RED-BACKED KINGFISHER
John Pople
(This past summer John, after discovering a pair of Red-backed Kingfishers excavating a nest in a gravel bank beside a creek where he lives, decided to make a project of observing their nesting habits. He made extensive observations and notes. The following are extracts from his notes. Though it took time and no doubt at times trouble to do this, it was very satisfying for John. To take time to stop and look and observe the wonders around us is to grow in knowledge and wisdom isn’t it? - the knowledge of the things of creation and the knowledge and wisdom of God, who made all things.)

On the 4th December 1999, I sighted a Red-backed Kingfisher (R-bK) on the edge of Pyramid Creek approximately 2.6 kilometres north of Milnes Bridge on the Murray Valley Highway, midway between Cohuna and Kerang in Northern Victoria. When first sighted it was perched 5 metres up on a dead Black Box near an old dam -excavated in 1969 for sub-soil testing. The dam is set back about 10 metres from the creek. The R-bK was perched with its back to the setting sun, highlighting its orange tan back.

6th December: A warm sunny morning. The R-bK was on the side of the creek which I normally traverse whilst birdwatching and this gave me better views from only 10 metres. The bird had a grey streaked crown; a thin black band was round its head from eye to eye. It was dullish grey green on the upper back and wings, rufous red tan lower back and rump, a grey blue tail and a black back. The rest of the body was a dull white. The bird tolerated my close scrutiny for only a minute then flew further along the creek frontage.

A few notes on the habitat of the area: Both sides of Pyramid Creek in this area have extensive stands of old Black Box with some areas of younger re-generative trees. Many of the older trees have died or have dead branches. The patch of timber near the old dam site has an extensive area of dead trees intermingled with quite a few live and seemingly healthy trees. The understorey is mainly Cottonbush; Dillon Bush with clumps of Lignum here and there. There are also a few Boxthorns. Ground cover is mainly introduced grasses with some patches of native grass. There are also areas of salt tolerant succulent plants. Fallen branches are plentiful. The creek itself has been degraded to the status of an irrigation channel.

Other animals in the area include a large population of rabbits. Feral cats are not uncommon, as are foxes. Black Kites, Little Eagles and occasionally Whistling Kites, Brown Falcons and Wedge-tail Eagles patrol the timbered frontage. Several families of Grey-crowned Babblers somehow survive the predatory cats and foxes etc. Some large goannas have been sighted along the creek and the smaller skink population appears to be substantial. Some 70+ species of birds have been sighted along this stretch of creek.

24th December: I drove along the opposite side of the creek to where I live, and stopped a hundred metres from the old dam. After an hour and a half of searching I was peering into what looked like a Pardalote’s nesting burrow with about a 3cm entrance, when I heard a quick flutter of wings close by. I turned to see the R-bK flying up and away from a hole only a metre or two from where I stood. It came from a burrow with an entrance hole of about 4 cm wide, set into a vertical section of the bank about one and half metres above ground level and half a metre below a young black box growing out of the bank. The R-bK perched nearby and made no scalding or other calls, but I hurried to get out of the way fearing that my close presence to the nest site could cause desertion.

30th December: Observing from ‘my side’ of Pyramid Creek - Lyons Road, I watched one of the parent birds take a food item, very small, could have been a grasshopper, to the entrance of the nest burrow, where it clung to the clay bank and just poked it’s head into the entrance and then flew off to perch nearby. From this feeding action I concluded that there must be young and that they must be waiting for their meal close to the burrow entrance or that the male was feeding a brooding female. It is now nearly four weeks since I first sighted the R-bK near this site, so I suspect that it could be young that are being fed, and close to fledging. Incubation is reported as 20 days, and fledging takes place 3 weeks later. There is the possibility that the birds could have begun nesting a week or so earlier than the 4th December.

1st January: It is 6:30 am and a cool to cold morning. Both parent R-bK were perched away from the nest burrow, approximately 8 metres, sunning themselves in the early morning sunlight on the twig of a Black Box tree growing on the edge of a dam and overlooking the creek. Perhaps the young are well feathered enough to keep themselves warm in the confines of the nest burrow. On the way home I watched a group of six Grey-crowned Babblers. They were climbing down branches and hopping around on the ground in the grass and litter feeding. I also noticed a pair of Eastern Shrike-tits feeding a persistent well-feathered juvenile. A White-browed Woodswallow was also collecting food for her nearby young.

Later in the day, 2.10 pm, I arrived just in time to see both parent R-bK alight simultaneously with food in their beaks on a small branch of a sapling Black Box about 5 metres from the nest, and level with the entrance burrow. One bird flew to the burrow entrance, poked its beakfull in and departed within seconds. The second bird waited until its mate had flown off before it too enacted the same procedure, but flew back and sat on the ‘observatory’ branch for 30 seconds before departing. I never saw the R-bK fly directly to the nest from the bush with food. They always followed the ‘safe’ procedure of first arrive and sit with food on the ‘observatory’ branch for a few seconds and then go in and feed the chicks, and then nine times out of ten, fly back to the ‘observatory’ branch before departing for more food. The parents fed the chicks at about five minute intervals in about an equal ratio. The male’s brighter turquoise blue wings were quite noticeable. The largest ‘prey’ item I saw fed the chicks was a small Skink. The larger food items of lizards and grasshoppers were turned lengthways in the beak a second or so before presentation to the young. The entrance to the nesting burrow appeared to be now a bit larger. About 60cm below the entrance to the nest burrow, the sloping banks now stained with white bird faeces and nest detritus, and some around the nesting burrow entrance.

