Bird report: Taking a closer look at the rarely-caught belted kingfisher

Bronwyn Robinson

LSLBO assistant bander

As we enter September, fall migratory movement has been very slow, the bulk of which has been myrtle warblers in foraging flocks and occasionally landing in our nets.

Yet this past week a rare and exciting capture was made: the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory’s second-ever belted kingfisher—and first ever female. The last belted kingfisher to be banded here was a male a full decade ago in 2013.

While the capture itself is a rare occurrence, belted kingfishers do nest just south of our nets. This year, a pair could be seen flying up and down the lakeshore by the observatory nearly every day. They simply do not usually have the desire to fly through the trees where our nets lie in wait, but instead prefer traveling over the water.

Unlike many of the bright and colourful warblers that breed here in the boreal forest, it is not the male belted kingfishers with additional ornamentation, but the females. Overall, these birds are dark blue above and white below, with a blue breast band and, for the females, a rusty belt. Their heads look distinctively heavy with a combination of a feathered crest and thick, sharp bill.

If not by sight, it is easy enough to pick them out by their loud, rattling call. Appropriately, one of the names for a group of kingfishers is a rattle.

Rather than stick and grass nests, belted kingfishers will dig out a long tunnel in a steep sand or river bank, sloped upwards to prevent flooding the burrow at the end.

Both males and females will take turns using their heavy bills to clear the way, as well as incubating eggs and feeding nestlings. They are also very territorial and will actively chase away anyone or anything that strays too close to its nest, rattling all the while. They can be found breeding around rivers, streams, ponds and lakes from Alaska to the Maritimes and as far south as Florida. Their winter grounds extend wherever there is open water to hunt in, from the coasts of Alaska to throughout Central America. They are the only kingfisher species found in Canada.

These birds are fascinating to watch hunt. Their main source of food is fish, which they look for from a perch or by flying above the water’s surface. Once their prey is spotted, the belted kingfisher will hover as it takes careful aim, before diving beak first into the water. They will also eat small crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, insects, berries and even smaller birds.

Humans are not without impact on the belted kingfisher. They used to be hunted around fisheries, and are not keen on human disturbance so will avoid places that people visit often. On the other hand, manmade ditches, gravel pits, and landfills have provided new locations for burrows. Thanks to that, some populations have even grown.

The first female belted kingfisher ever banded by the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory. The only other belted kingfisher caught by the LSLBO was a male in 2013.

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