A brief encounter

I spent a couple of hours this morning at the kingfisher nest. Both adults were entering the burrow with fish, some of which were quite large. The flood water has receded further and is now about 3-4 ft below the burrow. I think it will drop further after today’s dry weather before it starts to rain again tomorrow.

The big news this morning though was not the kingfishers. At about 7:30am, I was inside my hide, waiting for the kingfishers to return when an otter surfaced about 15ft in front of me. It cruised along on the surface for about 5 seconds and then as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. I’ve never seen a freshwater otter in the wild, so this was a bit special for me to say the least.

When it rains

As if the flood isn’t enough to deal with, while I was at the kingfisher nest site on Saturday an unwelcome visitor turned up.

I’d decided to visit the nest site several times on Saturday to monitor the water level after the flash floods of the last few days. The good news is that the water level is dropping, which is just as well with heavy rain forecast all day Sunday.

A couple of hours into my second stint I notice something moving up on the fallen tree that sits opposite the nest burrow. A few seconds later I can see the unmistakable silhouette of a mink, rubbing against the trunk to leave a scent mark on the tree (this is obviously part of what it considers to be its territory). I notice one of the kingfishers is still perched in the tree a bit too close to the mink for my liking. I decide to break cover and see if I can scare the mink off, but to my surprise the mink is completely unconcerned as I approach with the camera. What’s more, the kingfisher (that will usually bolt downstream if it sees me in the open) is about ten feet in front of me watching the mink, but ignoring me.

For about 5 minutes I watch the mink as it drops down to the debris washed against the tree by the flood and swims underneath the tree several times before returning up the trunk for more scent marking. All this time the kingfisher is in attendance watching from above. Finally after about 5 minutes the mink drops into the river and disappears. I’m feeling glad that I added additional mesh above the nest burrow last week to prevent anything attempting to dig the nest out, but I’m left pondering whether the mink is stealthy enough the ambush one of the kingfishers.

So far though, they’ve obviously coped with the presence of the mink. I can only hope that their instinct for survival is enough to keep them out of its reach.

The flood

I foolishly suggested that the kingfisher nest was high enough up in the river bank to be safe from flooding a couple of weeks ago. Well, words definitely do come back to haunt you don’t they? After variable showers throughout April, I’d been happy to see that the water level in the river was maintaining a reasonable flow, higher than it has been but still several feet below the kingfisher burrow.

On the 22nd of April however it began to rain harder. It cleared somewhat on the 24th and then on the 25th it pelted down, but more to the point it also pelted down in the areas where the headwaters of both river systems that converge upstream of the kingfisher nest are located. The result has been a rapid rise in the water level, which I first noticed while driving home on the 26th. The meadows I drive past alongside the river having turned into a lake and the water levels close to the top of the arches on the bridges.

When I got home, I changed quickly and headed to the river (fortunately in wellington boots), and found the bank inundated. Thankfully, on the far side of the river where the kingfisher nest is, the burrow was still above the water line. The next question I had was; have I arrived at high water, or has it been higher and receded? The only thing for it was to wait and see if the kingfishers were still taking food into the nest. After a tense wait of 15 minutes, during which a kingfisher flies past the burrow but doesn’t stop, both birds suddenly arrive in a flurry opposite the nest. I can see the female has a fish, and a few seconds later she flies across the river and enters the burrow. The male enters shortly afterwards and then exits and heads upstream, the female stays inside the burrow for the rest of the time I’m there (about another 20 minutes).

So, it was with some relief that I left the nest site today, but this is very much tempered by the weather forecasts for the next few days. Tomorrow rain is forecast again all day and then, after a break on Saturday there’s more to come on Sunday and into next week. If the flood abates and the rain isn’t too concentrated, then hopefully the levels will drop or at least not increase. If it gets any worse, the kingfishers are in big trouble.

Kingfisher preening movie

Once the eggs have hatched the nest burrow starts becoming an increasingly mucky environment. Preening becomes an essential activity for the adults to ensure they’re in peak condition for hunting.

At the moment the kingfishers are using the perches and calmer water created by a fallen tree for preening.

The close ups in this video show the female repeatedly diving into the water and then settling for a preening session that I’ve actually edited down a lot (she actually sat there preening for over 4 minutes of which I filmed nearly 3 minutes).

