The Malta Independent 25 August 2019, Sunday

The Kingfisher

Malta Independent Friday, 7 February 2014, 14:34 Last update: about 6 years ago

The Kingfisher is roughly the size of a sparrow but very colourful and with a long, pointed bill. It perches on twigs and other vantage points situated a few metres above water from where it dives into the water to catch unsuspecting fish.

In Maltese, it is called Ghasfur ta’ San Martin. It is thought that the Maltese name was coined from the beliefthat the bird appeared around the feast of St Martin in November. But as the bird can be seen locally between mid-July to mid-March, with most appearing in August and September, there must be another reason behind the origin of its name.

The Italians now call it Martin pescatore, although in some parts of Italy they used to call it Uccello Santa Maria, while in Sicily it was called Martineddu. The French call it Martin-pêcheur and the Spanish call it Martín pescador. Hence it is very probable that the Maltese name originated as a hybrid between one of these languages and the love that existed of associating everything with Saints.

Through his observations, Antonio Schembri, who published the first book about ornithology of Malta in 1843, argued that the statement by the eminent Italian ornithologist Prof. Paolo Savi, who, in his book Ornitologia Italiana, said that Kingfishers do not migrate, was not correct, as otherwise these birds would not be seen in Malta.

Prof. Savi probably reached his conclusion because the Kingfishers in northern Italy belonged to a race which did not migrate or were partial migrants, while the birds seen in Malta belonged to another race. So in a way, both ornithologists were correct!

There are two races of Kingfishers, the nominate race, Alcedo atthisatthis and Alcedo atthis ispida. The nominate race is found breeding over a wide range from northwest Africa to southern Spain, central and southern Italyas well as in Eastern European countries, Turkey and Pakistan. The race ispida occurs from south Norway, Ireland, and northern Spain to Leningrad, in Russia.

Eastern and northern populations, which are mainly of the ispida race, are largely migratory and move south to the Mediterranean in autumn. Central European populations of the race atthis are only partially migratory, whereas western and southern populations of atthis are mostly sedentary.

Malta receives the ispida race. Birds of this race undertake leapfrog migration from the east and north of the range to winter in the Mediterranean, skipping over the atthis populations in the centre and south.

Schembri said Kingfishers bred occasionally in Malta. But Giuseppe Despott, who entered the ornithological scene in the early 1900s, expressed doubts about whether they bred, but remarked that it did not occur only between August and November, but could also be met with in December, February and May. Despott said that while it was scarce in some years, it was fairly common in others.

Kingfishers now are known to be capable of spending a long time in our Islands if left undisturbed. Indeed they have been known to spend from August to April at the same place. These birds can be seen both around the coast as well as inland in places where there is water and if they survive, Kingfishers tend to return to the same place year after year.

Kingfisher can be very long lived and are known to live for over 21 years in the wild.

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