At the moment looking for kingfishers is a mixture of excitement and frustration. One frustration lies in the lack of chances to take the classic picture we all love of a bird perching prettily on a twig with its head angled towards the water. At this time of year they can sit in among the overhanging willow branches and do their fishing without you even knowing they are there (unless you hear the occasional soft plop of one hitting the water).
If they do break cover, and you see them disappearing among the branches further down, you will invariably walk past without spotting them and then turn round to see them heading back in the opposite direction. A couple in a canadian canoe came by the other day and I asked whether they had seen any kingfishers. They replied that they’d passed one a few hundred yards further back upstream. I walked back to where I guessed that would be. Half an hour later I had seen nothing. The canoe came back upriver. I asked again – they’d just seen one where I’d originally been standing!
The truth is that I’m even more frustrated because I don’t have a clear idea at the moment of what is going on with the kingfisher couple on the mile or so of river that I walk every day. In the first part of the year they were easy to spot: I watched them excavating their nest; I saw them bringing in fish for the chicks; then I managed to find and watch the same chicks before the adults drove them away at the beginning of June so they could start on a second brood. I felt I had my finger on the pulse.
Since then the narrative has been far less clear. They appeared to re-occupy the nest but then abandon it. I witnessed some skirmishes over territory and maybe some courtship. I saw a lot of long flights along the river which seemed much more about guarding territory than catching fish. For all I know something awful may have happened to one or both of the original pair and I’m seeing newcomers.
A young kingfisher arrived one day – maybe one of the original chicks, maybe from elsewhere. There was an increase of territorial calling at around that time, and it may have been driven away. But there has been a bird flying through at times which is completely silent – I suspect that’s how an interloper might behave.
A few days ago I saw a bird fly past with a fish in its mouth. Normally they’d eat it straightaway where they caught it, but this suggests that it was being taken to a nest for feeding chicks. If they had started breeding in June the dates would be consistent with a hatching. It veered off into the trees on the bank opposite. Could there be a nest on the brook that comes in from Glapthorn? I found one there last year and the adults were travelling around 3/4 of a mile back to the river to fish.
So I’ve been staking out the first part of the brook. Kingfishers have flown over heading out towards Glapthorn, and they’ve flown back again towards the river. But I’ve yet to see one carrying a fish. And anyway the flights don’t seem frequent enough to meet the chicks’ needs. Maybe there are enough fish in the shallow water of the brook to mean that they don’t always need to journey right to the main river? Or maybe the chicks are already out of the nest and being served with just the occasional top up meal while they struggle to learn to fish for themselves? It seems unlikely the dates would allow for that just yet, but you never know…
It could also be that the flights to the river are more about guarding territory. I had been hearing kingfisher calls at the far side of Cotterstock mill pond without actually getting any sightings. When I got there yesterday afternoon I went into a paddock next to the pond which the owner kindly suggested I could use to see what was happening on the short stream between pond and main river.
Loud calls started up almost straight away. I find it difficult to describe the sound, but it’s pretty distinctive. The two sounds I most often mistake it for are the opening note of a wren, before it goes into its rattling call, and a dog whistle – distant dog walkers often unknowingly have me looking out for a passing bird! It’s a short call but has very musical timbre – a sort of “tsssingg!”. I’d liken it to a temple bell or finger cymbals, a silvery sound.
It can be a single gentle call as a bird nears a perch, or a more businesslike call repeated every forty yards or so it flies along the river. But in this case the calls were loud and urgent, clearly directed towards other birds. A hint of annoyance, but still a lovely sound. More quick notes with a staccato rhythm, like beautifully modulated sprays of morse code.
The sounds flew in from the main river and for the next 15 minutes there was something like a furious WW2 dogfight, though it may have been only the single bird that was displaying. Long, curling looping flights with diameters of two or three hundred yards. Coming in at treetop height or just below, extending out over the lock, downstream towards Tansor, then back in front of St Nicholas’ Church and over the pond.
I was looking up through trees so was getting a partial view, but even when I went out into the open the flying was so fast and unpredictable that I could never anticipate where the bird would appear next. First it came from this side, then that – sometimes from the front, now from the back. My mind started to add in the jaguar roar of a Spitfire engine. There was that same juxtaposition of power and control mixed with menace, of a drama being played out above the gentle green countryside of an English summer, with cut hay drying in the meadows, blackbirds and butterflies in the hedgerows.
I could never be sure if all the calls were from the one bird, but I think they were. I can imagine any rivals being thoroughly cowed – they will have got the message. The calls finally faded away into the distance and didn’t return. I was actually trembling, exhausted from watching and being part of this spectacle. There wasn’t time to be an observer, just to react and take in what you could in the moment. There was never going to be any chance of a pretty picture, but just being there was very, very exciting….