Saturday, 1 February 2014

A bolt of blue

A shrill piping call, echoed from off to our left, suggests the presence of two kingfishers, each alert to the other’s presence. A few moments later and a flash of blue flicks low across the water and away. This site does well for kingfishers and there is rarely a visit when I do not see one of these striking little birds.

As a child I’d always assumed that a kingfisher would be larger in life than it really is and I suspect that I was a little disappointed when I had my first decent view of one as a teenager. As a licensed bird ringer I occasionally get to handle kingfishers which, being very docile birds, will lay on their back in the palm of your hand, perfectly at ease. It is only then that you truly appreciate the small size of this fantastic species. While the small size might be a disappointment, the dazzling plumage more than makes up for this. To refer to the plumage as being electric blue is not an exaggeration. Surprisingly, however, a perched kingfisher can be difficult to pick out, particularly if it is perched under the shadow cast by a riverside willow or alder.

Being small, and relying on fish and other aquatic prey, means that the kingfisher is vulnerable to cold winter weather and ice. If the winter is particularly harsh then kingfisher populations suffer from high levels of mortality and their numbers fall. To counter this threat, some individuals move to coastal sites in winter, where the temperature may be a few degrees warmer and fishing opportunities may remain unfrozen.

Given that I spend part of my summer in various reedbeds, the kingfisher is very much a summer bird for me. Its calls provide a backdrop to my time in the field, forming part of the summer soundscape alongside warblers, cuckoos and rails. They are not the easiest bird to approach, being prone to flying away at the slightest provocation and to see them well it pays to set-up a strategically placed branch as a perch and then wait in nearby cover or, better still, a hide, until one appears. While it is a bit of an effort, the reward is priceless.

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