Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song talks about some of the feathered migrants who have returned to the area, and some she’s still waiting for. She singles out the belted kingfisher as a bird of particular interest. Text follows audio.[audio:http://ktna.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/NatObs060312Waiting-For-Kingfishers.mp3|titles=NatObs060312Waiting For Kingfishers]
As spring progresses and more birds return to our area, there are a few of note. For the third spring in a row, a light morph Harlan Hawk has come to Birch Creek Ranch. From the top it looks like a miniature eagle, being all brown with a dusky white tail. From underneath, it is a clean white, without the usual dark wing coverts, and dark undersides. It had me stumped for awhile, until I was able to find it in the book; Sibley’s Guide to Birds. Apparently it occurs in only one percent of the Harlan population. As the hawk circled above the hayfield, where I was walking with Lyra, it gave the classic Red-tailed hawk call. I was so glad to see that it had returned to spend the summer with us once again.
Down in numbers are golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows, and Myrtle yellow-rumped warblers. Conversely, there are more swallows, juncos and robins than I’ve seen in years. The ranch seems to be on the flyway of several species, for we often hear the passing calls of loons, cranes, swans, eagles, and others. The birds missing so far this spring are: Savannah and Lincoln sparrows, American pipits, Alder and Olive-sided flycatchers, and kingfishers. While the loons, swans and kingfishers don’t spend the summer at the ranch, they apparently fly to lakes and rivers in the area, calling as they pass overhead. They could be birds not yet ready to take a mate, and so spend the summer traveling around the area. Cranes often come to the hayfields throughout the spring, summer and fall, usually in pairs or small flocks. They stay for awhile, poking through the grass, searching for voles, insects and seeds. In the fall, when they come, none ever have colts with them, so apparently these are immature birds, not yet ready to mate.
When people come out to the greenhouses, I ask what birds they have seen in their areas. This year it seems kingfishers have been scarce. Even people who live along rivers have seen few or none. Breakup took a long time, this spring, with snow patches along the edges of the hayfields still in evidence in mid-May. Maybe this has delayed the arrival of some avian species.
I got thinking about kingfishers, while waiting for their arrival. They are remarkable birds in many ways. They are solitary through the wintertime, when they may often be seen along seacoasts. Some winter as far north as ice-free water allows. Their call is definitely distinctive. When defending their territory, the call is a loud, uneven long rattle, unsteady and clattering. When communicating with a mate or young, the call is a shorter, more musical rapid trill, which can be surprisingly soft. Kingfishers have a large head with a heavy, powerful bill. The stout body has a short tail and surprisingly small legs and feet. They use tree limbs jutting out over water, or wires strung across creeks for lookout perches. They catch fish by plunging headfirst into the water, often after hovering, watching for their prey through the water. Once they spear a fish, they fly to a tree limb, land, and smack the fish against the limb a few times, making sure it is dead before gulping it down whole.
The nest of the kingfisher is truly remarkable. Both male and female work to make the nest, which is a tunnel dug at an incline into a riverbank and can extend for six to ten feet, usually including a sharp turn about three feet in. The walls and floor are made smooth, and at the end of the tunnel the female lays pure white eggs in a small depression lined with her soft breast feathers. The entrance to the tunnel can be a few feet to several feet above the waterline. Sometimes the birds pick a cliff face near but not directly above water. Once the nestlings have fledged, the parents teach the youngsters to hunt by dropping dead fish into the water. The hungry fledglings dive into the water after the food and gradually hone their skills to catching live fish. When they have learned to dive for and catch live fish, their parents drive them away from their territory, sending them out into their new lives. Eventually siblings will split off and lead solitary lives until maturity brings them to search for a mate.
Kingfishers are found throughout most of the world, with three species in North America: the Belted, Ringed and Green. The Green kingfisher is small, inconspicuous and quiet and is found on sheltered creeks and pools. It perches on low twigs or branches, flies low over the water and rarely hovers. The Belted and Ringed kingfishers are- conversely- large, conspicuous and loud. They hover frequently, perch predominantly and are found on open water, often hunting fish in large creeks and rivers. Both males and females defend their nesting territory vigorously. They will drive off interlopers by dive-bombing the offender while calling loudly. In springtime, while establishing territories and courting mates, they can be noisy and vigorous.
Not surprising, then, they are conspicuous by their absence. Each day I hope to hear the staccato call, denoting the arrival of kingfishers to our area. I wait to see the distinctive shape of the Belted kingfisher against the blue sky as it flies over the ranch en route to its summer territory. Maybe when I get the time to take a walk along the Big Susitna, I’ll be treated to the sight of one of my favorite birds. Blue and white feathers glistening in the sun, tiny feet gripping a branch leaning out over the water, sharp eyes watching for its next meal in the current. I’ll stand and watch, paying silent homage to one of Alaska’s most remarkable summer visitors, the Belted kingfisher.
KTNA May 30, 2012
Waiting For Kingfishers, by Robin Song