Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Enjoying sightings of the spectacular belted kingfisher

By CHERYL KIMBALL September 14. 2018 10:24PM
By the water is a good place to look for a kingfisher. (Courtesy/Cheryl LeBlanc)

A bird noise that I heard several times over the past few weeks as I did morning barn chores got me thinking about the kingfisher. I have not seen one in quite a while. The kingfisher ranks as one of my favorite birds, although I say that with apologies to the bird since there is a long list that I can refer to as “one of my favorite birds.” I kept watch at our pond where I did see a kingfisher many years ago, but alas nothing materialized nor have I ever identified the source of the vocalization reminiscent of the rapid trill ascribed to the kingfisher.

No sooner had I started thinking about these birds when, driving on Route 125 in Union, one flew across the road in front of me and landed on a tree branch across from a small river bed. It was early evening and I got just a fleeting glimpse as I drove past, but that was enough to see that this was a magnificent bird. This belted kingfisher was large and dark with a large crest and wide band of white around his neck. They remind me of a small stocky blue jay minus the attitude.

I had occasion to drive that way again a week later and brought my camera. No sighting. Less than a week after that, I drove to that area intentionally to look for the kingfisher. With camera in hand I stood at the bank of the trickling river bed, keeping my eye on a large overhanging branch, the exact kind of perch-with-a-view that a kingfisher would use. Nothing appeared. Besides using their perch to locate and then dive for fish, kingfishers (according to “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior”) will also hover over the 20-30 feet above the water until they see something to catch.

As if that wasn’t enough to see a kingfisher, just as I began thinking about them, somewhere in that couple of weeks between seeing the kingfisher without my camera and going back with my camera, I saw another one! This one was on a utility wire along a saltwater stream in Maine. I did not get a long look at him but the bird’s outline is unmistakable — described perfectly on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s AllAboutBirds.org website as “stocky, large-headed birds with a shaggy crest on the top and back of the head and a straight, thick, pointed bill.” In size, they are put between the hairy woodpecker (larger than) and the American crow (smaller than). Females are actually larger than males and female belted kingfishers have a rusty band on the belly.

“The Sibley Guide” shows a cutaway illustration of a belted kingfisher nest — a long tunnel burrowed into a river bank. At the end is a chamber where the eggs are laid. Sibley explains that both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young. “Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds’ Nests” by Hal H. Harrison gives more detail: Belted kingfishers lay an average of 6-7 eggs, one brood per year. The male is known to excavate a roosting burrow nearby the nest with the eggs.

When the partner bird is ready to relieve the incubating bird, it sits on a nearby perch and calls; the incubating bird leaves before the replacement parent enters the tunnel. The parents force the fledglings out of the nest around three weeks after fledging. Belted kingfisher parents, according to Sibley, teach their young to fish, letting them practice by dropping dead fish into the water for the youngsters to retrieve.

Belted kingfishers do migrate south. They do so during the day and at a low altitude where they can keep to the shores. Kingfishers as a whole, Sibley explains, are “highly specialized.” This is a very important trait when speaking of conservation of a species. Animals that thrive in a very specific habitat with very specific traits are highly impacted when those habitats are disturbed. Sibley says that “as streams are ‘controlled’ … bird survey data show an average annual population decline of almost 2 percent for the belted kingfisher.” Wildlife has a hard time accommodating even when humans are doing something in the environment considered “good” like controlling riverbank erosion.

My first “Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds” (45th printing, copyright 1947) where I list first sightings shows my first belted kingfisher sighting on a beach along the Piscataqua River in Eliot, Maine, on Aug. 11, 1974, near where a friend lived in a rented summer cabin. I described watching the bird “dive after four fish.”

I’ve seen a few kingfishers in the intervening 44 years and wish I could have captured a photograph of one of these recent sightings. But having the sightings of this spectacular bird in my head will do.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.


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