Belted Kingfisher

On a walk along a rugged Washington coastline, I spotted a bird hovering over the ocean like a hummingbird.

But it seemed much too big to be a hummingbird. And there were no flowers in sight. The bird’s wings beat rapidly as it hung in the air, scanning the water. Then it tucked its wings against its body and torpedoed into the ocean. SPLASH! Moments later it came up with a small fish pinched in its beak and flew away.

I hadn’t known there were other birds that could hover like that! Apparently kestrels, terns, frigate birds, and terns can too. And the belted kingfisher I saw. It’s a stocky bird and slightly top-heavy, but it hovered over the surface of the sea effortlessly. At least it looked effortless to me, but it takes a lot of energy for them to beat their wings that fast (though not as fast as a hummingbird).

Given the time of year, it was likely taking its catch back to the nest where up to 8 hatchlings might have been waiting in a ground nest burrow – one that a mating pair excavates together over 3-7 days and extends backwards and upwards up to 6 feet! The young are born with an acidic stomach that allows them to digest anything their parents provide for dinner – fish scales, bones, and even arthropod shells. When they get older, though, that chemistry changes. As adults, kingfishers regurgitate pellets that contain the remnants of a meal like owls do. Had I followed the bird’s path I might have found that burrow, with a welcome mat of a pile of pellets. Some birds even use the pellets as insulation, lining the nest with them…stinky, yet effective!