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Best Save of the Summer-Mystery Nestling

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Things are starting to calm down a bit on the rehab front. I've learned how to say the word "no," and there's a midsummer lull in the nesting cycle. Oh, it can get crazy in May and June. And so can I. Baby bird questions come over the phone, by text, via Facebook, via Instagram message, and by email. It's especially deadly in the age of social media, because photos accompany these requests for assistance, and they're all urgent. The other way to look at it, though, is that photos, easily taken and instantly shared, eliminate the need for me to ask the 20 questions it used to take to figure out what we had over the phone. They save me the time and frustration of having to puzzle out an ID for each waif. 

Back in the bad old phone days, a man called and told me he had found a car-hit bird on a night drive. He thought it was some kind of pheasant. I asked him what color it was. 
Dark brownish.
I asked him to describe its beak. He said he couldn't see one. Hmmm. OK.
Does it have big eyes?
Whiskers around its face? 
I guessed it might be a whip-poor-will, and it was. Crummy shot taken by car headlights on my road in May 2011:

One lady called and told me she had found a huge baby bird under an eagle's nest at a West Virginia campground. She was sure it was a baby bald eagle (in late June) and was all concerned about federal regulations should she be caught with it. A million things whizzed through my brain, but not a single one of them was, "She really has a bald eagle!"

OK let's back up. Please tell me how big "huge" is. Can it fit in your hand?
Yes. But it's really big!
What color is the inside of its mouth?
Can you send me a photo?
It was a naked nestling robin.
People are not trying to pull my leg.
 They know what they think, and nothing more.

It scares me, actually, to think that anyone couldn't tell an eagle from a new baby robin.

 Things have definitely gotten better for those of us who answer questions, now that everyone has a great camera in their pocket. I've been wriggling with delight, wanting to share my best and easiest save of this crazy summer. It's a triumph of technology, of putting good people in instant touch with the right person--someone who knows a little something about birds. I got an email from Mary, who has written me long and thoughtful letters about my blogposts over the years. 

Sat. Jun 20

My girlfriend Stef has a lake house on Lake Huron near Rogers City, Michigan, and says this baby bird is on their beach.  She’s trying to keep a horde of local dogs away from it, and hoping the mommy will come back.

Andrew can’t identify it, but guesses starling.  It has pink under its chin and under its tail.  It doesn’t seem to have the orange mouth that starlings have.

Any ideas?

Mary's first email had a video that I tried, but couldn't open. I asked for a still shot and got this: 

Another email came in right atop that one and I opened the photo with it.

4:44 pm Stef just sent this photo.  Andrew now says it’s some pelagic bird on account of the honking bill.  What sayeth JZ?  I wonder if it could be a loon?

My heart literally skipped a few beats. I had never laid eyes on a nestling belted kingfisher. But it's all there, albeit still in pinfeathers! Isn't that the coolest looking little thing!? Poor wee thing can't be more than 10 days old! Not only that, but I could see the sandy lakeshore bank which held its nest burrow, from which it undoubtedly tumbled! 
I fired an email right back. 

5:02 pm Baby belted kingfisher. Please look for a hole in the bank above and put it back in the hole. If you can't find a nest hole, or if there is one that has been dug out by a predator, get it to a rehabilitator quickly.
They eat small baitfish.If you can get ahold of those, do it. Don't feed anything preserved. Chicken breast will do in a pinch. Must save this little bird!

I thought about it and added some more information in a second email. 

Belted Kingfishers nest in holes dug straight back into sandy banks just like the one in the photo behind the baby. 
The holes are very deep. You may need to push him back in with a yardstick or tongs once you find the hole. Hole will be about 4" across and pretty obvious. Listen for alarm rattle of adults, krrrrr! and watch for them flying around. 

Then I sent a third. I was really frantic for this little bird. Such an easy save it could be, but I wasn't there to do it. It seems like every time I encourage people to look for a nest, they tell me there's no nest in sight. As if baby birds just drop from the sky. There HAS to be a nest nearby! Tiny baby kingfishers don't walk...they tumble out of holes and wait to be rescued! My ALL CAPS come out in situations like this. 

I hope to God your friends can get it back in the nest. Such a precious baby. If not I hope they will feed it ASAP and find a rehabilitator. Please let me know what happens! The mother will NOT feed it on the beach. It HAS to be put back in the nest burrow. Please tell them that leaving it on the beach will accomplish nothing. They must either put it in the burrow or get it into care ASAP. It is getting sunburned.


On Sat, Jun 20, 2020 at 5:28 PM Mary wrote:

I forwarded Stef both of your emails with instructions.

