Injured Kingfisher

While watching the kingfishers today everything initially appeared to be OK. Both birds were bringing fish into the nest, the male was still bringing very large fish in, although he now seems be getting the youngsters to take them, even if it means him flying in to the nest 3-4 times. The female was hanging around a bit more, begging for fish from the male as well as taking fish into the nest. This is typical behaviour when the female is getting ready to start another brood, and she was also making some initial attempts at starting a new burrow a couple of yards from the active burrow.

With less than 2 weeks to go before the first brood are due to fledge, everything seemed to be running smoothly, when the male flew over and landed on a branch in front of me to preen. Almost immediately I could see that something was not right with his right eye, and a closer view showed that it appears to be clouded over. the male is holding it half shut most of the time and it really doesn’t look good.

Life is seldom straightforward for kingfishers, they live a high risk lifestyle plummeting into water many times each day, so I suppose it’s inevitable that birds will occasionally pick up injuries. For a kingfisher the loss of sight in one eye has got to be fairly catastrophic as they rely entirely on their eyesight for hunting, which I just don’t think would work with monocular vision.

For the time being the good news is that the male is still bringing fish in regularly, so I assume he still has reasonable sight in the eye. With 10 days to go till the first brood fledges, I’m hopeful that the brood will be OK, but unless the injury heals, then I don’t hold out too much hope that this pair will be able to raise a second brood.

For now all I can do is keep an eye on things and hope for the best, kingfishers are tough little birds, so for the moment I’m hoping it’s something that will heal by itself.

Feeding routine

The female enters the burrow with a fish

The Kingfishers are now just over a week into the final stage of rearing their young. The male seems to be taking a bit of time to get used to the demands of the chicks and has been bringing back fish that are too large for them occasionally. He’ll take them into the burrow and then emerge a minute or so later still holding the fish which he’ll then eat himself. This seems fairly common in the kingfishers I’ve observed and one parent from most broods seems to exhibit this behavior occasionally.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the river stays reasonably placid and the predators keep away fro another couple of weeks!

Hatched!

On arrival at the nest site on Sunday I noticed something in the nest tunnel. It was a shell fragment, a sure sign that the eggs are now chicks! This event marks the beginning of a busy period for the parents as they’ll need to bring in excess of 1000 fish to the burrow over the next 3 weeks, each of which represents a separate fishing trip!

There has been no sign of mink in the vicinity for several weeks now, but I’ll continue to monitor the area and keep my fingers crossed that the weather and local predators leave the Kingfishers in peace this year!

Progression

The Kingfishers have completed the first clutch of eggs and as of Saturday 27th April they are incubating. The female will have laid 5-6 eggs over the previous week at a rate of about 1 a day. She’s been spending most of her time in proximity to the nest site where she has been making frequent visits to the nest burrow. Throughout this period the male has been bringing fish to pass to the female and they have been mating regularly to ensure each new egg is inseminated.

The transition to incubation sees both birds taking turns incubating the eggs. They can changeover at intervals of anything from 20 minutes to an hour and a half. The instinct to brood must be strong as at this early stage their is a visible urgency in the birds desire to return to the burrow. The female actually evicted the male after 45 minutes while I watched today.

There has been no further sign of the mink and I’m hoping that it stays that way. This is a critical and vulnerable time for the Kingfishers, as they become tied to the burrow for 6 weeks, where they are entirely dependent on the limited security that it provides.

Mating underway!

Everything seems to be progressing well at the moment. The burrow is now complete, confirmed by the onset of mating. The female won’t allow the male to mate with her until she is happy with the burrow, as once mating commences she will begin egg production. Each egg takes about a day to produce and so the burrow must be ready to go as soon as the mating starts.

The female is spending most of her time now around the nest site, waiting for the male to bring her fish. This arrangement serves to help the female conserve all of her energy for the arduous process of egg production (one a day for about 6 days) while at the same time re-enforcing their pair bond.

Week Two -still digging

After a week of sporadic digging, the kingfishers should now be getting close to completing the nest burrow. Once the female has accepted the burrow, the pair will commence mating and the female will lay 5-6 eggs at a rate of approximately one a day until the clutch is complete. Only then will the pair begin incubating the clutch, so the chicks can all hatch around the same time.

