by J.M. Herrling
What was that?
A loud rattling sound echoed through the timber and around the steep banks of the pond. I shoved the canoe from the bank and slowly began paddling – my presence went unannounced by the usual animals that reside there. It wasn’t the slapping of the beaver’s flat tail upon the murky water, the explosion of wood ducks erupting from the shallows, or anything else I recognized. After several minutes of trying to locate the bird, I noticed the profile of its head with a shaggy crest as it flew around the perimeter of the pond, almost as if on patrol, using the call as an alarm.
This was the first time I had ever seen a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). After 30 years of traipsing through the rivers, ponds and creeks of the Finger Lakes region, there it was – right in my backyard. The woods, water and wildlife of Cayuga County always provide something new and fascinating to be discovered.
While perched in a tree limb that was overhanging the pond, it was scanning the shallow water for fish. Spotting his target, the kingfisher took flight, rapidly diving with closed eyes, grabbing the prey in its bill with a pincer motion. It quickly returned and pounded its victim against the branch, then swallowed it headfirst.
Grabbing the binoculars, I was so excited I put the wrong end up to my eyes and for a moment couldn’t see anything. Once the optics were flipped, I intensely studied the bird further. It was interesting to observe the powdery blue-gray male fly up and down the banks of the pond. He occasionally dove into the water to catch aquatic prey, such as small fish and crayfish, with its heavy straight pointed bill. The kingfisher is slightly larger than a blue jay, and the stocky build of the bird with short legs and medium length square-tipped tail provided the force needed for its speedy dive into the water.
The feeding behavior was amazing to watch, and further research on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website unearthed more interesting belted kingfisher facts. While working at Cornell for 10 years, I never knew this resource even existed. See page 41 for more information about Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology.
The breeding is limited in certain areas because of the lack of suitable nesting sites. However, some human activities such as building roads and digging gravel pits have helped to expand the breeding range because of the creation of banks. Kingfishers dig burrows in these structures so that they can nest, and these are usually adjacent to, or directly over, water. They spend winters in areas where the water doesn’t freeze, allowing them continuous access to their aquatic foods.
The creation of their nesting sites is done by both the male and female taking turns digging out the burrow. However, the males spend about twice as much time digging as the females. He usually takes between three to seven days to finish, but can sometimes take up to three weeks. Once completed, the burrow extends 3 to 6 feet into the bank, sloping slightly upward so that rain won’t collect inside. At the end is an unlined chamber, 8 to 12 inches in diameter and 6 to 7 inches high. Throughout the breeding season, a layer of undigested fish bones, fish scales and arthropod exoskeletons may accumulate and provide insulation.
Kingfishers are one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male. I thought I had been observing the male, but as a neophyte birder, I wasn’t quite sure. The shaggy crest on the top and back of the head makes it easily identifiable. They are powder blue above with fine, white spots on the wings and tails. The underparts are white with a broad, blue breast band. Females also have a broad rusty band on their bellies.
Despite being common and widespread, there was a time when their population declined by 50 percent. Because of the birds’ presence near fish hatcheries and trout streams, people used to shoot and trap them to prevent them from killing fish. It was determined that hunting, recently being outlawed through migratory bird laws, did no long-term harm to the population. Belted kingfishers also seem to be unaffected by environmental contaminants compared to other fish-eating birds, possibly because their small prey accumulates low levels of toxins.
Belted kingfishers take long traveling flights over fields and forests, far from water, so be prepared for the occasional surprise flyover wherever you are birding. Also, be alert! The loud and distinctive rattling calling will probably be heard before you actually see the kingfisher. With the summer months upon us, they should be easy to spot if you are out near the many waterways here in central New York.
Be prepared. Wandering the region far and wide, or taking a simple walk on your own property, can result in surprising and memorable wildlife experiences. What might be next? We’ll have to see!
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, located in Ithaca, was founded in 1915 as a unit of Cornell University. The nonprofit organization is supported by 100,000 friends and members. The visitor center is open daily except Thanksgiving and the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
For more information, please visit their website, birds.cornell.edu