Outdoors

Listen for the belted kingfisher this winter

Bird-watching: They can survive cold temperatures

A belted kingfisher flies by at Cone Marsh Wildlife Management Area in Louisa County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A belted kingfisher flies by at Cone Marsh Wildlife Management Area in Louisa County. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
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The rattling call of a belted kingfisher in flight is a sound like no other.

Often heard before seen, this kingfisher is the only widespread species over much of the continent north of our border with Mexico. Its dominance in North America cannot be overstated, but why just one species?

It could well be attributed to one of its finest adaptations: cold climate.

The belted kingfisher might not seem like a bird you would find in the dead of winter, but they persist. Given some open water with a food source, this species can eke out a living in the coldest of Iowa winters.

When many ponds and lakes freeze over, open streams and stream crossings under roads may provide key habitat for a wintering kingfisher. Areas where industrial or treated waters flow into rivers are another place to listen for their call. Mostly tied to a diet of aquatic critters, a kingfisher’s diet consists of fish, freshwater crustaceans, aquatic insects, amphibians and even small reptiles.

Interestingly, belted kingfishers dig burrow nests along bare earthen banks. Often utilizing banks near water for nesting, they also will choose spots away from water, such as ditches, road cuts and sand or gravel pits.

Female and male belted kingfishers look similar, but the female has a little extra flash. She is adorned with a chestnut-colored belly band and flanks; the field mark giving the species its name. Otherwise, both male and female are fairly stocky birds having a blue head topped with a wispy crest. The bill is dark and blade-like. The neck, including chin, are white. Both have a bluish breast band along with bluish backside and tail feathers.

Males have a solid white belly, lacking the chestnut belt seen on females.

Belted kingfishers are mildly inquisitive birds. They might often make a single, close and quick pass at a human observer in their territory before quickly flying away and keeping a distance. If you seek a flight or sitting photograph of this species, remember oftentimes you only get one chance.

PHOTO ADVICE

If you think a chain-link fence or other types of fence-like barriers will stop you from getting photos, think again.

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Even the smallest-knit fences can be shot through. With your standard chain link fence, there are two key things to remember. You need to use manual focus and should put the end of your lens right up to an opening in the fence. This will allow you to focus on what you want to on the other side of the fence without distorted pieces of the fence blurring the photo.

If you have a telephoto lens, take advantage of its narrow depth of field. With my telephoto, I have obtained shots of birds in aviaries through very fine, black mesh barriers with great success.

Stand at a distance where the subject is comfortably in frame, then manually focus through the mesh and onto the subject. It seems like magic, but I was able to get a decent shot of birds with little evidence I was shooting through a fine mesh.

BIRDS TO LOOK FOR IN JANUARY

— Look for finch activity to increase around feeders. House finch and American goldfinch may draw in pine siskin and purple finch.

— Raptors will stay on winter territories. Oftentimes, the ditches along highways and interstates provide ideal places to hunt for American kestrel, red-tailed hawk and rough-legged hawk.

— Check out your local pine grove for wintering owls, such as long-eared owl. Groves of young cedar trees provide ideal roosting for northern saw-whet owl.

— Look around roller dams, also known as low-head dams, for wintering waterfowl. Cedar Rapids has two of them. One is downtown, just north of the First Avenue Bridge. The other is downstream, just south of Prairie Park Fishery.

CALENDAR

Visit https://iowabirds.org/Connections/CBC.aspx to see January Christmas Bird Counts near you. Contact information is also at this website. Following are some dates:

Dec. 24 — Andalusia-Buffalo

Dec. 25 — Buchanan County

Dec. 26 — Muscatine

Jan. 2 — Union Slough

Jan. 3 — Northwest Clayton County

Jan. 4 — Ida County

Jan. 4 — Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Jan. 4 — Sac County

Jan. 5 — Southeast Clayton County

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.