Adam Welz's Weblog

Wild New York doc film

Posted in Uncategorized by adamwelz on August 31, 2012

My short doc about nature nuts in the concrete jungle is now up on my portfolio site!

Malachite Kingfisher, Intaka Island, Cape Town, 3 May 2009

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, birds & birding by adamwelz on May 4, 2009

Hi All

I see there’s still a trickle of visitation to this site even though I haven’t added a thing to it since late last year. I’m a little wary of blogging because it can mean a lot of time in front of the computer (I already have too much of that) and because my blog entries are usually written in one unedited go they’re not always highly readable — when you make most of your living from writing, as I do, that combination can be hazardous.

Nonetheless, because there are interesting things in the world that don’t always merit proper ‘stories’ (like little birding adventures) I’ve decided to carry on here. I can’t promise to be reg’lar as a geezer on All Bran Flakes but I will continue sticking things into the Web-ether.

Yesterday, late morning, I decided to flunk off to Intaka Island, a small bird sanctuary here in Cape Town near the truly horrendous Century City shopping mall. The weather was fantastic, and the bright, low winter sun made everything pop out wonderfully.

While I was sitting at the Painted Snipe spot a Malachite Kingfisher (Alcedo cristata) appeared close by. These are fairly common tiny kingfishers that like to fish from reeds or sedges low over shallow water. I usually see them zipping past in low, slightly undulating and very fast flight, their outrageously iridescent blue backs giving them away along with their clear ‘peeet’ call (a little like the call of the Malachite Sunbird, strangely enough).

malachite-kingfisher-shadow-intaka-4-may-09

The bird was very good at positioning its head so that the sun did not directly shine in the surface of the eye, presumably to avoid flare and thus see into the dark water more effectively — getting a shot like this, with a little eye-shine, meant waiting for it to look up at passing birds.

I could see that this bird had been ringed on the right let, I’m not sure by who, and I remembered from my teenage ringing days that we had to fit them with extremely narrow rings because the tarsus (lower leg) of this species is so short. They also have fused middle toes, as far as I remember — their feet are thus optimised for perching, not hoping, walking or handling anything.

Anyrate, my little Malachite flew around a bit from perch to perch and occasionally splashed down (sometimes successfully) after something like a tadpole or whatever. Sometimes it faced away from me, making its ‘false eyes’ on the back of the head quite obvious. Many species have marks like these, presumably to make predators think twice because they’re ‘being faced’ or ‘seen’.

malachite-kingfisher-intaka-back-3-may-09

You can see from this picture that the moniker ‘Malachite’ is a bit of a misnomer. The bird is far more a royal-type blue. The malachite-ish bits, on the head, are more like a deep turquoise. I’m a sucker for iridescent birds like this no matter what their colour, but perhaps we should think of a better name for these guys?

Sometimes the bird would lurch forward, as if to dive down to a fish, but suddenly change its mind and not let go of the restio it was perched on. For a few seconds it would be tipped forward like this, feathers ruffled out, until it settled back. I have no idea why the feathers get puffed out like this as it’s about to dive: simple excitement?

malachite-kingfisher-lurching-intaka-3-may-09

You can see the ring in this photo.

After about fifteen minutes another Malachite Kingfisher appeared on the scene, resulting in some piscivorous disharmony; the birds could clearly not share a fishing spot, and every time the ‘first’ bird would try to move a few metres to stay out of trouble, the newcomer would attack it. Here’s the beginning of a sortie:

malachite-kingfisher-intaka-4-may-09

and, a fraction of a second later, we have contact (ouch)

malachite-kingfisher-fighting-intaka-4-may-09

This photo was pure luck — my manually-focused old Tokina 300mm was just in the right place at the right time. What surprises me about the image is that you can see how serious the attacking bird is. This is no playfight or territorial show-conflict. It seems to want to impale the other one on its bill! The attacking bird’s eye appears strangely white because it is protecting the surface of the eye with its nictating membrane, or ‘third eyelid’. This is a membrane that birds have that can be flicked very rapidly across the eye (transversely) to clean or protect the cornea. Sometimes I wish I had them, like, hello darling! flick, flick, whoa…

The pictures were photographed using a shutter speed of 1/1,600th of a second, very fast, and its a testament to the speed that this all happened at that the two pictures immediately above this text are slightly blurred. Many birds flying along at normal speed would be rendered more sharply at this shutter speed. It’s amazing to me that not only did the attacked bird seem able to get a defensive foot out, but it also managed to fly out of its perilous position without braining itself on the surrounding vegetation. They must have incredible avionics!

Until next time…

Adam

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