The kingfisher

 
To sum it up in one word, the kingfisher is ‘stunning’ - quite simply Britain’s most impressive and beautifully coloured little bird. If there were ever a European version of the Bird of Paradise, this would surely be it; the iridescent cobaltblue and orange plumage along with the bright waxy red feet is with out doubt, nature at its most flamboyant. Even the briefest of encounters with this little blue torpedo as it whizzes by is enough to make most people stop in their tracks and stare. To see one up close - is a special moment you never forget.
 
In birding terms, Kingfishers belong to a grouping known as Coraciiformes; large headed, short-necked birds found around the world that nest in holes. They can be divided into 9 family groups, of which the Kingfisher represents the Alcedinidae; birds that spend their entire lives close to water preying on fish, and other aquatic animals.
During the summer months, when most sightings occur, Kingfishers are particularly active patrolling and rearing families. Breeding can begin as early as March, and usually continues through to August, with two broods being reared each year if weather conditions are favourable. Too much rainfall can often lead to flooded nests.

A good sign that kingfishers are going to breed on a stretch of water is when adults are seen pair bonding; this is indicated by the male offering his mate a freshly caught fish. It proves to her that he is a successful hunter and capable of supporting both her and a family of up to eight youngsters. Being extremely territorial by nature, the pair may claim ownership of a mile of river in any direction from the nest site, defending it against others can often cost them their lives.

 

  

A good steep bank on the river is usually preferred for a nest site, though this can be away from it if there aren’t any suitable sites along the river. The nest hole, which is excavated by both adults over a period of days is roughly a half to a meter deep depending on soil conditions; it also rises gently upwards to allow for waste material to drain away whilst the young are developing. Considering the attractiveness of this species, Kingfishers must surely hold the record for the smelliest nest site of all British birds. The tunnel becomes so badly soiled during the breeding season that the parents dip themselves repeatedly into the water after each feed to rid themselves of the fish waste, which oozes constantly out of the tunnel entrance. As the first brood is nearing maturity, both birds will have already begun excavating a new hole. By the time the first chicks have fledged, the pair will be mating again in readiness for the next clutch of eggs. Although sexes are similar in colour, they can be distinguished by the colouration of the bills, the male’s bill is completely black, the female’s has red underneath.
 
 
 
 
 
The bird is aptly named ‘king-fisher’ as over 95% of its diet comes from one sort of fish or another. It hunts by sitting motionless on a low branch over slack water until prey is seen. It then plunges head first into the water to catch its prey before returning back to the same branch. To see this in slow motion is quite astonishing. The mortality of young kingfishers is high in their first year through failure to master this technique. In their eagerness to learn, they often don’t wait to dry out after failed attempts and become waterlogged as a result, which can lead to them becoming trapped in the water. Unless they manage to swim to the banking they will drown. Food comes in the form of minnow, stickleback or bullhead, depending on what is available, which is then taken to a nearby branch and battered repeatedly on the head with a thrashing action until it is dead. It is then swallowed head first to prevent the spines, gills or scales getting lodged in the throat. When offering food to a mate or to their young it is also always presented head first. They normally only catch fish that are large enough to swallow in one go, although there are exceptions to this rule. There have been photographs that show kingfishers with small eels and other disproportionately large fish for their size. The way they overcome this problem is by only swallowing half of the prey, leaving the other half to protrude for a while until the first half has been digested.
 
 
 
 
The reproduction rate of kingfishers is quite staggering. On a good year a single pair of birds could potentially rear as many as eighteen young from three broods, given the right conditions. During the wintertime many birds move away from breeding sites to rivers nearer the coast, which offer improved feeding opportunities in brackish water, which is less likely to freeze; but many don’t, and it is these that quickly become vulnerable to starvation. A series of prolonged cold snaps has the potential to decimate huge numbers of birds that remain inland, often at the expense of territorial instinct. Areas of slack water and ponds that were used in summer for catching food can quickly become frozen solid, making feeding impossible. For this reason they are specially protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981; and included in the Birds of Conservation Concern. The photographs in this feature were taken with a licence, which was issued by English Nature. Under normal circumstances, human activity at the nest is not tolerated and can cause disturbance if not carried out sensitively, it is therefore illegal unless special permission is given.