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Monday, January 20, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: 7 Kingfishers and 5 Shrikes

[India, Winter 2013]

Most American birders are familiar with a singular Kingfisher (the Belted) and a lone Shrike (the Loggerhead); thus, it is always a delight to come across additional species in these families that seem both familiar yet exotic.

In this trip to India, a total of 7 species of kingfishers were observed (compare to the mere 6 species found in all of South and North America; and the single kingfisher [alcedo atthis] found in all of Europe) plus 5 species of shrike:

  • White-throated Kingfisher
  • Pied Kingfisher
  • Stork-billed Kingfisher
  • Common Kingfisher
  • Collared Kingfisher
  • Black-capped Kingfisher
  • Blue-eared Kingfisher
  • Bay-backed Shrike
  • Isabelline Shrike
  • Southern Grey Shrike
  • Brown Shrike
  • Long-tailed Shrike
Unlike some families (the humble sparrows come to mind!), the Kingfishers are colorfully distinctive, with prominent, "weaponized" bills, short legs, and dark eyes. While generally associated with water, many species are perfectly suited for forest or even dry environments.

Let's start with the Alcedo Atthis:

Common Kingfisher seen at Arpora Salt Pans, Goa

Common Kingfisher seen at Bharatpur

The Common Kingfisher ranges from Ireland to Japan and from Russia to North Africa, India and Southeast Asia. This huge expanse supports 7 subspecies which differ in minor aspects of color and size.

At 6" long, this sparrow-sized kingfisher is also known as the River Kingfisher for its dependence on
water; eating more than half its body weight in fish every day.

Common Kingfisher seen at Bharatpur

Generally unmistakeable in India in most of its range; however, it pays to look twice: look carefully at the following species:

This kingfisher is the same size as the Common but a closer inspection reveals a couple of key differences: more cobalt in the blue; and, crucially, it also lacks the rufous patch on the ears. Indeed, this is the Blue-eared Kingfisher (observed in Goa). This is a forest-dwelling kingfisher and much more scarce than the Common.

The Blue-eared Kingfisher was a special sighting -- we were a group of about 10 birders (myself from the US, 4 from Denmark, 1 from Switzerland, 1 from Lebanon and the rest from India). Brought to a heavily wooded stream behind an abandoned 800-year old Shiva Temple, I was fortunate to be the only one who managed to get a photograph before it flew off! A favorite species of mine from the trip!

The next kingfisher, the White-throated Kingfisher is perhaps the most commonly seen across India. This large kingfisher is aptly named with a white throat (extending down to the breast) and a blue back on a brown body. The massive bill is a bright red.

White-throated Kingfisher, Bharatpur.

The White-throated is much more eclectic in its diet -- feeding on lizards, insects and even small birds in addition to fish.

About the same size as the White-throated, the Black-capped is one of the "tree kingfishers". It is found inland as well as coastally.

Black-capped Kingfisher; seen in the mangroves of the Zuari River

The Black-capped is a handsome kingfisher with a brilliant cobalt back, a black cap, a white-and-rufous breast and a huge red bill.

While the Black-capped is impossibly skittish, the Collared Kingfisher (aka the Mangrove Kingfisher) was much more cooperative.

Collared Kingfisher, Zuari River, Goa.

Hued entirely in turquoise and white, this striking kingfisher ranges widely from Northeast Africa, through the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and all the way to Australia and Polynesia. This enormous geographic swathe encompasses 50 subspecies.

In contrast, the Pied kingfisher, although considered the third most numerous in the World, is confined to Africa and Asia.

Pied Kingfisher, Sultanpur National Park

The Pied Kingfisher prefers to hover for prey -- usually fish. Males and females can be told apart by the number of bands across the breast (males have two; while females have one).

The 7th kingfisher species is the Stork-billed; larger than our Belted, it is about the same size as the Ringed Kingfisher of the Americas. This large kingfisher was seen in very poor light in Goa.

Moving on to the 5 shrikes; like the Kingfishers, Shrikes are instantly recognizable. Unlike the former, however, there are only a third as many Shrike species in the world (31 vs. 90). This Shrike family stronghold is in Eurasia and Africa with South America and Australia having zero species and all of North America having a mere two (Loggerhead and Northern).

Brown Shrike, Goa.

The Brown Shrike is an Asian species which winters in India. It bears the familiar hallmarks of the family -- black eye-mask, a powerful bill that ends in a hook, and a longish tail.

Isabelline Shrike, Sultanpur National Park

A paler version of the Brown, the beautiful Isabelline Shrike is another winter visitor to India. The sandy (hence "Isabelline") hues of this species are absolutely stunning.

Isabelline Shrike seen at Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat

Unlike the Isabelline, the Bay-backed Shrike is a resident species in India. This smallish shrike shows white wing patches on black wings, a prominent eye mask on a grey head with a brown band separating the continuation of grey into the back.

Bay-backed Shrike, Sultanpur

Easy to confuse with the Bay-backed is the Long-tailed Shrike:

Long-tailed Shrike, Sambhar Lake

Note that the head and back are entirely grey and the breast is much paler than the Bay-backed Shrike.

Long-tailed Shrike, Sambhar Lake

This is another resident Shrike of the subcontinent and can be commonly found in scrub habitat.

Southern Grey Shrike, Sambhar Lake

The Southern Grey Shrike is closely related to our own Northern Shrike with minor differences in color (and breast pattern). Like other shrikes, The Southern Grey is also carnivorous eating rodents, small birds and large insects.

One of the joys of global birding is the opportunity to expand one's avian horizons beyond the familiar. Yet, the presence of similar species in different countries shows how connected life is across the planet -- and it is indeed remarkable that while colors, patterns, vocalizations and physical dimensions of species may change, they still remain faithful to the unique characteristics of their taxonomic family.

1 comment:

Bob Pelkey said...

Wonderful documentation of the diversity of India's kingfishers and shrikes, Hemant. I am sure that you would have preferred more time to observe behavior in depth. You had me hit the books to differentiate Loggerhead Shrike from Northern Shrike in North America, with the latter yet to be personally photographed. It is interesting that the size of the Southern Grey Shrike is between that of the Loggerhead and Northern Shrikes. Considering the latitude of the southern United States and that of northern India, I had expected the Southern Grey Shrike to be closer in size to the Loggerhead Shrike which is not the case.