Kingfishers of Malaysia

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Malaysia Kingfishers

The kingfishers of Malaysia are truly avian royalties. ‘Kings’ of the bird world, they demand our attention whenever they’re around. There’s something about them that captivates, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ as the French would say. Is it their bright and colourful plumages? Is it their oversized spear-like bills? Or is it their upright stance when perched? Whatever it is, kingfishers as a group are much beloved by birdwatchers and photographers everywhere, Malaysia included.

Kingfishers of Malaysia

Many of the kingfishers of Malaysia are familiar to local birders and photographers. However, beginners and visiting birders may not be as well-versed. Therefore, this article aims to present a general overview of the kingfishers found in Malaysia. Each entry has a photo (wherever possible) and a short description, followed by where to find it in Malaysia. 

Certain species will also be elaborated further with their own article, which will be linked to in their respective entries. Eventually, I hope to create a separate article for all of the kingfishers of Malaysia!

Number of species

Malaysia has 14 species of kingfishers (plus 1 vagrant). Most of them are residents, with a handful of migratory species. 

Compared to other Southeast Asian countries (all info from the Avibase checklists of the respective countries):

  • Philippines has 16 (plus 1 vagrant) 
  • Thailand has 16 (plus 1 vagrant)
  • Indonesia has a whopping 53 species! (unsurprising, considering the number of islands within the archipelago)
  • Singapore has 8 (plus 2 vagrants) 
  • Cambodia has 11 
  • Vietnam has 12

Taxonomy

The kingfishers of Malaysia belong to the kingfisher family, Alcedinidae. They’re further divided into three groups, or subfamilies:

  1. River kingfishers (Alcedininae) – 5 species
  2. Tree kingfishers (Halcyoninae) – 9 species
  3. Water kingfishers (Cerylinae) – 1 vagrant species

River Kingfishers of Malaysia 

These are the classic kingfishers; most live near water and hunt for fish and other aquatic organisms.

1) Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Kingfisher, Common
Common Kingfisher

When a layperson thinks of kingfishers, this is the bird that comes to mind. The archetypal small kingfisher, with a spear-like bill, short tail and relatively big head. It’s bright turquoise-blue, with orange ‘ear’ spots and underparts. It is widely distributed, ranging from Ireland in the west, across the Eurasian continent, all the way east to the Solomon Islands. 

Where to see it in Malaysia:

A common migrant, this bird visits Malaysia during the northern winter (September until April). Look for them around open country wetlands, such as paddyfield canals, coasts, fishponds, disused mining ponds, etc. A good location is Kuala Selangor Nature Park.

2) Blue-eared Kingfisher (Alcedo meninting)
Blue-eared Kingfisher of Malaysia
Blue-eared Kingfisher

It is similar in appearance to the Common Kingfisher but has a deeper, more indigo blue instead. It also has the namesake blue ‘ears’.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Relatively common resident within Malaysia. Look for this beauty around forest rivers, streams, or swamps. Also found around forest edge habitats, and occasionally, mangrove forests. They’re easily seen at the Kinabatangan River, Sabah.

3) Malaysian Blue-banded Kingfisher (Alcedo peninsulae)
Malaysian Blue-banded Kingfisher male
Male Malaysian Blue-banded Kingfisher

This bird looks like an upsized version of the Common Kingfisher. The male has the namesake turquoise-blue band across an otherwise white underparts. The female has rufous underparts instead (and no blue band). This species isn’t endemic to Malaysia despite being named’ Malaysian’.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

An uncommon resident, this species is a forest specialist; search for them along forested rivers and streams. Good locations include Taman Negara Kuala Tahan, Pahang and Sungai Congkak, Selangor.

4) Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher (Ceyx rufidorsa)
Dwarf-Kingfisher, Rufous-backed
Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher

Tiny kingfisher with a bright, fiery plumage. Rufous head and wings, with yellow underparts. The back is rufous or pink. Two main versions exist in Malaysia; the Sabah version has blue wings instead of rufous.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Reasonably common resident. Lives in forested habitats, often (but not always) near water. Good locations include Sungai Congkak, Selangor and Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC), Sepilok, Sabah.

More information: The Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher

5) Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca)
Shah Alam Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher
Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher (pardon the blurry photo – it’s the only one I have of this species!)

It is very similar to the Rufous-backed but with a black back instead. Absent from Borneo.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

An uncommon migrant to Peninsula Malaysia during the northern winter (September until April). They prefer forested streams, pools and swamps but can turn up anywhere during migration. Unfortunately, it often fatally collides with windows during this time.

Tree Kingfishers of Malaysia 

Tree kingfishers inhabit various habitats, and some are quite independent from water. 

1) Banded Kingfisher (Lacedo pulchella)
Banded Kingfisher of Malaysia
Banded Kingfishers. The male is on the left.

Unlike many kingfishers of Malaysia, this one is often found well away from water. Males and females are different, with males being blue and females orange. Both have black bands along their upperparts. Males of Bornean birds have a black face, and are sometimes afforded full species status (as Bornean Banded Kingfisher).

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Resident in lowland forests of Malaysia, where they’re relatively common. However, they’re tricky to see due to their languid lifestyle and canopy-dwelling habits. They’re more often heard. A good location is the RDC, Sepilok, Sabah.

2) Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis)
Stork-billed Kingfisher in Malaysia
Stork-billed Kingfisher

A hefty kingfisher with a massive red bill (hence, the name). Has bright blue wings and orange underparts. Peninsula Malaysia birds have brown heads, which are paler in Borneo birds.  

