Saturday 8 July 2023

Kingfisher Reverie 3rd July 2023

Monday morning came early for me. Sleep proving elusive I was wide awake by 4.30 and  already forming a plan to get out and about before my corner of Oxfordshire awoke.

By 5.30 I was well on the way to my local reservoir. to try my luck with the resident Kingfishers. It has been a while since I was out so early and leaving the car where the road came to its end at the back of the reservoir I made my way along the Thames Path towards the hide from which I have seen so many Kingfishers.

The walk to the hide is always a joy and at this early hour in the morning I was very much on my own, wandering along the narrow path that follows the sweeping curves of the river.The surrounding vegetation is at its zenith, the hedgerows thick and heavy with leaf, the grasses on either side of the path almost head high, each feathery head bending to the will of a chill morning breeze.The path has in fact become a green corridor flanked by the overarching grasses. The white trumpets of bindweed are held high, supported by tendrils that have entwined, in a vice like grip, the stems of grass and umbellifer, winding inexorably upwards to a prime position, proffering a fanfare of flowers to passing insects.

Families of finches, Goldfinch and Greenfinch, haunt the hedgerows, the recently fledged young keeping up an insistent twittering, begging their parents for food although now well capable of fending for themselves. Irrepressible, a Whitethroat throws his cheery warble to the sky as he launches into a bouncing display flight from the top of a hawthorn, a Sedge Warbler by the river adds its manic song and then lapses into silence at my passing while a Cetti's Warbler, as ever unseen, announces a hidden presence with  notes louder than even a Wren. In shallow water by the river's far bank, a heron stands up to its knees  idling, head sunk into hunched grey shoulders, an image of morose disinterest, contemplating nothing until hunger renews the urge to seek an unwary fish or frog.

My boots become sodden with dew as I dodge eye level bramble sprays, saw toothed tentacles  reaching  across the path to catch at me. At times the hawthorns and blackthorns are so prolific they bower right over the path and I walk through  a subway, purely of nature's making. 

The hide is, unsurprisingly, unoccupied as I tentatively open the ancient door and renew my acquaintance with hard wooden benches and the not unpleasant odour of dank weathered wood.  This is my exclusive domain for probably a few hours if not more.I close the door on the outside world, seek out the far corner in the hide and look out onto the pond in front. Everything in sight, from tree to reed multifarious shades of green, the only variation a lone spire of purple loosestrife. A beacon of pink and purple in a green sea of summer largesse.

The reeds have grown rapidly, the old withered  stems of winter past now obscured by a fresh growth of stiff, grey green pennants of leaf, each set of leaves jutting from stems so thin that any wind sends them swaying  gently, creating an omnipresent soporific rustle as countless leaves brush one another..There is no sign of birdlife but brief chirps emanate from hidden places where the reeds are at their most dense.

The sounds come from a family of Reed Warblers which have bred here and the parents are moving with their fledged young through the reeds, the family calling to each other but contriving for the most part to remain hidden.I can track their hidden passage through the reeds, by the violent swaying movement of a reed as they  grip  the stem but I rarely glimpse them as the mouse brown birds remain low amongst the riparian tangle at the base of the reeds.

Occasionally a harassed adult emerges to perch slantwise on a reed stem, food for its young in its bill. Exposed for a few seconds it is restless and uneasy away from the re-assuring cover of the reeds. 

Reed Warbler

The parent birds are pursued by their young into more exposed areas but sooner rather than later they all flee into the alders or willows on either side of the pond before dropping back into the reeds.

I sit on the unforgiving bench and scroll through  the latest emails and twitter feed on my phone to while away time but then feel it is almost sacrilege to ignore the tranquil scene before me. I put the phone down to sit contemplating the pond  and allow the sense of time and place to embrace me, resurrecting memories  of times past in this secluded hide. 

