Belted Kingfisher

The rusty band across this bird’s abdomen identifies it as a female belted kingfisher.

I first met the kingfisher on paper in a British literature class. The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems feature themes of nature and religion, included the kingfisher in his sonnet, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Many of his poetic works include beautiful images of nature and humankind, each one reflecting the Creator by fully being itself. 

Several years later, I saw my first live belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) on the banks of the Snake River in east central Minnesota. A long, harsh rattle pierced the quiet river valley. Then, a flash of steely blue-gray sporting a shaggy crest swooped past as a belted kingfisher hunted for its dinner. Perching on a silver maple snag, it eyed the river intently for small fish, crayfish, mollusks, insects and other fresh-water delicacies. Soon, it hovered over the water, then plunged into the river headfirst and emerged with a small fish, scattering shards of sparkling droplets in the air.

A female belted kingfisher hovers over the river just before dropping into the water to catch a fish.

Belted kingfishers are similar in size to a blue jay — 11 to 14 inches in length — with a larger head, a dagger-shaped bill and a stocky body. The male and female both have blue-gray upper parts and a white breast with a blue-gray breast band. In addition, females have a rusty belly band that makes them easy to identify.

Notice the dark, pointed wing tips and blue-gray upper body coloration.

Unlike most perching birds, belted kingfishers nest in the ground. Usually both the female and male excavate a burrow high up in a riverbank, though some choose a gravel pit or similar area away from water. In northern regions, kingfishers mate once each spring. A clutch of 5-8 pure white eggs is typical. The eggs hatch after 24 days and the young are dependent on their parents for about six weeks. Though kingfishers in Canada and the far northern United States migrate south for the winter, they remain year round in most areas where they can find open water.

Kingfishers primarily eat small fish and crustaceans, but may also eat tadpoles, insects and berries if fish aren’t available. Belted kingfishers don’t have many predators, but are eaten by foxes, raccoons, snakes and hawks, such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinned. 

The kingfisher’s shaggy crest and long, pointed bill are identifying characteristics.

Worldwide, there are more than 110 species of kingfisher — and many of them are vividly colored, unlike their North American cousin. Most, such as the Philippine-dwarf kingfisher and the rufous-backed kingfisher are found in Asia. If Hopkins could have seen these handsome kingfishers, I think he’d have been even more delighted with the beauty of creation.

For further reading about kingfishers worldwide, visit:

Wildlife Journal Junior – Belted Kingfisher

Allaboutbirds.org

 

 

A Nuthatch Winter

This male white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) retrieved a seed from tree bark crevices. Notice the long, third toe used for balance.

The tiny, high-energy nuthatch is one of my favorite winter birds. Why the curious name “nuthatch”? “Hatch” was the Middle English word for hack or pound: nuthatches obtain much of their food by placing acorns and other nuts in bark crevices to hammer or hack open. They also store nuts and seeds under loose pieces of bark. I’ve seen red-breasted nuthatches use tiny sticks and other objects to lever the nuts out of a hiding place.

If you live near woods, or have trees in your yard, you’re likely to hear and see nuthatches. The white-breasted nuthatch is a year-round resident in Minnesota, and in most of the United States, Mexico and part of southern Canada.1 Its smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch, is present in fewer numbers during the winter because most remain on their northern breeding grounds — unless there’s a shortage of spruce seeds, their primary food. In that case, they migrate in large numbers to the northern and eastern United States. This movement is called an irruption and it’s happening in 2018. (I saw my first red-breasted nuthatch of the season in our backyard on August 27.)

Similar in size to a house sparrow, the white-breasted nuthatch is a small bird with a big voice. I hear them call on the coldest winter days when most birds are silent. Its call is described as a nasal “yank-yank”. During the breeding season, the males also make a nasal “wha-wha-wha” song. They like deciduous trees, especially white oaks. Favorite foods include the nuts or seeds of oak, hickory, beech, maple, pine and spruce in the winter. They often come to suet and sunflower seed feeders, too. Insects and spiders are choice foods for the summer.

This red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) uses a stick to search for hidden seeds in the bark of a red pine. (Photograph used with permission.)

The tiny red-breasted nuthatch is present year-round at our cabin in east central Minnesota. Smaller than its white-breasted cousin, it’s about the size of a kinglet. Its song is also a nasal,“yank-yank,” however, it is higher pitched and has been compared to the tone of a toy tin horn. They frequently make fast, high-pitched squeaking calls. Red-breasteds favor coniferous forests, but can also be found in deciduous woods, parks and yards during a winter irruption. They eat the nuts of spruce and other conifers in the winter, and visit feeders for suet, sunflower seeds and peanuts. Insects and spiders are summer favorites.

Nuthatches are cavity nesters — red-breasteds often select dead aspens because the wood is soft and easy to excavate. White-breasteds nest in both deciduous and conifer trees — they’ll frequently use an old woodpecker nest, rather than dig out a new cavity. Both build a bed of grass and shredded bark, then line it with fur, feathers and other soft material. Each species raises one brood per year.

