Nine things I learned about kingfishers last week.

Kingfishers : juvenile on left, adult with worn plumage on right.

Last week I decided to throw off the lockdown shackles and broaden my recent horizons. The first part of the plan was to try to capture the Neowise Comet, which I managed to do with some success; I planned to head off immediately afterwards down to Cardigan (about 40 miles away) ready for a visit to the Teifi marshes, the following morning. So in the early hours I hit the very empty A487 and soon arrived in Cardigan. After a few hours sleep I woke and lit the stove to put a brew on.  I soon realised there was a gas leak: so no more cups of tea (or coffee….or toast…..or any hot food……) for me on this trip! 

The previous night, as I stood with my tripod in the castle grounds at Aberystwyth, a photographer friend had loomed out of the darkness. She wasn’t up for photographing the comet but was thrilled about the kingfisher photographs she’d recently taken at the Teifi Marshes. A brood of recently fledged juveniles had been brought to one of the pools by their parents to learn how to catch fish; my friend had managed to capture the three youngsters lined up on a branch just as one of the parents joined them! It looked like a very promising time to visit the Marshes. 

In flight…….

So by eight o’clock I was settling in to the mallard hide to see if anything would turn up; sure enough, within minutes a kingfisher had appeared. It perched on one of the strategically located branches directly in front of the hide. Between bursts of kingfisher activity I got chatting to another woman there, armed with a camera and long lens. She seemed to know what she was talking about, and I learned the following:

  1. A few days previously a brood of fledged juveniles kingfishers had been brought to the reserve by their parents to learn how to fish. 
  2. At least eight juvenile kingfishers had already been ringed on the reserve by the local ringing team. That would make about 17 birds in the area by now, assuming that all were still alive.
  3. Kingfishers have two broods a year.
  4. It doesn’t take long before the youngsters have their own hunting perches, which they defend against allcomers.
  5. Adult kingfishers have bright reddish orange feet; juveniles have muddy orange feet.
  6. Adult females have an orange lower mandible (the underside of the beak); males’ are dark, like the upper mandible.
  7. When kingfishers fly or drop down to catch a fish, they move very quickly! It’s virtually impossible to keep up with them at close range.
  8. The kingfisher hide on the reserve had been burnt down by vandals earlier this year. 
  9. Despite this, the kingfishers keep on coming. They don’t seem to notice the line of admirers on the path nearby……….
The remains of the Kingfisher Hide.

After a rather lengthy lull in activity I took the opportunity to stretch my legs. It was a short walk down to the site of the kingfisher hide, which was pitiful to behold. The local youth presumably find these hides handy for all sorts of activities, not many of which are related to ornithology, I suspect.  I can understand that, but why do these scumbags then find it so gratifying to burn them down? This is the second hide to have suffered the same fate, and another has been systematically vandalised to such an extent that it has had to be closed…… but I digress. By mid-morning the sun was so high and harsh that getting a decent photograph was impossible, so I took a long siesta. Having a coffee in the main street of Cardigan was a novelty after all these months!

Got one! (click to enlarge)

I was back at the kingfisher pool by late afternoon, by which time the light was perfect. Kingfishers were active from the word go and I found a spot where I could point my lens through a gap in the vegetation for a different angle on a perch used by the birds for hunting. One individual looked like one of this year’s young, and there were interesting interactions between it and other birds. One such, which I was lucky to photograph (see main pic.), appeared to be with an adult, judging by the latter’s worn plumage and partial moult. As afternoon merged into evening I enjoyed the company of other people. We agreed on how lucky we were to watch these exotic little birds at such close quarters  – living their lives in such a relaxed and unselfconscious way. They were totally unconcerned by our presence.  

By this time I had taken almost eight hundred photographs in less than twenty-four hours, got through two full batteries, and there was no prospect of any breakfast the next morning.  It was time to go home.

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Twice bittern.

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes
Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

A few days before Christmas I headed down to the Teifi Marshes near Cardigan with high hopes of seeing a bittern. It is a regular winter haunt for this extraordinary but elusive species and I had photographed one there in January 2015 (see this post). Furthermore there had recently been reports in the local bird blog of one by the Kingfisher Pool. It all seemed very promising. But after six hours in a very cold hide without a single sighting I felt somewhat deflated……and I’m sure the bad cold I suffered over Christmas was not a coincidence.

But they do say that every cloud has a silver lining, though, and in this case it was the kingfisher which made a circular tour of its perches around the pool at lunch time. Various sticks and branches have been provided here for kingfishers by the Wildlife Trust, but they result in rather conventional “bird on a stick” type images. I think the perch shown above shows the bird in a more natural setting and the falling rain gives the photograph a rather painterly feel.

Bittern at Teifi Marshees, Cardigan
Bittern at Teifi Marshes, Cardigan

The bittern was reported (and photographed) again on Tuesday so it seemed like another attempt might produce results. Another photographer was already in the hide when I arrived about 9.30 a.m. yesterday and we were soon joined by several others. One told us that the bird had spent two full days wedged between branches in a nearby willow. Local birders and conservationists became concerned for its welfare so reserve staff had climbed up towards it and poked it with a stick, whereupon it flew back down to the reeds!

