Belted Kingfisher: Photographic Challenge
Ever since I started roaming the Texas rivers, marshes and coastal waterways, I have come upon this medium sized bird. It has a heavy longish bill and a shaggy crested head. Add to that it has a white collared neck marking and if you catch a female facing you, it will have a white X marking across its breast. Most of you who are birders already know I’m talking about the Belted Kingfisher. River or coast, they are a fun bird to catch sight of, but they are also skittish and won’t let you get close. I’ve never managed to get closer than 40 to 50 yards.
This bird and more recently their Lower Rio Grande Valley cousins, have become something of a challenge. I, tenacious soul, will accept a challenge and by darned will find a way to accomplish the mission.
Belted Kingfisher Gallery
Oh so Close, but not Quite
As the subject of my almost-but-not-quite photographic captures, they are wary enough to seem to sense being watched. Within five seconds of seeing one, they know what’s up and take off. My usual lens for bird watching, a 300mm zoom, is rarely up to the distance, even with an in-camera crop factor of 1.6x, but with a lot of post-process cropping; I can occasionally bring a soft focused find in closer.
- During several visits to the Baytown Nature Center, I chased a Belted Kingfisher around from perch to perch. The lighting was not always good, but I kept trying.
- At Port Aransas during a boat tour of the canals and waterways, I saw them a number of times. They were always far away and always too quick to get a good shot of.
- Once at Lake Livingston and on the banks of Lake Houston, I have seen them perched in trees. Again, they would take off faster than I could say Kingfisher.
Pursuing Belted Kingfishers is to appreciate the frustrations of bird scientists who hunt for the presumed extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. They say they occasionally see one, but never when they have a camera up and ready to go. As a photographer, I always have my camera at the ready, but still have a terrible time. Some of the reasons might have to do with their habits and behaviors. I’ve been studying up on my little nemesis. If you have shared this challenge, you might could gain from my research as well.
Diet: fish primarily, but also crustaceans, crabs, mussels, lizards, snakes and berries
Average life span: 21 years or more
Size: 11 - 14 in
Weight: 4.9 to 6 oz (140 to 170 g)
Habitat: Both fresh and saltwater wetlands and other waterways
For more details visit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Belted_Kingfisher/lifehistory
Belted Kingfisher Identification and Facts
The Belted Kingfisher is the most wide-ranging of the kingfishers you will find in North America. The male has the white collar, a V-shaped blue border across it’s breast above a white tummy. The head, wings and back are a grayish blue. The female also has the white collar, but under it is a rusty colored belt, which makes the cris-cross X seen at a distance. Scientists think the more colorful feathers on the female may have at least two reasons.
- A Cornell Labs article mentions that “males sometimes remain on their territories year-round, presumably so they don’t risk giving up prime nesting real estate. The females, on the other hand, migrate south for the winter. When the females return, the males are already in the midst of defending their territories. So glimpsing a flash of a bright, rusty belt could be a signal that he should welcome the visitor, rather than chasing her off.”
- The other possibility was that females can be just as territorial. “High testosterone levels may also affect the way pigments are incorporated into a bird’s plumage.”
Kingfishers have rather weak feet that Sibley’s guide to Bird Life and Behavior calls, “suited only for perching.” They have four toes, two pointing out sideways on both sides of the foot and two partly joined pointing forward. Their legs are short. The long heavy bill looks pre-historic, mainly because this is a very old bird species.
- Florida fossils have been found as far back as 2 million years ago. Fossils going back 600,000 years have been found in Texas, according to Cornell Labs.
Belted Kingfisher Range Map
Belted Kingfisher Range
Belted-Kingfishers are also the only one of the three North American kingfishers that migrate. The kingfisher’s summer breeding range is as far north as upper Canada and Alaska. They can be found year-round in most lower forty-eight states, and will winter as far south as the upper coast-line of South America. In their year-round territories, the females and juveniles do most of the migrating, heading to warmer climates during winter. Males will remain to protect their nesting territory unless the climate becomes too cold.
- These kingfishers are also known for being a wide-ranging vagrants, found as far away as “the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, the British Isles, the Azores, Iceland, Greenland, and the Netherlands,” according to Cornell Labs.
Kingfisher Feeding and Habitat
I include these two aspects together because they are highly intertwined. Kingfishers will exist wherever there is clear clean waterways to fish in. They don’t fish in muddy, vegetation chocked waters, but will hunt for crayfish, crabs, mussels, lizards, insects and berries in such areas. Outside breeding season, they are usually seen singly. Past Ornithology species lists have made divisions of kingfishers by region, Eastern, Western and Northern Belted Kingfishers. Those divisions have since been done away with.
