August 27th , 2012 9:04 am Leave a comment

Kingfishers, warblers keep late summer birding fun

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On Wednesday, Aug. 22, I spied an immature Chestnut-sided Warbler in an elderberry bush growing near the creek. This warbler’s appearance is another signal that the momentum for fall migration continues to build.

I will probably write quite a bit about warblers in the coming weeks. Why do I like warblers so much?

For starters, they are an incredibly diverse family of small, often colorful birds. Some of the most beautiful members of the warbler family, in my opinion, spend the summer season here in Northeast Tennessee. Of course, it’s usually the males with the most dramatic plumage. Some of the most exquisite warblers found in the region from spring through fall include Black-throated Blue Warbler, American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler and Chesnut-sided Warbler.

The family still poses some personal challenges for me. I’ve seen most of the warblers present in eastern North America, but I still hope to see a Cerulean Warbler, a Connecticut Warbler, Golden-cheeked Warbler and Kirtland’s Warbler. The last two species on this short list are endangered species localized to populations in Michigan and Texas. The first two species do migrate through East Tennessee, but it has never been my good fortune to spot them.

The warblers are quite diverse. One of them — the Black-and-white Warbler — acts more like a nuthatch as it creeps along trunks and branches of trees. Others like to lurk and hide, including the Ovenbird and the Kentucky Warbler. Ironically, these two species have loud, distinctive songs. They just don’t like to come out in the open too often.

Some of them trigger memories of eventful birding moments. I still recall clearly my first sightings of Wilson’s Warbler, Hooded Warbler and Canada Warbler. I saw each of these warblers for the very first time in my own yard.

I also remember my very first sighting of a Prothonotary Warbler at Reelfoot Lake in the late 1990s. I had no sooner stepped out of the car when I heard a male Prothonotary Warbler singing. I needed only a brief amount of time to fix my binoculars on this stunning little bird.

Some of the warblers are studies in understated elegance. The Northern Waterthrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Swainson’s Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler have plumages in various earth tones of brown and beige. A closer look at any of these birds makes it clear they are just as deserving of a detailed look as their more brightly colored relatives, such as Black-throated Green Warbler, Cape May Warbler and Yellow Warbler.

Quite simply, I like warblers, and September’s the best month of the year to look for warblers in Northeast Tennessee. Look for more about them in the coming weeks in “Feathered Friends” each Sunday.

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Fishing is a favorite pastime for many people, who like nothing better than to spend a lazy summer afternoon trying their luck at their favorite fishing spot.

There’s also an angling counterpart among our feathered friends. The Belted Kingfisher’s nature as an angler rules out this bird visiting feeders in the backyard, but that doesn’t mean you’re unlikely to see it. With a little strategic effort, an observation of a Belted Kingfisher is fairly easy to obtain, especially during the summer months. If you live near a stream, pond, river or other body of water, you have probably been fortunate enough to observe a Belted Kingfisher as it completes its daily routine.

If you are a fishing enthusiast yourself, you’ve likely shared some favorite fishing holes with this bird. The Belted Kingfisher is patient in its pursuit of fish. The birds prefer to perch on an exposed branch or a wire that overlooks a body of water that offers ample fishing opportunities. The Belted Kingfisher, however, is capable also of hovering in place in order to spot and then capture its prey in an impressive plunge and lunge into the water.

Most of my observations of hunting kingfishers have involved the birds in their ambush approach to fishing — perching and diving on the unsuspecting fish. I have on a few occasions, however, also observed kingfishers as they hover over the water in a quest for a meal.

The Belted Kingfisher, like most of its kin, looks to have a head and bill that are slightly too large for the rest of the body. It’s the long, heavy bill that the Belted Kingfisher uses to snatch fish from their watery homes.

A walnut tree with some dead branches overlooking my family’s fish pond is a favorite perching site for visiting Belted Kingfishers. A few Belted Kingfishers become regular visitors almost every spring and summer. In past years, I’ve been delighted by pairs of kingfishers that have brought as many as six of their offspring to hunt around the edges of the pond and creek near my home.

When a Belted Kingfisher does manage to capture a fish — not always a certainty, despite their great skill — the bird will usually fly to a perch where they will beat the fish unconscious before swallowing it. I remember one particular kingfisher that liked to catch fish in the creek and then fly to the corner of the metal garage roof where the bird proceeded to beat senseless the unlucky fish.

