by Kyle Sweet, Florida Master Naturalist
Found all throughout North America in one season or another, the Belted Kingfisher is a strong, quick flyer that is often first noticed by it’s rattling call before it’s even seen. Sanibel and Captiva offer the perfect habitat for the Kingfisher, who prefer the edges of streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, marshes and estuaries. Of course with no freezing waterways in our area, migrating Kingfishers from as far away as Canada come visit the islands to sustain their aquatic diet.
The Kingfisher forages by plunging headfirst into the water, capturing small fish near the surface with their strong bill. Fish are usually those less than five inches long. They will also feed on crayfish, frogs, tadpoles and aquatic insects if the opportunity arises.
In courtship, the male brings fish and feeds it to the female. Together they make a nest, which is a long horizontal tunnel that is dug into a sand banked shoreline typically. Both sexes take part in digging the tunnel that has a nest chamber at the end. In total, the tunnel and nest is between three to six feet long. The female lays between five to eight white eggs and incubation is shared between both sexes. After hatching, both parents feed the young with partially digested fish until ultimately providing whole fish. The young depart from the nest in about four weeks and continue to be fed by the parents for about a month afterwards.
The Belted Kingfisher does have a few predators, including hawks, some mammals and snakes. Mammals and snakes have more access to the ground nesting Kingfisher than the typical nesting birds up high in the trees. When chased by their predator in the sky, the hawk, the Kingfisher will dive into the water repeatedly until the hawk flies away.
Kingfishers are not an uncommon sighting on the islands, but can be difficult to see as they easily blend into the thick shoreline vegetation all along our island waterways. Once they drop from their perch, the blue / gray color with brilliant white speckles will grab your attention and often they will call out, garnering your attention for sure. They are quite territorial, so if you see one on one day, often you can repeat the sighting the next day and enjoy them a little more. As always, observe from a distance with a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. Enjoy the Belted Kingfisher, another interesting bird that calls our paradise home.
Four Keys to ID
1. Size and Shape – Stocky, large headed bird with a shaggy crest on the top and back of the head. They have short legs and a straight, thick, pointed bill.
2. Color Pattern – Blue – gray above with fine, white spotting on the wings and tail. Underneath they are white with a broad blue breast band. Females have a broad rusty band on their bellies.
3. Behavior – Spend most of their time perched along the edges of streams, lakes and estuaries. They hunt for small fish either by plunging directly from a perch or hovering over the water, bill downward before diving after a fish.
4. Habitat – They live close to the water, nesting in burrows that they dig into soft soil banks. They migrate, spending winters in areas where the water doesn’t freeze so that they have access to aquatic foods.
1. The Belted Kingfisher is one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male.
2. The oldest known fossil in the Kingfisher genus is two million years old, found in Alachua, FL.