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Belted Kingfisher

Birds: Kingfisher

The word, Kingfisher, came into my lexicon in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It was not from a fisherman, nor from a bird, but rather from a television situation-comedy called The Amos and Andy Show. One of the characters was George Stevens, aka The Kingfisher, who often tried different strategies to flatter, cajole and entice Amos and Andy into his latest get-rich-quick scheme.

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The Kingfisher stands between Amos & Andy

The Kingfisher’s famous catch phrase, which he said often when he was surprised, was “Holy Mackerel!” which became a popular exclamation of the era.

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J.J. Gould’s illustration Amos and Andy (1930) for New Movie Magazine

As a cradle Catholic, aka Mackerel Snapper, I did not know that mackerel was commonly regarded as an oily school of fish shunned by the well-healed Protestants and prized by the poorer Catholics. We knew that we were supposed to eat fish of Friday and to avoid meat, as a sign of personal sacrifice and to commemorate the celebration of the Last Supper. Fish, anyone?

And there is a beautiful poem, entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire, written by Gerard Manley Hopkins (attached at the end of this Witness Post), which paints a lustrous picture of divinity in this loud bird of nose-dive paradise. Be sure to read to the end.

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The Bird

Running along Johnson Creek, in SE Portland, Oregon, Phil Vorvick and I spotted a Belted Kingfisher as it zipped over our heads above the Creek and dive bombed into the water below, chattering as it flew. It is a magnificent bird with the deep blue, white and rust coloration to demand anyone’s attention. And its call, so strident and piercing, is something that sticks in your auditory memory bank, even when you can’t see the bird. Simply listen and you know you are near a Kingfisher on the hunt:

Backyard Naturalist youtube video of the belted kingfisher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUwgjKCcnxI

In Maryland our family lived beside a mostly meandering creek, called Roland Run. It was the main tributary to a lake in Baltimore City, named Lake Roland. A wooded area north of the original city limits, Roland Park was created through the imaginative city dwellers who would escape the stultifying summer city heat (July and August inversions would create days on end with 90 degrees of heat and 90 percent humidity) and have a breeze-filled time on a cottage overlooking Lake Roland. Other regional heat-wave escapes were to Ocean City, Rehoboth Beach, Gibson Island, Salisbury, or anywhere for that matter to catch cooling relief.

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Lake Roland had a steady supply of small fish for the Kingfisher to thrive, and they would  wander up the tributaries, looking for minnows nearly year round.  Other avian favorites of mine were the Wood Ducks, Yellow-Crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Barred Owls, House Finches, American Kestrels, Tufted Titmice, Baltimore Orioles, House Wrens, Eastern Bluebirds, and Black-Capped Chickadee which round out my “short list” in the area.

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Great Blue Heron

Going Antipodean

When our family went to Australia, we discovered another world of Kingfisher who were even more magical than the ones in Maryland and Oregon. There are over ten species of Kingfisher in Australia and I was interested in learning the differences of the species in this hemisphere. We were fortunate enough to identify three species, and they caught the attention of all of us, even those not particularly fond of bird watching: The Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher, the Azure Kingfisher, and the Sacred Kingfisher.

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Azure Kingfisher

Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher

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Nest of the Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher in the Daintree National Park

The Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher is one of the signature birds that birdwatchers come from around the globe to see in Australia.  We went on a bird and animal safari with guide Bill Crew, who was excited for us to see one Kingfishers on the wing.  We stopped at a point along the road in the Daintree National Park and Bill cooked us a pot of tea, while he described the territorial Cassowary. He pointed out to us the nest of the Kingfisher, which is dug into an abandoned termite mound, which was several feet high and about 18 inches in diameter. After several weeks of tunneling, the mating pair of Kingfishers settles into their nest and lay their eggs.

We got back into our van and headed into the rain forest. Just as he was describing the Buff-Breasted Paradise to me, one flew for about three wing flaps right in front of our van.  About an hour later, we spotted a second Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher sitting on a branch, just after we had finished seeing a platypus in Bill Crew’s neighbor’s pond. The platypus was pretty cool, but the Paradise Kingfisher was breath-taking.  He has the longest white tail feathers and brightest red beak I have ever seen. The blue on his head and back is iridescent. And he seems to have a knapsack of white feathers on his back. He lived on a steady diet of lizards and small rodents. It was a thrill to see this little guy on the first try.

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Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher

The total length of the Buff-Breasted Paradise is up to 36 cm, which is 14.2 inches, and up to half that length is the Kingfisher’s tail feathers! They are found from the Top-Tip of Australia (Cape York) to the rainforests, where they breed before returning to New Guinea for the rest of the year.

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The Azure Kingfisher

We spotted the Azure Kingfisher on the same trip, as it was sitting in a tree near the standing pools just outside of the Daintree National Park. Called “bilabongs” in Australia, the pools are shallow lagoons with low overhanging trees and branches just a few feet above the waterline, the perfect perch for a hungry Kingfisher to sit and wait for the unsuspecting minnows or shrimp to surface. We spotted on bird, so beautiful with his bright blue upper parts, orange belly and bright orange legs and feet, as it prepared to dive into the bilabong.

Azure Kingfisher (Alcedo azurea), Tallebudgera Creek, Burleigh Heads, Queensland.

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Sacred Kingfisher

There is something sacred about the Kingfisher, as it seems to float like a winged spirit around its arboreal home. The esteemed poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, said that Kingfishers catch fire, as they seem to be combinations of feather and flame in the setting sun. And dragonflies, too, have those iridescent wings that shimmer just so in the morning light, moving faster than the eye like Tinker Bell to their own rhythmic beats. (See Hopkins poem below.)

The Sacred Kingfisher that we spotted in Australia, again with Bill Crews, was a brilliantly colored diver with blue wings, white collar and breast, black beak and feet. We spotted him on the savannah outside the Daintree, nesting in an open termite mound. He was winging to the nest with a grasshopper in his mouth and looked very agile with his beak. Bill told us that they caught the insects just above the grasses and water line, displaying their acrobatic talents. We saw the end result, but missed the aerial display.

Revered by the Native Aborigines of Australia, the Sacred Kingfisher are a sign of good luck, blessings, and fertility to the country of Australia. Along with the Kookaburra, it is one of the most displayed birds, show up on stamps and family crests for people who love birds.

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The Hopkins Poem

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

BY GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

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