Belted Kingfisher Stays for Dinner
November 18, 2016 - Belted Kingfishers are tantalizingly common in South Texas. Easy to find but difficult to photograph as they bolt at the slightest approach. Since they are perch and wait hunters, if you a very patient they might fly off and return to the same place. Especially if you are quiet and still and become part of the landscape. This works well along streams and known Kingfisher hang outs. A lot of birds are territorial so don't immediately give up when the bird flies away. Sometimes they do come back to the same place.
But they are often spotted out in the open on wires over ditches and marshy areas. And if the bird is facing you, not back lit and the traffic allows you to stop, 9 times out of 10 they will fly as you slow down. Sometimes we count.... he is going to fly in ... 3 ...2....1
There he goes.
Such is the peril of using you vehicle as a blind. It can be very useful for many birds and as I get older, hiking out into the muck carrying heavy gear is less and less appealing.
Belted Kingfishers are big-headed birds, about the size of a Blue Jay but much stockier with a larger bill. We have them year round, but many more during the winter months. They locate their prey by sight in clear, open waters and sometimes hover before diving head first after fish.
Belted Kingfishers are sexually dimorphic; that is the males and females look different. The males have a blue breast band while the females have the blue band plus a rufous belly band, making the female the more brightly colored. This is contrary to most bird coloration; I need to research why it is advantageous for the female to be the fancy one of the pair.
You can imagine how excited we were to spy this Belted Kingfisher on a low wire alongside the road to Bryan Beach. It was on my side of the road so I got some quick shots out the window before Bill Maroldo slipped out quietly for hand-held shots.
And she didn't fly away. In fact I got 14 shots before she plunged to the ditch below, way too fast for me to react. I saw her hit the water and then swoop back up.... and she landed even closer to me than before!
I am saying "she" because we can see a bit of rusty coloring on her flanks and a bit on her chest. The adult females have the blue band plus a cinnamon band across the chest and under the wings. This might be a young female just growing into her adult colors. Or maybe all the juveniles look like this. But, let's call her a female and if you have better information, please let me know in the comments.
We kept snapping photos as she occasionally dove into the ditch below. I noticed just before she plunged, the crest was flattened and smooth. Yes, she is chattering and calling; they have a very distinctive call. Once you hear it, you will remember the sound and know a Kingfisher is close.
I read they call during nesting season to protect their territories, but it is the wrong time of year for that. The Texas Breeding Atlas shows confirmed nesting sites in Central and North Texas, and a few confirmed along the coast. They nest in burrows they dig in friable earthen banks - streams, ditches, railroad banks, landfills and in dead trees and stumps - fairly close to water. Maybe she was just calling to let any other Kingfisher in the area know she had claimed this spot.
We had both gotten out of the truck and set up our tripods. Cars were slowly passing us but the bird didn't seem at all spooked. After one dive, she came up and landed right above me.
And she had a fish!
If you look carefully, the fish is speared by the bottom bill. We think the fish is a small mullet; it was from a clear spot in the shallow water-filled ditch beside the road. The water wasn't more than a foot deep.
We watched her slam the head of the fish against the wire to kill it. You can see water droplets (and probably fish droplets) plus notice the nictitating membrane is protecting her eyes during all this action.
And she turned it around to swallow the little fish head first. I suspect they use their tongue to manipulate the prey into gulping position.
What a fantastic bird. After eating she cleaned her bill against the wire and tended to some stray feathers. We watched her dive at least four times and was successful only twice. Hard life, being a bird.
I have over 500 shots from that afternoon. We even left and checked out the ponds for a while and came back to find her still along the same area. Processing the images I can see how tiny the feet are and the faint spots on her back and wings, plus the barred tail. And notice the big white spots in front of her eyes. We were indeed fortunate to find a cooperative and active bird on a perfect overcast day. These photos would look much different against a blazing blue sky with harsh shadows from her bill and body. Bill wants me to do a blog post showing comparisons of the same birds in overcast vs bright light. What do you think? Would that be interesting to you?
We have had some spectacular luck this Fall: the Ospreys playing tag, the Kestrel with the mouse and a great day of action with waders at Surfside. And a few days have been total busts with lying weather forecasts, no birds, and crappy light. It is no consolation to admit "at least we won't have to spend a lot of time downloading and processing images!"
But that is the way it goes. Each time out is an unpredictable adventure.
Are you getting ready for Thanksgiving? And four days off for all you working people! Because of the holiday, I am going to skip posting next week. I will have something fun for you on the first Friday in December. So, enjoy Turkey Day and do your best to get along with your family, no matter how they voted. Remember, we were family and friends before the election, right? Nothing should change that.