Female common kingfisher
Female common kingfisher

Common kingfisher

At the time of writing this month’s article, I’m sat listening to the noise of the heavy rain hitting the roof, courtesy of Storm Danielle.

This well-needed drenching of water is welcome to everyone and whilst the seasonal rivers are going to require a lot more rain to start running, I thought it very topical to write about undoubtedly the most beautiful bird to witness around our waters, the common kingfisher.

You may be surprised to realise that the common kingfisher is indeed very common in the Algarve. It survives the dry spells and thrives on our riverbanks and other water sources. I’m often told by people that they have never seen a kingfisher. Usually, it’s luck, patience or a bit of both.

Common kingfishers are very wary of humans, making them difficult to spot. They are only 16cm in length and, although incredibly beautiful in colour, they are often difficult to spot when perched within a tree.

Many of the rivers and large water sources have kingfishers present and, if you are able to conceal yourself or use one of the many hides available at some of the larger lakes such as São Lourenço golf course or Vilamoura wetlands, you will quite often be lucky.

Male common kingfisher looking for a catch
Male common kingfisher looking for a catch

Mostly, you’ll hear their high-pitched short whistle, often repeated, before you spot one. They prefer to fly very close to the water surface and a passing one will be a flash of blue and orange as it speeds by.

Both males and females are identical in colour with blue-green wings, with a stripe down the back of a lighter blue. The contrasting orange breast with matching eye surround gives the common kingfisher it’s electric-looking appearance. The neck has creamy patches, and the legs and feet are bright red.

There is an easy way to identify the sex – the lower beak. The female has a matching bright orange lower beak, whereas the male is black, but look carefully because the orange lower beak of the female gradually appears with age and juveniles are easy to mis-identify – the leg colour is a good indication as they also start black and turn red with age.

I’m sure it is no surprise that the kingfisher catches small fish. However, they will also catch anything they can eat from the water. One of the photos shows a kingfisher with a crayfish. I watched it swallow it. It took a while.

The common kingfisher needs to adapt to the current situation and although prefers to perch on an over-hanging branch above the water, if one isn’t available, it can hover before diving. I have even witnessed them diving from rocks on the riverbank.

Common kingfisher with a crayfish catch
Common kingfisher with a crayfish catch

It is remarkable that the common kingfisher can calculate an accurate dive into the water, determining the depth and, of course, the refraction of light (if you put a stick into water, it often looks bent). To calculate the exact dive, the head will bob up and down as it evaluates the dive. Once the dive takes place, a third eyelid, which is transparent, closes to protect the eyes and, once underwater, the wings open to slow down and return to the surface.

Common kingfishers’ eye retinas are their secret weapon. They have dual foveae (light receptors). For normal vision, they have monocular vision, and underwater they switch to binocular vision to stay on target. All this within a fraction of a second. Once caught, the bird will perch again and often beat the catch against the perch before consuming. Of course, during the breeding season, the catch will be taken back to the nest.

Outside the breeding season, kingfishers are solitary and very territorial, but, come spring, you’ll often see the male and females chasing each other up and down the river in a courtship ritual.

Nests are long tunnels in vertical riverbanks and are extremely sensitive to human presence. It is never advised to approach a kingfisher nest due to the high-risk of the breeding pair abandoning the nest.

Juvenile female common kingfisher
Juvenile female common kingfisher

The nests are dug by both sexes and the female can lay between two and 10 eggs. Often not all hatch as the small body cannot incubate all eggs. Both sexes will incubate but, remarkably, only the female has this task overnight. Three weeks later, the eggs hatch and after another three weeks of feeding from the parents, the juveniles are left to fend for themselves relying on instinct – not all will survive, which is a reason so many eggs are laid. Kingfishers can breed up to three times a year.

During the hot summers, many of the dry seasonal rivers leave water pools and often can contain enough food until the rivers run again. However, if a food source becomes scarce, they will often move to the ‘barragens’ (dams), garden ponds and even the south coast and return to their territory once rivers start to run.

By Craig Rogers
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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