Tuesday 11 February 2020

Kingfisher 11th February 2020

After the romance of snowbound Norwegian pine forests and the excitement of seeing Great Grey Owls last week it was back to more mundane birding today, if going to see a Kingfisher can ever be described as such.

The very strong, gusting wind that has been with us for the last few days continued its vicious assault of cold air this morning but the rain had relented to be replaced by sun. It was what used to be described as a 'raw day' but was made almost pleasant by the sunshine.

I made my way to the hide at Farmoor at just before 10am and with some trepidation opened the door expecting to find it occupied. It usually is these days. For a long time this hide  remained forgotten and unloved, tucked away by the Thames Path, overlooking a quiet pool and was familiar only to a small number of local birders but now, with the widely publicised presence of the Kingfishers, it attracts a regular stream of mainly photographers, often coming from points well beyond the county.

This new found popularity is no bad thing as it goes some way to ensure that the hide is to a certain extent protected from any vandalism or abuse and efforts are now being made to clean the hide regularly and make it more welcoming to visitors.

This morning. however, I was on my own and settled quietly in the corner of the hide nearest to the now famous post on which so many photos of the Kingfishers have been taken. The waters of the pool surrounding the post are almost back to a normal level, having for days been considerably heightened by all the rain that has fallen.

The feeders on the alder tree, that overhangs the pool, were attracting their regular clientel of Goldfinches, Reed Buntings, Great and Blue Tits while Chaffinches and Dunnocks picked at any fallen seed below. The pool is now occupied by a pair of Mute Swans and they look like they might breed here and if so they will soon be making their huge nest in the dead reeds that form a broad margin around two sides of the pool.

I sat and looked out on a familiar scene but one I have not visited for some time, in fact as long ago as last autumn. Recently, reports have indicated the Kingfishers are again coming regularly to the pool and if all went well this morning I would not have a long wait to see one. Fifteen minutes after arriving I was joined, not by a Kingfisher but by a photographer who was happy to sit, like me, in silence and anticipation. 

The Kingfisher's arrival was initially obscured by the bank of reeds at the far end of the pool as it flew from the river and across the meadow  but, like a jewelled missile, it rocketed over the reed heads and into view, flying fast and low across the pool to rise up and abruptly land on the post in front of the hide. A cock of its tail, a bob of its head and it settled to fish.

Its appearance always comes as a shock of surprise, the suddenness and speed of arrival may have something to do with it, despite my having seen this many times. It is as if you cannot quite believe that this beautiful creature has so suddenly graced the pool. One minute nothing and now everything. A spill of thrilling emotions collide at this immediate moment. Desire, excitement, fulfillment, trepidation all coalesce into an exquisite tension. A constant consuming anxiety of whether it will remain.

The Kingfisher sat on its perch and surveyed the water below, bobbing its head and bill to focus. It was a male, for its bill was all black. Fortunately, today, with the mid morning sun, its colours were enhanced and it positively glowed, a radiance of burnished blue and turquoise. Its underparts a rich chestnut.

It  adjusted its position on the post regularly but had no quick success in locating any prey in the water below. Finally it took a plunge and emerged with a water beetle which it took to the alder and whacked into submission on the thin branch it had chosen to settle on. 

It was troubled by the wildly gusting wind, blowing on the exposed post in front of the hide and forsook it to spend most of its time perched in the alder tree but even here it was tossed and thrown about on its chosen perch, snaking its head and body to compensate for the wild movements of the branch.

One minute it sat hunched and relaxed but in an instant pointed head and bill to the sky. A defence mechanism making its outline as inconspicuous as possible. A bird of prey, probably a buzzard or kite was passing overhead and it was immediately wary but resumed a normal posture once the perceived danger was past.

A Carrion Crow settled in the top of the alder. It was all too much and the Kingfisher departed, speeding away across the reeds and the meadow, back towards the river. 

It had been here for all of fifteen minutes.

With an hour to spare before I was due to attend my voluntary commitments with MIND, the mental health charity, I wandered further down the Thames Path in search of a pair of European Stonechats that are spending their winter here on some waste ground.

I found them, after some searching, on the barbed wire fence and brambles that mark the path boundary, always keeping in close company, although I noticed it was the female that led and the male would follow. They are such entertaining little birds, forever active as they tour their territory searching from dead stems and fence wires for invertebrates, which they drop down to seize from the ground before adopting another elevated perch. They constantly flick and flirt their wings and tails, the very embodiment of nervous energy. Engaging, in their robin like mannerisms.

Female European Stonechat

Male European Stonechat
The wind here was very strong and consequently bitterly cold. The two tiny birds buffeted by the wind sought out the lee sides of bramble brakes and hedgelines where they could shelter some and the last I saw of them was as they progressed up a slope, battling against the wind, indomitable to the last.

A metaphor for life and troubled times.

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