Return of the King

After the dramatic events of last year, this year has already proven challenging for the Trent Kingfishers. Over the winter the river has flooded repeatedly, causing more erosion of the banks than I’ve seen in the ten years I’ve been visiting the river. As a result of this the kingfisher bank has lost at least a metre from its face, removing all trace of previous kingfisher burrows.

On March 14th I first saw a pair of kingfishers checking out the bank, however that night it rained heavily, the river flooded and a week later the snow arrived, after which there was no further sign of the kingfishers at the bank.

Although I saw kingfishers as I walked the river, they were alone, appearing to have reverted back to their individual territories throughout the period of snow and sub zero temperatures. Finally the weather improved and the milder sunny weather on the 6th April seems to have been what the Kingfishers were waiting for, as on my return to the bank on Sunday morning I could see the start of a new burrow and a pair of birds sitting on a branch opposite the bank.

Later in the day I carefully positioned myself opposite the bank and watched the kingfishers digging into the bank.

I’m afraid to report that there are still mink present along this stretch of the river and despite my efforts to keep this stretch clear by trapping, the mink are ignoring the traps.

I really don’t know how things will go this year, despite the mink and the floods, the kingfishers still managed to fledge their first brood last year, and hopefully, this years breeding season will be less eventful.

End of the season

With Autumn fast approaching, the kingfisher breeding season draws to a close. The new nest site was no longer in use a week after I discovered it, so hopefully the young from the brood fledged successfully. It’s actually just as well, as the floods returned several days later and submerged the nest bank.

I’ve observed the adult male still in the proximity of the nest site, so perhaps he’ll establish this area as his winter territory.

The good news is that a few hundred yards downstream there are at least two youngsters frequenting the local wildlife trust reserve at Wolselely Bridge. I was lucky enough to get buzzed by them as they chased each other across a water meadow that I was photographing dragonflies in. There are also kingfishers present in the vicinity of the original nest bank, so the year hasn’t been a disaster for kingfishers, despite the repeated flooding and the predation of the nest by mink.

With the support of the local wildlife trust, I’ve decided to run a limited trap line to control the mink in the vicinity of the original nest site. My ambitions with this are limited as the scope of the mink problem is beyond the action of an individual to address, but I hope that by trapping during early autumn and then again in early spring I may be able to prevent a breeding territory being established by mink in this part of the river.

Thanks to everyone who has visited the diary this year and a special thanks to those of you who have contacted me; the positive feedback I’ve received has been a great source of encouragement and really helps to motivate me, especially on cold damp mornings!

All the best
Andy

I’ve found the new nest site

Well, it’s taken me over a month, but today I was watching the river when I heard the unmistakable call of a Kingfisher. I scanned along the river bank with my binoculars and saw an adult male which had just caught a fish. I watched as it turned the fish with the head facing outwards, a tell tale sign that this fish wasn’t for eating, but for feeding to young. I then watched it fly downstream, and just as it was about to fly out of view it jinked up into the bank and disappeared. A few seconds later I watched it dive into the water and then fly back upstream without the fish in its beak.

I reckon that if this is my pair (and I’m reasonably sure it is) they may only be about 8-10 days from the chicks fledging. The nest site isn’t exactly out of harms way if there are any Mink about, but the fact that they’ve made it this far is a good sign that they’ve picked a spot outside the local mink’s foraging territory.

 

Nest site abandoned

After struggling with a succession of set backs while attempting to get started with their second brood, the kingfisher pair that I’ve spent so many hours observing in and around this nest site have finally called it a day at this location.

The heavy flooding in the middle of July caused the River Trent to rise to it’s highest point this year and the entire nest bank occupied by the kingfishers was inundated. The adults had just begun clearing one of the old nest burrows after the mink predation, when the floods arrived, so at least they did not suffer the loss of a clutch of eggs or young.

I’ve been checking the river for the last two weeks, but so far the kingfishers are proving to be elusive and I’ve no idea where they are at the moment, although I’m assuming that they will have attempted to start another nest somewhere within their territory. The task of tracking them down is complicated by the fact that there are several private fishing pools close to the river, to which I have no access, and with the river levels having remained high for more than a week after the peak of the flooding, I think there’s a good chance that they may be at one of these sites, where they would be immune to the effects of the unpredictable flood water.

