Last week I wrote about a couple of species of birds that I encountered in the butte country of northwest Nebraska: red crossbill and pygmy nuthatch. While the former is a common Minnesota avian resident, the latter isn’t.
As I wrote, Minnesota is home to just two species of nuthatch: red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches.
While hiking along the Middle Fork of Soldier Creek within the vast Soldier Creek Wilderness Area adjacent to Fort Robinson State Park nestled within the rugged and beautiful landscape near Crawford, Neb., I weaved my way between a series of constructed trout ponds in the creek-bottom.
The series of ponds, four of five and each about thirty to forty feet long and maybe half that width, were clear-running ponds interconnected to the creek proper with a series of risers and culverts that used gravity to allow for natural flow to proceed unimpeded.
With maximum depths of around six feet or so, the ponds provided outstanding habitat for trout and minnows. While gazing into the clear water, I would often spot trout swimming.
And then I heard a familiar avian call, which caught me off guard and puzzled me for a moment given the landscape and time of year. After all, I was standing in a fairly arid and snowy environment of the Old West, and in late December no less. The rattling cry came from a belted kingfisher. In Nebraska!
Looking around quickly, I spotted the kingfisher perched on a stout limb of a cottonwood tree growing next to one of the ponds. Of course! The observation made all the sense in the world.
Kingfishers, like all species of wildlife, are naturally attracted to habitat that affords them food, water, shelter and space. And Soldier Creek had it all, including nesting habitat. Indeed, the great inland sea that covered much of western America as well as Nebraska some 100 million years ago left behind sandstone buttes, bluffs and banks, replete with exposed hard-packed sandstone that’s perfect for creating cavities for kingfisher nest sites.
I have no idea if belted kingfishers are year-round residents in northwest Nebraska, but I have a hard time believing that they are. Even so, it’s at least evident that kingfishers stick around in Nebraska longer into the year than those that reside in Minnesota do, as our kingfishers are seasonal residents here at home.
Belted kingfishers are large-headed, short-legged, and short-tailed birds, which are all characteristics and good descriptors. About a foot in length, the squat kingfisher sports a prominent crest on top of its head. Outfitted with an impressively large and thick bill that seems too big for its overall body size, the beak serves it well as it dives headfirst into the water to capture fish.
The name “belted” is given because of its very distinct blue breast-band that both sexes possess. An extra breast-band that’s rusty in color adorns the female belted kingfisher, thus a good diagnostic trait to remember for distinguishing between male and female kingfishers. In fact, belted kingfishers are one of the few species of birds where the female is more brightly colored than the male is.
Why this is, is anyone’s guess, but where the species nests occur might serve as a clue. Whereas most species of birds nest in the open within nest-bowls and are thus visible, one can easily understand that it would be important for an egg-laying, incubating female bird be cryptically colored so they’re not as noticeable to predators.
In the case of kingfishers, on the other hand, their nest sites are burrows in the earth such as within river banks and gravel pits. Nest burrows can be as long as eight feet. As such, the bird is completely out of sight and so doesn’t need to be drab colored in order to blend in with its surroundings.
No other bird in Minnesota looks quite like the belted kingfisher. And while parts of the bird look similar to other birds (the bill of the kingfisher is like the bills of herons and egrets), the overall body shape is more grouse-like than that of other water birds and its crest is perhaps similar, albeit much more dominant and pronounced, to that of blue jays and northern cardinals.
The attractive and interesting belted kingfisher, though living elsewhere for the winter season, will return once again just as soon as the snow and ice are gone as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.