by Eugene Beckes 

Belted Kingfisher – Photo Credit: Eugene Beckes

A small stream flows into the canal two miles from our place. At that confluence, it also happens that the canal makes a ninety degree turn. The result of the waters merging in this way is a deeper and wider section of the canal; in fact, locals know it as a fairly good place to catch trout now and then. One of those locals is a female Belted Kingfisher. 

Because I’d seen her there several times over the past six weeks, I decided it would be a good place to try for photos of the elusive bird. Belted Kingfishers are well known to be extremely wary; not easily photographed. Because of this and my past experience with them, I knew I would have to be very well camouflaged and still in order to have any chance of getting images of her.

Over the past ten days I had propped two branches against the barbed wire fence which runs perpendicular to the stream and only a few feet from the confluence, my hope being that the Kingfisher would value them as perches from which she could easily spy her prey. Long story and a few adjustments later, it worked. I’d seen her fishing from them a few times.

This morning I decided to drive to the spot, rather than walk, because I wanted to get there earlier than she did (if she showed at all.) I parked the car out of site of the spot and with my gear walked towards the part of the fence I’m able to crawl under. Not half way there, I saw her perched on the most favorable branch I’d placed; of course she saw me, scolded me harshly (you think I’m kidding, I’m not, ) and fled.

Cursing myself for not getting there earlier, nevertheless I arrived at the crawling-under spot, threw my pack over and made the passage. On the other side I had to drop down to the small creek and cross, then situate myself next to the fence where I have a little cover from the wooden fence posts and some vegetation in the area. That said, I’m still largely out in the open and if she chose to perch on either of my well-placed branches, she could easily see me.

That’s why I pulled out a mask and three layers of camouflage material. Wrapping the stuff around me and my pack, I did my best to look like a lichen-covered rock.

I had some hope she’d return, but after forty five minutes of waiting, was beginning to have my doubts. Then I heard her chattering, somewhere along the canal behind me. I was about to pull my body up into the best position when I saw her flying a big loop, heading for my perches. I froze and she came in, just as I was hoping she would. Trouble was, I was not in the best posture. I had nearly laid down on the hillside and needed to pull my torso back up to shooting height, not to mention lift the camera out of my lap and bring it up to my face. I knew if she detected any movement on my part she’d be gone in a flash, so I did my best impression of a rock. I hoped she would see and dive for a fish, and that would give me just enough time to get into shooting position.

She dove and I stayed frozen. The big splash when her body smacked the water was something to behold. Kingfishers are not shy about going after their prey. They go in head-first with all the speed they can muster. Apparently, they are expert at gauging water depth and the peril of rocks on the floor of the streams and ponds they fish.

Several years ago, I watched a Peregrine Falcon that was trying to nail a kingfisher over the waters of Mission Reservoir. Every time the peregrine would close, the kingfisher dove into the water, throwing the falcon off. But each time the peregrine gained on the kingfisher, and I held my breath uneasily, watching this drama from the shore. The last time the kingfisher emerged, it made a brilliant strategic move, and flew directly at me! My jaw dropped. The falcon, totally focused on the kingfisher, flew after it until suddenly it realized it was flying at a human being, at which point it totally lost its focus and flew away. The kingfisher flew past me and straight into the forest. Brilliant! 

No raptors after today’s kingfisher though, not that I witnessed, at least.

Though I stayed frozen the first time the bird dove into the water, I took advantage of the second opportunity. Even so, she saw a little movement as I was trying to get the camera focused on her, and was clearly aware of something a little unusual. Nevertheless, I was able to blaze away to the tune of 65 shots. Eventually, her wary nature took hold and off she flew! May she ever be wary! And may her fishing days be long and many.