivers have kingfishers and locally near São Marcos da Serra they can be seen along many kilometres of river.
By Craig Rogers
Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography