Lisa G Saw
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It’s quite a thrill to see a flash of bright blue dart through the air. No sooner than you realise you’ve just seen a kingfisher, it’s disappeared out of sight again. The thrill is even greater if you’re lucky enough to see one perched on a branch not too far away or maybe even to witness it speedily dive into the water and back out again. I’ve spent many an hour sitting quietly in a hide waiting for such an appearance and it’s often paid off, though not always! I’ve heard it said, the harder you have to work for something the greater the reward, and I think it’s so true when it comes to photographing wildlife and with kingfishers it’s no exception.
This year, for the first time, I got to observe the behaviour of a pair of nesting kingfishers from a hide in a nature reserve (for which a permit is required). The experience was wonderful! I learned so much. Once the chicks had hatched, both adults were seen coming and going from the nest frequently, bringing the new arrivals small fish (Photos 1-3). The adults usually would land on a perch close to the nest and check the coast was clear before disappearing into the hole in the sand bank to feed the young. One time I witnessed a pair of grey squirrels busily feeding in a tree above the nest. Unbeknown to them, both the adult kingfishers flew to their favoured perches just below the squirrels. Each had a fish in their bill ready to feed their young but, neither one entered the nest. They’d spotted the squirrels and remained silent and still for what seemed like an age, but was probably only about fifteen minutes. However, that’s a long time to hold a fish in your mouth and not eat it. Just think of the temptation! Imagine it was a slice of chocolate cake in your mouth that you couldn’t eat! (Photo 4) Eventually, the squirrels moved off and they both flew in to deliver the fish to the needy chicks.
There was a very definite pattern to their behaviour on leaving the nest site too. They would fly towards the lake diving into the water to clean themselves (it’s not that clean inside the nest after several weeks!) (Photos 5 to 11). There was a perch just above the water that they’d often sit on and dive a few times before finally preening their feathers (Photos 12-14) and then fly off to hunt for more fish (Photos 15-16). It was difficult to photograph on account of their speed and the vegetation that was growing all around, partially obscuring my view and at times it was very dark under the shade of the trees. A few times, before going off to fish, the female kingfisher would fly onto a perch just to the left of the hide, probably less than 10m away (Photo 17). It was amazing to see her so much closer, on her terms. You can tell the female apart from the male as the underside of her bill is a slight red colour.
I kept returning to this site because I was hoping to see the first brood hatch. The young, once they’ve fledged, will stay around the nest site for up to four days whilst the adults teach them how to fish. I frequented the site regularly when I knew it was close to time, but I didn't see the chicks leave the nest. Instead, I saw the adults busily getting ready for their next brood. They started to prepare a new nest site and over the course of two days, I didn’t see them enter the old nest with any fish. My friends and I presumed they hadn't survived as they were no longer feeding. Although it was great to witness their courting and mating behaviour, I felt a tinge of sadness thinking the chicks hadn’t survived. At least this pair were starting a second brood, so there's a chance I'll see it next time (Photos 18-21).
There was all sorts of speculation why they might not have made it. I couldn't help but wonder whether it was in part down to human disturbance. It’s very important not to upset their feeding pattern. They are very shy birds and will stay away from the nest for too long if concerned, which can be detrimental to the chicks survival. Not only were some men fishing close to the area that were not supposed to be there but also, I heard a photographer decided that sitting in the hide was not good enough for him. He took it upon himself to clamber through the woods and take photos by standing on top of the nest site and by a tree less than 10m away, virtually in their direct flight path from the nest to the water where they’d clean themselves. I heard that the kingfishers had stayed away for 2 hours on that instance. This is terrible when you think the adults are usually feeding them every 5-20 minutes. Clearly this man put his desire to take a good photo above the welfare of the birds, something you should never do.
It’s a good time to mention that kingfishers are a protected species in the UK, something I only learned about myself recently, so I’m guessing most people don’t know this fact! Just like Barn Owls, they are listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is illegal to intentionally disturb the birds during the breeding season. That means you’re not allowed to photograph them in, on, at or near the nest or whilst it has dependent young, without the necessary licence from the relative licensing authority. It’s a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to 6 months.
These photos were taken at Warnham Nature Reserve, Burton Mill Pond and WWT Arundel.
By all means just look at the photos, but it's also worth having a quick read of my blog about my recent adventures photographing these beautiful birds. For instance, did you know that kingfishers are protected in the UK?
So, if you are lucky enough to see a kingfisher nest, or any nest for that matter, it’s worth remembering to keep your distance and don’t disturb the birds in such a way that makes them change their behaviour! That applies to everyone, whether you’re taking a photo with a phone, a camera or even just out for a walk!
Sadly, kingfishers are very short-lived and many young don’t even survive their first year. Some don’t even get to learn how to fish by the time the parent’s drive them out of their territory for the next brood. It is thought that only half of the fledglings will survive more than a week or two. It’s probably why they’ll have two, sometimes even three, broods in one year, to increase the chance that some chicks will survive to adulthood.
I'll end this blog on a happy note. After writing it, I have since discovered that the chicks did finally fletch a few days later. It's great news, though I was extremely surprised on account of the lack of feeding. I guess I have lots more to learn about kingfisher behaviour! They're such beautiful birds and I'm looking forward to going back and photographing them some more. Enjoy the photos!