Clades of Kingfishers

After reaching the Bhitarkanika National Park, we learnt that the brown-winged kingfisher is called the king of the forest. It was abundant. The flash of its orange and blue colouration easily visible, and often, in the green of the mangrove forest. This was one of the seven species of kingfishers we saw in a day.

So many species gave me some pause. How did they evolve? How are they connected? The current understanding of the evolution of kingfishers is that they probably radiated from southern Asia, speciating rapidly as they filled new niches in Australia and the Pacific islands. The Americas are likely to have been populated through two independent migrations from the Old World landmass. Studies are incomplete, and especially in the biogeographic ranges of Asia and India there is much that remains to be discovered.

There are three major clades of Kingfishers: Alcedininae (river kingfishers), Halcyoninae (tree kingfishers), and Cerylinae (water kingfishers). All three are present in Bhitarkanika national park. As far as we can tell today, the river kingfishers diverged from the base of the evolutionary tree. The branching between the other two clades came later. The small blue kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the white-breasted kingfisher and the pied kingfisher, representatives of the three clades are widespread in India. Somehow I didn’t have a good photo of pied kingfishers before, and I managed to get a fairly good one on this trip (below).

Lesser pied kingfisher, Ceryle rudis, in Bhitarkanika National Park, India

Here are the seven species we saw, listed in the three clades. The name in italics is the genus to which the different species belong.

  • River kingfishers (Alcedininae):
    • Alcedo: Small blue kingfisher
  • Tree kingfishers (Halcyoninae):
    • Halcyon: White-breasted kingfisher, Brown-winged kingfisher, Stork-billed kingfisher, Black-capped kingfisher
    • Todiramphus: Collared kingfisher
  • Water kingfishers (Cerylinae):
    • Ceryle: Lesser pied kingfisher

We’d seen stork billed kingfishers during our trip to Andaman in December. They did not seem to be particularly common there. They seemed to be even more rare here. We saw one briefly sitting with a pair of brown-winged kingfishers. They have similar bright orange coloration, with long red beaks, and it takes a moment to realize that the stork billed does not have a brown wing. I did not get a photo here at all. The ruddy kingfisher is seldom spotted here. One of the cooks at the hotel we stayed in was very interested in birds, and kept asking us whether we’d seen this. He told us that he has never managed to spot it. This agrees with Gopi’s checklist, which states that it is a vagrant. We never saw one.

Collared kingfisher, Todiramphus chloris, in Bhitarkanika National Park, India
Black capped kingfisher, Halcyon pileata, in Bhitarkanika national park, India

I’d first seen the collared kingfisher in Andaman. They are quite common here, and I managed to get a better photo than I’d got in December (above). It took me some time to spot the black-capped kingfisher. Our boatman, Amar, kept pointing them out to us, and I couldn’t see them at all for a while. Then I realized that they flit between the dipping branches of mangroves and the water. After that I caught sight of many. Eventually, the best photograph was of one which sat on a mooring pole for boats (alongside). The splash of lilac near the base of its tail is barely visible when it is perched, but is a beautiful sight when it flies.

Which part of Bhitarkanika is best for sighting of kingfishers? We found that the backwaters between the jetty in Khola village and Dangamal is a great place for these birds. We spotted all seven species in a single one hour boat ride between these points. You can also see them almost anywhere near the waters.

Birding in South Andaman

Birding map around Port Blair

We did birding in four spots around Port Blair, marked by the green patches in the map here. Chidiyatapu was a mix of forest and shoreline. Since the Andaman Trunk Road passes through the forest, and disturbs the birds, our best viewing here was early in the morning. Sippighat and Ograbranj are wetlands, and yielded very good sightings. Mt. Harriet in Bambooflats is another place where a day can yield good sightings. We visited Sippighat in the afternoon of December 22, Chidiyatapu the same night and again in the morning of December 23. We did birding in Ograbranj in the afternoon of December 23, and went up to Mt. Harriet on December 25.

