Thursday 30 December 2021

A Belter of a Kingfisher in Lancashire 28th December 2021

c Richard Tyler

A Belted Kingfisher was reported from the River Ribble near Preston in Lancashire on November the 8th. This not unaturally sent the twitching fraternity into overdrive as only four have ever reached the  shores of Britain before which meant this was most definitely a must go and see for many British listers including myself. 

The four records of a Belted Kingfisher in Britain excluding this latest one are as follows.

The first was as long ago as 1908 when a female was shot in November at Sladesbridge in Cornwall.

The second was again in Cornwall, when another, this time a first winter male,  remarkably was found also at Sladesbridge and remained from the 2nd of October 1979 until June 1980 and probably was the same individual that was seen at Boscathnoe Reservoir from the 23rd until the 29th of August 1980.

The third to occur was at Shugborough Lake Staffordshire and this individual presented me with really the first
 opportunity to see a Belted Kingfsher in Britain and I regretted not being able to go and see it, due to unavoidable work commitments. It was a first summer male, discovered on the 1st of April 2005, on a Friday afternoon. Many birders, looking both at the date and  at such an unlikely location, dismissed it as a hoax but it was soon  confirmed as genuine and anyone who could manage to make it to Shugborough, did so that very afternoon. The next day it was gone only to be briefly seen further north at Eastrington Ponds in East Yorkshire that Saturday, before being re-discovered on Monday the 4th of April, many miles to the north on the River Dee at Peterculter in Aberdeenshire and there the bird remained until just after dawn on Saturday the 9th of April.It was never seen again.

The fourth Belted Kingfisher to be seen in Britain was on St Mary's, the largest of the islands that make up The Isles of Scilly off  Cornwall. The bird remained for only one day on the 18th of April 2018 and gave little chance for anyone to go and see it apart from local birders.
This latest individual on the River Ribble.was identified from an indistinct and distant image taken by a fisherman on his mobile phone, who although not a birder recognised the kingfisher as being something highly unusual. The image was suggested, unkindly by some, to be nothing more than the distant image of a Great Tit. However on the 25th of November conclusive images were published demonstrating that beyond all reasonable doubt there was indeed a male Belted Kingfisher now frequenting a stretch of the River Ribble.

Birders made plans to go and see it but there was a huge problem concerning the part of the river the kingfisher was frequenting.It was on a stretch of the River Ribble that had no real access unless you were willing to risk serious injury by descending a treacherous, muddy, slippery and severe drop of around 100metres to the river below. At the bottom was a small area where restricted views of the kingfisher could be obtained, usually first thing in the morning. However its appearances were unreliable and irregular. Frustratingly, on the opposite bank the ground was flat but there was no access as a fishing syndicate owned the fishing rights and were averse to birders.

I spoke to Mark, my twitching buddy, about  going to see the kingfisher but he had seen the one in Peterculter and was not keen on risking injury on the slope of death. I too was circumspect about the slope which was rapidly gaining an unenviable  reputation from those who had ventured down it. One birder had already slipped, fallen and dislocated his shoulder and had to be rescued by paramedics.

Over the intervening weeks the kingfisher seemed to become more reliable in its appearances and after a few consecutive days of it being seen I made the four hour drive from my home in Oxfordshire to go and hopefully see it. My encounter with the slope of death was as fearsome as I had been told it would be. After several days of rain the ground underfoot was a mud slide, made worse by being trampled by birders who had preceded me.Think of an ice rink on a 1 in 6 slope and that would be a fair approximation of what confronted me. I slip slided my way down at an angle, grabbing onto clumps of sedge, random overhanging branches and sapling trees to slow my descent. It was heart stoppingly perilous, one fall or slip and I would be out of control, hurtling down the slope with little prospect of stopping unless I hit a tree or worse, another birder at the bottom. I edged my way downwards and eventually joined about twenty birders, balanced precariously wherever they could find an area of ground by the river that was reasonably level. My reward for all this effort was four fruitless hours of looking and hoping for the Belted Kingfisher.

A week or so later I made another attempt to see the elusive kingfisher and for the second time took my life in my hands by again descending the slope, finding it even more treacherous due to even more rain having fallen on the mud and wet leaves that lay underfoot.Again I made it to the river unscathed but this time spending a lot of time sliding down the slope on my bottom to get there, arriving by the riverside caked in mud but pleased to see I was not alone in this respect. Another five hours passed with not a sign of the bird.The ascent was, if anything, worse than the descent. The sheer struggle to get up the bank, encumbered by a heavy scope and tripod, with my feet slipping at every step was rapidly depleting my energy reserves. My heart began racing and my legs shook uncontrollably with the effort. Achingly slowly I made my way to the top, having to stop frequently to slow my pulse and regain some equanimity. Never was I so glad to get to level ground and safety.

My two failed attempts were sufficient to persuade me to give another try a miss. Mark told me to be patient as he felt the kingfisher would eventually settle on an area of the river that was more accessible. Sound advice.

