Recently, while sitting along a quiet stretch of the Eagle River, a rattling “kek-kek-kek” caught my ear. A large darting blue-gray bird flashed by in flight just over the water’s surface, swooped up and landed on a branch on the river’s edge. The beautiful bird was a kingfisher, and it sported a shaggy crest and a stout pointed bill that reflected as it stared into the calm clear water six feet below. Moments later without warning, it freefell into the water plunging headfirst and then emerged from the splash with a small fish in its bill. It flew off to another nearby perch, dispatched its prey, and swallowed it whole.
Kingfishers are easy to observe because they are loud and flashy in flight to attract your attention. Then they’ll sit still on a perch and this gives you a chance to get a clear view of them through your binoculars. They are spectacular to watch as they plunge-dive deep into the water often from hovering flight twenty feet above. Kingfishers also use this plunge tactic to escape bird-eating hawks such as the sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks.
Unlike other birds such as osprey or bald eagles that snatch fish from the water with their strong talons, the kingfisher’s feet are weak and designed for perching. Therefore the kingfisher relies on its strong sharp-edged bill to grasp its slippery prey.
The kingfisher’s prey is consumed whole, and with rapid digestive action it separates the bones and scales that are later regurgitated as pellets.
The male and female kingfishers work as a team at all phases of rearing their young. The two work together to excavate a horizontal nesting burrow that extends into an earthen embankment 3-10 feet deep. If possible the nesting site is located close to good fishing. The parents then take turns incubating the eggs while the other hunts. Once the young are hatched the parents alternate feeding the nestlings in the depths of the burrow until they are fledged and fly forth from the nest.
To train their young to fish, the parents drop dead prey into the water and the young then retrieve the food. After ten intensive days of training, the young are forced from the nesting area to go out and make it on their own.
Kingfishers are exciting to observe. Take a few minutes to watch one near a local river or a pond. They are usually perched conspicuously on a branch overhanging the water. If you are patient, a kingfisher will give you a live demonstration of how it hunts and it feeds itself.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.