Red collared dove

The Andaman group of Islands is full of endemics (marked with a star in the list below), and also has winter visitors. Even though I had done my reading, I was startled by the variety of visitors. I’d never expected to see Daurian’s starlings here. Andaman is so far from our normal birding grounds that our bird list is full of lifers (marked in bold):

  1. Alexandrine parakeet: Chidiyatapu
  2. * Andaman drongo: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  3. * Andaman bulbul: Chidiyatapu
  4. * Andaman collared kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj, Neil Island
  5. * Andaman (brown) coucal: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
Andaman Green Pigeon
  1. * Andaman cuckoo-dove: Chidiyatapu
  2. * Andaman flowerpecker: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  3. * Andaman green pigeon: Mt. Harriet
  4. * Andaman shama: Chidiyatapu
  5. * Andaman treepie: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  6. Asian brown flycatcher: Mt. Harriet
  7. Asian fairy bluebird: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  8. Barn swallow: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  9. Black bittern: Ograbranj
  10. Black drongo: Ograbranj
Blue Tailed Bee Eater
  1. Black-naped oriole: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  2. Blue-tailed bee-eater: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  3. Brahminy kite: Chidiyatapu
  4. Broad-billed sandpiper: Sippighat
  5. Brown hawk owl: Chidiyatapu
  6. Brown shrike: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  7. Brown shrike (Philippine): Mt. Harriet
  8. Brown-backed needletail: Mt. Harriet
Chinese Pond Heron
  1. Cattle egret: Sippighat
  2. Chestnut headed bittern: Ograbranj
  3. Chinese pond heron: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  4. Common coot: Sippighat
  5. Common crow: Sippighat
  6. Common kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  7. Common moorhen: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  8. Common myna: Sippighat
  9. Common redshank: Sippighat
  10. Common sandpiper: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  11. Common sparrow: Port Blair
  12. Cotton teal: Sippighat
  13. Curlew sandpiper: Sippighat
  14. Daurian starling: Sippighat
  15. Eastern jungle crow: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
Eurasian Whimbrel
  1. * Edible-nest swiftlet: Ograbranj
  2. Eurasian curlew: Sippighat
  3. Eurasian Whimbrel: Sippighat
  4. * Glossy swiftlet: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  5. Gray heron: Ograbranj
  6. Green imperial-pigeon: Chidiyatapu
  7. Indian cuckoo: Chidiyatapu
  8. Indian pond heron: Ograbranj
  9. Intermediate egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  10. Large egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  11. Lesser sand plover: Sippighat
  12. Lesser whistling teal: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  13. Little green heron: Sippighat
  14. Little-ringed plover: Sippighat
  15. Long-toed stint: Sippighat
  16. Oriental magpie-robin: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
Pacific Golden Plover
  1. Pacific golden plover: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  2. Pacific reef-egret: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Neil Island
  3. Pacific swallow: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  4. Pintailed snipe: Sippighat
  5. Purple swamp hen: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  6. Racquet-tailed drongo: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Neil Island
  7. Red-breasted parakeet: Chidiyatapu, Ograbranj
  8. Red-cheeked parakeet: Chidiyatapu
  9. Red-collared dove: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  10. Red-necked stint: Sippighat
  11. Red-throated pippit: Sippighat
  12. Red-whiskered bulbul: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  13. Scarlet minivet: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  14. Small egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  15. Small minivet: Chidiyatapu
Stork-billed Kingfisher
  1. * Spot-breasted woodpecker: Chidiyatapu
  2. * Stork-billed kingfisher: Ograbranj
  3. * Striated heron (Andaman): Mt. Harriet
  4. * Sunda teal: Ograbranj
  5. Vernal hanging parrot: Chidiyatapu
  6. Violet cuckoo: Ograbranj
  7. White-bellied sea-eagle: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Ograbranj, Neil Island
  8. White-breasted waterhen: Ograbranj
  9. White-headed starling: Chidiyatapu
  10. White-rumped munia: Chidiyatapu, Ograbranj
  11. White-throated kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  12. Wood sandpiper: Sippighat
  13. Yellow bittern: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  14. Yellow wagtail: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
White-rumped Munia

We are amateur birders, and I hardly have a spotter’s eye. The Family spends more time on it. We did our birding in Andaman with Shaktivel, Gokul and Senthil. Shakti guides tours in the Andamans, and his next project is to take a group to Great Nicobar. Gokul is a zoologist, collecting data for a checklist of birds in the Andamans. This will be the core of his Doctoral thesis. During our three days of birding, we met up with Mark Smiles, who is an excellent birder, and guides bird tours in Dubai.