Noisy Guardians of the Water Ways

Meet the Belted Kingfisher

There are several descriptive words to describe the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), including raucous, loud, self-important, acrobatic, cocky, lively, flashy, conspicuous, animated, energetic, and elusive.

Our favorite way to describe a Kingfisher is to call it a blue jay on steroids.

Kingfishers are birds that had one too many double espressos.

Both birds are noisy guardians of their territory using loud, shrilling alarm calls when disturbed.

The Kingfisher’s call is its giveaway.

The energetic, shaggy-crested Belted Kingfisher is often heard before its seen.

You can see them along rivers, lakes, marshes, ponds, and near any body of water.

When you come across one of these birds, you’ll know it.

They project an air of self-importance as they patrol up and down rivers and shorelines, making a piercing rattle call.

Listen to its call here from Cornell’s Macaulay Library.

Belted Kingfishers are adept at fishing, and named after the Anglo-Saxon word that means “king of the fishes"
Belted Kingfishers are adept at fishing, and named after the Anglo-Saxon word that means “king of the fishes”

Sit-and-Wait Approach to Hunting

Belted Kingfishers are adept at fishing, and are named after the Anglo-Saxon word that means “king of the fishes.”

You can spot these birds perched high on bare tree limbs, or along bodies of water looking for prey.

The Kingfisher has quite an acrobatic fishing technique.

Hovering above the water, it beats its wings rapidly, before plunging head first into the water, spreading its wings to break its fall, as it locks in on its target in its pincer-like long beak to come up through the water with a fish.

That’s just one aspect to its hunting technique.

Kingfishers kill or stun its prey by repeatedly banging it against its perch.

Then maneuvers it around with its beak, so the fish easily slides down the bird’s throat – head first.

Kingfishers interestingly, use their ability to be the king of fishes to protect themselves from their predators diving head first into the water when being chased by a hawk.

Identifying a Belted Kingfisher

The Belted Kingfisher is blue-gray above with fine, white spotting on the wings and tail with white underparts with a broad, bluish-gray stripe across their chest.

They have a broad white collar that looks like a white necklace around their neck.

Belted Kingfishers have a large head sporting a shaggy punk rock-looking spiked crest on the top of their heads.

These birds have a straight, thick, pointed beak that projects a recognizable profile.

Their tail is somewhat stubby, and the legs are very short.

Where Do Belted Kingfisher Live

Kingfishers live near streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and estuaries.

They nest in burrows that they dig into soft earthen banks, usually adjacent to or directly over the water.

Kingfishers spend winters in areas where the water doesn’t freeze so that they have continual access to their aquatic foods.

These birds are residents to long-distance migrants, depending where you live.

In much of the breeding range in Northern Alaska and Canada, open water is available even in the winter, so kingfishers may stay year-round.

Kingfishers breed as far north as northern Alaska and Canada, and these birds migrate south for winter.

They winter throughout Mexico and Central America to northern Venezuela and Colombia.

Belted Kingfishers are elusive birds and challenging to photograph resulting in just a flash of its blue wings
Belted Kingfishers are elusive birds and challenging to photograph resulting in just a flash of its blue wings

Photographing a Belted Kingfisher

You can find Belted Kingfishers throughout almost all of North America, so chances are good you can see one in your area.

But taking a photo of these elusive birds is challenging.

This summer, we located a marsh in High Falls, N.Y., with a number of our favorite birds, and in a matter of minutes, heard this bird’s rattling call.

We immediately scanned the area for the Belted Kingfisher and caught a quick flash of its blue wings as it was darting back and forth.

Finally, the bird landed on a branch jutting out into the marsh, and as we began raising our camera to take a photo, it let out with a cackle and headed off to the other end of the marsh.

After spotting the bird about a football field away, we took off to the other end of the marsh walking, as quietly as we could with our gear.

We stayed in one place, camouflaging ourselves behind a tree from the elusive bird, moving ever so quietly.

And just as we got our cameras focused and were ready to hit the shutter, the bird looked right at us, and let out a shrilling chattering laugh before it took off.

Leaving us with fabulous photos of blue flashes.

We got our steps in that day, making the football field trek back and forth five times.

We thought our fit bits were going to blow up, and that was fine with us as long as we got the photo of this beautiful blue joker.

Let’s just say, photographing a Belted Kingfisher is quite challenging.

Tips for Photographing This Elusive Bird

-Use a camera with a powerful lens

Chances are the kingfisher will be perched on a branch extending far out over the water.

We like using the Tamron 150-600mm lens on our Nikons to bring birds closer.

-Don’t move around and stay in one place.

The best places to be are near bodies of water with downed trees and branches where they are most likely to roost.

-Camouflage yourself.

Hide behind a tree, cluster of branches, or large rock.

-Don’t make any sudden movements

The slightest noise will make these birds take off in a flash.

-Observe their body language to help time your photographs

Belted Kingfishers tend to fly in a circular pattern around the body of water they’re observing while letting loose with their rattling calls to thwart other birds.

Then they’ll hover about 15-20 20 feet up before plunging head first into the water.

If all else fails, revel in seeing these birds in their environment, and laugh at the many blurry outtakes of those “great” photos you nearly had.

Don’t get frustrated. Remember there’s always a next time.

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