Sunday, 30 November 2014

Yellow-billed Kingfisher - Portraits and Profiles

I’ve twice been to Iron Range National Park (now Kutini-Payamu National Park) on bird banding trips. The first was in late November 2005 – the banner photo above shows our campsite at Gordon Creek. The second trip was at the same time of year but six years later, in 2011. The timing is very deliberate – intended to coincide with the very end of the dry season, so after most migrants have returned to the area if they’re going to, but hopefully also before the wet begins. If you’re still there after the first big rains you could be stuck there for quite a while as the river crossings become impassable.

Not that this timing has any relevance to the bird featured in this blog post. The Yellow-billed Kingfisher is resident in the area, inhabiting rainforest edges, tropical scrubs and woodland edges. It is a beautiful bird, not uncommon, and fairly frequently heard, but often difficult to actually see. This, together with its restricted range, makes it one of the key target species for birdwatchers venturing to the far north of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula. 

When seen, the Yellow-billed Kingfisher is most often glimpsed in the depths of the rainforest vegetation.

Mostly they’ll keep to themselves, well hidden in the dense foliage of the lower to middle canopy. Even when nesting they have been described as non-aggressive and liable to desert the nest if disturbed (Reader's Digest 1976), but other evidence suggests they can be fairly pugnacious and won’t hesitate to make their discontent known if riled. David Hollands in his book Kingfishers & Kookaburras : Jewels of the Australian Bush (1999) relates eloquently and evocatively (as he does) some of his experiences trying to photograph nesting yellow-bills at Iron Range, and at 'Silver Plains' at the southern limit of the species’ distribution.

While banding along Portland Road in Iron Range National Park in 2011, we had a pair of Yellow-billed Kingfishers regularly taunting us with their calls, which are notoriously ventriloquial. Their call is a pleasant whistled usually descending trill, somewhat similar to that of the Fan-tailed Cuckoo. (And sometimes likened to a postman’s whistle – but I’ve never actually experienced the blowing of a postal worker’s whistle; well, maybe in an old movie I guess.) The birds were obviously fairly close, but proved proverbially difficult to locate. Eventually we did find the birds, in the canopy almost directly above us. They may well have ventriloquial calls, but I think they were also moving about a little ‘cause I really don’t think they were looking down haughtily at us for all of the time we were hearing them!

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher in the trees above our banding site at Iron Range NP.

Later, the male joined her and they both watched us quietly as we watched them rather more excitedly.

Yellow-billed Kingfishers are about 20 cm in length. The male has a bright orange head, the female's is not quite so bright and has a dark patch on top of the crown. Both have dark spots either side of the nape. They feed mainly on insects, earthworms and small lizards. The nest is excavated in an arboreal termite nest, usually 3-15 metres above the ground.

They are also called Saw-billed Kingfishers because of the serrated edge to the upper bill (see photos below), and in New Guinea, where two of the three subspecies occur, they are also known as Lowland or Lesser Yellow-billed Kingfishers to distinguish them from their congener, the Mountain Kingfisher.

The Australian race, which occurs from the northern tip of Cape York to Princess Charlotte Bay, is known scientifically as Syma torotoro flavirostris. Syma is the name of a 'sea nymph' from Greek mythology (there is an ongoing theme of sea-based mythological personages and animals in kingfisher taxonomy for reasons which are best left alone here but well worth looking into if you have the time and inclination - Google, or try Australian Bird Names - a complete guide by Ian Fraser and Jeannie Gray, CSIRO Publishing, 2013 - it's a great read!). The specific epithet, torotoro, is from the local name for the bird in West Papua. René Lesson, the French ornithologist who named the species in 1827, claimed it was in reference to the birds' call. I must hear things differently! The subspecies name flavirostris means yellow-billed (surprise, surprise), and was given by John Gould in 1850 when he named the species Halcyon flavirostris, not realising that Lesson had already done the honours with the New Guinea birds. 

We were lucky enough to see Yellow-billed Kingfishers on both trips to the Cape, and band both  a female and a male in 2005, providing perfect opportunities to photograph the birds in the hand. I'll let the photos speak for themselves...

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
Note the dark patch on the crown, which only the female has.

Male Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
The serrated edge to the upper bill provides the alternative name of Saw-billed Kingfisher.

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
The twin nape spots are larger in females and sometimes join up forming a short collar.

Male Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
The males head plumage is brighter with no dark patch on the crown.

Female Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.
Male Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro, Iron Range NP, Nov 2005.

You'll never see eyes as beautiful as this on any other bird! I just wonder how they stop the mascara running in the humidity!


  1. They are very cutesome. The mascara is fun. Are the large eyes because their habitat is dimly lit?

  2. Nice one Harvey - 4 trips to Cape York and I am yet to see one in the hand (and they eluded spotting all up in 1994).