Birds of the Pacific: Kingfishers


Kingfishers are one of those birds that are a joy to find. They can just appear on a branch, sitting still, watching for any movement, and then dive, a shock of electric blue, after some morsel. As their family name suggests, they often feed on fish, especially where there is a concentration at the side of a pool. But the Kingfishers in Australo-Pacific are just as likely to target skinks, lizards or large insects deep in forests. They are even known to predate day-old chicks, which can put them at odds with local communities.

There are two species of Kingfisher in Vanuatu, both in the family with the scientific name Todiramphus. The common, and widespread Pacific Kingfisher (also known as Collared, or White-collared Kingfisher) can be found throughout the islands – from the Banks Islands in the north to Aneityum in the South. Often they give away their presence by their loud ringing ‘ki’ call repeated two to six times. I have heard birds calling from the secondary bushland around Port Vila. Once the call is recognised it becomes a regular addition to the list of anyone out birding in an area with native bushes or trees.

Pacific Kingfishers can be found from the Solomon Islands to American Samoa, although, surprisingly not in Samoa – where the related Flat-billed Kingfisher is present. Some authorities consider that Collared Kingfishers form a super-group spreading as far west as the Red Sea, although DNA analysis, while still not complete, is indicating that there is sufficient variation to split these into species – one group of which is now considered to be Pacific Kingfisher. Even within Vanuatu, authorities have separated five races of Pacific Kingfisher, based on slight variations in size, the extent of colour on the belly (and whether this colour is present in young birds or not), the colour and size of both the spot in front of the eye and the supercilium over the eye. The most common form of Pacific Kingfisher in Vanuatu has a long and distinctive, rufous-coloured supercilium (stripe above the eye). The extent of rufous on the belly varies from none to a rich buff, covering the whole of the underparts.

The second species of Kingfisher is endemic to Vanuatu and indeed, endemic to the northern half of Vanuatu. Known either as Chestnut-bellied, or Vanuatu Kingfisher, it differs from the Pacific Kingfisher in having a rich purplish blue back, wings and head, distinctive chestnut-orange breast, belly and undertail, white collar and throat, a white spot in front of the eye and no supercilium – the blue on the head forming a sharp line with the black eyestripe (stripe through the eye). This species is only found on Malakula, Espiritu Santo and Malo, mainly in primary undisturbed forest up to 700m, and also, on Malo, in gardens, farmland and coconut groves. The song is a long series of ‘teek’ chirps, repeated 20 or more times for up to a minute. I have not yet seen this species, although I have heard the song while birding around the Loru conservation area on Santo. All the more reason to keep returning, so that I can finally get a good view of this rather excellent looking bird!

Our regular column by bird expert Dr Mark O’Brien, Regional Program Coordinator for BirdLife International.