It is quite easy to miss a solitary, motionless bird perched along a river bank, shoreline or lake as it sits waiting for an unsuspecting fish to pass by.
A raucous rattling call will reveal an intriguing, beautiful and somewhat elusive bird, the belted kingfisher.
They are found across Canada and in the west from Alaska to Central America, with some birds being year-round residents. Locally, a good place to watch for kingfishers is along the Puntledge and Campbell rivers or along the coastline from Courtenay to Union Bay. I have also seen them perched on the rocks at Comox Harbour.
A stunning, medium-sized stocky bird, the female kingfisher has a blue-gray body and dark gray head with a shaggy crest on top. The male is darker blue — females, unlike most species, are more brightly coloured than the males. Both sexes have a white collar around their necks, and the females have a beautiful chestnut rufous band below this collar extending down the flanks. Both also have white under parts. Kingfisher tails are quite short and are spotted with white and some white banding on the tail ends.
Although there is usually no doubt when identifying these birds, they have two unmistakable features: one is the long heavy dagger-like beak which they use to loosen dirt when excavating their nest and to pound fish against a perch before consuming the prey. The other feature is the two front toes, which are fused together just below the nails and are used as shovels when they dig out their nest.
Usually, you hear these birds long before you spot them when they are actively fishing, and they are fascinating to watch.
As their name suggests, their food of choice is fish, but some will also eat amphibians, small crustaceans, insects and small mammals. Salmon and trout fry are a special delicacy for these birds, and they are known to steal them from fish hatcheries.
Kingfishers perch on trees, posts, rocks or other suitable “watch points” close to the water, diving in headfirst when they spot prey. Before diving in, they will often hover above the water. Once they enter the water, they open their wings to keep the dive shallow. Their thick plumage is heavily oiled, and extra layers of downy feathers help insulate them against the cold water.
It may surprise you to know that kingfishers, like many other birds, cast pellets consisting of fish scales, bones, pieces of shell or other material they cannot digest.
Mated for life, both birds are involved in nest building that is truly a labour of love. Loosening the dirt with their beak, the shovelling is done with their fused toes and can take up to 14 hours. The tunnel can be between 30 and 250 centimetres in length and usually is slanted uphill to protect the nest from high water, ending in a bare nest chamber. Between five and eight eggs are produced, and the young are born blind and totally naked — as their feathers begin to emerge from the feather shafts, they resemble “pre-historic monsters.”
A few years ago, MARS received seven baby kingfishers that were found when a river bank was excavated and their nest destroyed. It was a great challenge to raise these birds, and three were successfully raised and released.
In the last week, we received another kingfisher, this time a mature female who had a mate and was found on the ground after she presumably hit a cabin window. The birds are residents of Read Island east of Quadra Island, and due to the remoteness of the island, it was a few days before the kingfisher made it to M.A.R.S.
Initially she was thought to be stunned but then seemed to have flight problems and became emaciated. These are highly strung birds that become extremely stressed in captivity, refusing to eat, and it is also very difficult to replicate their habitat and allow them to dive as they normally would in the wild. She still has to be tube fed, which is hard on the bird, but she is flying and perching and hopefully will soon be returned to her mate and home.
Kingfisher populations seem to be stable, and they are one of the few species that seem to benefit from some human development. They are making nests in dirt banks made from road construction and gravel pit excavations but are still vulnerable to loss of safer natural nest sites along rivers and waterfronts where humans like to spend recreational time. This year, there has been plentiful “bait” fish, but populations vary with food availability.
MARS will be at a few public events remaining this summer and still have some raffle tickets available for the draw on Sept. 5; your support will help us continue to help wildlife.
To report injured of orphaned wildlife, please call toll-free at 1-800-304-9968. For all other calls, phone 250-337-2021 or visit www.wingtips.org” www.wingtips.org.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.