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Belted kingfishers worth paddling to see

Female Belted Kingfisher. Photo by Arni Stinnissen.

Living on a point of land that stretches about a mile into the lake, we are blessed to have shorelines in both our front and back yards. It is therefore not uncommon to play hosts to a number of waterbirds during the spring, summer and fall as they come to feed and nest.

Over the years, we have had bald eagles, ospreys, bitterns, great blue and green herons, pie-billed grebes and numerous duck, tern and shorebird species.

But one bird announces its arrival with a rattling call, long before we see it, as it flies between tree branches above the water — the unmistakeable call of the belted kingfisher.

Both males and females have a shaggy-looking crest and a blue-grey bib, or belt, under their chins. The female sports a rusty-coloured band across the lower part of her chest, which makes her most attractive. As they fish for a living, they are most often seen on shores of lakes, rivers and streams, flying from perch to perch, from which they spot their prey of small fish and crayfish.

The belted is a strikingly
beautiful blue-grey, black
and white bird found
across North America.

Once the quarry is in sight, they dive head-first into the water to retrieve it in their long, sharp bill. If there is an absence of perches available, they will hover looking for food.

After the dive, they will shake the water from their feathers as they fly back to the perch. There, they stun the prey by smacking it on the perch before swallowing it or feeding it to their young. Kingfishers have something in common with owls — adults regurgitate the bones, shells and other indigestible matter from their prey. Young birds, however, are able to digest bones with special enzymes they lose as they mature.

Kingfishers dig burrows in sandy banks of rivers or lakes or near sand pits. The burrows typically are about two metres long, ending in the enlarged nest area. Five or six eggs are laid and are incubated by both parents for 20 to 22 days. The young fledge in about 27 days. Young are fed regurgitated fish for their first few days of life but take whole food in about a week. The parents will feed the young fledglings until they are about a month old and are able to fish on their own.

Migration from ice-bound lakes and rivers takes place in late fall. Females tend to migrate farther south than the males, who prefer to stay as close to their favourite breeding location as possible.

If you live on or near the water and have access to a boat, paddle or cruise slowly along the shorelines for the best possible viewing of these interesting birds. Let your ears guide you to their favourite perches. Sit quietly and wait for the action.

Written by David A. Homer.

Interested in seeing a Kingfisher for yourself? Take a look at the properties that The Couchiching Conservancy helps to protect along waterways.