NATURE’S VIEW: Taking a dive

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Within the North American avian universe, no other bird is like the belted kingfisher. Its look is distinctive. Identifiable by its large bill, chunky body and slate-blue plumage, the belted kingfisher is a common sight along any clear open body of water, whether that be freshwater or tidal.

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Female belted kingfisher at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

Have a lake, river, stream, pond, estuary or marsh? Then you should have a pair of kingfishers nearby, especially if there are overhanging branches, snag trees or posts where they can perch and watch for fish below.

Kingfishers are often heard before they are seen. The renowned late ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote, “There is not much beauty in the voice of the kingfisher, but the loud rattling call always produces a thrill to the listener; it is a wild, weird, wilderness call that enlivens the solitudes and punctuates the stillness of lonely shores or forest streams.” While their vocals are not very harmonious, they are always music to my ears.

Aggressive loners for much of the year, belted kingfishers become more congenial and tolerant of others during nesting season when they pair up. When attempting to photograph them, both sexes can be a little shy and temperamental in personality and I’ve found that the female tends to be more skittish than the male.

By using my vehicle as a blind, parking near one of the bird’s favorite perching branches and keeping as still as possible, I increase my odds of photographing one. Photographing kingfishers this way becomes a matter of patience and observation. I nestle my 600mm telephoto on a beanbag and wait, listen and react when the moment warrants. In other words, when the bird lands on the perch, I photograph!

Once the kingfisher spots movement in the water, it dives headfirst. Returning to the same perch, it stuns the prey, especially fish and frogs, by repeatedly banging the hapless critter against a branch or along the side of the perch. Convinced the prey is indeed immobile, the kingfisher then tosses the prey into the air and swallows it whole, head first. Sort of reminds me of the eating habits of some male teenagers I know.

Kingfishers will also hover and then plunge headfirst to catch prey, but I have yet to be successful getting the classic image of a kingfisher diving into the water. For now, I’m happy to just watch this beautiful diver do its thing.

The image here is from a spectacular spring morning I spent photographing a female kingfisher as she continually dove into the water along a tidal channel at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge along Virginia’s fabled Eastern Shore. This is nature at its best.


A past NANPA president and former contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim Clark is currently the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.