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Kingfishers of the Americas

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Aug 9, 2020 | by Adrian Binns

Kingfishers are among the most compelling birds – flying fast and straight down waterways, rattling loudly along the way, and diving for fish with expert precision and speed. Actually, most of the world’s kingfishers, ~100 species, are not water-based at all. But here I’ll highlight the six species of kingfisher found in the Americas – all quintessentially associated with water.

In the United States, we are most familiar with the common and widespread Belted Kingfisher. The tropical Ringed and Green Kingfishers just reach southern Texas, with the latter also reaching into southeast Arizona.

Two of the six have blue-gray backs with crests (Belted and Ringed) and 4 have green backs (Amazon, Green-and-rufous, Green and American Pygmy). These kingfishers range in size from the crow-sized Ringed, to the sparrow-sized American Pygmy Kingfisher.  True to their name, kingfishers of the Americas specialize in hunting fish, patiently perched on branches overhanging water, darting at lightning speed to spear their prey on sharp bills.

Ringed Kingfisher  Megaceryle torquata  – female

At 16″ the Ringed Kingfisher is the largest of our kingfishers, covering the broadest range from southern Texas to the tip of South America. Their slate-blue plumage, oversized bi-colored bill, and crested head feathers are impressive. The sexes differ in that the males have a rufous breast and belly while females have a blue breast band separating the rufous belly by a white band. They are commonly seen perched along freshwater lakes and streams, as well as on wires.  Their loud noisy machine-gun rattle alerts all to their presence.

Belted Kingfisher  Megaceryle alcyon  – female

The 12.5″ Belted Kingfisher is a smaller version of the Ringed. It is found throughout most of North America and as far south as northern South America in winter. Often heard before seen, its piercing rattle call gives-away its presence on streams, rivers and lakes, where they perch in the open. Unlike other New World kingfishers, female Belted Kingfishers are more brightly-colored then males. They both have a blue-gray breast band, but she also has a rufous belly band and flanks.

Amazon Kingfisher   Chloroceryle amazona  – female

The Amazon Kingfisher, 12″ long, is the largest of the ‘green’ kingfishers. Ranging from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, this handsome bird is often seen perched in the open on bare branches along the water’s edge. Of the ‘green’ kingfishers it is the most likely to be found on larger rivers. As with the other large kingfishers, it makes its presence known with loud rattling calls while flying along waterways and slow-moving rivers.  They have a short crest protruding from the back of the head. The male has a rufous breast, while the female shows white underparts with green streaks on flanks.  Both sexes lack the white markings spots on the wing that a Green has, but young, female-looking birds have white spots on wings.

Green-and-rufous Kingfisher  Chloroceryle inda  – male

Found from southern Nicaragua to Brazil the 9″ Green-and-rufous Kingfisher is larger and about 4 times heavier than the similar-looking American Pygmy Kingfisher. Males have an all rufous breast and underbelly, whereas the females have a narrow green breast band with white markings that separate the throat from the rufous underside. Both sexes have a rufous-buff nape and white spots on the wings. Green-and-rufous lack the white belly and white collar that both Amazon and Green show.

Green Kingfisher   Chloroceryle americana  – male

The 7.5″ Green Kingfisher ranges from south Texas to Central Argentina, overlapping with other kingfisher species. It prefers shaded streams and small pools, perching on the lower branches of overhanging trees, where it can often be seen pumping its tail and head. In contrast to the rattle calls of the larger members of the family, the smaller ones give sharp ticking call notes. Males feature a rufous breast band, while the female lacks the rufous, but has two green bands on the breast and belly with a cream-colored throat and upper breast.  The smaller size, white spots on the wing and conspicuous white outer tail separate it from the much larger Amazon Kingfisher.

American Pygmy Kingfisher  Chloroceryle aenea  – male

At just 5″ the American Pygmy Kingfisher may be overlooked as it perches quietly in low, dense tangles, overhanging small forest pools, slow-moving channels and streams. Found from southern Mexico to central Brazil, they resemble the Green-and-rufous but are considerably smaller. Males show a bright rufous breast and flanks, with buff-orange wash around the collar. Females have a narrow green breast-band between a buffy throat and rufous breast. Both sexes have a white underbelly.

Five kingfishers can be seen on our Belize: Tropical Birding Bonanza,  Ecuador: Andes and Amazon,  Amazon: Peruvian Riverboat  and Brazil: Pantanal Wildlife Safari  trips, while all six are possible on our Panama: Islands, Highlands & Pipeline Road  and Costa Rica: Quetzals & Hummingbirds  trips. Belted Kingfisher is found seasonally on nearly all of our North American trips.

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