Birdwatch

Taking the Plunge

The belted kingfisher dives for prey

By Susan Campbell

Often heard before they are seen, belted kingfishers are a year-round fixture here in central North Carolina. Requiring water for foraging and steep slopes for breeding, they can be found along streams, rivers and ponds — of which there is no shortage in our area. Their long, rattling call is distinctive among our familiar birds.

One of three species of kingfisher found in the United States, the belted kingfisher’s range is extensive and year-round across most of the continent. Breeding birds from Canada may migrate southward in search of open water in winter. A percentage of the North American population winters in south Florida as well as Mexico. It is assumed that most local breeding birds simply wander to where the fishing is good in the colder months, not making any real migratory flight in the fall.

Belted kingfishers are top-heavy-looking birds with powdery gray plumage and a raggedy crest. They get their name from the swath of gray plumage across their breast. These birds are one of the few species in which the female has brighter plumage than the male. Females sport an additional band of chestnut feathers just below their gray “belt.” Otherwise, these birds have a characteristic large head, thick neck and heavy, long pointed bill. They are built for plunging headfirst into the water after prey. They often sit on a convenient perch above the water, such as a branch or electric wire, and then dive when they spot prey. However, they are also capable of hovering for short periods above potential food items before descending to grab a fish. They actually have a wide prey base, feeding on all sorts of aquatic organisms but also taking other types of food, such as small birds and even berries, if the opportunity arises.

Belted kingfishers require a steep, dirt slope for nesting. Although this is usually a riverbank, they may also use human-created habitat such as tall dirt piles, which can be away from water, if they are big enough, and have a sheer drop on at least one side. This type of nesting substrate makes it difficult for terrestrial predators to reach the kingfisher’s nest. The tunnel into the nest chamber is typically several feet long and is sloped upward, presumably to protect the nest from rises in water level along rivers and streams. The kingfisher’s tunnel opening is large, at least 3 inches in diameter. Also, there will be the characteristic fishy aroma from recent droppings, separating it from other bank dwellers, such as bank or rough-winged swallows.

In spring, the belted kingfisher pair will search out a nest site. The male will probe the dirt in suitable spots until he finds the right spot. Once he is satisfied with his choice, he will signal to the female by flying back and forth from her perch to the chosen location. After the burrow has been excavated, five to eight white eggs will be incubated in the nest chamber for almost a month. Once hatched, the young will be tended to by the parents for about another month before fledging occurs. While in the nest, the young kingfishers have highly acidic stomachs and will be able to digest scales, bones and other hard parts of what they are fed. By the time they leave the nest burrow, however, the birds will be regurgitating pellets made up of those typically indigestible parts, as adults do.

So, the next time you hear a loud rattling sound coming from on high, look up. You may just catch sight of one of these energetic, fast-flying fishers! PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

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