Fish of the day

Today marks another important landmark within the breeding cycle. For the first time I’ve seen the female taking a fish into the nest burrow and this means that there are now live young in the nest.

The activity was far less predictable than it has been during the brooding phase. The adults are still leaving the nest site to hunt, but are returning sooner; at one point both adults were inside the burrow for the best part of a minute. It must take them a bit of getting used to, having live young, where the day before they just had 5 or 6 eggs to worry about. With the high attrition rate and short lifespans of most kingfishers, this may well be the first time this pair have bred, so everything depends on their instincts kicking in and triggering the right behaviour patterns at each stage of the breeding cycle. As an onlooker I’m continually fretting about whether the female has been away for too long, or whether the male is staying put long enough, but at the end of the day it’s out of my hands, so all I can do is sit quietly in my hide and watch as events unfold.

The female enters the burrow with a fish

If all goes well, the current phase, during which the adults will have to continually feed the young in the nest burrow, should last about 25 days (although it can be up to 35 days if food supplies are poor).

So the target for fledging is mid May, however, in my experience this next phase is the most precarious. Now the young are in the nest, their calling for food may attract the attention of predators more readily, and it was during this phase last year that the burrow 3ft to the right of this years nest was dug out by mink. I’ve placed a protective mesh above the nest burrow this year, but I’m still concerned.

For now, all seems to be going smoothly. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the burrow over the next few weeks and should also hopefully be able to post some more photos and video footage.

Still Brooding

I did a long stint at the nest site today timing the birds brooding sessions. The female is still staying away from the nest for longer than the male, with the female appearing to average about 2 hours, while the male seems to return after about an hour and a quarter. Although she does shorter sessions, the female does seem to be more settled while brooding. The male will often leave the nest briefly during his brooding stint and catch a fish before returning to the nest, while so far I’ve never seen the female leave the nest before being relieved.

During one of the handovers the male seemed to get spooked just after arriving at the site and calling to the female. He flew off upstream, and the female exited the nest a few seconds later and left to hunt. Throughout the following 2 hours the male returned to the nest but wouldn’t settle in the burrow. Despite entering the nest several times he immediately came out and hovered near the nest bank calling. It seemed to me that whatever disrupted the changeover had completely thrown him, and without seeing the female exiting the burrow he seemed unwilling to enter it. Eventually the female returned, entered the burrow and settled immediately, while the male left the site without having done any brooding. I stayed to watch the next changeover and this time everything went smoothly with the male entering the burrow immediately and settling, after the female had exited it.

Hopefully, this little blip won’t have any ill effects on the young which should be ready to emerge from the eggs within the next few days.

Brooding Kingfishers and an elusive mink

Are you coming out or what?

Since my close encounter with the Mink last Friday I have been fortunate enough to enlist the assistance of a local gamekeeper, and so I’ve been visiting the site twice a day to check the live trap we put down under the tree where I saw the Mink. So far it’s been empty each time I’ve visited and I’ll probably give it until the end of next weekend before returning the trap.

On the Kingfisher front, I sat in my bag hide today after arriving at about 17:30 to check the trap and watched the nest burrow. After half an hour I heard the familiar high pitched call from downstream and the male bird then flew in to perch in the tree opposite the burrow. he continued to call and after only a few seconds the female exited the burrow and flew across, perching on a branch about 10 feet above the male. She then called a couple of times and then headed off upstream. The male entered the burrow about 30 seconds later and after waiting a minute or two to ensure he was settled, I left my hiding place and headed home for dinner. We should be about half way through the brooding phase if my estimate is correct.

The water level on the river was well up today under the burrow, after some sharp showers yesterday. On a major river like the Trent flood water is a real danger to Kingfishers nest burrows, however, the water level is still a good 4 feet below this burrow entrance, so I think it’s fairly safe from flooding. Kingfisher burrows usually gently slope upwards and end in a small hollowed bowl about 3ft from the entrance.

Double jeopardy

The Kingfisher nest site has been the centre of a lot of drama in the last couple of days. Two serious threats to the Kingfishers have cropped up and although one has now been dealt with, the second is still present and I’m considering what can be done about it.

