Belted kingfishers are settling in for winter

Bruce Mactavish
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While out this past weekend I realized I was encountering belted kingfishers in more places than usual. Yes, and there was good reason for this.

The kingfishers that have chosen to over winter in Newfoundland are moving out to coastal locations and fast-moving brooks where they have access to fish as inland locations freeze up.

Tidal shallows in sheltered coves are the favourite winter resorts for kingfishers. These are the places most resistant to freezing over where a kingfisher can find little fish to eat during the winter. In these recent winters, any freezing of saltwater coves in southern Newfoundland is only temporary.

Last Sunday, I saw three kingfishers around the inner Renews harbour. Kingfishers do not tolerate one another in winter, so seeing three in one location is overcrowding. Kingfishers are possessive about good fishing grounds (aren’t we all?) and do not wish to share. They are probably still working out territorial fishing grounds for the upcoming winter.

I noticed one kingfisher was sitting on a rock holding a 10 cm long fish in its beak. It was repeatedly whacking the fish’s head against the rock. Kingfishers do this to stun or kill the fish. The kingfisher then turns the now limp fish around in its bill and swallows it down head first.

This morning in St. John’s, I watched another kingfisher sitting low in a willow tree on the Virginia River. It was catching little sticklebacks one after another. Each one would get a few whacks of the head against a branch before being swallowed down head first with all those spines relaxed and folded down against the back.

I have tried to get a picture of this fish whacking activity, but it happens so fast I am always too late. Kingfishers in general are a challenge to photograph because they are so wary of people. Usually the bird sees you first and is already flying away by the time you are aware of its presence.

The machine gun rattle call of the kingfisher often gives away its position. Despite their shy nature, kingfishers are fairly common on the rivers within the city of St. John’s during the winter. The abundance of small trout keeps them around all winter.

Kingfishers are one species certainly benefitting from the warmer winters. There are more kingfishers taking the risk of overwintering in Newfoundland now than there were two decades ago. Watch for our kingfishers as you walk the trails around St. John’s and visit sheltered coves on the coast.

Rare birds of the week

A couple of rain storms with strong, far-reaching south winds during the first week of December were apparently responsible for carrying two unexpected visitors to Newfoundland.

The first was a Forster’s tern that Alvan Buckley and Ian Jones found at Renews on Dec. 7. This was the seventh sighting for Newfoundland.

Forster’s tern is similar looking to the common tern that lives in Newfoundland during the summer. But a Forster’s tern is rare in Atlantic Canada at any time and should be no farther north than the mid-Atlantic States at this time of year. Unfortunately, the tern did not stick around for other birders to see.

The other rare bird was unfortunately not seen alive by anyone, but when Paulette King found a dead chicken-size bird that was iridescent purple and green with long spidery yellow toes in her Clarenville backyard, she knew she had something unusual. With the help of her friend Lena, they contacted yours truly for help to identify the exotic looking bird. The pictures said it all.

Purple gallinules come from the coastal marshes of the southeast United States, especially Florida. The species is very rare in eastern Canada but from time to time one shows up after a big storm.

The Virginia’s warbler that caused a big commotion among the birding group during the latter half of November in east St. John’s was seen up to Dec. 2, but is now on the missing list. It may have succumbed to the cold weather. Speaking of exotica, the great egret present in northeast St. John’s area is still frequenting Virginia Lake, but cold weather this week will force it to move, hopefully migrate back south where it belongs.

Snowy owl update

The snowy owl invasion continues to break all records. This past weekend there were incredible snowy owl counts of 206 on the Cape Race road, 91 in the Cape Pine/St. Shotts area and up to 12 at Cape Spear and area. Others have been reported from various locations in St. John’s and other locations around the Avalon.

The concern is that these owls are not finding much food in Newfoundland.

A dead owl was found at Cape Race. It was very thin and had probably starved to death. No one knows how this snowy owl invasion will end or what the final outcome of all these owls will be. We try to be optimistic.

Apparently something like this happened in the winter of 1951-52. A young Dave Myrick was living at Cape Race that winter and remembers seeing a snowy owl sitting on every hydro pole. There was an estimate of 200-300 snowy owls at Cape Race that winter. Such cycles are part of nature.

There are no free handouts in nature. While the fate of many owls is questionable, the future of the species is still in good hands.

We are not seeing any adult snowy owls.

The adults are almost pure white compared to the heavily barred young birds that are tripping to Newfoundland.

The experienced adults are probably remaining in the far north where they have the experience and knowledge to live.


Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Southern Newfoundland, Cape Race Virginia River Atlantic Canada Atlantic States Clarenville United States Florida Eastern Canada Virginia Lake Cape Pine Shotts

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