(Note: This photo of a kingfisher chick about to fledge from a hole I watched for the nesting season comes from my amazing photographer friend Kate Davis!)

When I chat about my kingfisher passion, the one fact that raises the most eyebrows is the nest.  A stick nest in a tree? No. A hole in a tree like a woodpecker? That’s closer.

kingfisherperched-mateusz-2014Try this. Kingfishers nest inside a hole they excavate in a vertical earthen bank, usually a stream bank.

Both male and female kingfishers use their dagger bills followed by their stubby feet to dig a long slightly uphill tunnel into a vertical bank. The tunnel can be four feet or even up to 10 feet long before ending in a comfy football-sized burrow big enough for seven chicks. The entry hole is about the diameter of a tennis ball with a similar circular shape, but a bit squished.

A belted kingfisher flies up to deliver a fish to chicks inside the burrow hole on Rattlesnake Creek (photo by Mateusz Piesiak, young Polish incredible bird photographer)
A belted kingfisher flies up to deliver a fish to chicks inside the burrow hole on Rattlesnake Creek (photo by Mateusz Piesiak, young Polish incredible bird photographer)

I’ve watched a pair of belted kingfishers on Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula seek out their homes every spring since 2009. Like careful home buyers, they test out old holes and newer ones, and often just opt for a new piece of real estate on the bank to dig a fresh home for the season.

belted kingfisher art by Claire Emery
belted kingfisher art by Claire Emery

Ever  since visiting the cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, I’ve been struck by the similarity. One way to tell if you’ve found a kingfisher hole is to look for furrow marks at the hole entry that marks the comings and goings of birds as they incubate eggs and feed nestlings.

Check out the hole from the Rattlesnake Creek kingfisher bank in Missoula. Note the furrow at the entry. Then compare the nest with the hole in the cliff at Bandelier National Monument:

Belted Kingfisher nest hole on Rattlesnake Creek
IMG_5399
Hole in cliff — part of the ancient Pueblo peoples’ homes at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Hiking downstream from the cliff dwellings on Frijoles Creek to a waterfall, I found a belted kingfisher nest bank.

Kingfisher nest bank: Bandelier National Monument
Kingfisher nest bank: Bandolier National Monument

To know the birds share the same canyon as the Pueblo people did added to the serendipity of the discovery.

Watching kingfishers at their nest hole on Rattlesnake Creek, I often wondered what it would be like to BE a kingfisher and nestle deep inside the burrow. Would it feel too dark or just snug and familiar? Surely, the view from the hole would be superb with the creek rushing below and the alders and willows shaking their limbs in a wind dance.

I had my chance to test out some of the feeling by climbing inside a cliff dwelling  at Bandelier and peering out. Inside, the smooth rock floor felt cool. The rim of the entry framed the sky, ponderosas, and Frijoles Creek below. I felt bird-like, safe, and happy as long as I could see the light.IMG_5404

Ah the light. Deep darkness can feel scary and claustrophobic. Yet, there at the interface of dark and light, of cliff and sky is both safe and freeing at the same time. At my back is retreat from heat and danger. At my front? The world unfolds at the height of a soaring bird.

Since leaving Bandelier in mid-August, my journeys with Sandra Murphy across the country have added more fodder to this idea of home. We shared a tent, visited native plant garden homes for birds and butterflies, and watched a changing cultural landscape in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.

As I live more the life of a bird on the wing these days, what better time then to consider the nature of home and to appreciate the intersection of nature and human design.

I interview Dan Scheiman of Audubon Arkansas at his   home replete with native plants for birds (in Little Rock Arkansas, photo by Sandra Murphy)
I interview Dan Scheiman of Audubon Arkansas at his home replete with native plants for birds (in Little Rock Arkansas, photo by Sandra Murphy)

From afar, my friend Steve Loken (green builder and creative thinker extraordinaire)  offers insights that add depth to the journey. He contemplates how we’ve lost our way from living with simple sufficiency to beyond our means. Nature can guide us back to where we belong, as we find ways to restore what we’ve taken.

More ahead on a journey of hope…just back from an inspiring trip to Baltimore, where Audubon staff and neighbors are returning street corners, parts of parks, backyard patios and more to native plants that are giving life to migrating birds and connecting people to their home countries in Latin America.

A simple portable tent home felt like an airy burrow! Here's Sandra setting up the tent at Black Kettle National Grasslands in Oklahoma.
A simple portable tent home felt like an airy burrow! Here’s Sandra setting up the tent at Black Kettle National Grasslands in Oklahoma.