Air Anchovy

Updated with additional video, see below

What was this anchovy (or similar fat little fish) doing thirty feet up in the air? It was in the beak of a Belted Kingfisher, that’s what, and photographer James Kusz was there and captured the finny creature’s last moments, far out of its liquid element.

A pair of Kingfishers have used these electrical wires along the Virginia Street extension near the Schoolhouse Creek outfall for years as a place to spot and consume their prey. James’ video is the first, to my knowledge, to capture them at the climax of a successful hunt. They eat practically nothing but fish and crayfish, sometimes adding small mammals or amphibians.

This bird was very probably a male. We don’t get a full view of its breast, but we see enough to conclude that it does not have the cinnamon-colored bib that females wear. See below.

Oddly, this bird has something in common with the Burrowing Owl. Belted Kingfishers nest in burrows in the ground. They make tunnels, sometimes six feet long, at the water’s edge, sloping uphill. Unlike the Western Burrowing Owl, which borrows burrows dug by mammals, the kingfishers dig their own.

The Cornell bird lab website has these “Cool Facts” about Belted Kingfishers:

  • The breeding distribution of the Belted Kingfisher is limited in some areas by the availability of suitable nesting sites. Human activity, such as road building and digging gravel pits, has created banks where kingfishers can nest and allowed the expansion of the breeding range.
  • The Belted Kingfisher is one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male. Among the nearly 100 species of kingfishers, the sexes often look alike. In some species the male is more colorful, and in others the female is.
  • During breeding season the Belted Kingfisher pair defends a territory against other kingfishers. A territory along a stream includes just the streambed and the vegetation along it, and averages 0.6 mile long. The nest burrow is usually in a dirt bank near water. The tunnel slopes upward from the entrance, perhaps to keep water from entering the nest. Tunnel length ranges from 1 to 8 feet.
  • As nestlings, Belted Kingfishers have acidic stomachs that help them digest bones, fish scales, and arthropod shells. But by the time they leave the nest, their stomach chemistry apparently changes, and they begin regurgitating pellets which accumulate on the ground around fishing and roosting perches. Scientists can dissect these pellets to learn about the kingfisher’s diet without harming or even observing any wild birds.
  • Belted Kingfishers wander widely, sometimes showing up in the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, the British Isles, the Azores, Iceland, Greenland, and the Netherlands.
  • Pleistocene fossils of Belted Kingfishers (to 600,000 years old) have been unearthed in Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. The oldest known fossil in the kingfisher genus is 2 million years old, found in Alachua County, Florida.

In his archive, James has this additional video of a kingfisher in the same location, this time with a bigger little fish in its beak, a sun perch. James didn’t see whether the bird managed to swallow this fish, but the video shows that the bird very energetically subdued the fish:

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