White oaks are a favorite food source of white-breasted nuthatches.

Both species sport blue-gray, black, and white coloration. However, the red-breasted nuthatch has a wide, black eyestripe, whereas the white-breasted shows mainly white around its eye. Upper parts on both nuthatches are blue-gray. All have a black crown except for the female white-breasted nuthatch, which has a blue-gray crown. Red-breasted nuthatches have rusty or rufous-colored underparts in contrast to the white-breasted’s mainly bright, white belly. Both species have a long rear toe that is used to grip the bark of trees. (Other climbers, such as woodpeckers and brown creepers, use their tail to support themselves when climbing a tree trunk.)

Red-breasted nuthatches are easily identified by their small size, rusty colored underparts and high-pitched calls.

 When you’re outside on winter days, listen for nuthatch “yank-yank-yank” calls and keep an eye on tree trunks for tiny blue-gray, black and white birds intently inspecting the bark. Since nuthatches often join small flocks of other winter birds, you might also see downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, chickadees and kinglets as an added bonus!

1North America has four species of nuthatch: the brown-headed and pygmy nuthatches, in addition to the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches. There are 25 nuthatch species worldwide.

Memories of Birds

I heard a flock of robins this morning, murmuring softly to each other in the silver maples and hackberries. A male cardinal, tucked into our arbor vitae, whistled his “what cheer” melody. They sang memories of my dear friend Cathy Borden, who died one year ago today.

Cathy loved birds and, as I held her hand in the silence of a January evening, a flock of robins filled the trees outside her window at Our Lady of Peace hospice. She would have loved seeing the robins. Though she wasn’t conscious, she stirred when I described their rusty breasts, black heads and charcoal backs, and how they picked berries in the twilight.

I spun tales of steamy summer afternoons when we hiked the woods and fields of Eagan, just a small city at that time; of goldfinches collecting thistledown to line their cozy nests, rose-breasted grosbeaks flashing their lovely badges along the hiking trail, and tiny common yellowthroats calling “wichity-wichity”in the willow scrubs.

An American goldfinch spreads its wings in the bee balm patch.

An American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) spreads its wings to fly from the garden.

The birds continue to awaken beautiful memories. One night last November, when the “moon of freezing over” shone full and close, a great-horned owl hooted from a spruce in our front yard. I eased open a window to listen to its soothing call and remembered evening bike rides with Cathy in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.  We rode wooded trails where barred owls with liquid black eyes watched us from tree limbs overhead, a hen turkey and her flock of fuzzy poults scurried about the path in front of us, and night herons croaked their calls at dusk.

Black-capped chickadees are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are companionable in the garden and the woods.

Perhaps it’s the tiny black-capped chickadee, Cathy’s favorite bird, that most often brings her to mind. One fine morning last spring after a night of thunderstorms, chickadees whistled to each other in my garden and the year’s first lily of the valley opened, covered in rain droplets. (She loved these flowers and tried to grow them for many years.) Cathy would have rejoiced in the antics of the chickadees, in the abundance of my lily of the valley garden, and in the beginning of a new day so fresh and lovely.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

Lily of the valley(Convallaria majalis) is native to Northern Europe and Asia.

The Dove’s Call

A mated pair of doves rest on the roof in the late afternoon sun.

A mated pair of mourning doves rests on a roof in the late afternoon sun.

The mourning dove’s (Zenaida macroura) call is a wild, haunting sound that complements the whistle of its wings. In mid-August, doves coo softly in the cool of early morning and in the sultry late-afternoon heat.

People react quite differently to the mourning dove’s call. A work colleague who grew up on a farm found the cooing to be so sad that her family removed any nests that were close to their farmhouse.

To our young son, who was born with a bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, discovering a dove’s sounds was a time of wonder. We returned home from work and daycare, one spring evening, and startled a dove in the backyard. The forceful whistle of its wings as it flew skyward was one of the first sounds he heard with his new hearing aids. He also loved their sweet call; if the doves quieted, he would spot one on the roof and say to it, “Don’t be shy little dove. Will you sing for me again, please?”

Mourning doves are warm buff to soft gray in color with black speckles on the wings.

Mourning doves are warm buff to soft gray in color with black speckles on their wings.

I love the mourning dove’s call; I find it soothing and relaxing. It brings memories of steamy summer afternoons when I was growing up. We’d imitate their calls and try to spot them in the majestic elms that shaded Saint Paul’s streets. To find a dove’s nest woven in the boughs of a small spruce tree was pure delight. How innocent they looked with their large, dark eyes and bespeckled wings, nestled on a clutch of bright white eggs. How excited we were to experience this tiny bit of nature so close to home.

Early Spring Serenade

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch .

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sings from his springtime perch.

