Nature scrapbook: The kingfisher

Each spring, the return of the belted kingfisher’s harsh, ratcheting rattle to lakes and streams across Ontario signals the start of another angling season. With an improbably huge beak attached to its pigeon-sized, tiny-footed body, the aptly named bird is a breed apart, plucking its finned fare from the drink and tunnelling its nursery chambers beneath the ground. But waterfront development, excessive nutrient loading in lakes, erosion from intensified agriculture, and other habitat disturbances have put pressure on kingfisher populations in many areas.

Spring rush

A few kingfishers, usually males, stay year-round wherever there’s open water, north to about Minden, Manitoulin Island, and Ottawa. Most males, however, begin arriving in April, about a month ahead of the fairer sex, coming from winter retreats as far south as Panama to stake their claims along streams, and on calm, quiet bays, small lakes, and ponds. Depending on the fishing, nesting real estate, and crowding from neighbours, their waterside territiories can cover up to 5,000 metres of shoreline.

Fly fishing

Pellets of regurgitated bones and scales mark the spots beneath a kingfisher’s favourite hunting perches. These hangouts are commonly on dead branches overlooking open, shal­low water, often at riffles in streams. Fixing on prey mostly less than 10 cm long, such as minnows, the ragged-crested bird launches from its perch, sometimes hovering in mid-air before plunging beak-first below the surface to snatch its quarry.

Dinner dates

Unlike most bird species, the adult female kingfisher is more colourful than her beau, sporting the red namesake belt across her lower breast and sides. Returning in May, she assesses water­front properties by alighting near the proprietor and eliciting from him a meal of fresh fish.

The big dig

When starting a nest burrow, a courting male jabs and probes the sand at various spots near the top of high banks, usually near water, constantly calling and flying back and forth to his prospective mate until he gets the thumbs-up. Once paired, both ardently defend their territory with rattling calls and by chasing away trespassers. Given good weather, the duo can pickaxe a one- to two-metre-long burrow with their sturdy beaks in three to seven days, removing the sand with their feet; hubby does about two-thirds of the digging. Females settle on clutches of five to seven eggs, which hatch 22 to 24 days later. Both parents feed the hungry chicks, and in about a month, the young emerge from the burrow, ready to fly.