I’ll continue to keep an eye open to see if I can figure out where they are. I figure that if they have excavated a new burrow, they might just about be at the point where egg laying has been completed and incubation will be getting underway.

 

Nest bank underwater

It’s been raining on and off for nearly two weeks now. The bank that the kingfishers are nesting in was completely inundated by the end of the first week of July and a week later, the water level is still very high.

The kingfishers had just about started mating again in the few days before the rain returned, so at least they won’t have lost any young. However, it does mean that once again their attempt at starting a second brood has been bought to an abrupt halt.

Photo by Helen

With the river being so high, the kingfishers have been regularly seen on the canal and a local ornamental lake over the last few days. Although I saw a cormorant fishing on the river, I can’t imagine that the kingfishers would be able to catch much with the river in its current state.

The image on the right shows a stile I often use which has now become a jetty as the River Trent inundates the adjoining field. Fortunately the farmer was quick off the mark and removed the cattle and sheep from the field in plenty of time.

Once the river levels begin to drop, it remains to be seen whether the kingfishers will return to the bank to try again. With the river having been high for over a week, I wonder whether the kingfishers instinct to start another brood while they have time will lead them to seek an alternate site away from the river.

How to identify a juvenile Kingfisher?

Juvenile Kingfisher approximately 6 weeks old

I’ve found the easiest way to identify a juvenile is to look at it’s feet. From the point that it fledges until it is several months old the juveniles feet are much duller than the bright orange colour of the adult birds. The younger the bird the more mottled the appearance of the feet.

Another give away to look out for is the pale tip on the beak of a young bird. It’s been suggested that the pale tip is adapted for life in the burrow so the adult can recognise where the chicks beaks are situated in the poor light inside the burrow. Once they emerge, the pale tip starts to fade, but it’s still clearly visible in birds a couple of months old.

The final things to consider are more general. Youngsters often hang around together and are less shy of people than adults, so if you see 2 or 3 birds in reasonably close proximity to each other, they will probably be juveniles. Their plumage is just a bit duller overall than the adult birds and they appear a bit more compact in appearance than the adults.

My top tip for identifying a juvenile though is to look at the feet!

Trying again

After visiting the nest site each morning and evening to check the mink trap this week, I was becoming increasingly concerned at the lack of any sign of the kingfishers, so on Saturday I decided to set up my hide and do a long stint at the nest site, to see if there was any sign of the kingfishers returning.

After half an hour the male Kingfisher turned up (he seems to have lost the tip of his upper beak during the week), and then after he’d been sitting opposite the nest for about 10 minutes, I was amazed to see two more kingfishers arrive. The male immediately flew across to them and a few seconds of aerial chasing ensued, until eventually all three birds settled in adjacent trees. I was able to observe the new arrivals with my binoculars and it became clear immediately that these were juveniles, presumably from the first brood that fledged 6 weeks ago.

The juveniles flew backwards and forwards across the river for the following hour, hovering near the burrows and repeatedly entering all of them. The adult male seemed to be content to observe and didn’t appear to display any aggression towards them. Just as I was getting my head round this development, a fourth kingfisher arrived and I was greatly relieved to recognise the adult female, who had been incubating when the mink raided the nest.

Half an hour later the juveniles had left, and the adults started to pay more and more attention to the burrow where the first brood had been raised. It soon became clear that they were concentrating their efforts on this burrow, taking it in turns to enter for several minutes at a time, while their partner watched on from the branch opposite.

I returned on Sunday and the adult pair were still present, continuing to work on the burrow, with signs of renewed mating behaviour taking place. I observed a couple of fish passes by the male and a couple of tentative attempts to mate. I think that once the female is happy that the burrow is ready she will allow the male to mate and egg laying will then start again and continue for the next week or two.

I’ve seen no sign of the mink since the second day I had the trap out, when I caught a second juvenile. I assume the adult female has moved the remaining kits to another location, but this area of bank is still part of her territory and I’m concerned that the new kingfisher nest is not going to be safe from her as things stand.

