African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta)


by Gerrit Lotz©

My interest in the Pygmy Kingfisher began in 2008 when I accidentally stumbled across one of their nests in front of my home. My home is situated in the little coastal hamlet of Tugela Mouth on the north coast of Kwazulu-Natal. Tugela Mouth lies on the northern side of the Tugela River estuary. There are about 50 houses in the area that is as yet fairly untouched by modern development, a factor that is conducive to the return of these birds for breeding purposes during their migration cycle. Northwest of town is a dense coastal forest measuring roughly 300 m wide and 2 km long. There is a little stream running through the forest. From the banks of the stream the land slopes steeply upward to a tarred road running along the edge of the forest. The soft sand of the incline provides ideal areas for these birds to make their nests. The forest is cool in summer and provides ample food for the pygmies, also shielding them from potential predators.

The African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta) are terrestrial Kingfishers. They can be distinguished from the Malachite Kingfisher by their smaller size, a slightly shorter beak and the pink to purple patch of feathers behind their ears. The African Pygmy Kingfisher is usually found in the thick brush away from water. The juveniles differ from the adult birds in that the juvenile bird has a black bill when it is still young. The black bill will change colour as the bird grows older turning bright red when the bird reaches adulthood. In the last mentioned respect, African Pygmy Kingfishers are similar to Malachite Kingfishers. Below, photographs of both the African Pygmy Kingfisher, as well as the Malachite Kingfisher, are reproduced to illustrate the differences between the species.

A juvenile African Pygmy Kingfisher

A juvenile Malachite Kingfisher

An Adult African Pygmy Kingfisher

An Adult Malachite Kingfisher

The African Pygmy Kingfishers are present at Tugela Mouth during the summer months between October and March. They begin arriving at Tugela Mouth around the third week of September to early in October. It is very possible that they might even arrive earlier and that I spot them a few days after their arrival. The earliest I have spotted them is the 15th September. I have kept vigilance for their return ever since my interest in them began and spotting the first ones returning is always a joyous occasion. I have noticed in 2012 that the first ones used the exact perches they have used the previous year. As there are millions of perches available, I am certain that it is my old friends of the previous season returning. African Pygmy Kingfishers migrates during the hours of darkness, feeding, resting and hiding from predators during the day. African Pygmy Kingfishers have large eyes compared to their small size and I have observed them flying in near total darkness. I presume that the predilection to migration during the hours of night is a safety mechanism to protect these little birds from their predators when they must of necessity leave the thick forest growths and fly off to Central and East Africa on their yearly migratory cycle.

The male begins courting the female during the first half of October. Food plays an important part in the courting process. He attempts to win the female bird’s favour by catching all kinds of food. The male, will actively call to the female after a successful hunt, to present his prize to her. Once the female has been won over, coupling takes place in the thick vegetation of the forest. The coupling process is fleeting lasting only a second or two. Coupling is repeatedly performed for a few days. I was privileged to take images of the birds coupling.

The male presenting the fe-male with a tasty lizard after a successful hunt during courtship

Coupling in the thick vegetation.

I had the pleasure of watching them excavate their nests from scratch. From a starting position on the ground the male start the process by flying into the chosen embankment at full speed hitting the same spot every time with his beak, until a small mark appears on the embankment. Every time he hits the embankment the male grabs a bit of soil spitting it out on his way down. As soon as a small hole appears the female starts helping the male to deepen the hole. This process is repeated over and over until they have created a foothold. After a foothold is created the pair start chiseling a tunnel into the embankment, clearing out the lose soil with their feet. The construction of the nest may take a day or more, depending on the soil conditions. They may dig more than one hole to start off with, and only later choose one to breed in.

Excavating a nest

The tunnels are 40 to 60 cm deep, with a small chamber at the back where the female will lay and incubate her eggs. This chamber is also the place where they will feed and raise their young. The female lays 4 to 6 white eggs and incubation lasts 16 to 18 days. The male helps with the incubation process. They alternate about every 2 hours, allowing the other partner to hunt.