They will fly low over water patrolling for fish, but they also fly at higher altitudes over the water spotting for fish. This kingfisher will hover until ready and then dive straight down into the water after a catch. They also hunt from tree perches low over water. I have accidently spooked a kingfisher while it was doing this. A video I found catches a look at these birds and their fishing skills.
Kingfisher Courtship and Parenting
Unlike most other birds, Kingfishers choose to nest in deep borrows, mostly on cliff faces or riverbanks. Other good sites include behind thick exposed tree roots. A vertical cliff face, even as far away as a mile from water with attract them.
- Sibley’s guide to Bird Life and Behavior records seeing Belted Kingfishers nest with Bank Swallows and having some Rough-winged Swallows try to share the site, nesting in the front entrance of the burrow. These are chased off quickly as the birds come and go frequently.
The courtship of the Belted Kingfisher involves loud calling to attract mates. Kingfishers start breeding at 1 year of age. The females will then take on the posture of a begging juvenile, hanging her wings down and fluttering. When a male offers her food to her liking, he gets the girl. Nest digging begins shortly afterward. Breeding season can start in late March to early April ending in late July in Texas according to Dr. Harry Oberholser in The Bird Life of Texas.
The Kingfisher burrow is usually hidden behind roots and vegetation. The pair chisels a tunnel three to six feet into a bank close to water. Drainage ditches, levies and other such places will also work for them. The tunnel is graded upward to keep out moisture and rain. The nest cavity at the end is usually 8 to 12 inches in diameter. No nesting material is added to the burrow.
- Kingfishers are not housekeepers. Their burrows are messy collections of feces, fish bones and chick pellets of insect exoskeletons and fish bones regurgitated after digestion. They live in this condition for two months or more of incubation and nesting.
- This messy burrow often attracts fire ants in the south, which harass nesting adults until they accidently crack one or more of their eggs. This is one of the reasons for chick mortality according to Birds of Texas by Arnold and Kennedy.
The female will lay from 5 to 8 eggs. The male and female both incubate and care for their single brood. The male usually takes his watch in the afternoon, while the female takes the night watch. Their young hatch blind and helpless. Parents feed by regurgitation. When the chicks are older, dead whole fish are brought. Once out of the burrow, chicks are taught to fly and fish. Fishing lessons include having a juvenile retrieve sticks from the water’s surface. This can be a dangerous game as young birds can drown before learning to swim and lift back up out of the water.
Needless to say, this nesting method makes it very difficult to ever see baby kingfishers, but occasionally a burrow is found, such as in the below video and a sighting can be made. I don't advocate hunting for nests, but the video maker lucked into this find giving us a peak into the bird's private world.
Dangers to Kingfishers
The problem with getting good sightings and photographs might be due to so many finding them tasty. Predators include hawks, owls, foxes and raccoons, and snakes. When you see an agitated Belted Kingfisher heaving its body up and down with its crest elevated, or flying back and forth along the water, rattling noisily, there is likely a predator close by. To escape attack, often the Kingfisher will resort to a quick dive into water. I caught an attack on a Belted Kingfisher when an incoming Kestrel perched on the same dead tree with one. The hawk attacked, but the Kingfisher fought it off and then gave up its tree. Such problems would require the bird to be on high alert most of the time.
Green and Ringed Kingfisher Gallery
Southern Cousin Kingfishers
I have had somewhat easier times catching photographs of kingfishers in September while watching for Green and Ringed Kingfishers. After breeding season, when they are more likely to be seen, I caught one of each on the same day at Estero Llano State Park patrolling a pond.
- The Ringed Kingfisher, the largest to be found in Texas, at 9 to 16 inches long. Before the 1960s they rarely came to our side of the Rio Grande. Now they too seem to be expanding territory northward. These big birds fish survey fish from higher tree branches and good foliage cover at about 15 to 35 feet up.
- The Green Kingfisher is a rare bird find. They are the smallest of the Texas Kingfishers at no larger than 12 inches with a bill length of about of nearly 2 inches. This makes them seem a bit top heavy. They had been in decline, possibly from past pollution and waterway alterations. It appears now to be spreading into the U.S. from Mexico in South Texas and South Eastern Arizona. Like the Belted Kingfisher, they fish on perches close to the water.
To see more about this visit, view my review of their Fall birding opportunities of the Estero Llano State Park here.
Due to high predation, Belted Kingfishers are always on the lookout for danger. This makes sightings and documentation very difficult. It can be done, as testified by some very high quality shots on the internet, but distance, poor lighting conditions and fast flying escapes can hinder pictures. I generally use a fast ISO of 800 even on sunny days to increase my focal range and allow faster shutter speeds. This could make the difference between a blue-gray blur and a moderately soft focused in-flight catch.
Good luck and Happy Birding
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg