Sunday, August 22, 2010

New Zealand Kingfisher (Kotare)

Kingfisher surveying the mudflats for small crabs
The sun was starting to glare through the green bed sheet that was draped over my body and acting as a makeshift hide. I’d been here for over an hour, and my body was starting to ache from lying still for so long. Still no shots, and doubt was circling through my mind. I slowly extend my cramping left arm, careful not to move the bed sheet and give away my whereabouts to the keen eyes of the kingfisher. I glance at the clock on the back of my camera, all too aware that only a few minutes would have gone by since my last check. I peer through the viewfinder, my eye focused intently on a small section of perch. I’m glued to the spot in great anticipation…

Just type the word ‘kingfisher’ into any search engine and you will find no shortage of great kingfisher images. This is not surprising considering kingfishers inhabit all continents on earth except Antarctica, and occupy a wide range of habitats. There are roughly 90 species of kingfisher, all of which are classified by their large heads, short legs and long, sharp, pointed beaks.

'Kingfisher blues'
Sacred Kingfishers, or Kotare as the Maori know these beautiful birds, are a common and familiar species throughout New Zealand, Australia and the southwest Pacific. For a long time the closest I’d been to these magnificent little birds was a distant call or a quick flash of iridescent blue/green as I wandered around my local estuary. It soon became apparent that getting well-composed, detailed, frame-filling shots of kotare was going to be almost impossible, if little thought and preparation had gone into photographing them. Not only are Kotare relatively small birds, they have a well-earned reputation for being quite skittish, making sneaking up on them a hard task indeed! 

The question loomed, how was I going to photograph these notoriously skittish birds? A bit of homework was needed and, after pulling out the well-used bird books and a fair bit of Internet surfing, I was now better equipped to tackle the kotare. Knowing and understanding the behaviour and habits of the kingfishers greatly increased my chances of being in the right place at the right time when it came to getting the shots I wanted. This proves true for photographing a great variety of New Zealand birds, and a knowledge of the location, time of day, tidal movements, wind direction, time of year, etc. can make all the difference. Not all of this information can be obtained from books and the Internet; a fair bit of field observation is required.

Kotare's brilliant aqua-marine plumage
Once a location had been found, I was able to spend a good amount of time watching these colourful birds, learning valuable information about their diet, active feeding times, favourite feeding spots etc. From what I had read, Kotare, like many kingfishers of the world, are creatures of habit, often revisiting the same perches regularly throughout the day. After a fair bit of field observation I was able to pin point some frequently used perching spots.

As Kotare are difficult birds to approach I was going to have to use a hide to photograph them. Setting up a hide overlooking their preferred perch spots would allow the birds to come to me and increase my chances of getting full framed images. A green bed sheet was used as my makeshift hide and, although quite primitive, it helped a great deal to obscure my visibility, and enabled me to blend into the environment. When setting up I wanted to choose a perch that would not only look good in photographs, but also have enough distance between it and the background to give a soft,  ‘out of focus’ look, leaving no doubt as to the main subject of the picture. I also made sure that I would be photographing the birds at their level for a more personal and appealing photograph.

The added bonus of using a hide is that large and expensive telephoto lenses are not a prerequisite to capturing full-framed images of kotare. The photos shown here were taken using a sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, which was ample focal length considering the hide was less than three metres away. Once in the hide, and focused on the perch, all that was left to do was wait. Patience proved to be a big part in photographing the kingfishers and many hours were spent lying in wait. For me it was very much a labour of love and just spending time watching these magnificent birds up close was reward enough; that’s not to say that a nice photograph wouldn’t be appreciated.

A juvenile tosses up a small mudcrab
...I could hear the loud piercing staccato call of two spur-winged plovers flying somewhere overhead. The ‘cracking’ sound of a kingfisher battering an unfortunate crab on a perch close-by keeps me from drifting into the rhythmic reverie of the estuary. By now the warmth of the sun was heating up the area below the blanket, and I was growing more uncomfortable by the minute. Almost silently and without warning a blur of colour flies into the frame; I press my eye firmly against the viewfinder, and even though I have spent countless hours planning for this moment, I’m left almost surprised by the presence of kotare. My heart is beating faster and for the first time I am eye to eye with this magnificent bird. I compose and click while the kingfisher cracks a small mud crab on the perch right in front of me.  “Crack, crack, crack”, the sound seems amplified as I watch the feeding ritual through the lens. I click the shutter as it spins the crab around with a quick toss and then gulps it down. What an incredible buzz when everything goes to plan and the countless hours of planning and patience pay off!


  1. Nice Blog Jono, I see you made a new logo and it is very professional.
    What projects are you working on now?

  2. Cheers Tim,
    Hows things? Working on garden birds at the moment, but hopefully will get into the waders as spring roles around. What about you?

  3. Things arnt going to bad for me, I have just been focusing on everything but more so on egrets and dotterel nests.
    There was quite a few nests around but now they have all been destroyed by high rivers and sea's so hopefully they renest.
    How have things been with the earthquake for you?

  4. That's a real shame about the nests!!! - still early on in the season - so they hopefully should re-nest! Mate you have some stellar shots rolling in! Great work on the egrets and dotterels! Looking forward to seeing some more. Yeah the earthquake was pretty full on, fortunately I didn't loose anything. There has been some pretty full on aftershocks in the last day or so!

  5. Yea it must be like a war zone down there never knowing when the next one is coming!
    The rivers were a bit high again this week and I was going to go out this weekend but mite try the beaches, I want to find a black fronted dotterel nest.
    Glad you didnt lose anything, my cousin down there lost nothing either which is good.
    Thanks about the pic's it all started on tiri tiri remember!, most of all its just great to get out there and get close to birds.
    I found some wintering black fronted terns a few months ago and can really see how you like them there great, too bad they only come up here for a few weeks during winter!
    Any luck with the grey warblers you were going to be working on a while back?

  6. Yeah, that was almost a year ago now, I would love to head up to Tiritiri again at some stage. I'm a sucker for those black-fronted terns. I haven't managed to get any full-framed shots I'm happy with of the warblers yet.