The birds normally breed once during the season. I have however observed during the 2012 and 2013 seasons that some of the pairs have bred twice. The second breeding spell commences early in the New Year. The arduous journey north must be really hazardous for the hatchlings that are raised during the second half of the breeding season, as these hatchlings have to undertake this journey during March when they are still very young.

On a warm Sunday morning during December 2013, I was attempting to photograph the adult African Pygmy Kingfishers on their way to the nest while feeding their young. I was seated in my vehicle intently watching a favourite perch used by the adult birds as a lookout post, before they would venture close to the nest. Due to the heat all the windows of my vehicle were open. I felt something lightly bumped into my shoulder. To my amazement I found a tiny black-billed juvenile African Pygmy Kingfisher sitting next to me on the passenger seat of the vehicle. The little fellow must have left the safety of his nest for his maiden flight and entered my vehicle through the open window and collided with my shoulder while I was intent on photographing his parents on the opposite side of the vehicle. I immediately decided that I will not pass on this opportunity to photograph a juvenile African Pygmy Kingfisher. I closed the windows of my vehicle and transported him to my home close-by where I took him indoors to take some photographs. Within a couple of minutes he was completely at home and he even climbed onto my fingers without any hesitation. After the photo session was completed I took him back and released him in the custody of his parents. This was a wonderful present I received during the Christmas period that year.

The male bird weighs about 12 to 13 grams while the female weighs 1 to 2 grams less than the male. The birds have a wingspan between 5 and 6 centimeters, and are about 13 centimeters in length. It is difficult to distinguish between the sexes of these birds by just looking at them. The male’s and the female’s plumage are the same and thus their outward appearance are very similar.

Being able to differentiate between the sexes on outward appearance occupied my mind for some time. I studied the voluminous photographs that I took looking for pointers to tell them apart. I noticed a difference between the male’s eyes and that of the female whilst studying my photographs. I found distinct differences between the sexes in the shape of their eyes, when the birds are observed carefully. I was initially skeptical about this, as this could have been an observation based on just two birds alone. It was whilst studying the coupling photographs that I became more secure in the knowledge that the careful observer could tell the sexes of the birds apart by looking at the shape of their eyes. I observed that the eyes of the male are rounder and more protruding than the eyes of the female. The female birds eyes are more oval (egg-shaped), when compared to the eyes of the male bird. I use this method to tell the sexes apart. It does however take some careful observation to notice the difference.

African Pygmy Kingfishers usually perch at a human eye level or lower in the bottom branches of the trees and shrubs. These birds also sit motionless for long periods of time. The only thing that may sometimes reveal their position is when they move their little heads up and down in a nodding motion. They will break cover by flying off suddenly from their perched position without any warning. It is thus exceptionally difficult to photograph Pygmy Kingfishers while in flight. All the observer sees is a flash of blue as the bird disappears from its perched position. In flight they sometimes make a soft tjick-tjick sound, seldom repeating it when sitting down. On occasion I have also observed them flying in big circles, playfully chasing each other.

African Pygmy Kingfishers hunt vertebrates and invertebrates that it has identified on the ground from their perches. They do catch small crabs, frogs and tadpoles at or near the edge of water, but unlike other kingfishers, will not dive into water (except to bathe) as their main food source is found on land. Although I have previously noted that these birds feed on frogs and tadpoles, I realised that during the last two weeks of December 2013, a large percentage of the prey fed to the chicks consisted of frogs and large tadpoles. I reviewed the photographs I took during that period and calculted that sixty-two percent of the prey that was photographed consisted of these amphibians, most of these were tadpoles of the Natal tree frog. These tadpoles already developed front limbs, but their tails were still clearly visible. Photos of the African Pygmy Kingfishers with these tadpoles and frogs were shown to an amphibian expert at the University of Pretoria and I am informed that these tadpoles were at the stage of their development where they will leave the water and sit next to the edge of the stream or on rocks within the stream. These tadpoles will not feed during this time but will get all their nourishment from the absorption of their tails.

