Birds on Nantucket

The Halcyon Birds
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

There it was, sitting on the phone wire near the Life Saving Museum Ð an odd-looking bird Ð seemed to be all head. Then with an unnerving rattling sound it sprang into the air and dove headfirst into the water, emerging with a fish draped on either side of its beak. It flew off with its prize and the Sunday morning birders did their Ôhigh fivesÕ and spiked their binoculars. Well that may be a slight overstatement, but itÕs always a treat to see a Belted Kingfisher.

This is a bird that is watched closely by environmentalists as an indicator of how things are going. Since it eats virtually nothing but fish, it is perched at the top of a food chain. That is, it eats things that eat other things, etc. So any poison in the environment is concentrated in them. One of the reasons the Osprey population crashed in the 60s was due to their also being at the top of a food chain and DDT did them in.

Kingfishers are part of an interesting family of birds. IÕve seen them all over the world and they are some of the most colorful. We would watch the Common Kingfishers in Taiwan busily working the areas around the rice paddies, a charming flash of iridescent blue and green as they disappeared into their burrows just above the water.

In Australia it was exciting to hear the maniacal laughter of a giant member of this family that lives in the forest, consuming lizards and snakes. It is the Kookaburra, an enchanting bird. I remember we used to sing a song about them in summer camp.

The Belted Kingfisher is the only representative of this family in the eastern U.S. It is about the size of a blue jay but seems larger because of its big shaggy head. The back and head are slate blue with a blue band across the white upper belly. This is another species where the female is the more colorful. She has an additional rust-colored band below the blue one.

The Latin name, Ceryle alcyon, gives fascinating insight into this familyÕs reputation amongst humans. Both names come from the Greek, Ceryle meaning ÔseabirdÕ and Alcyon, the name of a woman in Greek legend who was so grieved for her drowned husband, Ceryx, that the gods changed them both into kingfishers. So alcyon actually means kingfisher and is another form of the word Ôhalcyon.Õ People believed that kingfishers had the power to calm the wind and the waves. Halcyon days are the supremely calm days experienced near the winter solstice when the kingfishers were thought to nest on the water.

Being a fish-eating bird, there is always water nearby when you see a kingfisher, but even the smallest stream seems to attract them. Often they will hover in the air before plunging down on an unsuspecting fish. Actually this is a much trickier feat than you might realize because when you look in water, things arenÕt actually as they appear.

Due to waterÕs prismatic effect, objects arenÕt where you think they are. Baby kingfishers have to be taught how to catch fish. Mother kingfishers use a sort of on-the-job training. TheyÕll bring a fish to the hungry youngster but not actually pass it over. Instead she drops it in the water beneath them so that the hungry bird has to dive for it. Generally the first dives are unsuccessful, but after a few tries they learn.

I mentioned earlier that kingfishers live in burrows. Strange to say, they dig these out with beak and feet, usually at least five feet into a bank but sometimes as much as 15. One mate goes in at a time digging and pushing the dirt behind it. Then the other goes in and finishes pushing out the dirt and digs some more. They keep alternating until the nest cavity is complete. They nest in the sandy banks around Nantucket in such places as Coskata and along the south shore.

Belted Kingfishers can be found year Ôround on Nantucket although they may disappear in severe winters. We have seen them on three-quarters of our Christmas Bird Counts with a high of six. They are most common during spring and fall migration. In 2005, the summer breeding population seemed to be missing. Was there too much pesticide on Nantucket?

So how do you find a kingfisher? Learn the call! Roger Tory Peterson says it sounds like a bunch of bones rattling in a mayonnaise jar. I think a pickle jar would do as well, but imagine that sound and you have it. Kingfishers are very vocal and they seldom take off without making that rattle. Peterson also comments on the flight style looking like they are always changing gears. They row along, then suddenly change to a faster pitch, then back again.

Watch them hover, dive, fly off with prey, bash it senseless on a branch, and then swallow it. Then try and equate that with the legend that says they can calm the winds and water. Perhaps it is that startling rattle that quiets the elements! Your guess is as good as mine.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

Check out the ‘Birding Nantucket’ series at:

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent Ð July 29, 2005

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