While recently visiting the Rock Creek area to simply go fishing, I became distracted as I cast my red skwala into the clear, frigid stream. I was not distracted by the surrounding beauty of grasslands and different flora, or my ongoing love/hate relationship with fly-fishing, but rather the immense variety of sound echoing off the rock outcroppings surrounding the area.
The sound was from the various species of birds that call Rock Creek home during certain times of the year, or year round for that matter. Then one bird in particular caught my eye. The belted kingfisher, or in the scientific realm Ceryle alcyon, flew overhead as if on a mission - just as I was about to catch a fish, of course.
The belted kingfisher is common all over the United States and is a migratory species, although quite a few tend to stay through the winter months, depending on how mild or cold the winter is during a particular year.
The belted kingfisher is found in the vicinity of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams that have clear shallow water and a good supply of fish, which are in abundance in Rock Creek, as any angler could attest. The Rock Creek area presents other beneficial habitat for the kingfisher, such as the wealth of stream-side trees, like water birch and cottonwood. Along with these trees for the bird to perch on while fishing for daily meals and food for its young are the snags and high stream banks, which are present along the shores of Rock Creek.
The belted kingfisher is one of the few birds that tunnels into the banks of the rivers and streams for nesting. If you look closely at some stream banks, you may see the entrance to the kingfisher’s nest placed near the top of the bank to offer necessary protection from predators and rising water during the spring runoff. These burrows may be used in consecutive season if they are not disturbed.
A more important factor found to affect the survival, migration, and success of the belted kingfisher population is climate change. A study carried out by Jeffrey F. Kelly and Beatrice Van Horne shows that inconsistent climate change, specifically the inconsistency of winter seasons, can play a major role in the distribution and density of the belted kingfisher populations. Since these birds feed primarily on fish, they need open patches of running water. At the same time, the belted kingfisher is territorial and unrelenting in keeping fellow birds outside of its nesting and feeding area along streams and rivers. The recent inconsistent weather patterns here in western Montana, like an extremely mild February followed by an unreasonably cold April, can bring about stress to the birds, as they have to compete with a sudden density in the population during the coldest seasons.
Ultimately, the belted kingfisher is very dependent upon humans for survival. We have an impact on the climate change which is occurring on this planet, and we also play a role in preserving clean water and healthy fish populations. If you wish to observe this bird during the summer and you live near a water source, take care not to “beautify” your shoreline too much. Leave a couple of snags for the kingfisher to perch upon; do not pollute the water; and if you are an angler, leave a few fish behind for our avian friend.
"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.