With a deep blue upper body and a prominent white collar around its neck, the collared kingfisher is a beautiful bird. The white feathers run down from its throat to its vent. Near its eye, it has a black lore and a small patch of white supraloral. Its beak is black that changes to a peach-white lower mandible blending in with the throat.
The juveniles (left in the photos below) have feathers which are patchy in colours. The blue feathers on their upper body has not turn a deep colour yet. There are light areas, turquoise and hints of rufous dotting the body. The upper greater coverts does not reach full length, revealing much of the tertials.
In the adults (on the right photo), you sometimes see them with turquoise feathers instead of the usual blue and spot a thinner plumage. The feathers on them have been worn down and bleached by the sun. For these adults, they will eventually moult into a fresh set feathers, restoring their glorious look.
The collared kingfisher establishes its presence with a high pitch reverberating caws that can be heard from a long distance away. It starts off with a rapid "eeet chit chit chit chit", followed by a series of "eeet chit". Subsequent "eeet chit" become more and more spaced out before dying off abruptly. Their calls start early at dawn and continues through the day into the evening.
Extremely alert creatures, they are generally not afraid of humans but do not cherish the presence of one nearby. They can spot you from afar before you even notice them. If you happen to look up at one, it stares straight into your eyes with a poker face.
They are silent and fast fliers. The flap of wings is so silent, it can appear or disappear suddenly like a ghost. In the still air of the mangrove forest, you will encounter blue flashes. The kingfisher cuts through the air in a straight path with both wings flapping rapidly at the sides without missing a beat. It passes right in front of you. All you see is a flash of blue. It only occur later that you walked past it moments ago without noticing it.
Collared kingfishers are patient hunters. They perch on branches scanning their surroundings, waiting, just waiting for the moment. When they spot an grasshopper or beetle to their liking, they will swop for the kill. The uncertainty of when a kingfisher will dive makes it difficult to capture a great shot while hand-holding a camera. More often, your back will trickle with sweat and your limbs will tire out. The moment you let your camera down, it decides to go for the kill, as if mocking at you, the pathetic photographer.
Collared kingfisher are territorial creatures in general. A collared kingfisher will chase away javan mynahs or black-naped orioles that it deems too close for comfort. During the chase, you can observe its agility in flight. For it's same kind, they may go through an extended chase and squeaks to mark their territory. However, for the one it loves, I spotted it sharing food countless of times as it transfers food from beak to beak. They can be spotted hanging out on branches in pairs, enjoying quiet moments together.
The best chance to photograph a collared kingfisher to approach it sideways without looking at it. Be light-footed like a leopard. Each kingfisher has a different minimum comfort distance. You can never be sure. Observe its reaction as you close the distance. If it becomes tense (it jerks its head and stare you down), stop, frame your composition and take a few shots. During this time, it may have calmed down if you do not seem like a threat. Close in another metre and take a few more photos.
When I first started out birding, I caught a flash of blue as I walking around and was instantly attracted to photographing the collared kingfishers. For the next few weeks, I ran around after them, failing to get any good photos. With practise and patient, I got more and more good shots of them. Looking back, the collared kingfishers are excellent first bird to practise your photography skill on.
The collared kingfishers are a common sight in the Singapore forests. If you follow its call, you will see one eventually. With their successful breeding and hunting skills, they will be here to stay as long as the forests remain.