New Zealand’s Sacred Kingfisher

We have a kingfisher in the UK, or so I am told, as I have only ever seen flashes of orange and blue as it disappears down stream. Now that I am in New Zealand, I’ve been looking out for kingfishers out here, too. I often hear a ‘keh-keh-keh’ as I go about my daily business, and even see the silhouette of New Zealand kingfishers perching, at height, on telegraph wires near waterways.

The New Zealand kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus vagans), also known at the sacred kingfisher or kōtare, is from a different subfamily to the Eurasian kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Both birds are listed as ‘least concerned’ under the IUCN, and are therefore relatively common in suitable habitat within their ranges.

The New Zealand kingfisher is native to New Zealand, and is also found in Australia and other parts of the western Pacific. There are a number of recognised subspecies, but the subspecies found in New Zealand is T. sanctus vagans. The various subspecies differ in size and colouration, with some having more yellowish-beige or even cinnamon underparts.  Todiramphus sanctus recurvirostris found in Samoa, is now considered to be a separate species, the flat-billed kingfisher (Todiramphus recurvirostris).

Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus vagans)


While I am yet to photograph the Eurasian kingfisher, I hope that one day I will sneak up on an unsuspecting individual and get the shots I desire. For now though, as I am in New Zealand, I will aim for the kōtare. NZ Birds Online describes the key ingredients that I need to look for in catching these guys: The location that holds the most promise will have elevated observation posts from which the birds can hunt from, banks or suitable standing trees to excavate nests in, and open or semi-open habitats which support a range of prey items.

I noticed regular kingfisher giggling, ‘keh-keh-keh’ around Emma’s parents’ house so decided to go on the hunt. It turns out that it was my lucky day. Emma’s house is high on a hill with a few Eucalyptus trees growing up out of a gully on one side. This meant that from the decking I was essentially at canopy height. I managed to spot an individual calling from a dead branch no more than 20 meters from me.


As I started shooting, a second kōtare arrived. Before I could check my photographs, they were gone and giggling to themselves, ‘keh-keh-keh’, in the distance. Luckily the shots turned out pretty sharp. As for the sex of kingfishers I came across, the jury is out. Are they male of female? Well, the females are generally duller and less vibrant. They look pretty vibrant to me, but maybe this is just because there isn’t a male in the picture to compare them to. This trend toward attractive males is a relatively common one in the animal kingdom. This is thought to be down to the females devoting so much time and energy to producing young. She has to therefore be choosy, picking the best and most healthy males – ones who can expend extra energy on looking good. In turn, this creates a type of natural selection (sexual selection), driving evolution to produce more and more gorgeous gentlemen. There are exceptions to this rule mind you, but I won’t get into that.

Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus vagans)

References and Further Reading

BirdLife International (Retrieved 29 Nov 2016)

The Internet Bird Collection (Retrieved 29 Nov 2016)

Birds in Backyards  (Retrieved 29 Nov 2016)

NZbirdsonline (Retrieved 29 Nov 2016)

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Fantastic bird and shots

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, John!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s