by Graham Stewart
Say hello to the Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
Most people are only ever likely to catch a flash of electric blue as the Kingfisher skims over the water, once perched, despite its vibrant colour (blue/green back and bright orange belly) it can be hard to spot from its shady perch as it sits watching eagerly for fish below, once it spots a fish it will bob its head up and down in order to gauge the position of the unsuspecting fish below, before diving in to the water. Once in the water the Kingfisher has transparent eyelids which protect its eyes.
17-19 cm in length with a beak in the region of 4cm long, wingspan 25cm approx.
The Kingfisher is highly territorial; since it must eat its body weight each day, it is essential to have control of a suitable stretch of river. It is solitary for most of the year, roosting alone in heavy cover. If another kingfisher enters its territory, both birds display from perches, and fights may occur, in which a bird will grab the other’s beak and try to hold it under water. It Can be found on rivers and canals preferring still or slow flowing water. In the winter they can also be found in coastal regions. The Kingfisher lives in earth banks over water and their nest consists of a tunnel which can be up to 1m long with a nest chamber at the far end which is lined with fish bones.
The common kingfisher hunts from a perch just above the water, from where it searches for its prey , typically small fish. It bobs its head when food is detected to gauge the distance, and plunges steeply down to seize its prey from below the surface. At the perch the fish is adjusted until it is held near its tail and beaten against the perch several times. Once dead, the fish is positioned lengthways and swallowed head-first. A few times each day, a small greyish pellet of fish bones and other indigestible remains is regurgitated. In order to survive a Kingfisher must consume its own body weight in food each day.
Pairs form in the autumn but each bird retains a separate territory, generally half a mile of river bank , but this can be up to two miles. The courtship is initiated by the male chasing the female while calling continually, followed later by the male offering the female food. The nest is in a burrow excavated by both birds of the pair in a low vertical riverbank . The straight, gently inclining burrow is normally 60–90 cm (24–35 in) long and ends in an enlarged chamber.
Typically 2, although sometimes 3 broods per year with approximately 6 eggs per brood between May and July. Both sexes incubate by day, but only the female incubates at night. The eggs hatch after 20 days, and the young are in the nest for a further 24–25 days before fledging . Only 50% of fledgling Kingfishers will survive more than a few weeks.
The early days for fledged juveniles are more hazardous; during its first dives into water, about four days after leaving the nest, a fledgling may become waterlogged and drown. Many young will not have learned to fish by the time they are driven out of their parents’ territory. Most kingfishers die of cold or lack of food, and a severe winter can kill a high percentage of the birds. Few British Kingfishers survive more than a year , with the oldest bird on record living 21 years.
Listed as Amber on the RSPB list, the Kingfisher is a schedule one species and it is illegal to disturb them at their nest site , without a special license from Natural England. The Kingfisher is particularly susceptible to cold weather , struggling to hunt in frozen waters and during cold snaps it struggles to keep its chicks warm. Their nest sites are vulnerable to flooding during periods of prolonged heavy rainfall . Kingfishers have many predators, stoats , mink and weasel as well as domestic cats and rats. Human activity also has a large impact on the Kingfisher with both nesting sites being destroyed by waterway maintenance and by chemical / biological pollution of rivers and waterways by agricultural and industrial activity.
All photography © Graham Stewart / Peter Hanscomb 2020