Almost an hour passes pleasantly as sunny spells come to illuminate the water, reeds and rushes, the sun spilling across the pond and grassland beyond in  ripples of golden light, chased by cloud shadows that contrive to extinguish the sunlight but never for long. I feel no sense of boredom or impatience.This is a waiting game, one I am well used to and while I wait I feel calm and at peace with myself.

A thin. shrill whistle changes the mood instantly. I know that call and look up to see a Kingfisher approaching at speed, a meteorite of electric blue, an avian jewel streaking over the pond to pitch onto a post especially positioned in front of the hide for this very purpose, I am so close  to the Kingfisher, that for a moment I am frozen into immobility, scared it will notice me, willing it to settle and accept my partially hidden presence. Some Kingfishers, often inexperienced juveniles show no alarm at the hide's open viewing windows but others are more circumspect.

The Kingfisher faces me on its post, tensed and ready to depart in an instant, then with a small leap twists to about face, confirmation it is at ease, ready to fish and I know it will not leave now. It is a young bird, probably from a first or second brood for Kingfshers can raise up to three broods each year.This quiet, secluded backwater is ideal as the young Kingfisher is hidden from its fiercely territorial parents somewhere on the nearby river. Parents that will show it no tolerance if they discover it.

The secluded nature of  this little corner of rural Oxfordshire suits me too, far enough away from the stark concrete and busy surrounds of the main reservoir to feel almost a sanctuary.

The Kingfisher bobs its head, a reflex action, focusing on the water below  and makes constant minute adjustments to its position on the post.It looks down with an intense stare when  movement in the water catches its unforgiving eye but then relaxes and sinks its head into its shoulders before something else attracts its attention.It is never really still, constantly moving its head to eye the water below, adjusting angles of sight, reacting to every minute movement in the water.

For ten minutes it finds nothing to cause it but a fleeting interest, then suddenly it drops from the post.I heard the splash rather than saw it, so fast, it was flying back up to its perch before it registered with me.There was now a small fish in its bill.

The Kingfisher was in business and much energised proceeded to manipulate the fish in its bill, at first holding it crosswise it delivered several hearty whacks on the post to subdue the luckless victim.Once this was to the Kingfisher's satisfaction it manoeuvred the fish  by tossing it between its mandibles so it was positioned  lengthwise in its bill.

Not as straightforward as it sounds for the fish was a Three spined Stickleback and the fish's main defence mechanism is to raise the spines on its back as a deterrent to being swallowed. The Kingfisher tossed the fish around some more trying to align it head first down its gullet and eventually succeeded.then in a motion far from smooth the fish disappeared down its a series of gulps. It was over, and I found myself involuntarily feeling my throat so uncomfortable had been what I had just witnessed. No doubt being a young bird it is still learning and its technique will  require some refining.This is a critical time for the young bird and it needs to learn fast or perish.Two thirds of all young Kingfishers do not survive more than a few weeks of independence due to their inexperience, leading them to often drowning or starving.

It sits quietly in the sun, cocking an eye to the sky to regard passing crows and a Red Kite,.responding to the kite by raising its head and bill to point at the sky as if to reduce its profile to a perceived predator. A family of Magpies also cause mild concern and watchfulness but still it lingers. Half an hour has now passed, a long time for a Kingfisher to remain in the same position. 

For now, this individual is content and well fed, feeling settled, and as the sun shone even appearing to relax by fluffing turquoise and blue feathers, drooping its short wings, and sinking down onto the top of the post to savour, if ever a bird can, the luxury of a few quiet moments in the warmth of the sun. 

It lasted but a minute. Evidently once again hungry it resumed its watchful vigil from the post before flying to a nearby willow that overhung the pool, a different position  where there might be another unsuspecting fish or water beetle below. It made a dive from there but was unsuccessful and flew back to the post.

Another short spell of inactivity ensued before, without warning, it silently departed, rising up and away through the willows, towards the river. 

I knew it would not return for an hour or two, maybe much longer.

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