Belted Kingfishers are normally found in North America, ranging across Canada, Alaska and the USA. Northern populations migrate to the southern parts of the USA, Mexico, Central America and The West Indies.It has been recorded as a vagrant far from land on islands such as Hawaii, and The Azores, as well as reaching Greenland, The Netherlands, Great Britain and also Ireland, where it has been recorded four times. It is a medium sized bird about the same size as a Jackdaw with females averaging larger than males.

Some days before Christmas the kingfisher seemed to have transferred its preference to the nearby River Darwen at Roach Bridge where it was now being seen virtually daily in the same spot and often remaining in view for one or two hours.This looked to be a much better prospect and I felt another joust with the twitching gods was on the cards. However further investigation showed the new location was almost as challenging as the original one.

The location on the River Darwen was again at the bottom of a precipitous slope but with no access as it bordered a farmer's field which overlooked the river and the bankside trees the kingfisher favoured.To access the field one had to traverse a bridleway that was literally a mud slide. Then on getting to the farmer's field one had to pay £10.00 to gain entry and cross a  large field, so muddy and waterlogged it was akin to a swamp! 

Nevertheless the kingfisher was appearing here daily, each morning and in the late afternoon and many birders had already made the pilgrimage.Unfortunately for me family Urquhart had long ago booked a cottage for Christmas and New Year at Lower Largo on the Fife Coast of Scotland.I could do nothing but check the reports and view the photos of  the kingfisher that appeared each day on social media.I had no chance of getting time to go and see it before Christmas and just had to hope it would remain. Previous Belted Kingfishers in Britain and Ireland have sometimes made long stays when they arrived and I had to hope this one would behave likewise.

After Christmas I spoke to my wife and explained about the kingfisher and we came to an agreement that I could go the day after Boxing Day, provided I was back in Lower Largo by 2pm to join a family dinner with my wife's relatives. The logistics were as follows:

Leave Lower Largo at 3am and make the four hour drive to Roach Bridge which would get me there at 7.00am. Assume a half hour walk to the site by the river, arriving at 7.30am. The first sightings of the kingfisher were always after 8.00am so there was time to spare should anything cause a delay. If all went well I had until 9.30am to remain on site before having to leave to get back to the car by 10.00am and make the four hour drive back to Lower Largo.

The drive south was untroubled in darkness, on almost traffic free motorways and I was ahead of time arriving in Preston. Then apart from ten minutes getting slightly lost in the outskirts of Preston I arrived at New Southworth Hall, (the RBA Rare Bird Alert designated parking spot near Roach Bridge) and parked next to another birder.There were already several birders cars parked here with the occupants getting prepared for the mile walk to the site overlooking the river.

I got chatting to the birder parked next to me and he told me he was from Hertfordshire and had come up late yesterday afternoon and missed the kingfisher by fifteen minutes. However, having already been to the site he knew exactly where to go and invited me to accompany him.What a godsend that was after four hours of brain numbing, nightime driving. It was of course still pitch dark and now raining as we made our way down the lane to Roach Bridge village, crossed the aforesaid bridge and arrived at the  start of the bridleway. My new found colleague thankfully had a torch as there was no street lighting and in the beam of the torch I could see the bridleway was a sea of mud and not ordinary mud but glutinous, almost liquid mud. One trip, stumble and fall and it would be all over as clothes,optics and camera would be coated in brown sludge.

We had no choice but to take the bridleway as this was the only way in, so made the best of it and waded, ankle deep in mud, up the incline of the bridleway before turning right and ascending another equally muddy incline to reach a barely discernible gate where the farmer in a yellow high viz jacket was already standing, holding a bucket.

Gasping from the effort of remaining upright while traversing the bridleway mud we handed over £10.00 each to gain entry to his field. I asked him how much he had collected to date and he reckoned over  £3000.00. Half of the proceeds will be going to a local hospice and the other half to re-constitute the field. Good luck with that! He advised us to skirt around the righthand perimeter of the field as to go straight across it to view the river was a nightmare of waterlogged mud and grass and a number of birders on previous days had slipped and fallen in the mud.

Following his advice we circumvented the large field and finally, descending a slight slope, reached the fence at the  far right side of the field that overlooked the river.We were the first to arrive and took up a position by the fence in the prime spot for looking down and along the river, which lay some way below and at this point was no more than a grey sliver in the darkness.

It was only minutes before we became aware of other birders joining us from out of the darkness and lining up to our left along the fence while others stood on the rising slope behind us. No one said a word, all of us aware we had to be quiet for fear of disturbing the kingfisher. It would be a while until it was light enough to see and it was now raining hard, the drops spattering off my rain hood and telescope.We hunkered down into our clothing and stood half dazed at this early hour waiting and hoping that all would be well and we would see the kingfisher. 

