Kayaking along a stream in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can provide a sneak peek into a world of wildlife that we might not often see from dry ground. As you slowly and quietly paddle along, you may spot turtles that are sunbathing on a log, deer looking for a drink of water, or birds that are hunting for a tasty meal of bugs. I have several fond memories from kayaking when I was young and the occasions when my family would slowly push a great blue heron down a stream corridor. Eventually, the heron would decide it had gone far enough and flew back over top of us to its original perch. Due to the abundance of fish and insects that a waterway provides, you can find a wide variety of birds that prefer to spend their time along our stream channels. Another favorite species of mine that is found in these areas is the belted kingfisher!

The belted kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, with its distinctive blue-gray plumage and shaggy crest, is a charismatic bird found across North America. Renowned for its impressive fishing skills, this bird of prey spends much of its time near water bodies such as rivers, lakes, and streams, patiently waiting for its next meal. With keen eyesight and remarkable agility, it dives headfirst into the water with remarkable precision to catch fish, insects, and even small crustaceans. Its long, sturdy bill is perfectly adapted for capturing slippery prey, making it a formidable hunter in its habitat.

Within the class Aves (birds), the belted kingfisher belongs to the order Coraciiformes, which includes other bird families such as kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, and motmots. Within that order, it can be found in the family Alcedinidae that specifically includes kingfishers. The belted kingfisher is further distinguished by its genus, Megaceryle, which includes other large kingfisher species found across the Americas and in parts of Africa and Asia. Its species name, alcyon, refers to the mythical figure Alcyone, who was transformed into a kingfisher in Greek mythology. This species epithet reflects the bird’s association with water and fishing behavior.

A close up of a male kingfisher on the left to compare to a close up of a female kingfisher on the right.

Female belted kingfishers have a reddish brown band across their chests while the males do not (Photo Credit: Brian E. Kushner).

The belted kingfisher displays sexually dimorphic plumage, with males and females exhibiting differences in coloration. Both sexes have a blue-gray back and wings, with white underparts. However, males have a single blue band across the breast, while females have an additional rufous band below the blue band. This distinctive “belted” pattern gives the species its name. One of the most striking features of the belted kingfisher is its prominent shaggy crest, which extends from the base of the bill to the nape of the neck. The crest can be raised or lowered depending on the bird’s mood or level of alertness.

The belted kingfisher has a diverse and primarily carnivorous diet that consists mainly of small fish, though it also includes a variety of other aquatic prey. As skilled piscivores, they rely heavily on fish as their primary food source, often targeting small species such as minnows, sticklebacks, and young fish fry. Their hunting technique is remarkable, characterized by their ability to hover over water before plunging headfirst to catch their prey with their sharp, dagger-like bills.

In addition to fish, belted kingfishers also consume a range of other aquatic organisms like aquatic insects, such as dragonfly larvae, water beetles, and aquatic bugs, which they snatch from the water’s surface or capture mid-flight. They may hunt for small crustaceans like crayfish and shrimp, as well as amphibians like frogs and tadpoles, particularly in areas where fish populations are scarce.

A belted kingfisher perched on a branch of an understory tree in partial sunlight with a lush, green background.

The belted kingfisher relies on forested habitats and trees like this sycamore to create the proper ecosystem for it to thrive (Photo Credit: Nathan Collie).

The belted kingfisher’s habitat preferences along streams highlight the importance of maintaining riparian zones—areas of vegetation along the banks of rivers and streams. Riparian habitats provide essential resources for a variety of wildlife, including food, shelter, and nesting sites. By protecting and restoring riparian areas, we can enhance habitat quality for belted kingfishers and numerous other species that rely on healthy stream ecosystems for their survival. In doing so, we not only safeguard biodiversity but also ensure the provision of vital ecosystem services that benefit both humans and wildlife alike.