Worldwide, there are about 90 species of kingfishers that range in size from the 16-inch-long Laughing Kookaburra of Australia to the tiny African Dwarf Kingfisher, which at four inches in length is smaller than most sparrows. This family of birds is divided into three groupings, the river kingfishers, the tree kingfishers and the water kingfishers.

Despite the name “kingfisher,” not all kingfishers exist on a diet of fish. Some members of the kingfisher family instead prey on other quarry, such as snakes, lizards and insects.

Some interesting common names have been used to identify the world’s kingfishers, including Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Half-collared Kingfisher, Shining Blue Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Azure Kingfisher, Indigo-banded Kingfisher, Silvery Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, White-bellied Kingfisher, Cerulean Kingfisher, Rufous-backed Kingfisher, Spangled Kookaburra, Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Shovel-billed Kookaburra, Lilac Kingfisher, Brown-winged Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Great-billed Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Lazuli Kingfisher, Ultramarine Kingfisher, Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher, Sacred Kingfisher, Mewing Kingfisher, Chattering Kingfisher, Glittering Kingfisher, Red-breasted Paradise Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher.

Kingfishers comprise a cosmopolitan family of birds with species present on every continent except Antarctica. The three North American kingfishers, however, are almost exclusively fish-eaters. The Belted Kingfisher, with a range that spans most of the United States, is the only kingfisher encountered by most Americans.

Two others, the Ringed Kingfisher and the Green Kingfisher, are found in Texas and occasionally in other locations near the Mexican border. The Ringed Kingfisher is similar in appearance to the Belted Kingfisher, but is somewhat larger with a rufous-colored belly. The little Green Kingfisher, not quite nine inches long, has the typical kingfisher appearance, but is green rather than blue on its upperparts.

With the Belted Kingfisher, only the female sports a ring of rufous coloration across her breast. She is an exception to the rule that most male birds are more vividly colored than their female companions.

In her book The Folklore of Birds, Laura C. Martin writes that in some accounts the kingfisher, not the dove, was the second bird Noah released from the ark after the Biblical flood. Instead of looking for land, the kingfisher flew too high and the sun scorched the bird’s feathers. After his setback with the raven and now the kingfisher, Noah made the kingfisher remain on the ark’s deck to catch its food from the water.

Here’s some other kingfisher trivia:

• Halcyon days, a term meaning a period of peaceful quiet, is derived from Greek legend. According to the legend, the god Zeus restrained the storms during the period when the kingfishers nest. The scientific name for the Belted Kingfisher is Megaceryle alcyon, a variation on the term “halcyon.”

• Belted Kingfishers nest by excavating a cavity in a dirt bank, usually near water. The tunnel slopes upward from the entrance, and may extend as far as eight feet into the bank.

• There is an account in Laura Martin’s The Folklore of Birds of a Cherokee legend explaining how the kingfisher acquired its angling lifestyle. The poor bird wanted to be a waterbird, but lacked the equipment to make a living at fishing. The other animals convened a council and, in pity for the kingfisher’s plight, endowed the bird with its spear-like bill. Since that time, the bird has been known as “king of the fishers.”

• The “king of the fishers” is indeed to be envied by human anglers. Although not successful in every attempt, the Belted Kingfisher is certainly exceptional in its pursuit of fish. According to John Eastman in his book, Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh, the Belted Kingfisher typically captures about 10 fish per day.

• The Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) is the largest kingfisher in Africa, reaching a length of more than 18 inches.

• The Laughing Kookaburra — also a species of kingfisher — of Australia and New Zealand is named for its “laughing call,” which the bird uses to communicate with other family groups.

••••••

If you want to observe the Belted Kingfisher for yourself, stake out a pond or section of river. You’re not likely to have to wait for long before you are rewarded with an observation. In my experience, however, the Belted Kingfisher is somewhat shy and wary of humans, so observe from a respectful distance or you’re likely to scare off the bird, which will depart giving its rattling call that sounds so much like the sound of annoyance on its part.

Some specific locations to look for Belted Kingfishers include along the walking trails bordering the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and at the pond and wetland area at Erwin Fishery Park in Erwin. Listen for the Belted Kingfisher’s rattling call for a first indication of their presence. Any farm pond, country stream or large lake can attract Belted Kingfishers.

••••••

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or 542-4151 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@starhq.com. I am also on Facebook.

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