Often it is the loud, dry, rattling call of the belted kingfisher that alerts the paddler to its presence. This noisy fisherman calls in flight as it patrols up and down the river searching for prey. The belted kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, is one of three kingfishers found in North America. The other two barely make it to the southern U.S. The ringed kingfisher, which is larger is sometimes found as far north as south Texas and the green kingfisher, which is much smaller can be found in south Texas and occasionally Arizona.
Once you get the silhouette of this chunky, big-headed bird with the heavy bill and raggedy crest dialed in, you will be able to pick it out perched on tree limbs, snags, power lines – basically any suitable perch on or near the water where it can watch for its prey below. The belted kingfisher feeds on amphibians and crustaceans as well as fishes. It likes to perch over water where it can simply plummet headfirst into the water to take unsuspecting prey. It does, also hunt on the wing – stopping to hover before diving for prey.
The belted kingfisher is a stocky bird about the size of a male Cooper’s hawk (14 inches in length.) it is one of the few birds where the female is actually more colorful than the male. The head and back of both sexes is slate blue and the feathers are black tipped with small white dots. Both sexes have a blue band across the breast and white underparts. The female has a second chestnut-colored band across its belly that extends down the flanks. This second stripe is thought to help camouflage the female when she is on or at the nest. The nest is a burrow dug into an exposed bank on or near the water’s edge. Males and females both help excavate the nesting site, which can be up to eight feet long. The burrow tilts up at the back end where the eggs are.
Belted kingfishers nest from the southern U.S. to Canada and Alaska. They are obligate migrants – meaning they move southward in the winter as water sources freeze. They can overwinter as far south as Central America and northern South America. Birds that nest far enough south to have open water in the winter are generally year round residents. Whether in migration or just post nesting dispersal, belted kingfishers do tend to wander. They have been recorded from the Galapagos Islands, British Isles, Greenland, Hawaii and other places far and wide across the globe.
The oldest known fossil of a kingfisher is from Alachua County Florida and dates back 2 million years. Fossils of the belted kingfisher as we know it, dating back to the Pleistocene (600,000 years ago) have been discovered in Tennessee, Virginia, Florida and Texas.
The belted kingfisher is a year round resident along the French Broad. And while it is likely more common and more active during the summer nesting season don’t be surprised, should you take advantage of some winter high water, to be greeted by its garrulous call.