Monday, April 9, 2012

Adirondack Wildlife: The Belted Kingfisher

The early break up of ice on ponds, lakes and marshes, along with a very healthy flow of water in streams and rivers, has made conditions far better for fishing this April than in recent years. Humans, however, are not the only creatures that prowl the banks of remote streams, or visit the shores of backcountry ponds, in an attempt to snag a small brook trout. Throughout the Adirondacks, there are numerous forms of life that are well adapted for catching fish, and among the most colorful and noisy is the belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon).

With its large head, long, thick bill, jagged crest, and white band around its neck, the kingfisher provides a silhouette that is easily recognized. However, it is not the unique appearance of this stout bird that initially draws attention to its presence. Most anglers and individuals that simply spend time outdoors commonly become aware that a kingfisher is in the immediate area by noting its distinct rattling call.

According to biologists that study it, the kingfisher is a highly territorial creature, and whenever it spots a rival kingfisher, a neighbor that has crossed its boundaries, a predator, like a fox, meandering through the area, or even a human walking in the general vicinity, it quickly voices its displeasure. Whether it is on the wing, or sitting on a favored perch, the kingfisher never hesitates to notify the intruder that it is trespassing and is upsetting the kingfisher by its presence.

While the kingfisher is normally encountered around a body of water that supports a population of small fish, it may also be noted well over a half mile from any aquatic setting. Unlike most birds that breed in the Adirondacks, the kingfisher seeks out the side of a steep sandy bank in which to excavate a burrow for the placement of its nest. The face of a hillside that has been partially cut away is the ideal location for the nest of this bird, especially if it is relatively close to some body of water. Because the side of such an unstable cliff prevents ground predators from ascending the slope to raid its nursery, the kingfisher’s eggs and hatchlings are relatively safe from a ground assault.

As a general rule the entrance, which is slightly oval in shape, is positioned about a foot and a half to two feet below the top of the bank. This prevents an animal, like a raccoon, from attempting to reach down the face of the bank, and grab one of the adults as it exits the nest.

A slope that is not exceedingly steep, and which can be climbed by a predator, is generally avoided by the kingfisher, however, in the total absence of any suitable land formation, the kingfisher will resort to using such less desirably pitched sandy cliffs.

Both the male and female work in the excavation of the tunnel that leads into the side of the bank. With its long and pointed bill, the bird dislodges the soil at the end of the hole and kicks the loose material back toward the entrance with its feet. One individual works for about 2 to 3 minutes before exiting the earthen tube. When its mate enters to continue the work, it initially kicks out all of the loose soil that has accumulated on the floor of the tunnel before proceeding to the end to dig away more dirt. The two outer toes of the kingfisher are partially fused together toward their base which creates a shovel-like feature to these appendages.

The length of the tunnel depends on the ease of digging and on the number of years that the same pair of birds has used that site. A first year nest complex averages from 3 to 4 feet in length before an enlarged area is created to house the nest. Upon their return the following spring, the pair attempts to reclaim the horizontal burrow if the bank is still intact.

It is quite common in the Adirondacks for a pair or two of kingfishers to excavate a nest in a sand bank used by the highway department of a town or village. Because these banks are dug away during the latter part of summer or autumn when sand is being accumulated for dispersing on winter roads, the burrow that a pair made one spring may be gone the next.

In backcountry settings, the side of an esker or a steep slope with workable soil is known to attract the kingfisher in spring during the search for a nesting site. Should its characteristic rattling call be heard in a location away from any body of water, the chances are good that there is some terrain feature in the vicinity that is being used to house a nest.

With all waterways across the region open and the soil thawed, it is time for the return of one of the most proficient anglers in the Adirondacks – the kingfisher.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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