Friday, March 13, 2009

A KINGFISHER DOES LUNCH

A couple of days ago I spent some time watching a kingfisher diving for lunch off various perches across the river from the cottage. I tried to capture the bird’s fishing prowess so I could share the images…but even with my 300mm lens—the longest I own—the kingfisher was a bit too far away. I’ve posted what I have, anyway If you’ve ever watched a kingfisher fish, you know they fling themselves into the water with the aplomb and grace of a sack of potatoes being lobbed underhanded by your grandma. They dive with abandon, though, and sometimes they’ll kick up a backsplash that goes four feet into the air. You’d think a bird the size of a Canada goose had just hit the water. For all their inelegance, however, they’re pretty effective—at least as successful as some fly fishermen I know trying to hook smallmouth bass rising to popping bugs. Out of twenty crash-dives I tracked, the kingfisher came up with seven minnows. I don’t know if that’s typical, or the bird had found a school of particularly dumb baitfish…or if it was just a run of good luck. But if my past kingfisher watching memories can be trusted, I think that was no more than a smidgen better than average. They’re good at what they do. What amazes me is how, once they’ve nabbed a minnow and flown back to a feeding limb, the kingfisher can turn the little fish around, administer a few additional whacks and slaps, and eat the thing neat as a whistle without dropping it overboard. I’ve baited a lot of hooks with minnows in my time, and even with four fingers and an opposable thumb, I drop those slick and squirmy little baitfish with regularity. If I had to rely on a foot and a beak, I’d never get the job done…meaning, if I were a kingfisher, I’d probably starve. Some days, using binoculars, I can look up and down the river from the cottage, scanning several hundred yards in either direction, watching for the tell-tale splashes, and count two—rarely even three!—feeding kingfishers. This is good minnow water, lots of pools and shallows, plenty of handy sycamore limbs hanging over the water to furnish ideal minnow bushwhacking perches, and not much going on to disturb a bird busily feeding. Maybe I can get lucky and waylay a bird feeding closer…and if I do, we’ll revisit this feathered angler.

14 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

I love those feathered angler shots just as they are Scribe - aren't they exciting birds - we have a pair on our beck some years.
I rarely see them clearly - just hear a screech as they flash past. Their prey in our beck is a little fish called a bullhead - and because its head is large in comparison with its body, around here they are called "miller's thumbs". Thank you for giving me yet another tast of your river life.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I'm really hope to get some better shots, though I'm glad you liked these. But as many kingfishers as I have along this stretch of river—and there's almost no time except during high water, when at least one isn't to be found somewhere within sight or sound—you'd think I could get a closer, more frame-filling photo.

You mentioned their sound and the way they so often just go flashing past…this is so true. Unless you look carefully before moving, a typical kingfisher sighting is a blueish blur about 10 feet above the water's surface, probably heading upstream. And the screech-squawking as they flash past. What I've come to learn is that they make their screechy-squawk every time they move—they don't have to be disturbed; they're just noisy. In fact, kingfishers and blue herons are the noisiest birds on the river—more noisy even than geese on a year-around basis.

By the way, did you know the kingfisher was the original Halcyon bird of Greek mythology, from which we get "Halcyon Days," which originally came in midwinter, around the solstice, but later simply signified any period of calm, peace, and tranquility?

giggles said...

These are great, Scribe!!!! Getting the splash going in??!! How perfect does your timing have to be?! I'm impressed! (Oh to learn how to photograph like that!)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

You know what the old nature photographers used to say…"f8 and be there."

But I can do better than this—just couldn't do it on that day. I'll have to waylay a kingfisher on my side of the river. Of course in another couple of months, much of what shows of the landscape in the photos will be a wall of green and under deep shade—so maybe a better series of shots won't prove so easy after all. We'll see…

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I felt like I was there. Never having seen a Kingfisher flying around out of picture books, this was a treat!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

PT&E…

I'm glad to have better introduced you to the kingfisher. They are neat birds. I

Several years ago, on this same stream but miles upstream, I came upon a kingfisher entangled in a snarl of monofilament fishing line. I caught the bird, tried to avoid it's ungrateful pecks and jabs while I used my pocket knife and cut it out of the deadly mess, and spent a minute looking it over and just hefting its weight before setting it free.

Up close, the little kingfisher was quite lovely, with a ragged crest, blue-gray back and chest band, and white belly; it's head was large, and its bill long. I remember how the bird seemed to confront my examination with an intent stare of its own—as if, kingfisher or not, he might soon take it in mind to peck me into submission.

JMS said...

Wonderful series!

Monofilament along streams infuriates me. I used to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center and waterfowl regularly came in entangled, only to have a limb amputated, or worse. Thanks for saving your little guy!

”They’re good at what they do.” True of all critters, from mosquitoes to opossums!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

JMS…

Yeah, those big wads of monofilament you see discarded along streams and lakes infuriates me, too. I don't know how many birds and small animals—turtles, a rabbit, even a groundhog—I've freed over the years, but the list would probably top two dozen. I know there have been at least two blue herons (try handling a hacked off blue heron sometime!), ducks, geese, a coot, several gulls, songbirds, etc. And worse are the ones I've found dead or so close to dying that all I could do was make it quick.

I'm a fisherman, and I have tangles occasionally, but I just stuff any mono in my vest pocket, tackle bag, or box. Which is what I do with mono I find from others. Sometimes, if there's too much, I just wad up some paper and burn the mono on the spot. I always have a disposable lighter in my vest and bag for just this purpose. I wish everyone who fished or hiked along streams would do the same. So many birds and animals die so needlessly from this carelessness.

Jenn Jilks said...

Now there's something I do not have a photo of! They are so quick.

I have done an ode to spring, hoping to ring it in soon.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jenn…

They are quick! And they don't necessarily return to the same limb when they're fishing a pool—at least I can never count on such behavior.

This morning, a pair of kingfishers perched on a branch about 100 feet downstream. They took turns diving into the pool below. There was no way to sneak up on them, so all I could do was watch, but I would have loved a shot of those birds sitting side-by-side on the limb.

Rowan said...

I rarely see a kingfisher and when I do it's just a flash of brilliant blue as it flies down the river. Just to see that phenomenal colour gives me a thrill though. I think the one we get in UK is different to the US version, ours is almost turquoise on its wings and back with a chestnut chest and cheek patch. It's a stunning bird to see.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…
You're right, I'm sure, about your European kingfisher being a different bird—the true Halcyon bird from Greek mythology. I'll bet a turquoise kingfisher is really stunning.

I hope you enjoyed the photos and piece.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I really enjoyed those photos, Grizzled! I have never seen a kingfisher, but I remember the first line of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem 'As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame ...' I love your descriptions.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Raph…
I don't remember that line from Hopkins, but it has been at least a half-dozen years since I last read much of his stuff. I may dig out my "complete works" copy (stored, I hope, in the closet where I put my overflow books when I moved here three years ago) and reread. Hopkins is one of those poets I like to keep coming back to—and I really ought to keep him handier on the shelf.

Kingfishers are amazingly beautiful birds. Our North American belted kingfishers are probably among the least colorful. As an artist, you ought to look up photos and illustrations of some of the different species worldwide—they can almost rival parrots! I'd love to see some of those birds.