Monday, December 21, 2009

Halcyon Days

(Winter Solstice issue...)

Greek legend tells the fate of fair Alcyone, daughter of the minor diety Aeolus who ruled the winds.

Detail from 'Alcyone praying juno' (Public domain engraving from 1581 by Virgil Solis, Frankfurt, Germany)Alcyone loved her husband so very much that, upon hearing news of his shipwreck, she threw herself into the sea. But the gods took pity on the drowned lovers and transformed them into 'halcyon' birds, or Kingfishers. (The 'h' was added to her name to show an association with the sea, or 'hals' in Greek.)

As Kingfishers, Alcyon and her husband were happily reunited. She was soon brooding their eggs on a floating nest, and her father protected their nest by calming the winter winds and waves.

And as legend has it, that is why there is often a period of calm weather for one week on either side of the Winter Solstice, on December 21st.

Kingfisher fishing in the fading dusk (c) John AshleyIn modern times, 'halcyon days' refers to our nostalgic memories of the endless, sunny days of youth. And in current-day, semi-modern Montana, Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) are much more common during the sunny days of summer.

Kingfishers are solitary birds, except during summer. Males establish a nesting territory along a stream, river or pond, and then court females by singing to them and feeding them fish. After a pair has bonded, and immediately following copulation, the female briefly follows her mate in an aerial display. She returns to a branch with a view while he continues his aerial ascent, then stalls, somersaulting and spiraling back towards her, pulling out of his dive just before crashing into the water, all the while flashing his handsome white wing feathers.

Summer lovers, indeed.

Both birds excavate a nest site in a vertical bank of unvegetated sand or clay. The male begins, then the female joins him in digging a tunnel 1-8 feet long, ending in a rounded nest chamber. Six to eight perfectly white eggs are laid and incubated for 22-24 days. She incubates overnight, and he takes over in the morning.

Immediately after hatching, the naked chicks are "brooded," or kept warm by the female, while the male feeds his mate and her chicks. Soon, both parents are busy feeding small fish to their young, averaging about eight fish per day per nestling. If you do the math, that comes to roughly 1300-1800 fish delivered to the nest by the busy parents of 6-8 young.

Young Kingfishers grow fast, reaching adult weights within 16 days, and they actually loose weight before leaving the nest at about 28 days. For about three weeks after fledging, they'll stay close to their parents, who will feed them less and less often. Then the juveniles wander off, the pair parts ways, and Kingfishers become solitary once again.

Female Belted Kingfisher with long-toed salamander (c) John Ashley
Many Kingfishers are migratory, and most will withdraw completely from their summer ranges in Alaska and Canada. They also withdraw from the eastern third of Montana, but some will overwinter in the western two-thirds of our state. Kingfishers heading south will leave Montana in November and return in April. Migrating birds will range as far south as northern South America.

Nest success is relatively high, and Kingfishers appear to be less impacted than other fish-eating birds by pollutants in the water -- possibly because they tend to eat smaller, younger fish. Still, Kingfisher populations in many areas appear to be declining slightly, for unknown reasons.

Fortunately, the breeding range of Kingfishers has been expanded somewhat by human disturbance that creates new nesting habitat. One study found that 84% of Kingfisher nests were in disturbed locations such as gravel pits and road cuts. These adaptable birds are also flexible in their diets. When fish are scarce, Kingfishers will also eat snails, salamanders, tadpoles, insects, berries, and even small birds.

And for a chunky bird that only weighs about six ounces, adult Kingfishers appear fearless when hungry hawks show up in their territory. There are multiple accounts of male Kingfishers mobbing Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Goshawks.

Upon noticing the hawk, the Kingfisher flies directly at it while making its familiar rattling call, enticing the hawk to give chase. The slower Kingfisher zigs and zags over the water, and when the hawk swings its deadly talons forward for the strike, the wily Kingfisher escapes by diving into and under the water. The Kingfisher then initiates another and another chase, leading the hawk farther away each time. The Kingfisher eventually flies back to its territory, where it can resume uninterrupted feeding.

You don't have to be a Greek god to appreciate the kind of devotion and intelligence that Kingfishers display so well.

Behind the lens: Photographed while floating chest-deep in the water with a hand-held Nikon D700, 500mm f4 lens and 1.4X converter. (I was following a brood of young ducks when the noisy Kingfisher suddenly appeared.)

Behind the bird: When Kingfishers catch live prey, like the salamander shown above, they'll land on a nearby branch and kill the critter by smacking it repeatedly against the branch. Once the critter stops moving, the Kingfisher turns it to swallow head-first. Later, the bird will cough up a pellet of bones and (after eating fish) scales.

Behind the name: The Cousteau Society's research vessel is partially powered by a unique wind-catching turbosail. The ship's name? Alcyone, the "Daughter of the Wind."