I have at all times deemed the morning to be an enchanting and mysterious time in nature. I recently wrote on the subject of the first light before sunrise- simply captivating. Once the sun has hurdled over the horizon I open each day with a half hour wander down Aunt Patty’s Lane. I often refer to this time as “walking the dog,” reminding me of our dear coydog, Sebastian who used to keep me company on my morning stroll. The need to walk Sebastian was a ruse, though, for my need to take care of some business myself. It is my time to breathe and to smell the dirt, the trees, and the moisture. It is my moment to refresh and reboot my senses with these awakenings from Mother Nature. This early morning amble unlocks my eyes and ears and nose. My sense of taste and touch are revived from last night’s slumber. My lungs are cleansed and I am all set for a new day.
This is also the instance when the animals and birds are rejuvenating their lives. They still feel the protection of dawn’s darkness yet use this beginning light to start their day. I always see our resident family of five deer tentatively crossing the road in front of me. Standard practice, they pause and look my way. I can almost hear them greeting me “Good Morning Mr. Don, out for your early constitution?” Off they go leaping and bounding effortlessly over the wall and logs, flipping tails, not in warning anymore, simply a friendly wave to say “see you tomorrow, first light.”
This past Monday I was treated to a special awakening. As I turned out of the driveway my ears were assailed with a ratcheting chatter swooping along the stream. At first I assumed it to be one of the many varieties of woodpeckers in the area. They have a similar vocalization. As the rataplan echoed through the trees I detected a difference in volume and the length of each series of clatters. Initially it wasn’t familiar. Then I saw from where it was coming and immediately recognized the “song” of the belted kingfisher. This was only the third time I had seen this energetic flier by our stream in the 43 years we have resided here. And this was, by far, the earliest in the year that he had visited.
I say visited because the belted kingfisher is not a regular resident to small streams in wooded areas any time of year. As its name reveals it is a fishing bird, feeding almost exclusively on small fish and only occasionally feasting on tiny amphibians, crustaceans, mammals, and reptiles, all aquatic. With this limited diet they are routinely observed in the vicinity of ponds, lakes, and the sea shore. The kingfisher will perch on tree branches or posts, a lookout in search of its meal. When it spots a fish it will plunge, head first, into the water often surfacing with a tasty morsel in its long, pointed beak. To plunge like this into a small, shallow stream could prove to be rather detrimental.
The belted kingfisher (Megacerale alcyon) is only found commonly where fish are plentiful in the US and Canada and Central and South America during winters. It breeds near large bodies of fresh water and along coasts. It nests in tunnels dug one to eight feet into the dirt or gravel along the banks of water. When it digs these nesting burrows it will always build with an upward slope to prevent flooding of the nest (and we thought only humans planned ahead). Seems the kingfisher understands more about flooding than we do. The nesting and raising of young all occur in the northern reaches of its range. As winter approaches it will migrate south always needing open water for food. During the winter migration they relocate to their “summer homes” in the southern US, Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and northern South America. During their northern migration the kingfisher sometimes strays from land and has been seen, though rarely, west of Baja. They have been sighted as far away as Greenland, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK.
The belted kingfisher is often mistaken for a blue jay because of their similar colorations. The kingfisher has a shaggy slate blue head with a white collar. It has a light blue band on its breast. Its back and wings are also the same slate blue as the head. Its breast and underparts are mostly white. The female has a distinct rufous band across its upper belly and down its flanks. This along with its larger size, 11-14 inches, distinguishes it from the ubiquitous blue jay. With the rufous coloring, the kingfisher is one of very few birds whose female is more colorful than the male. This is known as reverse sexual dimorphism.
In warmer climates and during exceptionally warm winters it will sometimes remain year-round. This might explain my guest on Monday morning. Yet it seems rather risky for this individual to be so far north this early and also near a shallow stream. I have a hunch that this fellow was on a “walkabout.” He continued to entertain me for nearly a half hour. He swooped and yelled seeming to desire applause from his audience. He never touched the water, hopefully realizing the catastrophic results that would transpire. Finally, with no apparent handouts coming from us, he uttered one last chatter and flew off through the trees continuing his wanderings. Thank you my friend for your breathtaking performance. I wish you well and a safe return to your fishing hole.
To hear the sound of Kingfisher chatter, click here