This month I am writing from Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. This is a temperate rainforest, a very different ecosystem from our temperate deciduous forest; milder temperatures, more rain, bigger scale of everything, yet one which is familiar.
While exploring a precipitous glacially-carved fjord, we heard a bird that was very familiar – the belted kingfisher, a bird that is very common along Seacoast rivers, tidal shorelines and estuaries.
A fun fact about fjords: They are estuaries. An estuary is a place where the river meets the sea. Here on the East Coast, we have bar-built salt marshes where rivers meet the sea and deposit sediment and nutrients that help build a salt marsh. In Alaska, glaciers have carved deep U-shaped valleys where glacially fed rivers meet the sea – no salt marshes, but estuaries though. And so, it makes sense that kingfishers might be as common here in Alaska as back in New England.
Belted kingfishers are usually migratory in the Seacoast area, but will live year-round along the more mild southeast Alaskan coast. For me, kingfishers are a sign of summer. When I hear their raucous cry along my river in North Berwick, I know that summer is truly here.
Belted kingfishers are stocky birds with large heads sporting a shaggy crest on top and a straight, thick, chisel-tipped bill. They are a beautiful blue-gray, and, for once, the female is more colorful than the male. Both males and females have blue backs and heads and a blue breast band with white bellies and collars.
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The females also have a rusty red belly band. According to legend the all-gray kingfisher joined the dove and raven in their search for dry land from Noah’s Ark. As the sun rose, the kingfisher caught the red rays of the sun on its breast and the blue of the sky on its back. However, color isn’t the only striking attribute of the kingfisher. Their call is very easy to recognize. While patrolling its territory, and especially when disturbed, the kingfisher utters a loud, penetrating, rattling call.
Kingfishers make nest holes in sandy banks where digging is easy, but are not too picky. They will also nest in rotten trees, dirt piles, anything that can be excavated and is close to a river. Look for 4- to 5-inch-wide holes in riverbanks or any soft structure next to water. The holes are usually a few feet above the high-water line, high enough to both discourage swimming predators like mink and snakes and to prevent flooding.
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Whenever I kayak down my little river, I am invariably accompanied by a kingfisher. They fly on ahead, sometimes circle back, letting me know they are there. When I manage to sneak up on one, I watch them dive for fish. This is their primary prey (along with crayfish), hunting by plunging from a perch or hovering over the water and then diving in after their prey.
Like owls and hawks, adult kingfishers regurgitate pellets, the indigestible remains of their prey. Look for these on the ground whenever you find a perch kingfishers are using to roost or fish. Interestingly, when they are young, belted kingfishers have acidic stomachs that help them digest these bony remains of their dinners. For some currently unknown reason, their stomach chemistry changes as they fledge and leave the nest and they lose this ability.
Their scientific name, Megaceryle alcyon, Speaks to the kingfishers’ association with the blessed days of summer, which we are currently in the midst of. The species name “alcyon” comes from a Greek myth involving Queen Alcyone, daughter of the Wind God, and Ceyx, son of the Day Star. The gods were jealous of the power Alcyone had over the wind and waves, and, as was their wont whenever threatened, punished Alcyone by killing Ceyx. Alcyone responded by throwing herself into the sea to join her husband in death. The gods then felt bad about the situation and turned them both into kingfishers.
Back then people thought kingfishers nested on the sea, and so the gods protected their nests by calming the sea. This is where the term ‘halcyon days’ of summer, a time of calm and joy, came from. Kingfishers worldwide are considered harbingers of peace – some of this sentiment coming from the myth of Alcyone.
If you are feeling the need to look for some calm and peace, take a walk along any river or shoreline in the Seacoast region. You are sure to hear, and possibly see, a kingfisher or two calling from the bank, swooping down for fish, or chattering at you as you disturb their peace.
Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at Dover High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She is looking for readers to send her the signs of spring they’re noticing so she can document them on her website pikes-hikes.com. Send your photos and observations to email@example.com. Read more of her Nature News columns online at Seacoastonline.com and pikes-hikes.com, and follow her on Instagram @pikeshikes.