Chasing the Kingfisher — five years and one lucky day

Every birder has a favorite species or two. Mine has always been the Belted Kingfisher, partly because this elegant speed demon is so elusive.

For five years I’ve been trying to get a photo in mid-flight, but it’s been like catching a shadow. The Belted Kingfisher is so skittish and moves with such unpredictable twists and turns, he comes up mostly as a blur.

That is, until the other day.

My fascination with the Kingfisher goes back to my first encounter in Huntley Meadows Park in Northern Virginia, where I found one patrolling a swampy lake. I caught just a glimpse of him zipping about, but that’s all it took.

I managed this slightly fuzzy photo in the Alligator Preserve in North Carolina.

Kingfishers prefer shallow water where they can spot fish from the air. They like to fly along the banks, and then perch in a tree on the water’s edge. It’s as if to taunt a birder into thinking you might get a clear shot if you can just get a little closer. Half the time these sightings occur in swamp-like areas, so this can be a murky and muddy pursuit. 

The Kingfisher’s Elvis look

Part of the Kingfisher’s appeal for me is its striking appearance. The Kingfisher looks like a cross between a military officer in a crisp uniform and a surly teenager with spiked hair. When it spreads its wings the Kingfisher looks like Elvis in his most outlandish getup.

It isn’t hard to know when a Kingfisher is nearby: It cruises to a steady series of calls and complaints that telegraphs its every move.

The next several times I came upon Kingfishers were along the Florida coast, from the Keys to the Panhandle. I’d spot them on a pole or channel marker, but they’d be gone before I could get the camera turned on. If they saw you first, you wouldn’t get a second look. 

Zipping across the lake in Nova Scotia.

I managed a few photos over the years, but none that did justice to this bird. My longest encounter came in Nova Scotia, where twice I found them fishing on remote lakes. One was a small enough lake I thought I had a chance. Each time I got close enough for a respectable shot, the Kingfisher would skitter to the opposite side. I’d work my way slowly along the rocky, barely passable banks and begin to shoot just as the bird crossed yet again. It was hard not to think we were playing some kind of game I was destined to lose. 

Finally, last week, my luck changed.

I finally caught a Kingfisher in mid-flight with a Nikon D500 and a 600mm lens.

Beverly and I were birdwatching along a canal that follows the Potomac River less than a mile from our home in Washington, D.C.  I wasn’t expecting to be out for long on a cold, windy afternoon, but I heard the familiar rattle call. Not one, but two Kingfishers were working the waterway.

Maybe it was the fact that their territory was such a narrow stretch of canal. Maybe these two had grown used to people walking and biking along this particular path on the edge of the city. Or maybe my years of patience finally taught me to move more quietly than ever.

But on three separate stretches that afternoon, I got my chance. I came home with hundreds of frames, taken over more than an hour. I think I finally did justice to this magnificent bird. Several shots caught this guy in mid-flight with its feathers spread out like artwork.

I love this photo, taken the other day along the Potomac, where his stance seems full of attitude and spunk.

Of course the pursuit never ends. Not long ago I came across the story of a photographer, a professional, who had been trying to catch a Kingfisher just as it hit the water after a fish. He took 720,000 photos over six years, (for a total of 4,600 hours), before he captured what he was after. It’s a beautiful photograph, which you can see on this link. It’s beyond my amateur’s reach, but I do think I’m ready to try for a photo of my Kingfisher hitting its catch. I’ll get back to you when I have something to show.


[envira-gallery id=”3978″]





OUR NEW BOOK: “A Wing and a Prayer”

Can We Save Our Vanishing Birds?

A riveting journey through the research breakthroughs, risky experiments and promising campaigns to save birds across the hemisphere, the book is praised from The New York Times’ book review to Good Morning America.


7 responses to “Chasing the Kingfisher — five years and one lucky day”

  1. Anders, I share your thoughts and experiences with the Belted Kingfisher. No bird has teased me more, no bird have I ended the day with only shots of him from far across the river. Just since this last fall I have started birding from a kayak, somehow that is far less threatening to the birds. I was able to float much closer to a Belted King Fisher, he took off and flew downstream and again I floated up very close getting off another roll of better images. I have to say your set of photos of those two BKF’s are inspiring, nice images, nice article, thank you.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Thanks so much for this note. It’s good to know we’re not alone out there in this pursuit. Hope all is well your way. -Anders

  2. These pictures, especially of the two birds in mid air, moved me to tears they are so beautiful. One of the appealing things about kingfishers is that they are written of in myths, and make me think of halcyon days.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Patricia: Thanks so much for your delightful comments — and for being such a dedicated reader in general. Where do you live and what kind of birder are you? Many thanks, Anders

  3. God bless the internet.
    I stumbled across this site looking for reference pics to create a brand for my Tattoo biz.
    After an unsatisfying search for tattoo relatable lore involving our town (Royersford Pa) I went to the local wildlife for inspiration to name the shop. Blue Heron was my go to as I am an avid fisherman in the Schuylkill river and they are impressive birds. Someone mentioned the kingfisher and I was surprised to learn how common the belted variety are here. I went on a kayak trip and could not believe how many I saw that day. In retrospect, I recall seeing and especially hearing them for as long as I can remember. I just didn’t put the pieces together in a way that shaped a belted kingfisher. After a quick personality test and some background info I opened Kingfisher Collective Tattoos and Piercings 3 years ago using a logo I hastily put together. It’s time to rebrand and I generally take my inspirations from real life and photography combining images to come up with a logo. The flying shots here are fantastic! The angles and wing position are very unique from what I’ve seen elsewhere, giving me a better understanding of motion and color. So…thanks for the inspiration. Well done.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar

      Chris, Thanks very much for your note — and interesting story. All the best with your work. Anders

    2. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Oh my goodness. I don’t know how I missed your wonderful email from some months ago. But so glad to see if now, and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write. It really is an amazing birds — and sounds like a pretty good shop too.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: