The first day of Spring dawned just as one would hope, a benign morning, a little chilly but sunny and with a gentle wind. Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Robins, Great Tits and Woodpigeons were all singing from around the garden, primroses and daffodils were adding their bright colours to the greening vegres and the whole day was set fair, a welcome diversion into more normal weather after the snow, strong, cold winds and rain of the past weeks.
Today I had Common Kingfishers on my mind. I say Common Kingfisher as that is the correct name to identify 'our' Kingfisher from all the other kingfishers in the world, of which there are many. However for simplicity sake I will now refer to Kingfisher in this blog and drop the 'Common'
Kingfishers are known to virtually everybody in Britain, due to being the most brilliantly coloured of all the bird species regularly found here and consequently finding themselves commemorated on mugs, china plates, countless greeting cards and being a perennially favourite image in wildlife magazines. There is even a beer called Kingfisher! People who have never seen one in real life can usually describe what a Kingfisher looks like, so ubiquitous is its image and when one is actually seen it always brings a sense of wonder, discovery and achievement to birder or member of the public alike. No one ever dismisses a sighting of a Kingfisher and it is regarded as almost a privilege to see one. Not that they are always seen that clearly, the usual sighting is of a seemingly disembodied patch of vivid electric blue disappearing with short whirring wings at incredible velocity into the distance, low over the water, following the course of a slow moving lowland river, canal or stream, often emitting a shrill chee or chi kee, trilled two or three times in succession.
If you are very lucky you may catch a glimpse of one, before it flies, its curiously squat form with an inordinately large head and long spear of a bill perched quietly and unobtrusively on twig or reed, river post or canal wall, overlooking an area of still and shallow water, awaiting an opportunity to dive on any incautious small fish or crustacean below.
In previous posts I referred to the disproportionate shape of the Hawfinch due to its huge head and bill and here, in the Kingfisher, we have another similar example. The business end of the Kingfisher comprises a large head counterbalancing a long and substantial, black pointed bill, the rest of its small body appearing disproportionately inconsequential in comparison, this imbalance further emphasised by its stumpy tail and tiny feet.
The Kingfisher is indeed a thing of great beauty, basically blue above and orange below but this cursory description hardly does its plumage the justice it deserves. The upperparts comprise blues of many shades, these colours seeming to vary, according to the angle of light, from deep blue to emerald green but its mantle and back are always a dazzling and vivid cobalt blue. The crown of its head is patterned with a myriad of tiny crescents of pale blue on a deeper greenish blue background as are the wing coverts with similar pale blue markings and there is a white flash on its neck and chin. Its very short feet and toes are the colour of red sealing wax whilst the underparts are a shade of rich chestnut.
This perfection of plumage is however married to less savoury aspects. It is markedly aggressive to its own kind as well as other species and highly territorial. In fights they will endeavour to drown their rival by holding their opponent's bill underwater. Its nest is nothing more than a chamber which is formed at the end of an eighteen inch tunnel, both being excavated by the adult birds digging into a steep muddy riverbank and progressively the nest chamber becomes markedly foul smelling as the young grow towards fledging. Nest hygiene does not appear to be a priority in a Kingfisher's domestic existence. When I was a bird ringer with the BTO (The British Trust for Ornithology) I used to occasionally catch Kingfishers on my local river in Surrey and to this day can vividly recall my repugnance when on catching my first Kingfisher I held this creature of such beauty, close in my hand but was almost overpowered by the stench of stale fish emanating from its aggressively opened bill. Incidentally this bird almost fooled me to release it when it commenced to slowly and menacingly rotate its neck and head in an almost complete circle, like a serpent, presumably to persuade me to drop it in disgust or fear, which almost worked, so unexpected was such behaviour.
Those un-natural encounters, holding Kingfishers in my hand, were a long time ago and I have never since come anywhere so close to one in the wild. This year I resolved to rectify this and decided to pay for a day in a Hide, especially constructed to allow this to happen. I am aware that there are those that decry such contrived situations but I am sorry but I do not have the time to sit for hours on a riverbank in the hope that I may be undisturbed and by some miracle a Kingfisher will come and sit within feet of me.
Before I carry on here are some Kingfisher facts.
Kingfishers are split into seven subspecies, one of which occupies the UK, and have a wide overall distribution stretching from western Europe, east to Asia and south to North Africa. Our subspecies numbers around 6000 pairs in the UK and is mainly confined to southern and central England although it has expanded its range northwards to central Scotland. Any river or stream hosting Kingfishers is regarded as being of good quality and healthy. Male and female Kingfishers hold separate territories apart from the breeding season when they come together to breed and an average Kingfisher territory on a river or stream stretches for about one kilometre. In hard winters when water bodies freeze over for extended periods Kingfishers suffer very high mortality, as in the winter of 1962/63, when it was estimated 85-90% of Kingfishers in England died. However they are capable of having three broods a year so numbers are soon replaced although 50% of young Kingfishers are dead after just two weeks from leaving the nest and only 25% of the young will survive long enough to breed in the following year. Most Kingfishers live for little longer than one year although there is an extraordinary record of one bird living for twenty one years.
