The Fisher Kings and Queens

The Belted Kingfisher sits atop a mast in Hoonah, AK, waiting for just the right moment to dive!

The Belted Kingfisher sits atop a mast in Hoonah, AK, waiting for just the right moment to dive!

This week, I have the opportunity to give mini-presentations on local birds in for the fourth and fifth graders in Hoonah, Alaska. First up: the Belted Kingfisher!

The Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) is great. It’s everywhere. According to the range map on the Cornell Lab’s website, it can be found all over the continental United States. Talk about a friendly face!

Which is fair, because it is more or less the only kingfisher in the country, unless you spend any time in Texas. There, you can get the larger Ringed Kingfisher and stunning-green (and well named) Green Kingfisher.

Green Kingfisher in Cano Negro, Costa Rica. The range of these birds extends juuuuuuust into the United States through Texas! Notice that super-long beak.

Green Kingfisher in Cano Negro, Costa Rica. The range of these birds extends juuuuuuust into the United States through Texas! Notice that super-long beak.

Worldwide, there are 114 species of kingfishers that inhabit six continents (not so much Antartica). While they all have the same stocky shape, long, spear-like beak, and small feet for perching, there is certainly variation in size! African Dwarf Kingfishers are a tiny 4 inches in length. Giant Kingfishers, on the other hand, measure 22 inches long! Australia’s Laughing Kookuburra is the heaviest of the kingfishers, weighing in at 18 ounces. The Belted Kingfisher, by comparison, is 11-14 inches long, and weighs 5-6 ounces (think about the size of an American Robin).

Many kingfishers, including the Belted Kingfisher, build their nests out of tunnels in cavities in muddy banks. Occasionally, they will build their nests among Bank Swallows (Riparia riparia) since they require similar nesting conditions. Kingfishers are also unusual amongst birds because they can hover in place, an energy-demanding feat that few families of birds can accomplish.

With its wild crest, powerful bill, and showstopping dives, it is hard to imagine that the Belted Kingfisher would be a shy bird. But in my experience, this bird is a serious flight risk. It took me five years of birding to finally get a halfway decent picture of one. After photographing these birds across the country, an obliging Belted Kingfisher in Hoonah finally posed for me while devouring dinner.

The Fisher Queen, 2016.  After no Belted Kingfishers would pose for a photo, I decided to take matters into my own and paint one into existence!

The Fisher Queen, 2016. After no Belted Kingfishers would pose for a photo, I decided to take matters into my own and paint one into existence!

If watching Belted Kingfishers has taught me anything, it is the importance of patience- both in trying to photograph them, as well as in observing their behavior. They wait to dive until the perfect moment, conveying a sense of tenacity and mastery of their fishing skill. Humans across the world have often viewed the kingfisher as a symbol of patience, peace, and prosperity. My experience with the Belted Kingfishers of Hoonah would cause me to add that kingfishers are smart. I was told by a local that "the kingfishers follow the bears.” Grizzly Bears are everywhere in Hoonah during the spring, summer, and fall. When I think about it, that makes such perfect sense. Why not follow an animal that will find the best fishing spots for you, and then leave its scraps behind?

I am really lucky in that the students listening to my presentations are teaching me in return. I am learning the Tlingit names for the local birds. The Belted Kingfisher is “Tlaxaneis’” (Cluck-a-nase) in Tlingit.

Coming up next, a gander at geese!




To the Lighthouses

Cape Cod in the winter is lovely. There is a stark contrast between the summer throngs and the quiet off-season. Walking along a beach always brings me a feeling of solitude and peaceful introspection; when you are actually the only person on the whole beach, it brings solitude to a whole new level.

Brants along the shoreline of Smuggler’s Beach at sunset.

Brants along the shoreline of Smuggler’s Beach at sunset.

Of course, I’m not completely alone on the beach. The winter bird scene is very different from the summer one I am used to. Gulls, gulls, gulls, gulls, gulls. What a great way to get gull identification practice. And while gulls are usually frustrating, when they are one of the few things around to look at, I found myself giving them so much more time than I usually do. There is something about their colorful, sharp eyes against a field of white feathers that is very striking. Their behaviors on the winter beach were fascinating. Instead of vying for tourist food, they carefully picked their way through the thousands of slipper shells along the wrack line, their arguments with each other over possession of any finds echoing loudly in the wintery stillness.

On one windy afternoon, I went to First Encounter Beach in time to catch a full rainbow arcing across the ocean. Dancing beneath it was a flock of Northern Gannets, jesting with the crests of the waves as they plunge-dove into the freezing water. The adrenaline rush of the dives became my own.

Northern Gannets dancing beneath a full rainbow at First Encounter Beach

Northern Gannets dancing beneath a full rainbow at First Encounter Beach

I will always love the Cape for its birds, its beaches, and the powerful force of introspection it provides. But one thing I discovered by visiting in the winter was a powerful sense of color- the opposite of what I would normally think of when I think of winter’s grays. I think that the cold and the quiet actually intensified the colors of the sunlight, the water, and the golden dune grasses. Truly unforgettable.

The Flurry

Ice from the water in which it was standing is stuck to this Sandhill Crane's leg. 

Ice from the water in which it was standing is stuck to this Sandhill Crane's leg. 

Never before have I seen anything like the morning flight of the Snow Geese (Chen Caerulescens) from Bosque del Apache. There were so many birds that they appeared to blanket the ground in the white snow for which they are so aptly named. Dozens of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) huddled together in the middle of the enormous white flock. As the sun rose and blanketed them all with a rosy golden glow, the frenzy of flight began. Geese started to wing their way from the ground in what seemed like an endless stream of honking. Every once in a while the cranes would embark as well in smaller groups of two or three. Birds passed overhead so close I could see the glint in their eyes; I could hear the swishing of their powerful wings. Even now, days later, I still can still hear the honking and the wingbeats and when I close my eyes, I can see the snowstorm. I have seen many incredible things in my life, but this was a sight like no other. If this was a harbinger of things to come, 2018 will be spectacular. 

Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

January 1, 2018

There were so many Snow Geese the ground seemed to be covered in snow. Ross's Geese ( Anser rossi)  were also interspersed amongst their larger cousins. 

There were so many Snow Geese the ground seemed to be covered in snow. Ross's Geese (Anser rossi) were also interspersed amongst their larger cousins. 

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The entire viewfinder of my camera was filled with Snow Geese! 

The entire viewfinder of my camera was filled with Snow Geese!