There is a hidden corner of Altona Forest that few hikers are aware of. It is ‘Altona Forest South’; a slim section of green space that is protected, but separated from the main part of Altona Forest by the construction of Strouds Lane. At the south end, cloaked in trees and staghorn bushes, you will find a beaver pond. Along the banks you might see orioles, cedar waxwings, red-winged blackbirds, northern flickers, and woodpeckers.
What I didn’t expect were kingfishers – I had no idea there were kingfishers in Ontario! We ‘discovered’ them while on the Altona Forest guided hike in April. The hikes bring together people with different knowledge and skills: thanks to this expertise and a little patience, we saw the fast-flying kingfisher.
Kingfishers are a group of birds with wide distribution across the world – they are usually small or medium size birds with large heads and long, strong, pointed beaks. Many kingfishers are exotically coloured and found in the tropics. What a boon to have kingfishers so close to home!
The kingfishers of Altona Forest are belted kingfishers – found in every province in Canada. We are on the cusp where their summer range meets their year-round range. On the north shores of Lake Ontario, they are summer migrants to breed and feed.
They are attractive with blue-grey wings and a white underbody and a grey ‘belt’ beneath the collar area. The female has an additional belt of russet-tan that carries down under her wings to her legs. Their beaks are a very distinctive feature because they are long, dark and look too heavy and large for the bird. They have short legs and tails and are about the length of a ruler with a wingspan just short of double that. Belted kingfishers have distinctive tousled bushy crest feathers which give them the look of rock stars.
They draw attention to themselves with a loud and chatty call which you will hear long before you see them. Their call has been referred to as a ‘rattle’. On a return visit to the beaver pond, we saw two tousling kingfishers. Their aerial speed and acrobatics were impressive. They were too far away and too fast to tell if they were males competing for territory or a male and a female. Hopefully a mated pair will find a safe and undisturbed bank in Altona South to nest in and raise their young. Like many birds, their numbers have been declining – although they are still a ‘species of least concern’ on the endangered lists.
Belted kingfishers are fish-eaters by name and excellent divers by reputation. You will find them along streams, near lake-edges, and coastlines in forested areas. With keen eyes and dramatic diving ability, they are able to fully submerge to catch their prey in their beaks. We watched one fish – dropping from a branch in a straight dive and plunge into the water and emerge (on one occasion) with a meal. I think it was a small fish. Kingfishers eat fish, aquatic bugs, and crustaceans – but will also eat berries, amphibians, reptiles and even small birds.
Kingfishers are charming – but also fast fliers and hard to catch on camera! If you are willing to try, wander to Altona Forest South and listen for their loud calls near the beaver ponds.
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