Kingfisher

Alcedo atthis

This "flying gem" has its true home in the Danube wetlands, which shelter the most important kingfisher breeding grounds in all of Austria. Like the Little Ringed Plover and the Common Sandpiper, the kingfisher has ideally adapted to floodwater conditions which constantly change and re-create the riverine environment. On the one hand, it requires the formation of sandy-loamy river banks where it can excavate its breeding tunnels. On the other hand, the kingfisher – which plunge-dives vertically into the water to catch small fish, its main source of food – requires an ever-evolving river bank structure with washed-up deadwood and overhanging branches as perches as well as shallow waters rich in small and young fish.

Description

The kingfisher is the only Central European member of a bird family which is especially bountiful in the tropics and spectacularly colourful. In shape and colouring, the kingfisher is absolutely distinctive among native birds. Varying according to light, the back shimmers azure blue to emerald green; underparts and cheek patch are bright orange. While hunting small fish from its raised perch, it looks plump and squat and seems to have a large head. The dagger-shaped bill makes up almost a fourth of the total body length and appears to be too heavy for the body. With a good set of binoculars one may differentiate between the sexes: the male has a fully black lower bill while the female bill has a reddish base.

Distribution
The kingfisher is an exceedingly widespread bird which inhabits all types of wetlands environments, from southern Eurasia to Japan, China, India and New Guinea. In Europe, the kingfisher is found nearly everywhere except in the northernmost latitudes (e.g. Scotland, Scandinavia). In Austria, the Donau-Auen National Park is the most important breeding grounds. Other important areas include the other sections of the Danube valley, the March-Thaya wetlands, some Danube tributaries (such as the Lower Pielach), and the rivers in the hill country of eastern Styria and southern Burgenland. In other areas, this species breeds only very locally and/or not annually.

Endangerment and Conservation Status
River regulation has led to the elimination of entire swaths of land as suitable habitats for the kingfisher. Due to the extent of population reduction, the bird is categorized as "endangered" on the IUCN Red List. And in the last years, the population has continued to decrease slightly. Of great danger to the kingfisher is the pollution of waters by toxic chemicals from industry, but also through eutrophication, or the overfertilization by agriculture and runoff from residential development. Negative population growth is being charted for the same reasons in most parts of Europe, above all in the "progressive" countries of Central and Western Europe. Thus the EU Birds Directive stipulates special protection of the kingfisher, as it does for other endangered birds of Europe, and its habitat in appropriate sanctuaries, the so-called Special Protection Areas.

Behaviour
The kingfisher perches in an upright or slightly-bent position on a dead branch, a piece of driftwood, or exposed roots, usually around one meter above the water. It is on the lookout for small fish and in summer, larger insect larvae. Once a small fish (usually from 4-7 cm in length) has been discovered, the kingfisher plunges – often after a brief "shaky flight" – vertically into the water, occasionally submerging itself completely. The lookout perch is changed frequently, often every 10 minutes. The kingfisher nest consists of an unlined chamber at the end of an earthen tunnel which is burrowed by the bird in the ground near to water. To protect the nest from flooding and predators, but also to facilitate easy landing, the entry is as high as possible and (at least at first) not overgrown with plants. While the populations in Northern and Eastern Europe leave their breeding grounds over the winter, in Central Europe the kingfisher is a typical partial migrant, e.g. one which only leaves the breeding area when insufficient sources of food are available, as when waters have frozen over.

Special Characteristics
Kingfishers are among the most "productive" birds: in good years, they may raise 6-7 young in three or even four broods. In this way they are able to balance out the more extreme population fluctuations due to high juvenile mortality but also particularly cold winters, which may sometimes lead to the complete collapse of entire kingfisher populations. It may take many years for a population to recover from such hardships.