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.

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.

Brand new kingfishers

It’s the 26th day since I first saw the female taking a fish into the nest burrow and the young are out and about. I’ve been at work all day, so I didn’t get the river until shortly before 7pm. For the first half an hour, other than a brief glimpse of the adult female I saw nothing. I suspected that the brood had fledged when there was no sign of the male who had been so diligently taking fish to the burrow every 15 minutes the previous day. After 45 minutes I was just about ready to move out and try walking the river to see if I could see any sign of the young when a small kingfisher shaped bird came fluttering past me and landed on the trunk of a fallen tree over the river. So here was my first glimpse of one of the brand new kingfishers that have been nurtured in the privacy and security of the burrow across the river from me for the last few weeks. You can see it’s a fledgling by the pale tip on the beak, the dull colour of the feet and by the plumage that is markedly duller than the adults.

A few minutes after my first sighting, the adult male arrives and with him 2 more youngsters, I can see him feeding them, but I’m unable to get a shot, and before I have chance to digest what’s happening 3 birds are off downstream at high speed. All this time, the female is sitting impassively by, watching proceedings from a small tree, she doesn’t appear to be taking any role in the feeding or following of the young. About 10 minutes later the male arrives back at the nest site and the male and female birds begin calling to each other, the male has a fish, but with no young nearby he flies over to the female and passes the fish to her. A few seconds later, after she has eaten the fish the male hovers above the female and mates with her, then immediately heads off down stream in the direction of the youngsters.

As I watch the female sitting quietly in the tree I notice some movement to my right. The mink hops onto the fallen tree and scampers along the branches until she’s about 20ft from the bank, sitting on the branch over the water, she takes a drink and then sits up as she notices the noise of my camera shutter.

I really didn’t want to see the mink today of all days, I just hope that the young kingfishers are equipped with enough common sense to keep out of the minks way. The mink is probably also feeding young in a den somewhere nearby. I’ve seen her (I say her, as the males do not take part in rearing young) carrying fish and small mammals downstream, which I assume are for feeding to her young.

23 days – blinded by the light

It’s now 23 days since the feeding of the young started. I’ve had to visit the site in the afternoon after work, & the sun’s right in my eyes from my vantage point opposite the nest. The river is alive with swallows, zipping up and down catching insects. All this is making it difficult for me to see whether the kingfishers are still taking fish to the burrow; the nest is in shadow so I have to squint to try and make out the burrow entrance. After twenty minutes or so both birds fly in and land a few yards in front of me, the male has a fish and commences to edge down the branch towards the female. He passes the fish to her and flies off downstream. I’m now watching to see if she is going to take it across to the burrow, but no, after holding it in her beak for a few seconds she swallows it. The female’s focus now seems to be on looking after herself, and I think this maybe because she’s now entered the gestation period prior to egg laying for the second brood.

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible that the young have fledged a bit early and have moved up or downstream when I hear the male calling as he arrives back at the nest site, he has a large bullhead which he adjusts slightly before flying over to the nest with it. So they’re still in the nest, and I’m wondering if they’re going to fledge bang on the optimum 25 days, which will be Wednesday.

The start of a second brood…

Occasionally, and if you’re very lucky, hours spent sitting in a hide, getting cramp and cold feet rewards you with being privy to a rarely seen & intimate moment. I’m not going to write any more, I’ll let the footage speak for itself.

Fish pass & feed

Although the chicks are still a week or so from fledging, the adults behaviour seems to be shifting back towards mating. I’ve seen several fish passes, where the male brings a fish and presents it to the female, a behaviour which is a typical pre-cursor to mating. When this was happening before the first brood, the female would immediately eat the fish and hang around waiting for the male to bring her another, whereas now, with hungry mouths still to feed, the fish is taken straight over to the nest burrow.

I know that once the young emerge they will only be tolerated for a few days before being driven out of the parents territory. The fact that breeding behaviour is already underway suggests that this pair are not going to waste any time getting a second brood underway.

If you’re curious about what happened after the fish passing, keep checking the blog, as I have a rather special film clip coming soon.

Feeding & breeding

An early start this morning to try and use the forecast sunny morning to photograph the kingfishers entering the nest burrow. This operation means I’m on the same side of the river as the nest, in a small reed screen I’ve had set up for a few weeks.

After the first half hour I’m relieved to see that both adults are completely  ignoring my lens sticking out above the screen, I can even slowly move it to frame shots without them becoming agitated. The light hits the right spot on the bank at about 8am, by which time it’s clouded over, so as the light’s no good I point my camera over at the perch they use before entering the nest to see if I can get anything interesting on video.

The kingfishers are spending a lot of time on the perch opposite the nest this morning. The male sits and preens for ten minutes while the female goes off to catch a fish, and then the female sits and preens while the male goes off. When the male returns with a fish, something unexpected happens; instead of flying to the burrow, the male perches near the female and passes the fish to her. This is a typical pre-cursor to breeding with the male feeding the female, however, rather than eating it, the female turns the fish around and takes it over to the nest burrow.

The perching and preening opposite the nest goes on for the next couple of hours and I see another 2 fish passes (and one very brief attempted mating), each time the female taking the fish into the burrow. Also, I briefly spot the mink on the opposite bank scuttling around (it’s getting to be too much of a regular sighting for my liking).

At about 10:15 the clouds part again for a few minutes and I set up my lens on the burrow. I’m waiting (with the female, sitting opposite me) for the male to return and hoping the sun doesn’t go in. Finally he arrives with a fish, and after briefly perching opposite the nest, he flies straight over (no fish pass this time). I hit the shutter release, ratatatat, I fire off about 5 shots on entry and the same on exit, the kingfishers don’t seem to notice the noise (which is not always the case) and remain perched opposite me.

After a few more minutes watching them perched opposite my position, both birds head downstream, so I take my opportunity to leave the hide and head home for a coffee.

Meet the martins…

I captured some fascinating footage on Monday when I went to check the flood water levels. All in all it was a great session, the water levels had dropped again, I had a brief glimpse of an otter and then I noticed that we had some new potential residents on the bank.

A pair of Sand Martin’s are in and out of the burrow on the right hand side of the bank. This is where they nested last year, so it looks like they favour the location. From what I could tell last year, the kingfishers pretty much ignored the sand martins, but I’m not so sure that this years female is as tolerant. In the clip you can see her hovering along the bank face, obviously agitated, and then, in a move that surprised me, she perches at the sand martin burrow entrance and goes all the way inside. I assume having only just arrived, there are no eggs yet and there were no martins inside at the time, but this seems quite bold behaviour from our female. It’ll be interesting to see if the martins stay put, or are evicted by the kingfishers.

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.