3rd January: It is a warm, partly overcast day, and it is 3.00 pm. The R-bK’s are hard at it feeding the young at approximately 7-8 minutes. Each bird, after delivering its food item, flew back to the ‘observatory’ perch and rested a minute or two, holding it wings slightly apart from the body and the beak agape about one and half cm. It must be fairly energy sapping work for these little guys, eight or nine hours a day for three weeks.

7th January: At 12.25 pm on approaching the nest site I noticed a fox prowling slowly in the area of timber quite close to the dam bank. There was an approximately 20 minute lull in feeding while the birds seemed to wait until the fox had moved on. Otherwise both parents were on duty and very busy.

At 6.55 returning to the nest site, I noticed two foxes, noses to the ground, carefully quartering the area thirty metres of so to the west of the nest site, and slowly coming closer. I decided not to tolerate interference with the R-bK by foxes or cats. When I revealed my presence the foxes vanished. Foxes and feral cats do so much shocking damage to our native wildlife.

11th January: At 9.00 am I approached the nesting site and walked fairly close to it. The adult R-bK gave a harsh warning of a short chatter, and would not feed the young whilst I was so close. I could hear the nestling squeaking in the burrow from 5 or 6 metres away. I observed an additional two feral cats and another fox near the site. A large goanna, approximately 1.3 metres in lengthy was also seen slowly making its way towards the dam, its long forked tongue flick in and out as it searched under every bush and log along its path. The next second it was being ‘dive bombed’ by both parent R-bK who maintained their aggressive swooping attacks until the Goanna almost nonchalantly investigated the lower edge and surrounding logs of the bank before moving, at its own leisurely pace, away into the bush. This was the first time I had noticed the R-bK make an attempt to drive away a potential predator. Peregrine Falcons have also been flying of late along the creek

13th January: At one feeding the male bird delivered a large limp centipede to the young. Evidently the nestling up front receiving the meal was a little reluctant or had trouble swallowing the centipede. The male bird stayed close by for a few minutes and made several checks on the feeding progress, putting his head and beak in the burrow entrance each time with what appeared to be little helpful nudges with its beak. Four or five of these ‘progress checks’ were made before he was satisfied and flew away hunting for more food.

15th January: It is 8.oo am and one young R-bK has fledged, and is perched about 25 metres away from the nest burrow on a small dead sapling. The parent bird guarding this fledgling ‘buzzed’ me, making a harsh scalding chatter as soon as I appeared. The other parent, it looked like the male, continued visiting the nest with food items. The newly fledged R-bK, apart from being a bit smaller, was quite well coloured, being similar in appearance to the adult female. Other birds were in the area, including Grey-crowned Babblers, chuckling to one another as they slowly passed by, feeding in the lower trees and on the ground. I could hear Pied Butcherbirds calling a few hundred metres away. Other smaller birds were also about, such as the White-plumed Honeyeater, Willie Wagtails and Superb Fairy-Wrens.

16th January: At 4:45 pm, the weather being very hot (40c) I noticed that only the male seemed to be visiting the nest burrow with food, and that infrequently. I had to wait an half-hour to make this observation. I decided to walk along the creek in the hope of another sighting of the first fledged bird. After walking 100 metres I saw among the trees growing along the creek three fledglings sitting within a couple of metres on one another, fairly well up in the branches of a Black Box, their white front feathers standing out clearly as they sat facing the late sun. Each one was well feathered and strong looking. None of them moved as I walked back along the track and passed within 5 metres of the tree in which they were sitting. One parent R-bK, it appeared to be the male, was perched 30 metres back watching from a higher vantage point, but made no threatening swoops toward me.

I wondered if the female was attending another fledging - the first one on the other side of the creek? If that were so, it would mean four fledged and one to go - not a bad effort for these little parents. Keeping tabs on them now that they are out of the nest will be difficult. It is encouraging to see them healthy though, and perhaps some if not all of this brood will make it back to the rugged beauty of the Australian interior as they make their nomadic journey north for the winter months.

17th January: I noticed that all activity at the nest site had ceased, so I presumed that all young had fledged and were scattered in the Black Box along the creek.

18th January: I noticed three juvenile R-bK along the creek opposite the nesting site, but no parent birds were seen.

20th January: Two juvenile R-bK’s and one adult bird were observed.

21st January: Three juvenile R-bK’s seen in the same area with the female adult present.

28th January: An extensive search along both sides of the creek frontage failed to turn up any R-bK, although there were many other birds who were very active after some recent rain. Birds still feeding flying young were White-browed and Dusky Woodswallows. Other interesting birds noticed were Australian Hobby, Little Eagle, Brown Goshawk, Sacred Kingfisher and Pied Butcherbird.

31st January: On my morning walk today at approximately 7am I was treated to an exhilarating sight of six R-bK sitting in the early morning sunshine in a small Black Box tree growing near their nesting burrow. Each bird had its back to the sun and they were sitting in groups of three, two and one, all roughly within a metre circle. The family was all together at last. I was thrilled to observe the little family of six R-bK’s sitting together close to their old home site on this last day of January 2000. To me this was their ‘final salute’ for I have recorded no further sightings.

Questions arise such as, was there a fifth fledgling - the one that emerged first from the nest and seemed to keep to itself and be fed separately some distance from the others? Did the family group fly a long distance away in a matter of days? Or did they take it in easy stages following the tree-lined watercourses on their northward nomadic journey? Did they separate from one another for the journey, or travel as a group? The question that interests me most is, will any of the R-bK return later this year to raise another family in this Victorian ‘neck of the woods’?




This report was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, April 2000