Saturday, 16 December 2006

A touch of the winter blues

I always find this time of year rather difficult; the damp clinging cold and drab skies do little to lift my spirits. As a morning person I resent the way in which the dark of night intrudes into my routine and limits the time that I can spend out before work. While crisp, bright winter days invigorate me, the still, overcast, rain-sodden days of late provide little in the way of cheer as I trudge along the river on my way to work. The moorhens skulk about in search of food, hunched forward as if they too are weighed down by the cheerless weather. There is, however, a spot of colour in this flat and featureless scene – a kingfisher which frequents this stretch of the river.  A dazzling, darting streak of electric blue that whirls away from me as I near its favourite perch; this kingfisher must nest nearby, remaining on its territory throughout the winter months. I remember reading somewhere (perhaps in David Boag’s wonderful book on the species) that only the righteous may witness the kingfisher. It is certainly true that, despite its bold colours, this bird is often overlooked. One reason may be its size – the kingfisher is about the size of a greenfinch, a fact that will surprise many who would imagine, never having seen one, this to be a larger bird.

I have been fortunate enough to see kingfishers in the hand, since we sometimes catch them in our nets when out bird ringing. With their short, waxy, orange feet, orange-brown underparts and electric blue-green upperparts they are incredibly beautiful. They are also very docile when being handled and move their head very slowly (like some kind of automaton) to view the proceedings. The colourful plumage once proved popular with milliners and the feathers would appear incorporated into hats. Other birds were shot for taxidermy and many were stuffed by Victorian taxidermists.

The kingfisher population has flourished over recent decades on many stretches of river. Improving water quality is likely to have played a part but it is the run of mild winters that will have had the greatest impact on the population. Very cold winters, during which the slow-moving lowland rivers favoured by kingfishers may freeze over, can spell disaster. During the winter of 1962/63, the severe cold resulted in the complete loss of kingfishers from some areas and in many others the population fell by 85%. Fortunately, kingfishers are able to produce two or three broods of young a year and so populations can bounce back quickly. While I might favour the crisp chill of a proper winter’s day, I will tolerate the damp, gloomy weather for the sake of this wonderful bird.

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