It is quite easy to miss a solitary, motionless bird perched along a river bank, shoreline or lake as it sits waiting for an unsuspecting fish to pass by.
A raucous rattling call will reveal an intriguing, beautiful and somewhat elusive bird, the belted kingfisher. They are found across Canada and in the west from Alaska to Central America, with some birds being year round residents.
Locally, a good place to watch for kingfishers is along the Puntledge and Campbell rivers or along the coastline from Courtenay to Union Bay.
A stunning medium sized stocky bird, the female kingfisher has a blue gray body, dark gray head with a shaggy crest on top. The male is darker blue. Females, unlike most species, are more brightly coloured than the males.
Both sexes have a white collar around their necks and the females have beautiful chestnut rufous band below this collar extending down the flanks, both also have white under parts.
Kingfisher tails are quite short and are spotted with white and some white banding on the tail ends.
Although there is usually no doubt when identifying these birds they have two unmistakable features; one is the long heavy dagger like beak which they use to loosen dirt when excavating their nest and it is also used to pound fish against a perch before consuming the prey. The other feature are the two front toes which are fused together just below the nails that are used as shovels when they dig out their nest.
Usually you hear these birds long before you spot them when they are actively fishing and they are fascinating to watch. As their name suggests their food of choice are fish but some will also eat amphibians, small crustaceans, insects and small mammals. Salmon and trout fry are a special delicacy for these birds which they are known to steal from fish hatcheries.
They perch on trees, posts, rocks or other suitable “watch points” close to the water diving in headfirst when they spot prey. Before diving in they will often hover above the water, once they enter the water they open their wings in order to keep the dive shallow.
A few years ago Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) received seven baby kingfishers that were found when a river bank was excavated and their nest destroyed. It was a great challenge to raise these birds and three were successfully raised and released. In the last week we received another kingfisher, this time a mature female who had a mate and was found on the ground after she presumably hit a cabin window. The birds are residents of Read Island east of Quadra Island. Initially she was thought to be stunned but then seemed to have flight problems and became emaciated. These are highly strung birds that become extremely stressed in captivity refusing to eat and it is also very difficult to replicate their habitat and allow them to dive as they normally would in the wild.
She is still having to be tube fed which is hard on the bird, but she is flying and perching and hopefully will soon be returned to her mate and home.