The Rufous-collared Kingfisher

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Kingfisher Rufous-collared

Kingfishers are eye-catching birds, and the Rufous-collared Kingfisher is a stellar example. Beautifully attired in green, blue, orange and yellow, this kingfisher is simply drop-dead gorgeous. An uncommon and elusive species, this bird is consequently much sought after by birdwatchers and photographers alike.

The Rufous-collared Kingfisher

My encounters with the Rufous-collared Kingfisher

I’ve only seen this kingfisher a handful of times, all of them chance encounters. My first sighting was a female at FRIM’s now-closed Rover Trail. This was way back in 2015. I stumbled upon it perched by the trail, oblivious to all the joggers zooming past. That individual gave me a long, good look at it and left me wanting more.

Female at FRIM
This female was the very first Rufous-collared Kingfisher I encountered! Handheld, 600mm f/6.3, ISO 2500, 1/200s

Unfortunately, I had to be really patient, as my next encounter only happened seven years later, at Old Gombak Road. This was of two males within close proximity to each other. Another fantastic sighting was a male at Sungai Congkak in June 2024. Here, it was singing along a forest path. In both these encounters, the birds were rather tame and allowed fantastic views (and photos).

Every time I see this bird, I can’t help but feel elated. To me, the Rufous-collared Kingfisher is a show-stopper. Sighting one in the wild brings a thrill that is typically reserved for skulking Pittas or rare Pheasants. Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of kingfishers. But the Rufous-collared Kingfisher might just be my favourite!

Information on the Rufous-collared Kingfisher

Taxonomy

The Rufous-collared Kingfisher (Actenoides concretus) is part of the kingfisher family, Alcedinidae. Within this, it belongs to the tree kingfisher subfamily (Halcyoninae). Other tree kingfishers in Malaysia include the equally attractive Banded Kingfisher and the familiar White-throated Kingfisher.

What makes the Rufous-collared Kingfisher rather unique is that it’s the only one of its genus (Actenoides) found in Malaysia. Other Actenoides kingfishers occur on Sulawesi, the Philippines, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Description

Plumage:

The Rufous-collared Kingfisher is beautifully plumaged. The male is indeed handsome, with rufous underparts, a yellow bill, a green cap, and blue wings. There is also a black stripe running through the eye; above this, a rufous eyebrow. Finally, it has its namesake rufous collar. This colour combination harmonizes well and perfectly camouflages the bird within its dimly lit jungle home.

The females look different from the males, a feature referred to as sexual dimorphism. On the females, the wings are dark green instead of blue and speckled with white spots. 

Rufous-collared Kingfisher male
This male Rufous-collared Kingfisher at  Old Gombak Road was very obliging. In this photo, all of its characteristic features are visible.  The  bill is not bright yellow, though. Handheld, 450mm f/6.0, ISO 5000, 1/80s.
Size:

A medium-sized kingfisher, roughly the same size as the Collared Kingfisher of coastal wetlands. Like many kingfishers, its bill is robust and dagger-like. 

Confusion species:

Within Malaysia, this kingfisher is very distinctive and unlikely to be confused with anything else.

Female bird at FRIM
Another angle of the female Rufous-collared Kingfisher at FRIM. Notice the white spots on the wings. Handheld, 600mm f/6.3, ISO2500, 1/60s

Habitat and behaviour

Its preferred habitat is jungles, from lowlands to sub-montane regions, often near water such as forest streams or pools. In Borneo, it’s more common on hill slopes or sub-montane areas. It typically inhabits the dimly lit forest understory, perching on low branches as it scans for prey. Its diet consists of small terrestrial creatures such as insects and reptiles, as well as the occasional aquatic prey.

This bird often appears quite sluggish, perching for long periods without moving. Listen out for its distinctive song, a sweet whistle repeated for minutes at a time. 

Where to see it in Malaysia?

The kingfisher occurs within both Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. As mentioned previously, this bird is generally rather uncommon and elusive. Nevertheless, certain locations are quite reliable:

  1. Sungai Congkak, Hulu Langat, Selangor. A great example of the habitat preferred by this species is ( jungle river, with canopy cover and plenty of shade). The main river is usually quite busy with people. Instead, look for the bird around the ‘Skytrex’ entrance road.
  2. Bukit Larut, Taiping. A feeding station at the foot of Bukit Larut regularly attracts this kingfisher. The feeding port is roughly 200m from the entrance.
  3. Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC), Sepilok, Sabah. While there’s no feeding station here, the kingfisher may be seen along forest trails, especially near the stream. For example, the Mousedeer trail and Kingfisher trail.

Other good locations around Malaysia (this list is not exhaustive):

  1. Bukit Rengit/Lanchang, Pahang. There is a feeding station here that occasionally attracts the kingfisher. 
  2. Taman Negara (Kuala Tahan or Merapoh), Pahang
  3. Rompin State Park, Pahang.
  4. Panti Bird Sanctuary, Johor
  5. Forest reserves in Sabah (Danum Valley, Tabin, etc.)
  6. Earth Lodge Malaysia, Ulu Muda, Kedah

How to spot the bird?

Despite its colourful appearance, this bird is rather difficult to spot amongst the green foliage. Its song is usually the first sign of its presence. Look for them perched at eye level, sometimes next to forest trails or paths. They are often relatively tame and don’t flee unless approached too closely. This makes them rather enticing to photograph!

Sungai Congkak male
This male was spotted at Sungai Congkak, happily singing away next to a forest trail, at eye level. I first detected its presence from its song. Handheld, 450mm f/6.3, ISO 6400, 1/250s.

Tips to photograph it

At certain places, the kingfisher is attracted to feeding stations. Here they are more easily observed and photographed. Using a tripod is advisable, as the dim understory inevitably means slower shutter speeds. A fast lens is of great advantage. If handholding, be prepared with high ISO settings.

If you’re lucky enough to spot one in the wild (not at feeding stations), you can sometimes approach it relatively closely. Just creep slowly, one step at a time.  Stop moving when it appears alert. In this situation, handholding is preferable, as setting up a tripod will take time and likely scare the bird off. 

Sungai Congkak Rufous-collared Kingfisher
Another angle of the male at Sungai Congkak. I approached this bird by walking very slowly and stopping when it started looking alert. Handheld, 400mm f/6.3, ISO 6400, 1/250s.

Conservation status

The Rufous-collared Kingfisher is classed as Near Threatened (NT) by the IUCN. Its main threat comes from habitat loss, as more forests are cut down for lumber, agriculture and development.

Conclusion

The Rufous-collared Kingfisher is a gem of a bird that’s high on every birder’s wishlist. It’s easy to see why, with its gorgeous plumage and rather tame behaviour. While it isn’t an easy bird to spot, the Rufous-collared Kingfisher is certainly well worth the effort to look for it.


REFERENCES

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.

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.

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