6:09 pm. 
Stef sends her profound thanks!  They found the nest opening, put the baby back in, and because you told them, they gently pushed it way down in the hole.  It went back 3 feet or more!

So the baby is back in the nest, thanks to you!

Another happy ending, we hope.

JZ 7:46 pm 
And we are sure this is the nest. Parents attending, right? Make sure somebody visits.
Yes the hole goes waaay back. I guess you aren't getting him back once he's that deep in.

I''m thrilled to be able to help!

Can’t be certain, this was a bit east of our place. They did hear a similar whirring call. Patrick [Stef’s son-in-law] said when he put the little guy in the burrow, he knew just what to do and scooched himself in.

Oh, I was SO relieved to hear this! If they heard whirring from inside the burrow, they had found the right hole. I bet that little sunburned kingfisher was glad to be back in the cool, dark confines of its burrow!  I wrote back: 

Oh my heart. My kids are elated to hear this, too. Best rehab question, best save of a very, very crazy season (well, besides little Dustin the song sparrow!) 

All's well that ends well!

Speaking of burrows...In the last year, I've gotten to know a pair of naturalists who recently bought property about a half-hour away from Indigo Hill. Thanks to this dratted virus, we haven't been able to get together very much, but we have a lively correspondence and we talk on the phone, too. It's been wonderful and incredibly enriching to have David and Laura Hughes as almost-neighbors. They know more than me about pretty much everything, and are intensely curious. Then they go the whole distance and set up trailcams and blinds and stuff. Two people can do a lot more than one, especially if they share a common goal. 

Laura and I were wondering together how kingfishers deal with their poop when they're confined to a burrow. The burrow is dug by the pair, using their chisel-bills and tiny feet.  Imagine the fish emulsion produced by five baby kingfishers, confined to a burrow for as long as 29 days! They don't shoot it out the hole--too inconvenient, because the burrows can be from 3-7 or as long as 15 feet, straight into the bank! Not only that, but a stream of whitewash coming out of a burrow would clearly announce its occupants to predators such as rat snakes and raccoons. So what do they do??

Laura discovered that once a baby kingfisher poops, it immediately scratches dirt up onto the wall and covers it up! She took a photo of the interior of the burrow. Odorless. Clean. And doubtless enlarged by all the scratching. If birds aren't the coolest creatures on earth, they're darned close.

And now, the piece de resistence: the Hughes' video of a food delivery by an adult kingfisher to its chicks. If I am not mistaken, the adult has brought a bullfrog for lunch. You can hear the 'whirring noise" Mary referenced in her email. Look how the chick comes to the front of the nest burrow and backs away, bearing the frog. Isn't it CREEPY??
These five chicks all fledged successfully, and have been seen with their parents since. Hooray! Mo kingfishers, mo betta. 


 If you love this video like I do, and want to see more absolutely incredible clips from my neck of the woods, expertly made by Laura and David Hughes, hit this link to access a collection of their YouTube Hughes videos. Many thanks for your talents, neighbors!


So amazingly awesome! And yes. A TAD creepy! Amazon delivery! YaY!

These stories help me deal with the bad stuff!

JZ, I love this story! By our house in Canada, we have many kingfishers. My husband's cottage sits on property bordered by a frog pond and small creek that flows out into Lake Huron from Manitoulin Island. The kingfishers are often on the telephone wires above the frog pond and creek mouth catching food for themselves and their babies I guess. After seeing the photos and video and reading this blog post, I'm trying to imagine where they are living, though. Because the part of Lake Huron where our cottages are is very rocky. The shore, the creek and the bluff behind us are solid dolomitic limestone (part of the Niagra Escarpment). There are places on Manitoulin Island that have dunes like the one in the photo, but not near our home. So wondering where the kingfishers we see are living and if they are flying from the southern side of the island (where the sandy beaches and sand dunes are) over to the northern side of the island just to get food?

Posted by Anonymous July 4, 2020 at 12:22 PM

So cool! Thanks for sharing. (Have your kingfisher painting hanging in my house.)

You are right...a bit creepy.

Wow! Not only have I never seen a nestling belted kingfisher, I've never seen a photo of one - until now. Very cool. And the video is amazing.

Just need a bit of spooky music when the frog gets dragged into the burrow. A Vincent Price laugh would also work.

"...they vote." (snicker, heehee, snicker)

Fantastic story and video!

Great information and video. I enjoy the kingfishers on our river, but didn't know much about them. Especially the behavior of the babies in the next tunnel! Thanks for sharing!

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