The Jewel of the African Water Bodies

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Focus on the water while waiting for game to arrive for happy hour at the waterhole and you may be rewarded with a flash of blue darting towards the surface from the trees above. This is the malachite kingfisher, Alcedo cristata, one of the most attractive birds in sub-Saharan Africa, which is found wherever there is water and a convenient perch for fishing.

Named after the mineral, malachite, which is an attractive green or blue colour with black streaks, this kingfisher measures only 14cm and tips the scales at 18g.

The upperparts of the bird are almost entirely blue with a metallic turquoise and black crest down to the eye. The underparts are a russet colour, with a white patch on the throat and sides of the neck, the feet and bill are reddish orange.

The nesting habits of the Malachite are like those of the giant kingfisher, which excavates a tunnel in a vertical riverbank. Using the tip of its bill like a pick, the bird repeatedly flies against the chosen spot until it manages to chip a small recess out of the surface. Employing this niche as a perch, the parents use their feet and beaks to dig a tunnel 60 to 90cm long, with a small chamber at the end. Three to six eggs are laid in this chamber and incubated for 15 days, mainly by the female.

The chicks are fed mainly on tilapia (fish) and grow rapidly, eventually becoming heavier than their parents. At this point they are put on a diet until they start to leave the nest at 25 days old. The fledglings practice their fishing skills by dive-bombing twigs and leaves in the water and are eventually ready to spread their wings at about 38 days of age.

Malachite kingfishers will sit quietly on a perch scouring the surface for small fish, tadpoles and dragonflies. When it spots a likely candidate it dives. The diving ability of the kingfisher is astonishing – in the space of three seconds, it can plummet to a depth of up to 60cm (about 400 times its height), at 90km per hour, grasp its prey and then turn and 'swim' back to the surface using its wings. To compete with this, a human would have to dive 26 metres and emerge with a sheepdog in the same amount of time!

Make sure to adjust the shutter speed on your camera if you would like to catch this tiny fisherman in action.

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Tuesday, 12 December 2017