Monday, April 4, 2011

Pause before plunging? Kingfishers do!

Perched on a bamboo pole in the middle of the lake, a belted kingfisher takes time to survey its surroundings before plunging into the water after another meal

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 3, 2011)

Belted kingfishers are busy birds. They spend a good part of their day pursuing food. Small fish, dragonfly larvae and water bugs are fair game for these year-round residents of Central Florida.

I've been having fun watching one particular kingfisher that has claimed our lake as its private watering hole. From my porch-side perch, I can observe the kingfisher on its own perch, a bamboo pole that sticks out of a submerged peat island.

Like ospreys, herons and cormorants, the belted kingfisher uses that airy vantage point to scope out its surroundings. This bluish-gray bird with a white belly, white neckband and oversized head employs keen eyesight to survey an underwater smorgasbord.

The kingfisher is an exceptional hunter. When diving, it swiftly navigates through the top 18 inches of water to capture prey. Its long, pointy beak minimizes splash while maximizing speed. Its beak is such an aerodynamic appendix that many Japanese bullet trains mimic its design. Its eyes are also special. It has a transparent third eyelid, and its lenses function both under water and above.

The other day, I watched as the kingfisher dive-bombed one hapless prey after another. Each time, the crest-headed bird chose a target before plunging headfirst into the shimmering depths. Within seconds, it returned to the perch with its catch clamped in its pointy beak. Before eating — great gulps taken with an uplifted head — the bird killed its prey by repeatedly banging it against the bamboo cane.

As fascinating as it is to learn about the kingfisher's habits and watch it hunt, my favorite thing about this frequently observed water bird is its distinctive call. Scientists describe a kingfisher vocalization as a rattling cry, but I think of it more as a beckoning trill. Whenever I hear it, I stop what I'm doing and look around until I locate the source. If I'm lucky, I catch sight of the bird while it's flying. Belted kingfishers often vocalize on wing when they're about to take yet another headfirst plunge into the water.

I don't know where my kingfisher lives, but I'm excited to find out. Kingfishers nest in deep burrows along the edges of lakes and rivers. They often share their tunneled abodes with swallows. Along the banks of our lake are many potential nest sites in vertical walls of clay, kaolin and sand. In some places, bored holes already exist. For a long time I've wondered what animals made those holes. Now I realize that at least one of those holes could be a kingfisher's home.

Kingfisher courtship happens in springtime. The male bird woos a potential mate by trying to feed her a freshly caught fish. If she accepts his culinary advances, the birds mate, build a nest and raise a family. Often they raise several families. During one nesting season, a single pair of kingfishers can produce three sets of offspring.

Kingfishers are monogamous and remain together throughout the breeding season. They also share much of the work of parenting.  During daylight hours, the male relieves his mate by sitting on their brood of five to 10 eggs, but at night the female takes over. Eggs hatch in 20 days. That's when the real work begins.

A brood of hatchlings requires more than 100 fish a day. Fortunately, both parents pitch in. They feed their young by regurgitating fish and aquatic invertebrates into the opened mouths of their hungry horde. It's no wonder the kingfisher is seldom idle. Parenting babies is demanding work.

The belted kingfisher may be a busy bird, but taking time — making time — in my own busy day to watch its exploits has the surprising effect of calming me down. Worries dissipate as I sit near the water's edge, snapping off photos. Tensions ease as I listen to the belted kingfisher's trilling call and watch it survey the landscape from its bamboo perch.

It's hard to spend as much time as I'd like doing things that make me happy, but sometimes a bit of self-indulgence is worth the effort. Even a busy bird like the belted kingfisher takes time between fishing ventures to digest its food and consider its surroundings. Only then does it take another plunge. Shouldn't people be able to do the same?

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