Aftermath

It’s a week on from the destruction of the kingfisher and sand martin nests by the mink. During this time I’ve had several discussions with the landowner and the local Wildlife Trust which has resulted in permission being granted to trap the mink. On Friday evening I placed a trap in an area I’d seen the female mink moving through regularly, and on Saturday morning I returned to be met with shrill distress calls emanating from the area around the trap, as I approached the trap there was frantic calling from the undergrowth and I saw three juvenile mink kits being led away from the vicinity of the trap by the adult. Part of the cloth cover I’d put over the trap to create the impression of a cave was chewed and through the hole I could see a juvenile mink inside the trap.

Inline with GWCT guidelines on mink trapping, the juvenile was quickly dispatched using an air pistol and I’m now left with the knowledge that the female has at least 3 healthy & mobile juveniles in tow that she will be foraging for. Intervening in an ecosystem is seldom straightforward, and unfortunately there are no easy solutions to problems like the mink.

As for the kingfishers, on my last two visits to the site I’ve only seen the adult male on the branch opposite the nest site, where he has perched for a few seconds before resuming his flight upstream. At this point it looks like the kingfishers have abandoned the nest bank, presumably to try and find a safer site elsewhere, there is also no sign of the Sand Martins.

Kingfisher nest predation by Mink

For the second year in succession, the kingfishers have lost a nest to predation by mink. The kingfishers had been incubating for about 2 weeks when the mink struck, predating the Sand Martin nest and the Kingfisher nest within a matter of minutes.

The only piece of positive news in this is that the adult female, who was incubating at the time managed to exit the nest before the mink entered, so both of the adults have survived the attack and still have time for another brood.

What this incident has highlighted though is how vulnerable these nest banks are to Mink. During the time I’ve been observing this nest site, I had assumed that the entrance was safe from the Mink, being over 4ft above the base of the bank and dug into a loose sandy clay bank. Although the Mink struggled to enter the Kingfisher nest, it managed to get in after only a few failed attempts, and entered the Sand Martin burrow on its first attempt. Coming a week after many of us watched a Mink predating a Kingfisher nest on the BBC during Springwatch, I think this goes to show how much of a threat these introduced predators are to bank nesting birds like kingfishers and martins.

Half an hour after this event, the male was removing egg shells from the nest burrow.

I very nearly left my hide to try and scare the mink off while this was unfolding, however, I’m certain the Mink would have returned after I left and so I decided to document what happened without interfering, however I will now be discussing mink trapping with the land owner

 

Another flood & a collapsing bank

On the day that the kingfishers began incubating their second brood the rain started again. A week later and the water levels are pretty much where they were during the floods in April. During my visit to the nest site on Saturday 9th June, I’m horrified to see a substantial section of the bank directly beneath the kingfisher burrow collapse into the river. The kingfisher burrow entrance, that had been in the middle of a smooth bank face, was now overhanging a gaping hole where the bank had collapsed away.

When the collapse happened, the female, who was incubating at the time, immediately exited the burrow and seemed very reluctant to return to the nest. She repeatedly flew across the river and hovered near the burrow entrance, but just didn’t seem to have the confidence to enter. A few minutes later she flew off downstream. Fortunately, the male returned to the nest shortly afterwards and flew straight into the burrow as if nothing had happened.

I stayed on site to wait for the female to return and I’m pleased to say that an hour later she returned. She perched opposite the nest and called to the male, who immediately flew across to perch next to her. A few seconds later the male headed off downstream and the female flew across to the burrow and entered. The following morning both birds were continuing to take shifts brooding and the water level had receded a couple of feet, exposing more of the chasm below the nest burrow. The nest chamber itself is about 2-3 feet into the bank, but if the top section of the bank collapses, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the nest will remain viable.

In a final turn of events, the disused burrow to the right of the kingfisher nest was once again being visited by Sand Martins on Sunday morning. The martin’s were present most of the time I was there (about 3 hours), perching at the burrow entrance and entering, sometimes two at a time. Whether they’ll move in this time remains to be seen.

Digging, feeding, breeding & brooding


In the last week a lot has happened at the kingfisher nest. By the 29th May work on the burrow had been completed, the resumption of mating being a sure sign that the burrow was now ready for a second batch of eggs. During the following week the kingfishers continued mating, the ongoing courtship display of calling, fish passing and mating all happening around the nest site. The female intermittently visited the nest burrow throughout this period, probably laying an egg each day.

