9th Bird of Christmas: Belted Kingfisher

3 Jan

For the 9th bird, we return to the water for a large, conspicuous and common waterside resident of Canada and North, Central and South America, the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), whose portrait can actually be found on the 1986 series Canadian $5 note.

Often while paddling on the Rio Panica or hiking near the estuary in Curú, I would see one of these amazing huge-headed kingfishers, one of five types seen in Costa Rica, the others being the Ringed, Amazon, Green and American Pigmy. Often times I would hear the bird before seeing it, as it was smashing a small fish upon a branch, “whack, whack, whack,” turning it’s great bill to and fro to alternate sides and ensure the life was completely drained from the prey before devouring it, its Mohawk crest flopping about like the shaggy mop of a rock star. I’d also hear its “keck keck keck” sound as it few off a few hundred yards ahead and perched somewhere in search of more prey. Watching it dive head-first straight down into the water is exhilarating, especially if it resurfaces with a fish.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Colgan Azar

An example of reverse sexual dimorphism, the female kingfisher’s rust stripe makes her more brightly colored than the male. All kingfishers were formerly placed in one family, Alcedinidae, but recent research suggests that this should be divided into three. All six American kingfishers, together with three Old World species, make up the new family Cerylidae. The nest of the belted kingfisher is a long tunnel that slopes uphill in case of flooding so the chicks will be able to survive in the air pocket formed by the elevated end of the tunnel. Not being a photographer, I never captured great photos of the bird (I include only one of mine), but feature it here in the new year because of its association with peace in literature.

The kingfisher has been the subject of a fair amount of folklore, harking all the way back to Greek mythology. There is a myth that Zeus was jealous of a female character, Alcyone, for her power over the wind and waves. In a jealous rage, Zeus killed Alcyone’s husband by destroying his ship with lightning. Alcyone threw herself into the sea to join her drowning lover and they both turned into kingfishers. So through the years sailors believed the kingfisher could protect them by calming stormy weather; they referred to the kingfisher as the Halcyon Bird, “halcyon” denoting a time in the past that was idyllic and peaceful. Kingfishers were also thought to nest for seven days of peace and calm when rearing their young, and these were called the Halcyon Days. (Les Beletsky, Costa Rica Travelers’ Wildlife Guide.)

Photo courtesy of Lorcan Keating

The halcyon bird is also a mighty wanderer: it migrates from the northern parts of its range in Canada to the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and northern South America in winter. Sometimes straying far from land, the species is recorded as an accidental visitor on oceanic islands such as Clarion (700 km from the Mexican mainland), and has been spotted as an extremely rare vagrant in Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Enjoy some good footage of the Halcyon Bird.

The Belted Kingfisher beats a large fish on a rock.

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