Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Sacred Kingfisher

Reader alert: This is another road kill story - so if you find photos of freshly dead creatures offensive or "tasteless"- kindly come back tomorrow.

Today as I was driving to the Barrengrounds to show some British birdwatchers around there, a Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) flew into the wing mirror of my car. It was killed outright. I stopped and went straight back, and the bird was lying there, intact. it had not been squashed, simply stunned by the impact, but dead. It was a shame, but it was totally beyond my control. The bird literally flew into my car. I decided to make the best of it, to take some photos for reference purposes - and to share them on the Blog.

Firstly this is what a Sacred kingfisher looks like, close up. It is a beautiful bird, with a subtle blue and green colour blend on its back and wings. Underneath it has a buff colour. As with all Kingfishers (including Kookaburras), it has a huge head in relation to its body (compared to most other types of birds).The colours of the feathers on the back and wings look quite different, depending upon which direction one is looking from. *** This is because of the high sheen on the feathers, and hence the reflectivity of the colours. In one direction, the blue colours are darker and richer. In the other direction, the greenish tones (in the same feathers) are more prominent. I have used the background cloth as a guide, to ensure the "lightness" of the two images is as equal as possible. So the variation in colour of the birds feathers is a genuine "trick of the light", not because of variation in lightness of the two images. I have not altered the "colour balance" in any way.
The next image is of the head and beak of the kingfisher - seen at close range. For some reason the dot of ochre colour in front of the eye, seems very prominent. It is a genuinely beautiful bird.
The next feature of interest in Kingfishers is their foot structure. What you can see here is "normal" for Kingfishers. They have 3 forward pointing toes, and one rear pointing toe. But two of the toes are partially fused. You can clearly see what I mean in the upper foot in this next image. The two outer toes are joined much further along the foot than the inside toe - which separates from the foot pad at a much lower level.
From above, the toes are also clearly visible as being partially fused. This structure is known by biologists as "syndactyly" - meaning joined toes (from "syn"- together and "dactyl" - toe or finger). In human medicine, this term is used for an unusual condition, where two toes are partially fused.

In birds, as Wikipedia explains: "Syndactyly" ... is ..... that the third and fourth toes (the outer and middle forward-pointing toes), or three toes, are fused together." This foot structure is typical of Kingfishers and their relatives, Rollers ("Dollar Bird") and Bee-eaters ("Rainbow bird").

It is from structural features such as this that taxonomists trace related groups of birds. In Marsupials, they look at the toe structures, and teeth, to draw conclusions about related groups of animals.

Here is the group of bird watchers I was with today - my friends Len (right) and Jan (left), and British visitors, Elizabeth and Tony. In the background you can see the coast, near Kiama. This photo was taken at the "Illawarrra Lookout" in the Barrengrounds. It is a lovely spot, directly beside the top of the Escarpment, overlooking Jamberoo. On our way back to the car park, we saw an Echidna walking slowly across the track. It stopped for a bit of a scratch, which looked like quite process. My third Echidna in a week!

*** Editor's note:
The angle of the sun, relative to the bird and the observer, can seriously change the perceived colour of the bird. That's what I wanted to say last night, but could not think how to express it clearly.
Published photos of this species vary from light bluish-green to deep blue (with no visible trace of green). That's why I published the two photos of the same bird from different angles - to show the variation is to do with angle of light - not a difference in the birds.
Thanks to Mick for raising the query in the "Comments" about her old photos of this species, and the different colours she has recorded.


mick said...

Such a beautiful bird! Your photos are great for ID. Only when the bird is in the hand can you see all those details. I am intrigued with the range of colors in different birds up here - some are more green and some more blue. Its possibly partly to do with the light but there does seem to be differences. I must hunt out all my photos and see if I can do a post on that sometime.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Mick
Published photos of the Sacred Kingfisher tend to be very variable - from a light teal green, to bright deepest blue.
In your area, the "Forest Kingfisher" is always a bluer bird than this species, and whiter on the belly, of course.
I just wanted to point out that the angle of the sun, relative to the bird and the observer, can seriously change the perceived colour of the bird. That's what I wanted to say last night, but could not think how to express it clearly.
Thanks for the comment.

David said...

Hi Denis,

Very nice captures.
It is only through such events that a bird, or any other creature for that matter, can be studied so closely.
A rare event not wasted to the ravages of a decomposition that is inevitable considering its fate.
A very detailed analysis...and a matter of regret to you, I know, considering the respect I know you to have for all living things.
Is it going to a taxidermist?
It could be an invaluable study aid.


Mosura said...

The toe arrangement is interesting. I wonder if this serves a particular function or if it's just the way it is.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi David,
Thanks - it was shock to me, but more so to the bird. It is a great chance, not one to be missed, to present the finer details of bird anatomy - via the internet. The bird will be given to CSIRO's bird collection in Canberra.
Hi Mosura.
I wish I knew about the thing with the toes. I do know that parrots have unusual toe arrangements, and also Owls. Parrots feet are the classic 3:1 arrangement, but they can swing one toe sideways to give more like a 2:2 arrangement - which would be a very good grip for spin bowling, by the way.
Similarly Owls, but their toes are extrememly powerful and also legs fully feathered.
Another reason for studying road kills - as David said.

Tyto Tony said...

Gidday Denis,

Sensitive, informative post.

On toes, Ospreys have reversible outer toe. very useful - along with super grip - for grabbing and holding on to live fish.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Tony
Thanks fo the recognition that it had to be treated sensitively, Tony.
I did not know about Osprey feet. Makes perfect sense. As I mentioned, Owls certainly have similar arrangement, but with slippery, scale-covered fish, it would be even more necessary.
Mosura asked me about the evolutionary "reason" for the shape of Kingfisher's feet.
I cannot even hazard a guess, but simply acknowledge that it is a fact. But I do know that taxonomists use such clues to trace evolutionary lines of descent.


Tsun-Thai Chai said...

Just curious - do birds always close their eyes when they die? Any idea?

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Chai
Interesting question. I did notice the soft membrane of the eye lid had closed. The bird was heavily stunned - probably brain damage. One eye lid closed - the other did not. Fluid was leaking from the other side, so naturally I photographed the top side. So, even this case gives a 50:50 response to your question. But because of massive internal injuries in this case, I could not say what is normal.
From memory, some birds have two eye coverings - the thicker one is what you are seeing. I think some have a clear membrane which moves horizontally. More research required.