The bittern was first seen not long afterwards. It was crouched low to the ground, fluffed up like a big round feather duster, and appeared quite immobile. It did not look like a healthy or a happy creature. But after a while it began to walk slowly towards the hide, its weight breaking the ice at one point. It came closer and closer and motor drives began to rattle away in earnest. Over the next hour it was hardly hidden at all. It walked slowly, and then more quickly, around, pausing to take the sun from time to time. The light was lovely, either bright sunshine or light cloud. Either was excellent for this large, cryptically patterned bird. It can’t eventually have been further than 20 yards from the hide. Then there was a crouch, a pause, another crouch, and it launched itself into the air, flying away quite powerfully low above the reeds and blackthorn crub.

Bittern in flight
Bittern in flight

It had been a truly exhilarating hour for everyone in the hide. One always opens oneself to disappointment by a making a tightly focussed photography expedition like this. Without the bittern it would have been a rather dismal morning – dismal and cold. So we were all happy, although we all knew we would have many hours of file processing to look forward to. Let’s just hope that the bird itself stays well and finds enough food to get through the winter.

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What………..me, guv? (Part 2)

Kingfisher, south Wales
Kingfisher, south Wales

On Saturday morning I dragged myself away from the computer and drove down to south Wales. Arriving at the car park about lunch time I found three minibuses and a couple of dozen cars. This was not a good start. Groups of men dressed in wetsuits and flotation gear were milling around.
 
On enquiring if it was an organised event or activity, I was told that a number of individuals and groups were going gorge walking or canyoneering. My heart really sank! Plans for an afternoon of quiet enjoyment and photography by the river seemed to have hit a brick wall. In the event it appeared that they had  finished their activities for the day, as no-one seemed to be using the river during the afternoon. Birds were noticeable by their absence, however.
 
After a very cold night in the camper (ice inside on the windows…..) I made an early start on Sunday morning and walked across the footbridge to the falls. At least two pairs of dippers were present, making territorial flights along the river. I believe both they and grey wagtails nest alongside the falls, judging by their behaviour on this visit and previous ones.  Very soon I had my back against a tree by the river to wait for dippers. Almost immediately a commotion of calling came from the opposite bank; a kingfisher darted out, flying away fast and low up and over the falls. Then a second bird appeared, perching on a low twig just opposite me, about twenty yards away, if that. Sitting quietly, waiting and observing, is often recommended for watching wildlife, but I had only just arrived! This was pure magic. The bird dropped down into the shallows to grab a tiny fish, which it ate after returning to its twig. I was able to quietly pull out my 7D/long lens combination and set it up on the tripod without causing any disturbance at all.

At this time of year the presence of a pair suggests that a breeding attempt is imminent. But what surprised me more was that kingfishers were there at all. I had always thought they and dippers would be mutually exclusive on account of their different habitat requirements. The bird returned to its perch a short while later and caught another fish, bigger this time, which it took downstream.

I had hoped to be able to photograph dippers here because on previous visits the birds had been quite approachable. I even have a picture of the falls taken with a wide angle lens on which there is also a tiny dipper. It appears on one of my postcards! As it turned out they were rather flighty on this occasion and I felt it would be better to come back later in the year to have another go.

As for the kingfishers, what a bonus!  I have been studying Michael Warren’s bird paintings recently. The landscapes which the birds inhabit are given equal prominence in his work in a very surreal style which is almost psychedelic. They are “in focus” from the nearest foreground detail to the most distant horizon, despite high levels of magnification. The photographer will never be able to reproduce his vision succesfully. The optical limitations inherent in our gear are just too great. But when I photograph birds I  try to include their surroundings as part of the image: it’s part of my background as a landscape photographer. So while my picture of the kingfisher won’t win any prizes it is better than I can ever have hoped for.

Canyoneering
Canyoneering

By late morning the first group of four gorge walkers appeared. They jumped down the falls, swam in the pool below, took photographs of each other, and crawled along the ledge behind the torrent – a typical dipper nesting site. They must have spent about 15 minutes doing this, then carried on downstream, crawling, swimming and jumping.  I spoke to them before they left  and found they were polite and reasonable people, expressing concerns about the environment. Not the type to deliberately put wildlife at risk at all. But when I mentioned kingfishers being a schedule 1 species they looked blank. They also said that in summer the valley was “mad” with canyoneers. 

I cannot help but believe this kind of activity is likely to have deleterious effects on the nesting birds of the river. I do not believe that river birds will be able to tolerate such a level of disturbance in THEIR habitat. Small numbers of people might be acceptable but if the numbers present on Saturday lunchtime are any indication of the levels of activity in spring and summer , I fear it is only a matter of time before desertions take place. 
Canyoneering is “fun” for the more adventurous amongst us, I’m sure, but it has become rapidly more popular in the last few years, and it seems to have done so beneath the radar of the authorities responsible for wildlife protection. I understand that the National Park is working on a code of conduct for gorge walking in this valley. In my opinion this cannot come soon enough, and that there should be a closed season while birds are nesting. The dipper can have a very early breeding season so March 1st might be a suitable cut off point. In the meantime if kingfishers are found to be nesting on the river then a complete ban should be placed on gorge walking there this year.
 
I have brought this matter to the attention of the National Park authorities; and as it is sure to be an problem elsewhere in Wales (and the UK) have also informed the RSPB.

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