Since my “career” as a birder is still rather short, especially in comparison to some birders I know, I still quite regularly see “lifers”. These are first-time spottings of birds in the wild when you can identify them reliably. While I enjoy seeing the more common birds in my area time and again, it is the lifers that often evoke a happy grin when I get a good photo. More often than not, though, my first photos of a lifer are a bit blurry, partial as the bird is hidden in foliage or otherwise imperfect. It is only with repeated sightings that the photos seem to improve – though that also isn’t always the case.
An example of this is my “relationship” with the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Although worldwide there are more than 90 species of kingfishers, the United States and Canada only have three and it is the belted variety that is most often seen. “Belted” refers to the band of bluish-gray color across the white underparts of the bird’s body; both males and females have this. Females also have a reddish color band, making them even more attractive than the males, which is not so usual among our avian friends.
The first time I saw a belted kingfisher was in October 2012; it was across Jordan Lake, about a 30-minute drive from my home, in a tree. Only when it flew by once at high speed was I able to get a half-way decent shot of what I think was a female.
My next sightings were in a mangrove swamp in Mexico in December 2013. One day, I saw a female fly by over the mangrove trees in the distance.
Two days later, at the same place, I saw male. What was exciting about that spotting was that the bird began fishing right in front of me. He would circle the swamp, hover a couple seconds and then fold his wings to drop like a bullet into the water, completely submerging. The action was fast and my photos were blurred again, but I was able to document that he had caught a meal.
My fourth sighting was in the late afternoon this past week, January 2014. As I was walking in a forested area near a creek, I saw a flash of a blue head and white on the wings and at first thought that a blue jay had streaked by me. But then the odd, kind of loud warbling call caught my attention – it was definitely not a jay. The bird perched on a tree limb about 100 feet or more ahead of me and I suspected that it might be a kingfisher but doubted it, too, as I thought they needed to be around more open bodies of water. This is not the case – they just need to be around water that doesn’t freeze over so they always have access to their fishy diets, as well as amphibians, small crustaceans, insects, small mammals and reptiles. They nest in burrows dug horizontally into the banks of waterways and both parents cooperate in feeding and raising the young.
I began taking photos from far away as I neared the kingfisher; when I would get within about 30 feet, he would take off again. This scenario repeated itself over and over again as I tried to get some shots of the bird not hidden by branches, twigs and dried foliage. I finally did get some photos, again not of the best quality as it was getting towards dusk and the bird was still pretty far away.
Both sexes have a dark head with crested feathers and quite large bills; this juvenile – male, I believe – showed his crest over and over as he called and bobbed up and down on his various perches. I think it is the crest that helped give him a – what struck me as – crabby look. He was very impressive though.
When I next see a belted kingfisher, it won’t be a “lifer” sighting but my goal now is to get a good close-up shot; time will tell if I succeed!
Next blog: deer and their efforts to get food