Friday, December 2, 2011

Kingdom of Kingfishers!

Friday, December 2, 2011
Smyrna kingfisher in the pre-dawn fog at Hula-Agamon Park.

I was in Israel on a birding tour over the Thanksgiving holiday this year, attending the Hula Valley Bird Festival. The trip was amazing and amazingly birdy almost everywhere we went. For this post I'm going to highlight the incredible density of kingfishers we encountered.

But first some background!

I'd been to Israel once before, in the late 1980s. I'd be shocked if any readers of this blog recall my article about that trip, written for Bird Watcher's Digest and published in the September/October 1985 issue of BWD. That was my first-ever BWD article written about my first-ever official overseas birding trip! Both times I had to do some careful thinking and planning both because Israel is a long way away and because it's in a part of the world that's often in the news, usually due to political unrest between neighbors. Fortunately on both trips, each lasting more than a week, any concerns I had were unwarranted—the people were friendly, the neighbors were neighborly, the weather was wonderful, the landscape was beautiful and the birds were beyond expectation.

Consider yourself warned that I'm working on another Israel article, along with a podcast, and a gallery of images for the not-so-distant future for BWD. Now back to the kingfishers.

Located as it is in the middle of the arid, mostly desert Middle East, Israel would be no more bird-rich than its neighbors except for one major factor: water. Water flows through this country from north to south and it is channeled and used in a variety of ways, especially for agriculture. Wherever this water occurs, so do birds, especially water-loving birds like the kingfishers. We encountered three kingfisher species during our time in the Hula Valley in northern Israel and on short trips out from the valley in all directions: the common kingfisher, the pied kingfisher, and the white-throated or Smyrna kingfisher.

Pied kingfishers at a fish farm.

Israel has a lot of fish farms. These fish farms have a lot of fish, which means they also have a lot of fish-eating birds. Nearly every day during our birding trip we stopped at some set of man-made ponds, reservoirs, fish farms, or water-treatment facility. We'd scan the water and shoreline for birds, often looking past the number of kingfishers present. In the image above, there are eight pied kingfishers on a single perch. We sometimes would see twice that many or more perched on sticks and posts along one side of a pond. It was nuts! Only a few individuals were so intent on fishing that they allowed close approach. This is likely a result of the bird-scaring efforts that the fish farmers have to do in order to control the loss of their "crop" to the crops of birds.

The small common kingfisher, which is widespread in Europe, seemed to be the most shy. We'd normally catch brief glimpses of one as it zipped low over the water from one hidden perch to another. Or we'd spy their glimmering iridescent plumage at a distance as we were scanning with our optics.
White-throated kingfisher, aka Smyrna kingfisher, aka white-breasted kingfisher.

The largest of the three kingfisher species we encountered is the white-throated kingfisher, also often referred to as the Smyrna kingfisher. These stunning and bold birds were noisy enough to make their presence known even when they were out of our direct sight.

The pied kingfisher is a study in blacks and whites as its name implies. Slightly smaller than the white-throated kingfisher, the pied was our most frequently seen kingfisher species. Both of the larger kingfishers could regularly be seen away from water, hunting lizards and geckos from a watching perch.

Water brings life to the desert and attracts living things from all directions. It is the kingdom of kings and the kingdom of kingfishers, too!

Here are a few of my better kingfisher images from last week's trip. Enjoy!

A pied kingfisher launching from a perch over water in the Hula Reserve Park.

Hovering pied kingfisher at Ma'agan Michael along the Mediterranean.

No one knows why this species is named white-throated kingfisher.

Common kingfisher held by a staff member at the Hula-Agamon ringing (banding) station.

Pied kingfisher at Ma'agan Michael.


On December 2, 2011 at 5:09 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

Oh delicious! The pied is the Silver Sebright of kingfishers. They are all so beautiful. Especially like the lipstick-pink bill on the white-throated kingfisher!

On December 2, 2011 at 7:01 PM Unknown said...

Kingfishers have to be one of the coolest of all bird species. Sounds like Israel is must-stop for a few of them.

On December 2, 2011 at 8:00 PM DeniseinVA said...

What an amazing trip and beautiful photos of birds I have never seen before. Thank you!

On December 3, 2011 at 12:12 PM Novice Naturalist said...

Love the photos--Kingfishers are among my favorites--

On December 3, 2011 at 11:23 PM JM said...

Those are some awesome birds! I look forward to hearing more about your trip.

On December 4, 2011 at 8:54 AM Julie Zickefoose said...

Bill does love the sound of his new little bird, Mike Larry. Good luck with your cage cover sales.

On December 5, 2011 at 1:24 PM Rondeau Ric said...

You lucky dog and I don't mean Baker.
Kingfishers are my favourite bird, that monster head, the hover, dive and splash. So cool.
Almost as cool as a trip like this one.

On December 6, 2011 at 8:41 AM Chatterbirds said...

What a concentration of kingfishers!

On December 7, 2011 at 2:42 AM idose said...

Spectacular! It was well worth the read and a wonderful treat to the eyes going through such amazing pictures one after another!

On December 7, 2011 at 11:35 AM XSive Birder said...

What a Collection of Kingfishers! Never knew there could be any more beautiful than ours!!

On December 9, 2011 at 7:41 AM Lee said...

Very good photos of one of my favorite birds. Looking forward to hearing about some of your other birds from over there.

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On January 1, 2012 at 11:07 AM Unknown said...

I know I'm late to this party, but I feel obligated to mention that I spit Diet Pepsi all over my keyboard when I read the line about no one knowing how the white-throated kingfisher got its name. You may owe me a keyboard, Bill!

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