By Jagath Gunawardana
The Black-capped Kingfisher is one of the most brightly coloured migrants that come to Sri Lanka but is not seen by many due to being present in and around water bodies.
It is rather late to arrive, usually reaching Sri Lanka in November. There is a possibility that it is one of the three birds that could be reaching Sri Lanka through the Andaman Islands.
Unlike the other members of the family found in Sri Lanka, it is usually seen in brackish water and coastal habitats such as lagoons, estuaries, mangroves and even along the coast. However, some individuals go further inland and frequent freshwaters. Most of the observations of this species have been from the Eastern and the Southern Provinces.
As repeated by the late W.W.A. Phillips from 1973 to his last article in 1980, it would be possible that this species reaches Sri Lanka through the Andaman Islands. However, it is sad to note that nothing much has been done to ascertain this fact and the question still remains unresolved ever since the demise of Phillips in 1980.
There are several recent records of it from the wet zone such as the one that was seen at Dandugam Oya in Ja-ela (adjacent to the Muturajawela) in the Gampaha District during the late 1990s and the one that is seen near the Thalpitiya Oya bridge in Wadduwa in the Kalutara District in the mid-2000s.Two different individual varieties have been seen during the last season (2011-2012) in the mouth of Maa-Oya in the Puttalama District (intermediate zone).
Silent, peaceful bird
During its stay in Sri Lanka, each individual occupies a territory and remains confined to it throughout the season unless unfavorable conditions or disturbances force it to seek refuge in another territory. A peaceful bird, it does not attack other birds that come in to the territory. Some are rather shy but others will tolerate a certain amount of disturbances and the Ampara bird, the Uda Walawa bird, the one seen at the Galle ramparts and the Wadduwa bird let people approach close without getting frightened. When disturbed, it flies away silently to another perch within the territory.
Each territory has several preferred perches from which it hunts prey or seeks shelter from the hot sun. These perches are higher branches of trees that hang over the water body and help it to hunt. The mode of hunting adopted by this species is to plunge down from a height, similar to the method adopted by the White-breasted Kingfisher. It feeds mainly on small fish but has been seen feeding on small crabs and other creatures such as insects. It is always seen near a water body but would hunt prey from the ground along the edge of the water. The flight is fast and straight. It seems to be mostly silent during its stay in Sri Lanka.
A regular visitor
The first record of the Black-capped Kingfisher from Sri Lanka was made by E.L. Layard in the late 19th Century when he was able to procure a specimen from the Jaffna Peninsula. It was considered a scarce resident for a long time and even the Checklist of the Birds of Ceylon of 1952 by W.W.A. Phillips considered that the status of it is uncertain but probably a scarce resident. However, in his 1978 Checklist, the status is given as a rare winter vagrant to low-country wet and dry zones. It is now considered a regular but rare winter visitor that arrives in Sri Lanka in small numbers every year. The number of records has shown an increase during the recent past which can be partly due to the increasing number of bird watchers.
There are some features that it shares with the very common White-breasted Kingfisher that causes some confusion in identifying this species, resulting in some individuals being overlooked. Both have the same build, are closely similar in shape and size, both have white breasts, black wing-coverts and show white wing patches in flight, red beak and red feet. Adding to this confusion is the fact that the colour of the Black-capped Kingfisher is not a very conspicuous purple as some assume but is really a dark ultramarine-blue with a purple hue that shows up as a dark, dull blue in poor light conditions.
Nevertheless, the differences are easy to see as the Black-capped has a black cap and a white collar while the White-breast has a dark reddish-brown (reddish umber) head with no collar. The sides of the breast and the abdomen of the White-breasted are of the same dark colour as opposed to the brighter and lighter orange-brown of the other. The back, the rest of the wings and the tail of the White breasted are a bright cerulean or turquoise blue as opposed to the darker ultramarine of the other. The beak of the White-breasted is a dark, dull maroon as opposed to the bright red of the other. In the White-breasted the upper parts are lighter than the rest of the plumage while the under parts of the Black-capped are lighter.
* Kingfishers belong to the family Alcinidinae.
* They are large-headed, short-necked, long-billed, stout-bodied and short-tailed birds with bright and colourful plumages.
*Their legs are very short and weak and the front toes are united along most of the length (syndactyle).
*They are totally carnivorous and many species feed mainly on fish, as implied by the name. The long and pointed beak has the lower mandible flattened and broad as a tray to keep prey securely.
*This family has 93 species in the world.
*Seven species have been recorded from Sri Lanka, with no endemics.
*The only migrant kingfisher that comes to Sri Lanka is the Black-capped Kingfisher.
* The Black-capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) is also known as the Black-capped Purple Kingfisher.
*It is known as the Dam-Pilihuduwa in Sinhala. (In Tamil it is known as Karunthalai Meenkothi -DBSJ)
*It is about 30cm (12 inches) in length or about the size of a Common Mynah or slightly larger than the closely related White-breasted Kingfisher to which it is similar in shape.
*It has a black head, a conspicuous white collar around the neck beneath the black that joins with the white breast.
*The sides of the breast and the abdomen are orange- brown or a rusty-brown.
*The wing coverts are black. The black primaries have a large white patch that can be clearly seen in flight.
*The back, the rest of the wings and the tail are a dark purplish-blue (ultramarine blue tinged with purple) that gives a purple sheen when in strong light.
*The beak is a bright red (vermillion) in colour and the legs and toes are a darker red.
*The dark brown eyes look almost black from a distance.
*Sexes are similar in size and appearance. courtesy: Ceylon Today