By Patricia Simpson
Some birds are difficult to identify, namely those LBJs (little brown jobs) while others are distinctive and almost instantly recognizable. Such is the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).
Its unique body shape gives it away — a stocky medium-sized body mounted by a large head and an impressive weapon-of-a-beak. When feeling feisty, either due to the presence of people or competition, the kingfisher displays an impressive crest on its head. Both male and female have a rich slate-blue color on the head, back and wings and a white collar and chest, but the female is easy to distinguish from the male by a rust colored stripe across her chest.
At Mission Trails Regional Park, you might find the bird around Lake Murray, where it was spotted a couple of times in September, as shown in the observation posted on iNaturalist by thumbwave at bit.ly/2zDgXZK. Though there are no earlier observations of the species recorded on iNaturalist within the park, records on eBird reflect a regular resident at Kumeyaay Lake and a few sightings along the San Diego River.
The kingfisher is a marvel of nature. It will often perch on a branch or post near water to stalk his prey — mostly smaller fish below the surface up to two feet deep. Once the prey is located, the kingfisher will dive at 10 to 20 mph, enter the water headfirst and clasp the fish in its beak. It will then return to the perch and whack the prey a few times to “finish it” before swallowing it whole. (Who’d want a wiggly thing in the stomach? Yikes!)
The kingfisher does not digest bones or scales and will regurgitate pellets, much like raptors do. On occasion, the kingfisher will hover over the prey, beating its wings at 8 beats-per-second before diving. This exercise costs a lot of energy as the bird uses its tail for balance while keeping its head completely still to spot the prey.
A year-round resident of San Diego County, the kingfisher needs earthen banks to nest in. Habitat fragmentation and heavy recreation (the bird doesn’t like disturbances) might be a factor in the slow but steady population decline of the bird. You can find many amazing kingfisher videos available on YouTube; check them out.
—Patricia Simpson is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.