Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Fishing King

“I think I can!”

The Belted Kingfisher has to beat large fish to pulverize them enough to swallow whole.

Photo by Doug Brown.

During my visit, my friend and I spent each evening after dinner sitting on her deck and indulging in idle conversation while keeping an eye on the pond in her back yard. By New Mexico standards, it was palatial, with a natural bottom that filled with ground water runoff from the steep sides of the surrounding mountains, an unexpected luxury in a mostly barren land. We enjoyed the late night bird chatter as they began to settle in for the evening and the relative cool temperatures as twilight vanquished the bright rays of the midsummer sun. Hhe flew in from the west, broadcasting his arrival to all that might care to listen, a harsh, distinctive rattle, unmistakable to anyone besotted by the little fish-eating bird with the big honker, the Belted Kingfisher.

Alighting on the most prominent perch with the best view of the pond, he sat quietly for a while and we watched, mesmerized by his inaction. Just what was he waiting for, the biggest or choicest piscine morsel? Just relaxing in the shade overlooking a beautiful pond? He leapt from his branch, diving straight down to the surface of the water and, stopping short of a full-blown plunge, he zipped along across the pond’s surface and landed on the perch with the best view on the opposite side of the pond, where he resumed his sit. And so it went: sitting; zipping all the way across the pond; and landing. Back and forth, across the water he flew. Every once in a while, he plunged beneath the surface, always emerging with a small fish that he promptly gulped down. A larger fish would have to be beaten until it was malleable enough to swallow whole.

With a diet that includes primarily fish, but also amphibians, reptiles, insects, young birds, and even other invertebrates, like crawfish, the most suitable habitat for Belted Kingfisher is rivers and small lakes, a scarce commodity in the desert southwest. Breeding pairs are limited due to the lack of suitable nest sites. Breeding Bird Survey data show a continued downward trend in the population across the United States, with steeper declines in the southwest and in New Mexico.

Humans have been fascinated by kingfishers since written time, weaving them into various myths and folklore. The scientific name for Belted Kingfisher is Ceryle alcyon, which means “king of the fishers.” Ceryle comes from the Greek word for seabird, while alcyon has its source deep within ancient Greek mythology. Alcyone was the wife of Ceyx, who drowned at sea. Her despair at the loss of her beloved was so great that the gods reunited them. They were changed into birds, she into the halcyon (kingfisher) and he into the bird of his name (perhaps a tern or gannet). In another myth, Ceryle and Ceyx were changed into birds because of their impiety (they called themselves Zeus and Hera). Thus ‘Halcyon days’ were the fourteen days of calm weather around the winter solstice, supposed to be sent by Aeolus when the halcyon bird was brooding. Oddly, this myth doesn’t quite jive with avian biology as the nesting season for most birds, including the kingfisher, occurs during the spring and summer months.

So it was that in the summer of 2010, very near summer solstice, my friends and I watched the fishing king. We noticed a clear change in our kingfisher’s hunting pattern over the following nights. He began more purposeful watching and then, when he captured dinner, off he flew around the house, disappearing toward the west with the fish, only to return a few minutes later to resume the hunt. Apparently, the fisher bird had a family, probably located in a burrow excavated by the pair in a steep bank, not necessarily along the stream bank. It might, instead, be located in a road cut, ditch, gravel pit, or even a hole in a tree.

At any rate, watching the fisher king hunt for his family quickly became a part of our routine. What a privilege it is to watch a bird going about its normal activities, without concern for their human watchers. You never know what you might see when you practice sit and wait birding!

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