This post will primarily be useful for people who live in regions inhabited by kingfishers. Wikipedia suggests that’s likely to be lots of you (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingfisher ). However, there are wider issues here about seeing what’s actually there, and finding wildlife by getting to know what it does, so there should be some wider relevance.
The kingfisher, as the image demonstrates, is a brightly coloured bird that eats small freshwater fish. It seems reasonable to expect that it would therefore be easy to spot, and this (I think) is why many people don’t actually see them. Photos of kingfishers are misleading, as they most usually show the bird with the light catching it to really show off the iridescent colours of the plumage. Without the right lighting, the kingfisher is much more nondescript to look at. When motionless amongst plant life, the colour distribution breaks up the bird shape, and makes them surprisingly hard to spot. I’ve found it’s often the case that things that look colourful when presented in a book often blend in far more effectively than anticipated.
The best place to look for kingfishers is at the margins of water. They can hunt from a few feet above the surface if there’s plants or a bank to sit on. When looking for fish they are fairly still, only the speculative tilting of the head will give them away, and that’s a pretty subtle movement. When they move, they move fast – a sudden plunge into the water and a rapid shift – often to a new perch. If you see the flash of flight and a streak of blue, you’ve probably got one. The trick is to keep looking at this point because the odds are the kingfisher hasn’t gone far and you can get a better look at it.
I have on numerous occasions now seen kingfishers in flight about a foot from the bank, low above the water. It’s a very rapid flight, and this often gives them away without a glimpse of colour. Spotting where they land and moving in for a closer look often delivers rewards. I’ve been able to get close to them repeatedly without bothering them – if they are somewhere people frequent, they can be very relaxed.
On occasion, kingfishers will hunt from higher perches – telephone wires across canals for example. Here it is the sudden, high speed dive that gives them away. I’ve also seen them in flight much higher and away from water – moving between bodies of water – here it’s the overall bird and beak shape that is most readily identified. They’re about the size of a blackbird, but have a longer beak by far.
Kingfishers are something a person is unlikely to see unless specifically looking for them. The speed of movement and the tendency to stay close to the bank and plant matter makes them hard to spot. If you are looking, and they are about, you will see them. They work quite large territories, so you won’t necessarily see them all the time, or on the first few tries. The kingfisher itself hunts with what looks to me like a combination of patience and curiosity. Its sits still, watching the water, waiting, paying attention. It strikes when ready, sometimes it gets a fish, sometimes not. Either way, it waits and tries again. A similar approach to looking for them has served me very well.