The River Darwen as viewed from our position by the fence

There must have been approaching a hundred birders present by the time it was light  enough to see well but there was no sign of the kingfisher. It was now slightly after 8am with many of us anxiously looking at watches or phones as expectations of the kingfisher's imminent arrival increased. You could almost feel the pulsing of desire emanating from everyone, all of us wishing one bird in particular would show itself. By 8.30am with still no sign of the kingfisher, expectation was being superceded by anxiety which manifested itself in muffled comments from those around us, giving voice to their concern. By 8.45am a quiet desperation entered my soul as any remaining optimism drained away in the rain and murk. I was left cold, numb and wanting to be anywhere rather than here.The contemplation of a third unsuccessful attempt to see the kingfisher was now all too real. I turned to my new found colleague and whispered

'It's not looking good'

He nodded morosely and sank into his waterproof.

I cannot recall how much longer we stood, disconsolate and in mute despair but just before 9.00am a birder standing higher on the slope behind, quietly announced he could see the kingfisher. 

c Richard Tyler


My heart leapt as the adrenalin kicked into my veins and I became instantly energised.

Calmly he explained the kingfisher was perched very low down on the stump of a branch, jutting out over the river from an Alder Tree on the left bank of the river, rather than the more usually favoured trees on the right bank.

In time honoured fashion I checked the tree with my bins,peering through rain spattered lenses.Please let me find the tree.

There was the tree in question.

Now the scope. I swung my scope up and out pointing it at the tree. Damn, the focus was out. Fumbling slightly in my excitement I twisted the focus wheel.It seemed to take an age but was seconds only and...................


There was the Belted Kingfisher.

Clear as the grey day would allow. It was facing outwards looking over the swollen river.

The colours of the country I had just driven from, blue above and white below with a sash of blue across its white chest. Its enormous black bill protruded from a large blue head crowned with a headress of spiky feathers. What a beauty! 

Yet again I experienced that now familiar but always welcome surge of emotion, moving rapidly from despair to elation. It was done. I had finally seen the fifth Belted Kingfisher to be found in Britain.

c Richard Tyler

Pandemonium, meanwhile had broken out around me. I was in prime position with no one in front of me, looking down the river directly at the tree but many birders to my left were unable to see the tree as they were either at the wrong angle to view that part of the river or their view was obstructed by a large tree just beyond the fence we stood behind.

The inevitable cries went up

Which tree is it in?

Where is it in the tree?

Have you got it in your scope?

 What side of the river did you say it was on?

I, as did others around me, endeavoured to explain where it was and even offered our scopes to some, desperately crowding in and around us, anxious for their first glimpse of a Belted Kingfisher. For a twitch of this magnitude the behaviour was however pretty restrained and there was no rancour that I was aware of.

I watched the kingfisher for around five minutes on its branch before it flopped into the river but failed to secure whatever it was after and then flew higher up into the back of the tree where it was partially hidden. I again managed to find it and watched as it preened in the rain for a good ten minutes then flew further upriver and was lost to sight.

There was no time to get my camera out. It was wet and I felt rushed as time was running out for me. Rather than fiddle about with camera settings etc. I decided my priority was to watch the kingfisher and I do not regret a thing. Given more time and if the kingfisher had co operated better I could possibly have taken some images.However a birding colleague, Richard Tyler, has graciously allowed me to use his superb images, taken on another day, to illustrate this blog.                                                                  

It was now 9.15am and I waited until 9.30am but the kingfisher did not return. I had to go. Carefully  I extricated myself from those clustered around me.It would be unfortunate if I were to fall in the mud and make a fool of myself.                              

Then followed another perilous yomp around a now even more rain saturated field to the farm gate and then the ordeal of descending a bridleway that was now literally a river of mud. I was careful, very careful and to much relief made it to the road without mishap.

Triumphant I walked up the road to a car park now absolutely crammed with cars, birders cars.With as much haste as possible I dumped my wet outer clothing and gloves in the boot of the car and changed my footwear.

I was on the road at 10.00am and with great satisfaction, on arriving at the motorway turned the car not south for Oxfordshire but north and back to Scotland.

With  my grateful thanks to Richard Tyler who has allowed me to use his superb images of the BK.



  1. Great read Ewan, I finally saw it on my 5th attempt ! (4 dips on the Ribble) friend of mine saw it on his 9th try ! Well worth an injured shoulder and getting caked in mud 😉

    1. Cheers Sladey. Top effort on your part.Hope all goes well for you in 2022 and maybe see you on Shetland this coming autumn?

  2. Evocative and captivating read. However, the last Belted Kingfisher in Britain was 18 April 2018 all day on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly, which was enjoyed by us all down here. Found by Ash Fisher.

    1. Thank you for letting me know and I have amended my blog accordingly

  3. Cracking account Ewan,this bird will have gone down in folklore!

  4. Sure will, doing a week from 25th Sept

  5. What an enthralling account Ewan,brilliantly conveyed!!!

    1. Thanks Paul.So pleased you enjoyed it. All the best for 2022

  6. Great Read're bonkers ;-)