A brood of Kingfishers require at least a hundred fish per day if they are to survive to fledging and an adult Kingfisher has to eat sixty percent of its bodyweight each day to survive.
In Victorian times and its mania for shooting birds and stuffing them to be displayed in cases Kingfishers were high on the list of desirable victims but the stuffed bird's plumage never had the lustre and sheen of the living one.The reason for this is that the Kingfisher's plumage is not pigmented but the brilliant colours are derived from light striking modified layers of cells in the feathers..
Today I drove to just south of Birmingham and met Darren in a Macdonald's car park (it could only get better) and followed him to a nearby farm where he had several different hides strategically placed to photograph various birds such as the aforesaid Kingfishers but also Buzzards, Kestrels, Green Woodpeckers and Little Owls. It is a business, just like those companies that charge a fortune to take you on exotic birding trips abroad to any country you care to name. As someone who ran my own business I recognised, in Darren, an entrepreneur when I saw one and we got on just fine. There was a demand and he was satisfying it. The majority of his clients were he told me serious photographers both amateur and professional rather than birders but for me it was an exercise to get close to Kingfishers as much, as if not more so, than to photograph them.
At eight thirty, on a cold and sunny morning Darren led me across a farm field full of lambs and left me in a Hide, overlooking a stream, above which was a strategically placed perch just five metres from the Hide. I had the Hide all to myself and making myself comfortable I sat to await the arrival of a Kingfisher on the perch. The first three hours passed very slowly as I waited in the gloom of the Hide's spartan interior for a sight of the sparrow sized blue and orange beauty but nothing came and I began to feel very cold and not a little dispirited by the lack of action. There was literally nothing else to see and no other birds came anywhere near as I morosely stared out at the stream and listened to the sound of the running water. Yet another hour passed slowly and my phone told me it was just about noon and then, there was a Kingfisher, sat on the perch looking down at the water. I cannot begin to explain the sense of relief and almost effervescent joy the sudden appearance of the Kingfisher brought me. The trials and tribulations of the past four hours were forgotten in an instant, my feet no longer felt numb and life took on an optimistic aspect once more
The Kingfisher before me was a male, identifiable by its all black bill. Male and female Kingfishers are virtually identical apart from the bill where it is all black in the male but the female's lower mandible is orange red.
The Kingfisher sat there, as close as could be, upright on its perch. its tiny red feet grasping the perch whilst it looked down at the water below, jerking its head up and down and turning it from side to side, as it sized up the angles for a dive to secure a fish. It finally dropped at some speed into the water below, with a resounding 'plop' and secured a fish which it took a few metres upstream to a small bare tree overhanging the water.
It swallowed the fish whole and after ten minutes sitting there quietly, it was back for more fishing and caught another fish which it again flew off with but downstream this time.
While it was perched near to the Hide it was close enough to notice that its bill was stained with mud from where, presumably, it had been excavating a nest hole.
|You can clearly see the mud stains adhering to the bird's bill|
This was way out of my league and I thought it best to confess to being a rank amateur and primarily a birder rather than a bird photographer who was intent on a world beating image. This seemed to do the trick as the photographer, recognising I was not in his league and really just a birder and not a competitor, became quite friendly and gave me some valued advice about camera settings and even suggested he could help me with my camera settings but I politely said I would rather stick to what I was comfortable with for now but would certainly experiment with his suggestions later. Frankly the Kingfisher's only two visits up to now had allowed me just a small number of images and I did not want to end up with a subsequent series of blurry photos as I experimented with the complex technical information I had been given.
As we sat there and chatted I was amazed to here my companion tell me he knew nothing about birds. He obviously knew what a Kingfisher was but his sole purpose was to get the ultimate shot of an iconic bird. So now I felt more at ease and more an equal, as we were both proficient in our respective areas of expertise but found ourselves in a Hide for very different reasons. His main reason for visiting was to try and get an image of the Kingfisher hitting the water in a dive. Good luck with that! At least my relative incompetence with a camera and lens meant I would not be troubling myself about attempting anything so complicated.
There was still no sign of the Kingfisher and during a period of silence I got to thinking about the ever increasing intolerance and impatience that exists between birders and photographers. I could come over all superior with my knowledge of birds and be patronising about my new found colleague's lack of identification skills and whose main concern was the fact he just wanted a photograph but I did not feel that way, coming to what was almost a revelation for me in that there are those whose main form of relaxation is to take a really good photo of a bird or animal even if they are at times unsure of what it is.The technical aspect is their holy grail whereas mine is more humble in that I am happy to get a reasonably good image of birds, most of which I can identify
There is a place for both of us in this world but unfortunately the increasing numbers of both photographers and birders with cameras brings conflict as both sides transgress the norms of reasonable behaviour and it is not going to get any better.
The afternoon wore on but thankfully the Kingfisher made several more visits throughout the afternoon and both of us from our differing perspectives were happy with the experience. I had, by the time I left, been in the Hide for no less than eight and a half hours and my chilled body certainly let me know it. A hot shower at home was never more welcome as I reflected on a successful but curiously disconcerting day out as I recalled a world revealed to me this afternoon, that was until then completely unknown to me.