Feeding young

feedintonest

After the failure of the first nest burrow, the kingfishers wasted no time excavating a new burrow. A month later and for the first time this year I’ve seen fish being taken into the nest, a sure sign that the eggs have hatched and the adults are now feeding young. The new burrow is lower on the bank than the first, so I am hoping that it will be out of reach of the badger that destroyed the first nest. The location of the nest is a difficult balancing act for the kingfishers to pull off. Too high and the nest can fall victim to predators from above, but too low and the nest becomes vulnerable to flooding and other predators such as mink. It really is a dangerous business for the kingfishers.

In the burrow after hatching

Observing the inside of a kingfisher nest in real time via the web cam set up by the Nature Channel in Holland offers a unique glimpse into the world of kingfishers. Here is a selection of stills from inside the burrow.

 

Facts and figures

In addition to the live camera feed, the Nature Channel website in Holland site has a clubhouse where volunteers monitor the kingfisher nest ( and other nest cams) 24 hours a day. The volunteers keep a record of how many times the chicks are fed each day and by which of the adults (fortunately the infra-red camera makes it easy to spot the lighter coloured lower part of the beak on the female).

Now that the chicks have fledged I have some statistics to share:

7 eggs were laid, 6 hatched after 1 egg was accidentally knocked out of the nest by parent.

24 days + 20 hours after the first chick hatched at 11:57 April 12, the 6th chick left the nest at 08:11 May 7.

During the first week the parents spent a large amount of time brooding the chicks, the female more than the male, who took on a larger percentage of the feeding at this time.

By day ten the adults were spending much less time brooding the chicks and the feed rate climbed significantly, the female bringing in significantly more fish than the male at this time.

The female continued to brood overnight in the nest with the chicks for eleven nights after the eggs hatched.

From day 10 to day 15 the highest feed rates were recorded, with 3 days of over 100 fish being fed.

By the time the chicks left the nest both parents had fed the chicks a similar number of fish, the male 577 (36%) and the female 594 (37%) (assuming that the 422 (26%) of feeds the counters were unable to attribute were evenly spread). In total 1593 fish were fed to the chicks.

The daily feed graphs showed that feeding commenced each day within a few minutes of sunrise, and finished in the hour before sunset.

Throughout the feeding period, the individual parents fed at irregular intervals, sometimes making several visits to feed within a space of a few minutes, while at other times they were absent for an hour or more. Despite this erratic behaviour, the cumulative efforts of both parents tended to even out during the course of a day, with the graphs showing a steady supply of fish being presented every day.

This graph shows a distinctive bell curve as the feed rate built to a peak and then tailed off towards the date when the young fledged.

This clutch of youngsters all left within a period of around an hour, the first chick exiting shortly after sunrise 6:19 local time (5:19 BST). Records from previous clutches at this nest site have shown that each clutch has left at a similar time, shortly after sunrise.

overall-feeding

This graph depicts the breakdown of the 1593 fish fed. Blue shows the male count, red the female and green shows fish fed where it was not possible to identify the adults gender. During the final few days the size and voracity of the chicks, taking fish at the nest entrance, made it increasingly difficult to identify which parent was feeding.

 

The graphs below show the feed count and feed times for each day (click thumbnail images to view graphs).

 

2014 season underway

The kingfishers returned to their usual nest site on or around the 1st of March. The female could well be last years bird, although I always find it tricky being 100% certain about an individual bird’s ID after several months. The nest burrow looks like it’s already nearing completion, with a large pile of fresh dirt sitting beneath it. Both birds were present this morning, and there were vocal exchanges between the pair as they build up to mating. No sign of any fish passing or overt mating behavior yet, which I think is still probably a few days off.

I’ve been combing the banks looking for mink tracks, but so far I’ve seen no sign of mink in the vicinity so far.

Shugborough’s Kingfishers

This is a 15 minute film that I have made using the footage that I gathered during the 2012 breeding season. It follows the adults from pair bonding through to the end of a dramatic and incident packed breeding season. The film is in HD and can be viewed full screen if required.

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.

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.

 

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.

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!

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.

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.