The first problem became obvious when I visited the site to observe the brooding behaviour on Thursday morning. From the opposite bank, I watched in horror as a herd of bullocks shoved there way past and even jumped over the fence protecting the area of the bank with the Kingfisher nest. The fence was put up a few years ago after cattle had stoved in the bank and destroyed a nest in 2004, so to be fair it wasn’t in great repair, however until today I thought it was still servicable. After driving round to the location where I access the bank on the Kingfisher side of the river I managed to lure the cattle away from the bank and then surveyed the damage.

I’d seen the cattle jostling and bucking directly above the nest hole, so I was fairly concerned and on examination a clod of earth was missing directly above the hole. On the plus side, the Kingfishers were still in attendance and I watched in some relief as the male entered the burrow and stayed in for a brooding session.

Once I’d established that the nest seemed to be intact I contacted the estate office and despite them being shorthanded over the easter weekend they were great and we managed to organise a fencing repair the same day. If we hadn’t repaired the fence, I feel certain that the bank with the nest in it would have been lost within days.

So on Thursday lunchtime we had the tractor down at the site and a new fence was erected. We kept the new fence posts as far from the burrow as we could, but I was very aware every time the posts were bashed in of the potential disturbance to the burrow.

So it was with some trepidation that I went down on Friday 6th to monitor the site from a distance using my bag hide. After half an hour I was really pleased to see the male emerge from the burrow and after a brief fishing session opposite the nest return to brooding duty. The male emerged from the nest 3 more times until finally, the female returned and entered the burrow. So, I still have both parents apparently brooding normally despite the disturbance.

However, the Kingfishers were not all that I saw on Friday.

I had been sitting in cover with my bag hide completely covering me for about 2 hours when I heard a noise directly behind me. I slowly turned round and through the small hole in my hide I stared straight into the face of an adult Mink sitting upright sniffing the air and trying to work out what I was.

After a few seconds it disapeared for a minute or two and then re-appeared and ran straight in front of me no more than 5 feet from my feet. It hopped over a tree trunk and then to my horror dropped down into the river and swam straight to the undergrowth right next to where the male Kingfisher has been fishing from a low perch in between brooding sessions.

I watched as the Kingfisher emerged from the burrow and perched no more than 6 feet from where I had last seen the Mink. After a few seconds the Kingfisher dove into the water, caught a fish and moved to a safer perch. After the Kingfisher had returned to the burrow I watched the Mink emerge from close to where the Kingfisher had been fishing and trot along a fallen tree branch overhanging the river.

Well, that was as much as I saw today. How much time that Mink is spending in the vicinity and whether it could create an opportunity to ambush the Kingfishers I simply don’t know. Either way it re-enforces my intention to protect the burrow from being dug out from above as it was last year, I just hope the adults are going to be OK. As I watched it bought to mind Charlie Hamilton Jones’s film Halcyon River Diary, where a mink ambushed a pair of fighting Kingfishers, so mink are certainly capable of predating adult birds.

On the plus side, when I left both adult birds are still present and behaving normally, the bank is now protected from the cattle and so far the Mink obviously hasn’t figured out a way to ambush them.

Brooding underway

Today’s visit marks another distinct phase in the breeding cycle. I spent 4 hours observing the nest site today on what has been a bright, if a little chilly morning.

In contrast to my last visit on Wednesday 28th March when the adults stayed mainly in the trees, only briefly visiting the burrow, today I watched as both adults took consecutive turns, staying in the nest burrow on brooding duty. With the mating and egg laying apparently completed, the next 3 weeks should see the kingfishers sharing incubation duties.

The first 3 changeovers I watched each consisted of 30-45 minute shifts. Each time they returned to the nest, they perched opposite the burrow and began calling, several seconds later the brooding bird emerged from the burrow and then they briefly perched together in the tree, both birds continuing to call to each other. After 20-30 seconds the returning bird flew across to the burrow to commence brooding duty while the other flew off to hunt.

The final changeover I watched had me a bit worried; the female was away from the nest, and after an hour she still hadn’t returned. The male emerged from the burrow after 1 hour 15 minutes for several minutes, calling and flying from branch to branch, looking slightly agitated before returning to the burrow. The female finally arrived back at the burrow after being away for over 2 hours (the male then vacated immediately and flew downstream, not bothering to stop and say hello).

As I can pin down the transition from laying to brooding to within the last 5 days I can predict reasonably confidently that the brood should hatch (assuming nothing disastrous happens) somewhere around the third week in April.