A rough, raucous, rattle call caught my attention from the small pond next to my house last week; and instantly I knew a belted kingfisher was back to spend the fall, winter, and early spring.
Every year one or two of these interesting birds add that pond to their regular daily round of local water holes. Usually they show up separately at different times, but at times when they arrive at the same time they fight it out with a loud and prolonged chase.
Belted kingfishers are a common year-round component of our local avifauna. The numbers shrink some in summer when northern birds that spend the winter here move back to their breeding areas, but by late summer the first returning migrants start to show.
It is hard to say if the birds that I see are migrants or just local dispersing birds. Kingfishers require a steep creek bank or high earthen lake dam to dig their nest burrows, and I have neither in the immediate area. It could be the birds next to me now are reclaiming old territory post nesting.
Belted kingfishers are the only member of their family that we have in the eastern United States, but there are other species in southwestern United States. They are unique in that they are the only local species in our area to nest underground and the females are more colorful than the males. The males are steely blue-gray on top and pale on the belly. The females have a conspicuous rusty belt on their bellies; the feature which gives the species its name.
Kingfishers perch on a low branch, dock, or other structure low over water and make short dives to grab small fish with their stout bills. If they snatch a fish too large to swallow easily they might pound it on a hard surface to subdue it before swallowing. Their feet are proportionally tiny with respect to the rest of the body, indicating they are of little use in securing prey.
I’m glad they have returned to my pond. They are a fun bird to watch.
On Aug. 23, I saw the first migrating common nighthawk winging in a northeast direction right over my house. Step outside a few minutes before 7:45 pm and see if some are winging overhead.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com