Once the female has completed egg laying, the kingfishers behaviour changes markedly as they begin incubating the clutch, and when I arrive on Monday 4th June I sense straight away that things have changed. After seeing and hearing nothing for 45 minutes, the male bird arrives opposite the nest, calling loudly as he arrives. The female hears the male and exits the nest burrow almost instantly, she flies across the river and they perch a couple of feet apart on a branch calling to each other, the female affecting an extravagant upright posture. A few seconds later, she takes off and heads upriver, the male sits on the branch for a few seconds more and then flies across the river straight into the nest burrow, incubation is now underway.

All being well, the adults will now settle into a routine for the next 3 weeks, changing over at the nest about once every one and a half to two hours. When the adults are not brooding they leave the nest site after a brief hand over, and don’t usually re-appear until they’re ready for their next shift. I’m not sure how far they go, but I’ve seen them over a quarter of a mile down stream still flying away from the nest during this phase. I wonder whether they are taking the opportunity afforded by these extended breaks to re-acquaint themselves with their territory, perhaps ensuring that no other kingfishers have encroached while they’ve been busy around the nest site.

I’ve seen no further sign of the first brood fledglings since a fly past the nest site on the 25th May. The mortality rate in young kingfishers can be very high during their first few weeks of life, but hopefully the brief heatwave during the latter part of May will have given them ideal conditions for starting out, and judging by the amount of small fish in the river, they shouldn’t have had too much trouble finding something to eat.

A new burrow


It’s just over a week since the first brood fledged and the adults are engaged in excavating a new burrow. It’s come as a bit of a surprise to me, as the female seemed to have settled on an existing burrow about 6ft to the right of the one that the first brood were raised in. She’d been spending a lot of time in this burrow, and I’d seen the adults mating again over a week before the first brood fledged (I was beginning to wonder if they were getting a new brood underway before the first one had even fledged). I have no idea why they’ve decided to dig a new burrow after seeming to commit to the old one, but it looks like the new burrow is going to be home to the second brood and I’m waiting now to see when they settle back into the behaviour patterns typical during egg incubation.

While the burrow is under construction, both birds spend the majority of their time at the nest site. The bird that is not digging stands vigil nearby and emits occasional calls which are quite subdued in comparison to their normal call, this presumably lets the bird in the burrow know that they are present and that all is well outside. When the bird in the burrow emerges, the other often flies straight into the burrow, seemingly keen to see what the other has accomplished and do some work themselves.

Another thing I’ve noticed during this phase is that the male seems very keen to pass fish to the female, but for the time being she’s clearly not interested. I assume the fish passing, and any subsequent mating is on hold until she is happy with the new burrow.

During the time I’ve spent observing the digging of the new burrow, I’ve also seen kingfishers flying past the nest site at speed, occasionally prompting a response from the resident adults. I can only assume that this is one or more of the fledglings; I wonder how long their presence in the adults territory will be tolerated.

Last to leave

The first brood of kingfishers has fledged and less than a day later only one fledgling remains near the nest site. I saw 3 youngsters Thursday evening, but by the following morning there was just one left at the nest site. I’ve spent most of Saturday and Sunday walking the river, but I’ve only spotted the adult birds, so I’ve no idea where the youngsters have gone or how they’re faring now they’re out of the nest burrow. On a positive note, from the little I saw of them, they seemed full of life and quite capable of flying up and down the river at pretty much the same pace as the adults. I’d love to know how they get on, but I suspect I’m going to be disappointed, though I’ll continue to watch the river in the hope that I might stumble upon them over the next few weeks.

Back at the nest site, the female is spending a lot of time in the new burrow. When she’s not in the burrow she seems to be staying close to the nest, sitting in the tree opposite the nest preening or flying 20-30 yards upstream to another perch she seems to have taken to. The male returns every hour or so and regularly passes fish to her and attempts to mate. After the regular feeding of the young that’s been going on for the last few weeks the nest site suddenly feels very quiet. I’m actually a bit taken a back by the speed with which the youngsters have left the area. I’d kind of hoped they’d stick around for a few days before the adults booted them out of the territory, but as things stand it appears that they’ve left!