As a family, the kingfishers must surely be the most striking birds found at Londolozi. Perhaps the Bee-Eaters may be a little upset by this, but I think the variety the kingfishers possess probably tips the scales in the end.
There are ten different species of kingfisher found in Southern Africa, nine of which are found at Londolozi. They can largely be classified into three main groups – the Halcyon genus, the three smallest (known as the Alcedinid kingfishers), and then the Pied and Giant Kingfishers which are the only two without any blue colouration.
The Halcyon genus contains five different species, four of which are found at Londolozi. The Woodland, Striped, Brown Hooded and Grey-headed are all seen here, with the only absentee being the Mangrove Kingfisher which, as the name suggests, is found in coastal habitats.
Like many of the natural world’s Latin names, the genus Halcyon is derived from Greek mythology. Halcyon was a bird which was said to nest at sea during the northern hemisphere winter. It was believed that it had the power to calm the sea in order to lay its eggs on a floating nest, creating two weeks of calm weather around the winter solstice. It is for this reason that halcyon has since been used as a term for calmness or peace. All these kingfishers share a similar turquoise blue colour on their wings, reminiscent of a calm blue sea, hence the Halcyon genus.
Despite their name, the majority of kingfishers do not in fact eat much fish at all. All of the Halcyon species mentioned above feed mainly on insects, rodents, reptiles and occasionally even other small birds, with only the Mangrove Kingfisher having a significant portion of its diet made up of fish.
Of all these species the most well known is probably the Woodland Kingfisher. An intra-African breeding migrant, the Woodland Kingfisher’s call is one of the most distinctive sounds of the Lowveld. Along with the first impala lamb of the summer, the first guide to see a woodland kingfisher for the season always calls it in on the radio with a sense of excitement, knowing that summer has now truly arrived. They are by some way the most abundant of the family and by January each year the call can be heard constantly whilst on drive.
Measuring just 13cm, and for me the most beautiful of the lot, is the Pygmy Kingfisher. Whilst relatively common, it is easily overlooked due to its size and habitat, which is usually the thickets and woodlands along drainage lines. In addition, it also migrates within Africa so is only present from September to March each year. The best place to see it at Londolozi over the past year has actually been from the new Yoga deck at Founders Camp, although they are notoriously difficult to photograph.
Slightly bigger and a challenger for best looking is the Malachite Kingfisher. This is one of the four “true” kingfishers found at Londolozi in that their diet consists mainly of fish. They are most frequently seen around Camp Dam and the Sand River where they perch close to the water on reeds or sedges, scanning for fish close to the surface.
The largest of the group by some distance is the Giant Kingfisher. Measuring close to half a meter from end to end, it is often seen flying at high speed along the banks of the Sand River, the loud cackling call unmistakable. They hunt fish from an overhanging perch, plunging into the water with an enormous splash. They do occasionally hover in order to hunt, although this has mainly been observed over the sea where the lack of prominent perches means there is no other choice.
The bird most synonymous with the kingfisher family would have to be the Pied Kingfisher. A striking black and white bird and, other than when the Woodland is in residence, the most common found at Londolozi. They can frequently be observed hovering high above the water’s surface, scanning for prey, before tucking their wings in and diving beak first into the water – sometimes even able to catch two fish in a single dive.
With summer rapidly approaching, it isn’t long before the kingfisher species count of Londolozi jumps from six to a full complement of nine as the migrants arrive.
Bets are already being placed on who will see the first woodland kingfisher this November.
My R50 is already in. Is yours?