The Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher

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Dwarf-Kingfisher Rufous-Backed

Amongst the gloom of the forest understory, the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher looks like it’s on fire. Indeed, this pint-sized bird is brilliantly attired in reds, pinks, yellows, blues and black, reminiscent of a burning ember. This striking plumage, unsurprisingly, makes this forest gem much sought-after by birders and photographers alike.

The Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher 

Part 1: Information on the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher 

Taxonomy

The Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher (Ceyx rufidorsa) is part of the kingfisher family, Alcedinidae. Within this, it belongs to the river kingfisher subfamily (Alcedininae). Other river kingfishers in Malaysia include the Malaysian Blue-banded Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher and the Common Kingfisher.

Description

This is undeniably a beautiful bird. Kingfishers, generally speaking, are a colourful group. But the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher still manages to stand out from the crowd!

Plumage

There are two main variations of the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher in Malaysia:

Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak version:

  • Red bill and orange legs.
  • Rufous, pink or lilac back. This part is never black, though.
  • The feathers covering the upper wings (when folded) are mostly rufous. 
  • Head is also rufous, with varying amounts of pink/lilac. No blue/black markings.
  • Underparts bright yellow
  • Rump is pinkish, or lilac
  • Dark flight feathers (amount variable)
Sungai Congkak Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher
The Peninsula Malaysia version of the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher.  Note the pinkish back (triangular area between the wings), and rufous upper wings.  In this individual, the wings are quite dark, but this is variable. Some birds have almost fully rufous wings. This bird was photographed at Sungai Congkak, where there’s a feeding station for it.

Sabah version:

  • The entire wings are bluish-black (when seen perched). The back is still rufous, pink or lilac.
  • There may be some bluish-black markings around the ‘ears’
  • Otherwise similar to the Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak forms.
Sabah Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher
The Sabah version of the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher. Notice the all-bluish-black wings, but retaining the rufous back. This pair was photographed at the RDC, Sepilok.
Size

A truly tiny kingfisher, it’s only 12.5 – 14.5 cm long (about the size of a Eurasian Tree Sparrow). Like other kingfishers, the bill is its primary weapon, and is relatively robust. Indeed, the bill looks oversized on such a small bird.

Habitat and behaviour

The preferred habitat for the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher is lowland forest with plenty of shade and cover, often (but not always) near water. Like other river kingfishers, these birds plunge-dive into pools and streams for fish and other small aquatic animals.

Conservation status

Thankfully, this delightful species is classed as Least Concern (LC) by the IUCN

Confusion species

The combination of size and plumage is usually distinctive enough. Nevertheless, there is one potential confusion species – the Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca). This confusion is only possible within Peninsula Malaysia, as the Black-backed hasn’t been recorded from Borneo yet.

Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher VS Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher:

  • The Black-backed, as its name suggests, has a black back instead of rufous/pink/lilac back on the Rufous-backed.
  • The Black-backed has bluish-black markings around the ear
  • The two are otherwise similar in size, habitat preferences and behaviour. 
  • Confusingly, the Black-backed actually looks quite similar to the Sabah version of the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher. Thankfully, the two don’t occur together.
  • Notably, the Black-backed is a migratory bird to Malaysia. It typically visits Peninsula Malaysia during the northern winter (Sept until April).
Shah Alam Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher
My only encounter with the Black-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher so far, at Taman Botani Shah Alam, Selangor. Note the bluish-black wings and blue ‘ear’ patch. This plumage combination is distinctive for the Black-backed within Peninsula Malaysia.

The Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher is closely related to the Black-backed. Indeed, some authorities (for example, the Lynx field guides, Xeno-canto) treat them as one species, under the name Oriental Dwarf-Kingfisher.

Part 2: Where to see the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher in Malaysia?

Best spots:

This is a reasonably common species found throughout Malaysia’s forests. They’re residents; thus are seen year-round. Theoretically, you may spot them at any suitable habitat within the country. Nevertheless, there are a few locations where they’re reliably seen. The two best spots are probably:

  1. Sungai Congkak Recreational Forest, Hulu Langat, Selangor. There is a feeding station here that regularly attracts the Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher (and other kingfishers as well). This is probably one of the better spots to photograph this bird. The feeding station is located about 100m from the Skytrex entrance.
  2. Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC), Sepilok, Sabah. The Sabah version of this kingfisher is quite common at RDC. Look for them near water sources; you’ll often be able to photograph them as well. Additionally, you can spot them sleeping during the RDC night walks (see the title photo).
Other good spots around Malaysia (this list is not exhaustive):
  1. Bukit Rengit/Lanchang, Pahang
  2. Taman Negara (Merapoh, Kuala Tahan), Pahang
  3. Rompin State Park, Pahang.
  4. Kubah National Park, Sarawak
  5. Kinabatangan River, Sabah
  6. Panti Bird Sanctuary, Johor
  7. Endau-Rompin National Park, Johor
This one was spotted at Kubah National Park, near Kuching, Sarawak. They’re reasonably common there. The Sarawak birds look similar to the peninsular Malaysia ones.
How to spot the bird?

Despite their colourful plumage, they are rather difficult to detect amongst the dark understory. In my experience, a typical encounter is usually a high-pitched ‘teenk’ call, followed by an orange fuzzball zooming across you. Nevertheless, walk slowly, and you may occasionally be able to spot one perched, especially near water sources. They will typically perch low down near the water as they scan for prey items.

Tips to photograph it

To photograph one in the wild is a bit tricky. Your best bet is to walk slowly, and carry a big gun (lens, of course)! The birds are normally wary, so getting close is a challenge. However, the birds at the RDC seem to be more used to people; thus, they’re less skittish there. Alternatively, you can try locating them during night walks (RDC or Kinabatangan); they’ll be much easier to photograph then!

Kingfisher at Kinabatangan night walk
This bird was spotted during a night walk at Bilit Adventure Lodge, Kinabatangan River, Sabah. They’re much easier to photograph at night, as they’re less likely to flee. Of course, that is if you can find them in the first place!

Otherwise, the best place to photograph it would be at feeding stations. Currently, the only one I’m aware of that attracts this bird is Sungai Congkak. 

Conclusion

The Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher is certainly a bird that demands attention. With its striking, fiery plumage, it’s easy to see why birders and photographers love it so much. Its tiny size and oversized-looking bill adds to its undeniable appeal. So, the next time you’re walking along a forest river, look out for that tiny orange fuzzball streaking by!


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.

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

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