Kingfishers are the feisty royalty of the water

  • By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
  • Friday, July 11, 2014 4:13pm
  • LifePhotography

I’ve rented a place near the water for a couple years now and I can’t say enough about how great it is to see wildlife almost every day.

In walks around what the Brits refer to as “my local patch,” I see herons, eagles, seals, otters and even the occasional gray whale.

But nothing has been both more common and more elusive than the belted kingfisher.

I hear them most days, chattering overhead with a dry, rattling call as they flit along the shoreline. A pair of them has carved a nesting tunnel in the bluff near my home. One likes to sit on my neighbor’s stairwell or on the head of the carved eagle on my bulkhead.

But all I have to do is walk within sight and the kingfishers are gone, typically flying 30 yards or so away. Too far, certainly, for the photos I’d like to take.

This spring, I started hanging out at Cabelas coveting the duck blinds in camouflage colors that look like someone stapled a bunch of dried oak leaves on a small tent. But I haven’t purchased one because I don’t think the kingfishers will fall for it.

There aren’t a lot of brown oak trees in my patch, just evergreens.

But one thing the kingfishers do see a lot of is automobiles. And cars seem to help make people invisible, at least to kingfishers.

I discovered that recently by driving down my road and stopping at a snag that extends out over the saltwater. I’d seen a kingfisher on the log before during my walks, but it always left the instant it saw me. This time, it ignored me.

Whether it was used to seeing cars on the street or blinded by the heavy brush on the bank, I don’t know.

For maybe an hour, I watched it dive into Puget Sound, often coming up with a small crab or fish. It pounded its prey on the log repeatedly, then chewed it a bit before swallowing it head first in a single gulp.

I’ve returned to the snag and to other locations in my car/blind many times since, learning the kingfishers have their own little patch, a series of branches, logs, pilings, piers and boats that they visit during the appropriate stages of the tide. Basically, they perch on something at the tidal stage that allows them to look at very shallow water, or to peer along the water’s edge.

Kingfishers are plunge divers. They scan an area for food, then hurtle down head first and grab it in their thick, black beaks. They’re common year-round in Western Washington because there’s plenty of open water, even in winter. In addition to saltwater, they also like rivers and lakes.

Belted kingfishers are pretty good sized, but they look bigger than they are because of their thick, dagger-like bill, big heads, and a ragged crest that gives them a semblance of a mohawk.

They are territorial.

I’ve watched them squabble over fishing platforms and over food. They chatter as they fly, partly to mark their territory.

But they do share food with family.

On the snag, there would often be four kingfishers this spring and early summer, with two that looked like a mated pair often sharing their food with two young adults. The younger ones didn’t seem to be very good fishers, but that didn’t stop them from diving into the water repeatedly.

Kingfisher facts

Here’s some information on belted kingfishers from the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, allaboutbirds.org:

Kingfishers don’t mate for life, just for a season. The next year, they choose a new mate.

The oldest fossil of a kingfisher was dated back 2 million years. It was found in Florida.

Females of the belted kingfisher are the most colorful, with blue and rusty brown bands across their white breast. Males have one blue band that matches their powder blue-gray color scheme. That’s unusual because in most species, the male has more coloration.

Kingfishers dig a nesting tunnel anywhere from 1 to 8 feet long in a sandy bank. They take turns doing the job, which takes three to seven days.

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