Rare visitor: The Black-capped kingfisher
By K.G.H. Munidasa
The Black-capped Kingfisher, Halcyon pileata, is similar in size, shape and stance to the White-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnesis, a familiar resident bird in Sri Lanka. But it differs markedly from the latter by a distinctive velvety black cap on the head, separated from the back by a prominent white collar. The upperparts are deep purple, with a throat-patch and the underparts white, which blend into rufous-buff on the belly. The bill and legs are a bright red. A white wing patch is seen in flight.

Since the time of Vincent Legge (1878-1880), the foremost authority on the bird-life of Sri Lanka, the Black-capped Kingfisher was considered a very rare migrant visitor to the island. In his monumental work A History of the Birds of Ceylon, Legge mentioned that this kingfisher had been recorded only once from the island.

Half a century later, W.E. Wait (1878-1957) noted "Solitary specimens of the Black-capped Kingfisher have been obtained in the Eastern and Western Provinces. The species is found in various localities throughout the Indian Peninsula, the Gangese delta, Assam and Burma, and also ranges eastwards through Malaya to China. It is extremely rare over most of its range. It may possibly be found breeding in Ceylon as the nest has been taken in Travancore in February-March".

G.M. Henry (1955) suggests, "Only half dozen or so having been recorded from the island. This kingfisher is mainly a coastal bird frequenting mangrove-lined estuaries and the lower reaches of jungle rivers, creeks and lagoons."

However, W.W.A. Phillips in The Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Ceylon (1978 Revised Edition) has identified the Black-capped Kingfisher as a rare Winter Vagrant to the Low-Country Wet and Dry Zones and added, that during 1955, one was seen near Mullaitivu in March, another at Palatupane wewa in the vicinity of the Ruhuna National Park and one on the estuary near Kalkuda, in the Eastern Province. Since then this kingfisher appears to have become an annual winter visitor, in very small numbers."

Since the publication of Phillips' Checklist, at least a dozen sightings of this rare kingfisher have been obtained in various localities mainly in the Western and Southern provinces, including six sightings during one migrating season alone. All these birds, excepting one observed at Uda Walawe National Park, were found in esturine habitats preferred by the species, or in proximity to such habitats. The one observed at Uda Walawe (over 40 km from the nearest coast) was in a man-made reservoir. Further, according to the Ceylon Bird Club, the identical bird frequented the particular waterhole every season for eight consecutive years.

In a letter addressed to the Oriental Bird Club, U.K., published in the Editor's column of their November 1997 bulletin, a correspondent from Sri Lanka has suggested that one factor for the increase in sightings of the Black-capped Kingfisher in the island could be the diminishing of suitable habitats and food sources, brought about by converting brackish mangrove areas into prawn farms and the effects of short-sighted development programmes in Paninsular India, which compelled the exodus of wintering birds to fly further south in their migratory journey.

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