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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The patient birdwatcher.

Bittern, Teifi Marshes
Bittern, Teifi Marshes


Last Thursday saw me heading south to the Teifi Marshes, a Wildlife Trust reserve near Cardigan. After days on end cooped up in my  home-office cum prison cell thanks to rain and/or wind and/or cloud, the forecast for Thursday was promising. I decided to make an early start. So on a lovely morning I arrived on the banks of the Teifi just a few minutes after sunrise. The tide was high and it was flat calm. What a picture!

I spent a minute or two in each of the hides as I walked down the old railway track into the reserve. At the top of my day’s wish-list, I told another photographer, was a bittern. It may not have been very realistic objective but what the hell………aim high! I quickly moved on until I reached the Kingfisher hide, because a bittern is occasionally seen from there in winter. I’ve always liked this hide because it overlooks a small pool, more or less surrounded by reeds;  it is quite an intimate space. I opened a wooden flap and looked out.

At first I didn’t believe it was even actually a bird. It was too still – a fence-post perhaps? Too tall, too thin and too dark to be a bittern, anyway. I dropped my camera bag on to the wooden floor, the sound – I’m sure – carrying far on such a still morning. Trying to keep calm, I retrieved my Canon 5d3 / Tamron 150-600 zoom combo and took another look. It was a bittern, sunning itself! The sound of the shutter would travel equally clearly in these conditions; by the time I had taken the first few shots, there was no doubt that it was aware of my presence. It turned around, then began to walk along the edge of the reeds. Within three minutes of my arrival it had disappeared. I silently cursed my clumsiness.

The other photographer arrived. We waited another ten minutes or so. Then there was movement in the reeds and I located the bird half way up some reed stems. From this launch pad it flew across the pool and disappeared. Would it ever be seen again? In fact, it flew again quite soon and landed opposite the hide. This small reed-bed is somewhat degraded at the moment, the result, apparently, of being used as a starling roost.  Over most of the area the reeds are bent over (or broken) to barely half their normal height. (I believe the technical term is “trashed”…..) A crouching bittern was still completely hidden but at full height it was easily visible. Over the course of the day the bittern could be seen with varying degrees of success as it visited various parts of the reedbed. Having said that, though, its position was most often given away by the black cap to its head. It is a wonderfully camouflaged creature. The starling hypothesis gained credence after a couple of crows brought a small dark bird corpse out of the reeds and ate it. There would be plenty of food there for a bittern, too, as they are not that choosy about their diet.

Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling......
Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling……

I was still hoping for the ultimate bittern picture so I stayed put, despite the temperature, which must have been pretty close to freezing in the shade. The six layers of clothing I had donned early that morning weren’t really enough.  A succession of other visitors joined me in the hide, and I helped them locate the bird. They donated sandwiches, biscuits and chocolate in return. I hadn’t expected to be there so long! One christened me “the patient birdwatcher”. Towards mid-afternoon the bittern moved quite close to the railway track and I was able to photograph it reasonably successfully through the overgrown hedge (see above). Eventually a combination of thorough cold and fatigue meant it was time to call it a day. But what a day!

I’m still not sure I have the perfect bittern picture. In one otherwise excellent series of images, the bird’s surroundings are untidy. In the picture above the inverted v-shape, out-of-focus reed stem is irritating. I wonder if the content-aware cloning abilities of Photoshop would remove it successfully. Does anyone know?


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