For most of us living in the Bitterroot, spending time along the river or one of the many valley streams is a highlight of our outdoor connection.
Whether fishing from a raft, wading, or just out for a walk with the dog, those visits have undoubtedly provided an opportunity to encounter one of nature’s most accomplished avian fish predators, the belted kingfisher.
Typically, you hear a loud “rattle-chatter” call as the bird parallels the water course, finally perching on a branch overlooking a pool of clear water. Suddenly, the bird plunges downward, makes a splash on the water, and quickly ascends back to the perch with a 2-inch fish in its beak. Swallowing the prey head first, the bird ruffles its feathers to knock off a few remaining water beads before it departs, echoing the “rattle chatter” as it flies off.
The belted kingfisher is a small pigeon-sized bird with blue, grey and white feather markings. They have a crested head with a large beak designed to catch fish and occasional frogs and small snakes.
Interestingly, unlike many birds species, the female kingfisher is more colorful then the male as she darns a chestnut band of feathers across her chest. Scientists have attempted to explain this chestnut banding, yet the debate continues, as no definitive answer has surfaced. Speculation is that it allows the males to locate a female more readily or that the banding provides some advantage for the female to catch prey and feed young.
Kingfishers nest in burrows along riverbanks and along the edges of gravel or earthen ponds. Both male and females assist in digging the nest which can go back into the bank several feet. The burrows usually lead upward reducing the chance of rain filling the nest cavity.
I remember once, locating a burrow on the bank of Gird Creek in May, and actually hearing what I thought to be kingfisher chicks inside as an adult flew close by, chattering, in an attempt to scare me off. The good news was the adults had dug the cavity high up on the bank to avoid the high water from the spring floods on Bitterroot.
Once hatched, the young kingfishers immediately begin testing their skills at catching fish, although they are still dependent upon parental feeding for several weeks after fledging.
Kingfishers require clear water to find prey, so when the spring flood hits, the main stem of the Bitterroot is no longer a feeding site. The birds then shift their search for unsuspecting fish to areas of less murky backwaters or ponds in the valley that provide for a successful dive.
Kingfishers are a common sight here on Teller, where ample feeding and nesting habitat exists. For those who have seen the autumn depiction of Gird Creek on Teller painted by famed artist, Monty Dolack, you will notice a small ring pattern in the water signaling a recent plunge from a kingfisher that is perched above, beautifully captured by Dolack’s artistry. Next time you stop by the office at Teller Wildlife Refuge, be sure to look at this piece of artwork, as few people in the past have noticed this added wildlife feature.
From a conservation perspective, the North American Breeding Bird Survey reveals a slight decline in numbers across North America. However, in some areas, populations are thought to show an increase due to nesting habitat availability associated with roads and manmade pond banks.
Fortunately, the belted kingfisher is a common bird in the Bitterroot, so on your next stroll along the river, watch for this skillful aerial predator. It might go for smaller fish, but its catch rate beats most anglers.
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.