African Pygmy Kingfisher with tadpole that was caught

The other prey taken, consists of vertebrates like lizards and geckos and invertebrates like spiders, crickets, moths, praying mantis, dragonflies, worms, cockroaches, etc.

Male African Pygmy Kingfisher with a lizard it had caught

Photo shows African Pygmy Kingfisher with a cricket prey

Gecko that has been caught

Like the other species of kingfishers found in South Africa the African Pygmy Kingfisher captures its prey by using its beak. The prey is held in the birds’ beak after it is captured. These birds carry the prey in its beak while it flies to the nest and the prey is not carried like large raptors would carry its prey in their talons.

These birds must be masterful flyers as flying with prey sometimes nearly as heavy as the bird, held firmly in the front of its beak, must have a severe influence on the balance of the bird during flight. African Pygmy Kingfishers will always fly in a straight line between points A and B, never more than a couple of meters above the ground. The prey is killed whilst the bird keeps it in his beak by either applying pressure to the prey, or by beating the prey against a solid object, which in the case of an African Pygmy Kingfisher, is usually the branch or perch on which the bird is sitting. Prey is swallowed head first. The behavior of killing the prey however changes when the chicks become a little older. At this stage the parents do not kill the prey presented to their chicks like for example Little Bee Eaters, but will take it alive into the nest. The parents will also never fly directly to the nest with prey, but will always land on a perch close to the nest from where they can ascertain if it is safe to enter the nest. Taking prey alive to the chicks, especially when they are older, must be nature’s way of teaching the chicks to hunt and kill when the time arrive to be self sufficient. Just imagine the “killing orgy” taking place in pitch darkness at the back of the nest when one of the parents delivers a small frog.

One parental function that I have not yet witnessed is flight training of the young birds. From my observations of the African Pygmy Kingfishers I think that this exercise may well occur at night. When one keeps in mind that the chicks are raised in darkness in the nest, only seeing the sun on occasion when they venture close to the nest opening, this makes a lot of sense.

In my experience the young are fed for at least three weeks. The chicks are fed with food proportionate to their size. In the beginning the adult bird is seen with smaller prey that is taken to the nest. With the effluxion of the time, the size of the prey tends to get larger as I assume the feeding requirements of the young increase. The young leave their nest and join their parents in the thick brush, growing stronger for their migration north. During this time it is very difficult to spot them in the thick brush. It is however very rewarding to see a juvenile perched on a low branch identified by its black bill. This younger birds, and especially the ones from the second breeding, must be able to fly hundreds of kilometers north on their migratory flight. They have to survive the dangers posed by monkeys, other birds, snakes, cats and humans, especially inquisitive children, some of whom will capture these birds for financial gain.

I confess that I am possessed when it comes to these little birds. I am mesmerized with their sheer beauty, spending countless hours observing their habits and photographing them at every available opportunity. While they are away I await their return the next season. I am utterly relieved when they are safe in spite of what nature and man has tested them with. I get a thrill every time they fly out of the bush and perches close to me. I enjoy showing them to bona fide birders, who may share some of the passion I have for these birds. I hope that the environment in this neck of the woods remains conducive to their annual return and that they will continue to provide the interest and joy to others that they have given me. I have, through these tiny birds, met many people, and have developed some special friendships. I have these tiny birds to thank for transforming the twilight years of my life into ones that I shall treasure. I am grateful to my creator, my Lord, for introducing me to the African Pygmy Kingfisher.

A version of this article and some other excellent photographs by Gerrit Lotz were published in the January/February 2016 Edition of African Birdlife Magazine. To view the article published in Birdlife magazine please visit the link below:

No reproduction, manipulation or alteration of any image or information on/or contained in this page without the attested written permission from Johan Hendrik Adriaan Saunders.
Last updated: 13th January 2018
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