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Kotare, the Kingfisher

 I heard the old familiar piping of Kotare, the kingfisher, this morning. I do occasionally see a kingfisher, always solitary, usually along Wood Street, in Greytown, but nothing like the large numbers I used to see around Ohiwa Harbour in the eastern Bay of Plenty. There they would congregate during the winter, sitting on power lines, waiting for crabs to emerge from their holes in the mud flats at low tide. A concentration of kingfishers indeed! In the summer they would disperse up the river valleys to nest.

I do wonder if they used to be more numerous around here when frogs and tadpoles were commonly found in ponds and cattle troughs around the farms or even in backyard ponds. Alas, the green bell frog is seldom seen these days, something no one seems to lament as they are an Australian import. However, some of our birds have suffered from their demise, notably the kingfisher, the herons and the bitterns. With the loss of the native fishery with the introduction of trout, these birds no doubt took advantage of the introduced species. Birds do not distinguish between native and introduced.

The kingfisher species, Halcyon sanctus, is found in New Guinea, Australia, Tasmania, New Caledonia, the Solomon, Kermadec, Lord Howe, Norfolk and Loyalty Islands. The New Zealand sub-species, vagans, is distinguished from the Australian sub-species by its larger size and broader bill and generally by the distinctiveness of its green and blue colours.

Halcyon is the Greek word for kingfisher and refers to a bird fabled to breed about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea and to charm the wind and waves so that the sea was then specially calm, hence “halcyon days”. The specific name of sanctus, the Sacred Kingfisher, was, according to the ornithologist W.R.B Oliver, bestowed on the species as far back as 1782 because of the veneration paid to the bird in some Pacific Islands.

According Oliver, it is a fearless bird and readily attacks mammals and birds of its own size and larger. “Starlings are driven away, red billed gulls put to flight, a Tui killed, cats and dogs blinded in one eye and even weasels attacked. Every kind of small animal is attacked, killed and eaten by the kingfisher. The mouse is a first favourite and the bird’s sharp eyes and quick actions are usually effective when one comes into view. Before being swallowed the victim is pulped and its bones broken by battering on the kingfisher’s perch. Small birds such as Tauhou, the white eye, are eaten and lizards where they are plentiful. Larger insects also form part of the diet.” However, around here, I have mostly observed them taking nothing more than worms and insects so I must take their bad reputation on trust.

They nest in a burrow either in a clay bank or a tree, very often a decaying willow. To start a tunnel they sit on a branch slightly above and several metres away from the site and fly straight at it, neck outstretched and uttering a peculiar whirring call, and strike it forcedly with the bill tip. They continue until the hole is big enough to perch in and scoop out. The nesting burrow can be as much as 24cm long and will be used year after year. The female does most of the brooding while the male supplies the food. They are bad housekeepers and the nests are often quite filthy.

Elsdon Best expressed some surprise that Maori never used the feathers of Kotare for decorative cloaks, considering the bird’s very colourful feathers. However, he also said some Maori were prejudiced against them because it was observed that they ate lizards which are regarded as guardians of the mauri of the forest.

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