Kingfisher stopover at the pond

We only have one kingfisher here in western Virginia, the Belted Kingfisher. They are year-round residents in the Commonwealth as long as the waterways stay open in winter and they can find the small fish that make up the bulk of their diet. We’ve had a few kingfisher sightings, but one a couple of years ago was quite memorable.

My husband and I were driving into town when we approached an intersection where we saw a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a utility wire. We pulled over to watch, hoping to see him dive for a fish, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Kingfishers have their own very strict fishing “regulations,” and evidently, we had interrupted his fishing expedition. He began indignantly patrolling back and forth overhead, scolding us with a non-stop barrage of harsh rattle-calls that kept up until we left. Because of that incident, we dubbed the intersection “Kingfisher Corner.”

After that encounter, we didn’t see another kingfisher until I saw this female in the willow tree at our neighbor’s pond a few days ago.

Belted Kingisher2

The male has a blue band across the chest; the female has an additional rufous band.

Belted Kingfisher

Note the small white spot by each eye at the base of the bill.

When I first spotted her, I quickly took a couple of pictures, thinking I might not get another shot with this flighty bird. Sure enough, no sooner had I snapped the pictures when off she flew. She made a large circle, flying over the top of the woods behind me, then came back around to my right, landing in a tall tree about 50 yards away. I kept trying to get closer, but, true to form, she flew every time I got anywhere near close. Typical of other encounters, she kept up the mechanical rattle-call to let me know I was not welcome in her fishing territory.

Kingfishers are one of the wariest birds on the planet. In his Waterbirds of the Northeast, Winston Williams sums up the wariness of the kingfishers: “If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the kingfisher will remain ever free.” A bird more leery of humans would be hard to find; their penchant for secrecy and distrust of people rivals that of any bird.

These raggedy-crested birds are in a class all their own. They dig a burrow into earthen banks to raise their young, more like a badger or muskrat than a bird, and they defend their nest as vigorously as any bird I know. It’s fascinating to watch them dive underwater to spear a fish. Darting from a perch, the fisherbird hovers over the water for a split second to pin-point his quarry then dives headlong into the water. A special third eyelid closes to protect the bird’s eyes while underwater.

Because they require clean water for their diet of fish, kingfishers are an indicator species of water quality. The fact that they are living and breeding in our area means that our creeks are clean and uncontaminated.

If the female I saw was laying “claim” to the fish, crayfish, and salamanders in our neighbor’s pond, she’ll be back. And I’ll be watching…from a distance.

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33 thoughts on “Kingfisher stopover at the pond

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I have never managed a good close-up of a Kingfisher, and when I try to stalk them, they invariably move off to another location. They just tease you with their staccato call, getting you to follow the sound, and then disappearing off somewhere else. Most frustrating.

    • My problem is I lack patience. If I had watched from a distance for a while, I might have been able to inch – and I do mean inch – closer.

      • I wouldn’t have counted on that. I have yet to approach a kingfisher closely, whether walking or kayaking, they are far too wary. My best shots of them have come as I have sat under a tree that they use as perches to hunt from, but that takes a lot of patience, and like you, I lack that.

    • I read the book, “Kingfishers of the World,” and they are all different, but also alike, in many ways. Fascinating, every one.

  2. WOW! What great pictures! I have never seen a Kingfisher here – do you know if they are in New Hampshire? Have been meaning to tell you that I am having “conversations” with our chickadees and our male cardinal – I sit on our porch and play the calls of both birds and after a short while, they come to my feeders! When I play the Chickadee call that sounds like “Hey, sweetie!” one or more of the Chickadees will fly to a bush nearer to the porch and answer me repeatedly!!!! The same for the male Cardinal who answers to the “Birdie, Birdie” and the “Vreet!, Vreet!” call. It is so amazing!!!!!!!! The other day Brigid, Maggie and Mairead joined me on the porch and they were so thrilled to hear my bird conversations!! Do you have the book:
    “The Backyard Birdsong Guide” by Donald Kroodsma – a Cornell Lab of Ornithology Audio Field Guide? I believe it is published for different regions of the country, but mine is for Eastern and Central North America. I LOVE it!!!!
    Margie
    P.S. The male Cardinal lost his mate to a hawk a couple of weeks ago, but seems to be still here
    perhaps searching for a new mate!

    • You’re becoming quite the birder, Margie! Bill told me I should try calling the birds in – I told him I don’t have the patience. I’m glad to hear you’re sharing your love for the birds with Meg’s kids so some might rub off on them. We need more animal-lovers! I don’t have that particular book, but Kroodsma is probably the top expert on birdsong in the country. xoxo

  3. Wonderful pictures, Jo Ann! No kidding, Kingfishers are always too far away to get a picture. Or they’re busy flying past. Congratulation!

  4. Those are fantastic captures of the elusive Kingfisher. We’ve had one living at the back of our pond for years (not sure it’s the same one, but there’s almost always one back there chattering at me when I approach that area). I have never been able to get a clear shot at it. Great job! 🙂

    • Thanks, Robin. I was lucky that the willow tree hadn’t leafed out yet. If it had, I probably wouldn’t have seen him until I got too close and he flew away…timing is everything.

  5. Congratulations for “capturing” such an elusive girl, Jo Ann! When I was a kid Kingfishers were always there, rattling past us at warp speed, while going to and from the farm pond. Thanks for putting a smile on my face and bringing back some great memories – hopefully you pass muster and she decides to stick around.
    Here’s a link from a great birding website I stumbled across just last week…
    http://birdsbybent.netfirms.com/ch11-20/kingfish.html

    • You’re welcome. I have great memories of birds as a child too, thanks to my father pointing them out to me. I have to admit I’ve seen my share of kingfishers making a “bee line” from one place to another. I’m familiar with birdsbybent – lots of great personal stories and information.

  6. Wow, I’ve drawn these birds so many times, but I never knew they dug their nests into the earth! That’s really interesting. Nice photos!

    • Yeah, they are definitely “different!” I would love to find one of their nests, but there are very secretive about the location so you’d have to see them going into or leaving their nest.

  7. You did good getting those photos of the kingfishers, after reading how wary and suspicious they are of humans. The kingfisher was the bird that got me interested in other birds – my mother bought me a book on birds when I was 7 years old, and the Kingfisher did it for me – they are beautiful!
    Sadly, we don’t get them here but we do have the Kookaburra, who I believe, is related to the Kingfisher family.

    • The bird that got me interested in birds was the Baltimore Oriole that nested in our backyard when I was a kid. I thought the male was the most beautiful bird I had ever seen. Now I think they’re all beautiful. 🙂

  8. You are spot on! Birds are companions to good water quality and early indicators of problems. Nice pics.

  9. It’s rare to have much of an interaction with such a wary bird, so I have stored away in my memory the kingfisher of Kingfisher Corner. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bird so protective of its territory as that individual.

    • Thanks. I doubt I’ll get that lucky again. Kingfishers occur throughout most of the world and share many similarities. In my opinion, they are one fascinating bird!

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