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Quite a common resident. An adaptable species that can be found along large rivers, streams, lakes, paddyfield canals, mangroves, etc. The Kinabatangan River, Sabah, is an excellent place to see them up close.

3) Brown-winged Kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera)
Langkawi Brown Winged Kingfisher Bird
Brown-winged Kingfisher. Image credit: David Hogan Jr

This bird has the most restricted distribution of all the kingfishers of Malaysia, being found only on the Langkawi Islands. Outside Malaysia, it’s found along southern Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. Similar looking to the Stork-billed, but with brown wings instead.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Their primary habitat is mangrove forests on the Langkawi Islands. Good spots include the Kubang Badak mangroves and Kilim Geopark on the main island.

4) Ruddy Kingfisher (Halcyon coromanda)

Two versions of this kingfisher occur in Malaysia. The resident population is purplish in colour, while the migrant population is rufous-brown (ruddy) overall. 

The Birdwatching Asia team has yet to encounter this species in Malaysia.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

The Ruddy Kingfisher is uncommon to rare in Malaysia. Migrants pop up occasionally in various wetlands such as swamps, rivers, streams, and lakes, but residents prefer coastal wetlands such as mangroves. One possible spot is Sungai Melayu, Johor. You’ll need a hefty dose of luck to find this one!

5) White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)
White-throated Kingfisher in Malaysia
White-throated Kingfisher

One of Peninsular Malaysia’s most common kingfishers. Conversely, it’s largely absent from Malaysian Borneo (very few records). A familiar bird for many birders, yet still attractive in its own right.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Birders in Peninsula Malaysia will usually encounter this bird. This very adaptable species inhabits urban areas, countryside, paddyfields, swamps, rivers, and lakes. It tends to avoid dense forests, though.

6) Black-capped Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata)
 Kingfisher, Black-capped
Black-capped Kingfisher

This migratory species is unfortunately globally threatened (IUCN = Vulnerable). A strikingly handsome kingfisher, with a black cap, white collar, orange underparts and purple-blue wings. Difficult to approach owing to its skittishness. 

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Visits Malaysia from September until April. Found along coastal areas (mudflats, mangroves, etc.) as well as inland wetlands (rivers, lakes, ponds, etc.). From my experience, I tend to find it more common along the coasts. Reliable locations include Kuala Selangor Nature Park and Sungai Serdang mudflats, Selangor.

7) Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris)
Collared Kingfisher of Malaysia
Collared Kingfisher

A very common kingfisher in Malaysia. The blue upperparts and white underparts are usually very distinctive (but see Sacred Kingfisher). They’re very vocal and have a loud, laugh-like call.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Ubiquitous resident along coastal areas of the country. It is also found along inland wetlands, especially in Borneo, where the White-throated is absent. Adaptable, and are at home in urban areas as well. I’ve even seen this species at Genting Highlands (1000m elevation)!

8) Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus)

A rare migrant to Borneo. Unlike other migrant kingfishers, this one comes from the south (specifically, Australia). It looks very similar to the Collared Kingfisher but has buffy lores and underparts. 

The Birdwatching Asia team has yet to encounter this species in Malaysia.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

The Sacred Kingfisher visits Borneo during the southern winter, May until September. They’ve been seen at the Kinabatangan River, Sabah and Bako-Buntal Bay, Sarawak. Not recorded from Peninsula Malaysia yet.

9) Rufous-collared Kingfisher (Actenoides concretus)
Rufous-collared Kingfisher male
Male Rufous-collared Kingfisher

A gem of a bird and the only Actenoides kingfisher in Malaysia. The males have blue wings, while the female’s wings are green with white spots. They are typically seen perched sluggishly at eye-level, thus very photogenic! My favourite kingfisher in Malaysia.

Where to see it in Malaysia:

Uncommon resident. A forest specialist that inhabits dense jungles, often (but not always) near water. Two good locations are Sungai Congkak, Selangor and Bukit Larut, Perak.

More information: The Rufous-collared Kingfisher

Water kingfishers of Malaysia

Only one species, the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), occurred as a vagrant in 2016. One individual was spotted several times over the course of several months in southern Johor.  Needless to say, we’ve not encountered this species in Malaysia yet!

Conclusion

The kingfishers of Malaysia captivate birdwatchers and photographers alike with their attractive colouration and interesting behaviour. And they’re certainly a varied bunch. A few live in cities (like us!), while others are exclusive to steamy jungles. Many eat fish, but some prefer reptiles and amphibians instead. Some are easy to observe, yet others take some effort (and luck) to encounter. They all have one thing in common though – they’re all awesome birds that are a joy to observe and photograph!


REFERENCES

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Robson, C. (2005). New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia (Concise Edition). New Holland Publishers, London, England.

MNS Bird Conservation Council. (2021). A Checklist of the Birds of Malaysia. 2020 Edition. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Nature Society. (MNS Conservation Publication No. 22)

4 Comments on “Kingfishers of Malaysia”

  1. Great article Ashraf! I love kingfishers too. Today I tried to see the Malaysian Blue-banded Kingfisher at Sungai Sendat, but without success. One day!

    1. Thanks Paul! You can always try for the Blue-banded at Sungai Congkak. Even if they don’t come to the feeding station, you’ll sometimes see them along the river further in.

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