Thursday 14 February 2019

Kingfishers in Oxfordshire 13th February 2019

This year in my own fair county of Oxfordshire I have had the good fortune to discover a bird hide overlooking a large pool which is visited by two very special birds and have so far spent a number of happy hours in the oft deserted hide watching the irregular comings and goings of a pair of Kingfishers.

Oxfordshire with its slow moving rivers and streams and quiet lakes is prime habitat for Kingfishers which like nothing better than to sit above the sluggish water on a handy perch and await an unsuspecting fish or aquatic invertebrate to betray itself.

The River Thames is literally a few metres away from the pool and the Kingfishers commute from the river, where they will soon excavate a hole in a mud bank in which to raise their young, to the pool and doubtless they visit other areas of still or slow moving water within their territory.

I got there early in the morning but had made a grave miscalculation concerning the weather.The forecast was for a pleasant sunny day but clear skies overnight and a consequent plummeting temperature resulted in a heavy frost the next morning and worse, the pool was frozen over when I arrived. The sun was slowly rising and would eventually melt the thin layer of ice but it would be some time before it did. Fortunately the water below the Kingfisher's favourite perches in an alder tree by the pond was still ice free due to a pair of Mallards swimming around in  it, so there was still hope the Kingfishers would come.

It was numbingly cold in the hide, several degrees colder than outside. I opened the hide door and  all the viewing slats to allow some warmer air to permeate the spartan interior but it made little difference. I sat on the hard bench, hunkered into my goose down jacket and awaited developments. Two bird feeders hanging from the alder were attracting a lot of attention from Great and Blue Tits, Goldfinches and Reed Buntings whilst underneath other Reed Buntings, Chaffinches and a female Pheasant were making a good living from picking up the seed falling from the feeders above.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker swooped in and played peekaboo around the trunk and thicker branches of the alder before commandeering the peanut feeder, scattering the smaller birds in the process. A Green Woodpecker called distantly in the cold still air and two Muntjac deer, their winter coats dark brown, nibbled at emerging plant shoots in a field of rough grass beyond the pool. 

Slowly the sun crept across the stands of dead reeds, transforming the countless close packed stems to gold and I could hear a gentle cracking sound as the sun's warmth began melting the ice covered water within the reed bed.  Drips kissed miniature circles onto the open water below the alder as the hoar frost melted from the tree's branches, twigs and catkins.

The plan was to sit quietly in the hide and await the appearance of a Kingfisher, male or female. They usually announce their high speed arrival with a piercing shrill whistle, a streamlined call, not unlike that of a speeding steam train, and land near to the hide on a horizontal, narrow branch of the alder, conveniently overhanging the waters of the pond. 

Both the male and female Kingfisher initially visited but the female was by far the more frequent. They were rarely seen together apart from one high speed circuit of the pond, as, like two shining blue missiles, they rocketed around in close formation, beak to tail and then cleared the surrounding trees and headed for the river.

Male Kingfisher told by its all black bill
Two hours passed before the ice had finally gone and although the Kingfishers had visited during that time they were obviously dissatisfied with the situation and quickly departed for more suitable unfrozen waters.

Eventually a Kingfisher returned and with the water now defrosted remained to fish.

Female Kingfisher told by the fact it has a mainly red lower mandible
There was a brief interlude as the Kingfisher, after landing in the tree first faced one way and then the other on the branch, finding a stance and position that it was comfortable with. A few brief bobs of the head followed, as if sizing up range and distance, a flick of its tiny blue square of a tail, then it looked intently down at the water, its long bill held at a downward angle, ready to plunge into the shallow water on sighting a small fish or water beetle. 

It dropped like a stone into the water and returned to the narrow branch to eat the captured prey, its orange breast feathers still with tiny droplets of water adhering to them, and then sat for a short while before flying to another perch across the pond to repeat the exercise.

On a couple of occasions the Kingfisher descended from its perch to hover just above the water's surface, holding its body vertically on rapidly whirring wings for a brief spell, its short tail and large head bent slightly forwards before it dropped into the water.

It rarely failed to seize whatever had caught its eye. I saw the female catch a small fish once but mainly she seemed to be catching water boatman beetles.

The female Kingfisher has caught what appears to be a water 
boatman beetle

Note the mud on the tip of the female Kingfisher's bill which 
indicates she is already excavating a nest hole
Sometimes the Kingfisher chose to perch in the reeds on the further side of the pond, the thin reed stems are bleached to beige by winter at this time of year but within their close packed stands, the azure blue of the Kingfisher's back shone like a miniature vivid lightening bolt,  jewelled bling in the bland washed out colours of the myriad reed stems. 

So light is the Kingfisher that the thin reed stem on which it was perched only bent slightly as it bore the weight of the Kingfisher's compact form, before, with another shrill whistle, the Kingfisher departed, flying away through the surrounding tree's with incredible dexterity and speed,  towards the nearby river. 

It was gone.

For long periods the pond was deserted and the Kingfishers were nowhere to be seen and it became tedious to be sat on the hard unforgiving bench in a cold unprepossessing hide but the anticipation of one or both of the Kingfisher's next arrival kept my spirits up, knowing that when I heard that shrill whistle I would be once more energised and primed for another imminent but all too brief audience with this avian crown jewel.

There is nothing I can add to the cascade of words and poetry that has been written in praise of the Kingfisher over the centuries it has been known to man, even Aristotle wrote of it, and so I sit and wait until it once more comes close to me if only for a minute or two.

That is all that is required. All that I ask.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ewan,

    I’m aware that this blog post is rather old now relatively speaking, but I very much enjoyed reading it. The reason I found it is that I’ve recently moved to Oxfordshire and I’ve been doing some research on potential locations to photograph Kingfishers. This seems like a good lead! They are a bird I’ve never managed to spot myself and they’ve been at the top of my list for quite some time. I’d really love to know the location of the hide you used, but of course I understand if you’d rather not post it on a public page. If you’d be willing to share the information let me know and I can give you my email address. Thanks in advance!