kōtare the Sacred Kingfisher

The Sacred Kingfisher or kōtare in Māori inhabits much of our coastal areas here in New Zealand during the winter and invades the interior during the summer to nest and raise young.

Closely related genetically to the Australian Kookaburra, both are classified as Kingfishers and both wield a disproportionately hefty bill to body size.

All the images in this essay are available for sale as prints, to learn more about an image click on the image itself.

Meet some of the characters.

A few years ago a friend and I set out to find as much as we could about these birds and
to my surprise, very little is known about them.
We remain a little confused in regards to the physiological appearance between juveniles, adult males and females. Some birds go bluer during the summer while others are blue all year round.
Looking back through my historical archives (Lightroom) I find I took my first digital image of a Kotare on the 4th of January 2007.


I have to admit right from the get-go, I’m a sucker for colour and when it comes to colour the kōtare has it in spades, only in my books does the Tui have the same variation in colour depending on the light value. Sometimes bluish sometimes, more greenish, the kōtare is one attractive bird.
From what I’ve gleaned from the Google god the female appears to be the bigger bird overall than males and less colourful.
I’m guessing that being the case female displays a mottled front as opposed to the bright uniform yellow of the smaller male this sets the two sexes apart.
Juveniles are less colourful, untidy in appearance and have a brownish back.

The Male kōtare is smaller overall than the female and much more colourful with a splendid even coloured yellow chest and underbody.

I would be guessing that this is a female kōtare due to its larger size and less bright colours, but then again the colour could be simply down to the light. This image was taken at the Pauatahanui Inlet where there is a very healthy number of bird photographers present most weekends.

kōtare the Sacred Kingfisher

kōtare Habits

The kōtare is a truly adaptable bird, making good use of a wide range of environments from coastal areas to the interior rural farmlands.
The Birds I have been photographing live in a coastal inlet, their lives governed by the tides and water surface conditions during the winter months.
Mostly our birds live on crabs, they perch on any structures that give them a vantage point, where they watch into the water as the tide recedes or comes in and over the exposed tidal flats for the movement of crabs on low tide.

As the tide comes in or starts to recede the kōtare take up their positions on their favourite perch, often placed there by us in a position that gives us the best chance of getting good images.
From their vantage point, they can launch a dive.

Once the kōtare catches his Crab he returns to his perch where he smashes the crab against the wood to soften the shell and break the legs off. This makes the crab easier to swallow. Notice he has his eye cover covering his eye for protection. Pauatahanui Inlet Wellington New Zealand.

Catching these birds returning to their perches with their prize is exciting as well as frustrating at times.
This time I was rewarded with this image.

Casting the crab shell

Much of the crab shells kōtare consume accumulate in the stomach and is then regurgitated later in the form of a shell capsule. This process is called casting
Other food sources include small fish, mice, lizards and a myriad of insects.

The casting process starts with the neck and throat muscles tensing and the bird looks like it is dry reaching.

And out the capsule of Crab crispiness pops

There seems a social order but as yet I have been unable to identify the top birds. Room for the best perch can get heated and shuffling for top spot seems to be a bit of a sport.
Getting the perfect shot has become a bit of an obsession, not only with myself but with a number of likeminded photographers and it isn’t out of the ordinary to find 3-6 people hiding in camo blankets cameras loaded on tripods, aimed at the purposely placed perches.

kōtare the Sacred Kingfisher A10

Wither the kōtare comes in the blue or green models they never fail to impress me.

The Blue-backed kōtare version

This would have to be the most colourful kōtare I have ever photographed.

The Green-backed kōtare version

This awesome coloured kōtare poses for me in the soft light of a sinking sun on the Waikanae Estuary.

This awesome coloured kōtare poses for me in the soft light of a sinking sun on the Waikanae Estuary.

So far I’m reasonably happy with my results and fairly confident that with more practice and better technique some better results will come. I hope you enjoy my efforts so far.
My overall Photographic sage advice for getting the best possible images of these birds would be to get to your location early or stay late and wait for the golden hour. The soft light brings the best colours out in these birds.

I am available for kōtare workshops. If you would like further information contact me via  email or pm me here


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