Leonard and I spent yesterday at Baum Lake (Shasta County CA). The ground remains covered in snow and I was tired after six hours of breaking through deep snow while walking. However, the sun was shining and temperatures may have reached the low 40s – it was great simply to be outdoors after a long Arctic cold spell.
Belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon or Ceryle alcyon) summer throughout most of North America, migrating from the northern part of their range to areas with open water during the winter. If the winter is mild near our house in Lookout CA, belted kingfishers can be spotted throughout the year. Not this winter! The belted kingfishers at Baum Lake, about 1,000 feet lower in elevation, were the first I observed in several months.
Belted kingfishers are one of the rare birds where the female is more brightly colored than the male. Both sexes are slate blue with white underparts and a single blue breastband and a prominent white collar. The bushy crest makes the kingfisher appear big-headed. A long, black, heavy bill and medium, squared tail are other field markings, although a belted kingfisher is not easily confused with any other birds throughout most of its range. A rufous or cinnamon belly band that spreads down the flanks distinguishes a female belted kingfisher.
Belted kingfishers require clear water with elevated perches. Thus these distinctive birds can be found near streams, ponds, rivers and estuaries where they sit on bare tree branches, telephone or fence wires, pilings and piers while waiting for prey. The kingfisher plunge dives for small fish, often hitting them against its perch before swallowing them whole – head first. The main food of belted kingfishers is fish or aquatic invertebrates such as crayfish. In the absence of fish, kingfishers will eat mollusks, amphibians, aquatic insects, young birds, small rodents and even berries.
Another requirement for belted kingfishers is dirt banks where they nest in burrows they dig very close to or along the water’s edge. The nest tunnel slopes upward, most likely to protect the nest from water.
Belted kingfishers are monogamous, but form new pairs each year. Except during the breeding season, they are usually solitary.