For many folks, the first sign of spring are the robins returning. Of course, that was plenty early this year with a lot of cold stuff after that. Bluebirds were the traditional sign of spring and I would agree with those that vote for the bluebird. I can even agree with the argument that some people make for the turkey vulture return being the sure sign of spring. But for me, I know that it is finally spring when the belted kingfishers are again perched on the wire that spans the little bridge near my house.
The male and female both sit on the wire waiting patiently for the right moment. Once prey is sighted, they dive headfirst into the water and seize it with their bills. They feed almost entirely on aquatic prey, diving to catch fish and crayfish with those heavy, straight bills. Typically prey is taken near the surface, and the birds do not submerge themselves completely.
Belted kingfishers are highly territorial and vigorously defend their territories. Their most common call is a dry rattle, often given in flight. In fact, the belted kingfisher is likely to be heard before it is seen. Its loud, dry rattling call may be heard around almost any suitable body of water in North America.
I guess I like the fact that while there are over 90 species of kingfishers throughout the world, only three exist in North America north of Mexico. Of these three, the belted kingfisher is by far the most widespread, occurring near water bodies from coast to coast.
While both male and female are flashy, conspicuous birds, the female belted kingfisher is actually more colorful than the male, a highly unusual trait in the avian world.
The belted kingfisher is a relatively large bird with conspicuous habits. At 13 inches in length with a 20" wingspan and a weight of 5 oz., it is difficult to overlook as it careens noisily about its territory. Whether moving from perch to perch along a lake or stream, or hovering in mid-air to survey the water below. The belted kingfisher is named for the distinct, alternating bands of white, blue and rust that encircle the bird's throat and breast.
This species is unlikely to be confused with any other. Both sexes have a large, crested head, a long black bill, and flashy plumage. The head, back, and upper parts of the wing and tail are slate blue. There is a white ring around the throat, a blue band across the breast and, notably, an additional rusty ring across the belly of the female. The remainder of the belly is white. Its large head, larger bill, and stocky appearance create the impression of a bird that is somewhat out of proportion.
It nests in burrows along earthen banks and there are several steep cutbanks in the area where my kingfishers live. The kingfishers belong to an order of birds known as CORACIIFORMES. One characteristic of this order is syndactyl feet, the outer two toes of which are joined almost to the end. That trait probably aids in their digging of those nesting burrows.
The overnight temps may still dip below freezing a few more times but it is spring. My kingfishers are back.