EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> At sunrise, frost now covers lawns and gardens, but a skin of ice has yet to form over any ponds or lakes. Herons and ducks, too content to migrate, lollygag about as long as they can feed. Herons spear fish and frogs; ducks snag weeds and seeds from lake bottoms. On my morning walk even though it's mid-November, I hear that lone peeper peeping, the one that never wants to get muddy and hibernate.
As I walk along the road, I occasionally hear bird song: juncoes, whitethroats and goldfinches. Crows caw and ravens croak; woodpeckers shriek at one another. Some days, I find a huge flock of robins working the woods, not singing per se but clucking and puk-puk-puking to one another.
This morning when I approach the lake, I hear the proverbial "rattle" of a kingfisher. I raise my binoculars and scan the now leafless trees along the lake's edge. In a few seconds, I find the bird, so distinctly shaped. They are the "aggressive guardians of their domain" and spend much time perching on a branch that juts out over the water making them easy to locate.
A unique look
All kingfishers, no matter the size, have that peculiar shape: an oversized chunky bill, a head too large for the stocky body, a short tail and tiny feet. There are 90-plus species worldwide, ranging in size from four inches (a little larger than a ruby-throated hummingbird!) to 18 inches (crow-sized).
Most are blue or green, some are iridescent. Some have long tail feathers like the exquisite buff-breasted paradise kingfisher of Australia. Others have bright red bills and feet that look as if they were molded of plastic. Even though they are all kingfishers, only a few feed on fish. Many others are woodland and forest birds that feast on insects, and worms, lizards and newts, crabs and crayfish, even butterflies and moths.
The belted kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon, may be found all across America, migrating to more southerly climes when food is no longer available. In the past 10 years, kingfishers have be observed in our area four times in December on the Christmas Count.
The male is slaty blue on the back with a blue band across the top of the white chest. Surprisingly, the female is more colorful with an additional band of rust beneath the blue band. These birds mate for life, but outside of breeding season they tend to be loners who command a large hunting territory along a river or lake.
Not only are kingfishers distinctly shaped, you may also identify one by its flight pattern: five or six powerful strokes and then a long glide up to its favorite perch. When the bird spies an unwary fish, it glides across the water, hovers and then crash-dives into the water at almost a 90-degree angle. Up he comes shaking the water from his body and then he glides back to his perch, fish dangling from his beak.
When breeding season comes, the pair of kingfishers finds a bank along a river or lake. These avians are burrow nesters digging a 3- or 4-foot tunnel into the bank ending with a bare room at the end. They use the oversized beak for digging into the dirt and then remove the dirt using their weird, tiny feet. Two toes are partially joined making it easier for the bird to grasp a perch or shovel a talon-full of dirt.
The young are not too swift when they emerge from the nest and must be taught to fish. The parents take them to a branch and fish in front of them hoping they would learn by example. But more often than not, a parent must snag a fish, bring it to the branch, bang it around until it is half dead and then drop it in the water.
The fledglings watch and wait and eye the silvery, stunned fish floating about underneath their perch. When the parents finally refuse to feed them, hunger wins out. One by one they dive in and snap up an immobile fish. This is a bit more gentle than baby gannets learning to fish. When the exasperated parents get tired of feeding these fledglings, they lead them to the edge of the cliff and push the young'uns off. There's no shortage of gannets, so this method of parenting works as well.
Legends and symbols
Since these birds are fairly easy to observe, myths and superstitions abound. A French legend has it that their kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, was sent out by Noah to find out when the rains would cease. The bird flew higher and higher and was burnt by the sun. When he fell back to earth, he, now with an iridescent sky blue back and sun reddish front, could not find Noah. Now the kingfishers fly back and forth along rivers and lakes searching for Noah.
The English believed that a dead kingfisher hanging upside could act as a weather vane. Its beak would point to where the wind would soon come from. A Native American story has a kingfisher outfoxing a fox. As a symbol in literature, the kingfisher represents peace and serenity, prosperity and promise of abundance.
Believe what you will, I just love hearing that "rattle," described in old literature as similar to the sound of a nightwatchman's or beat policeman's rattle. But who remembers that sound? Arthur Cleveland Bent in his "Life Histories" transcribes the sound as "rickety, crick, crick, crick." Huh? That doesn't work for me. A more apt description is the bird call sounds "like the constant shake of maracas."
Kingfishers are beautiful and, yes, many are more jewel-like than our dapper belted. Danny and I have observed more than 20 different species worldwide — time perhaps to search out the other 70!