The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Kingfishers Are Back! Winter Isn’t Far Behind by Ro Wauer

The return of belted kingfishers to South Texas is a sure sign that the hot summer is over. These wonderful birds normally spend their summers along more northern rivers and streams from central Texas to Alaska, migrate south for the winter months, and many remain into May. They overwinter south into Mexico and as far south as Argentina.

Their abundance in South Texas during the winter months provides a marvelous opportunity to enjoy one of nature’s most unique creations close-up and personal. They perch on wires and posts over roadside ditches, along our reservoirs, bays, and other wetlands.

Kingfishers are among out easiest birds to identify. It is a fairly large bird (about a foot in length) with a noticeably large stocky bill and blue and white plumage; females also possess a rusty bellyband. A closer examination reveals a finely banded tail, back flecked with white, and a tiny white spot in front of each eye. And their vocalization can hardly be ignored; it is a loud clattering rattle, given from a perch or in flight.

By watching one of these active birds, you will soon understand why it is called “kingfisher.” It spends most of its daylight hours foraging for food that may include fish of varying size, frogs, crayfish, crabs, and almost anything else that lives in water. But their method of fishing is what is most exciting. They physically dive on their prey headfirst, from a perch or hovering position up to 40 feet high, and often become totally submerged, sometimes for several seconds. They will then literally fly out of the water with their prey either tightly grasped or stabbed with their sharp bill, carried to a favorite perch, beat senseless, flipped into the air, and swallowed headfirst.

At times the prey may be so large that it is impossible to swallow whole. In such cases, the bird will simply remain still to allow its rapid digestion to consume its catch that slowly slips down the gullet. The undigested scales and bones are regurgitated as pellets.

Kingfishers nest in dirt banks along rivers, constructing tunnels as far as 15 feet deep and slightly angled upward. At the end of the tunnel, it constructs a 6- to 10-inch-deep nest chamber. Its bill serves as a digging tool, and it pushes the loose dirt out with its small but strong feet. The construction takes three days to three weeks, depending on the type of soil. The chamber us then lined with grass, feathers, and materials from its pellets. The female lays five to eight eggs that hatch in about three weeks. After the young are fledged, the parents teach the youngsters the art of fishing by dropping dead meals into the water for retrieval; within ten days the fledglings are catching their own prey,

Although the belted kingfisher is our most common kingfisher species, two other kingfishers occur in our region: the tiny green kingfisher is resident along the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, and an occasional ringed kingfisher visits our area from further south. The larger ringed kingfisher sports an all rusty belly and more massive bill and deeper rattle call. The call of the green kingfisher is a series of metallic ticks.

Belted kingfishers will be us all though the winter months, and their presence allows us to appreciate our rich diversity in our bird life. One author wrote: “Up and down the creek he goes, With rattled call to warn his foes.” Enjoy!


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