I like the silence of frosty mornings, but I also miss the music of birds during the winter. Most mornings for the past three weeks, our resident cardinal has greeted the sunrise — cloudy or clear — with song. At first he sang one short burst of bright song. Over the next week, it grew to several minutes of song at dawn and another round later in the morning. Basking in Tuesday’s sunshine and 70°, he sang many times during the day. Later that same day, a mourning dove cooed in a spruce tree, chickadees added their lovely two-note calls, and an American robin joined the serenade with its caroling. However, all went silent when a Cooper’s hawk sailed across the backyard and into my neighbor’s silver maple!

Why do birds sing more frequently in the spring? There’s still much to learn, but the thinking is that the increase in daylight triggers a bird’s thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH steps up the production of sex hormones to prepare birds for the mating season. A big part of successful reproduction is attracting a mate and maintaining a breeding territory — birdsong plays a major role in both activities.

The four songsters mentioned above were year-round residents in the Twin Cities this past winter.  Soon migrants, such as warblers, red-winged blackbirds, catbirds and others will return to add their harmony to the chorus. In fact, I saw my first red-winged blackbird of the season perched on a cattail in a small pond yesterday. Regardless of its purpose, the return of beautiful birdsong is one of spring’s finest gifts.

In Memory of Cathy Borden

Cathy in 1982 during one of our birding trips.

Cathy in 1982 during one of our birding trips.

My friend, Cathy Borden, died this morning.  She was a teacher, writer, wife, mother, sister, friend, gardener and lover of nature.  She enjoyed watching birds and her favorites were black-capped chickadees and American goldfinches.  Cathy gave me my first birding field guide 35 years ago — and though I’ve purchased other books and apps, that fourth edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies” is the one I carry on hikes, trips and weekends at the cabin.  It’s worn, wrinkled from hiking in the rain, and out of date.  In large part, it’s the memories of good times and the inscription written by Cathy on the front page that make it special:

“Beth — Here’s hoping you and I have many happy hours together with our books. I’ll pass on the wish that was given to me: ‘May you live long enough to identify every bird in this book!’                    — Cathy Borden, October 14, 1980”

Cathy didn’t live long enough to identify every bird in Peterson’s field guide, and it really wasn’t about the number of birds we identified anyway.  It was the time spent together walking, listening, thinking, discussing and laughing that mattered.  It was taking in the beauty of nature: the golden light of summer mornings in the marsh while warblers sang in willow thickets; autumn leaves burning with the sun’s fire and the silvery seeds of asters, goldenrod, sunflowers and milkweed; bundling up for winter walks in the fields and woods, where we’d flush ruffed grouse and laugh at being startled; and discovering spring’s first wildflowers and bird nests.

Over the years, career changes, raising families, caring for aging parents and other responsibilities became the focus — particularly for me.  I regret not making nearly enough time for nature walks, discussions over tea, or long phone calls with Cathy.

Cathy loved this simple nature blog.  She was a big supporter from the beginning and often chided me because she wanted me to write more frequently. During this past year, I blogged for Cathy, as one small way to bring her joy while she fought metastatic peritoneal cancer.  So it seems fitting to dedicate my blog to Cathy in gratitude for so many things—support and friendship beginning when I was a first-year science teacher; giving laughter that lightened times of tough challenge; sharing the beauty of nature through walks in every season; and the gift of holding her with one of her sons this morning.  No doubt Cathy’s exploring the celestial fields and woods, and working on her new bird list right now. 

Dedicated to Cathy Borden, October 11, 1951 – January 27, 2016, who loved chickadees, goldfinches, lilacs, lilies of the valley, bumblebees and the sound of crickets chirping in the night.

Pileated Acrobatics

The bush seemed too weak to support the pileated woodpecker’s (Dryocopus pileatus) size and heft.  Catbirds, robins, chipmunks and squirrels easily picked the ruby and purple fruit from the spindly chokecherry branches.  But, the crow-sized woodpecker struggled to alight and balance in the bush.  Its black forehead and mustache stripe identified this pileated as being a female. First, she flew straight into the bush, but the branches bent and sank under her weight.  Next, the woodpecker landed in each of the bur oak trees that flank the chokecherry and then dropped into the bush; still unsuccessful.

pileated5

When we returned to our cabin on the Snake River the following weekend, she had solved the problem.  Sometimes the pileated used her wings and tail to brace herself — even hanging upside down.  At other times, she seemed to pluck the fruit from midair.  The beauty of her wings unfurled in waves of ivory and black that thwacked the air.  Her red crest glowed like a flame in the bush.

pileated1

pileated4

pileated3

Though pileated woodpeckers primarily eat insects such as carpenter ants and beetles found in bark, they also eat a variety of berries and fruit, and sometimes visit our backyard suet feeder in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Chokecherry fruit (Prunus virginiana).

Chokecherry fruit (Prunus virginiana).

Our deck is just 6 feet from the bush, and if we were silent and still, the woodpecker payed no attention to us.  When I tried to photograph her she flew immediately.  As a result, I had to photograph her through the cabin windows, which reduced photo quality.