Feeding young

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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.

 

All six chicks fledge in Holland

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Great news from the Nature Channel webcam site in Holland. On May 7th Between 5:20am uk time and 7:11am all six chicks left the nest. From the time the first chick hatched around 11:00am on April 12th, the chicks spent just short of 25 days in the nest being cared for by their parents.

On the facts and figures post page you can read more about some of the interesting statistics that were gathered by the volunteers on the site.

The guilty party?

badger

After a week monitoring the top of the kingfisher nest bank with a trail camera, shortly after midnight on Saturday the camera recorded this image of a large mammal right on top of the kingfisher burrow that had been dug out a few days earlier. It is a badger, and the other shots I have show it moving off along the bank shortly after this shot was taken. I had seen a trail in the grass that appeared to be evidence that something was regularly foraging along the bank,  so I thought that whatever had predated the nest would return sooner or later.

The kingfishers have already dug a new burrow and have begun mating. The new burrow is a few inches lower than the first, but with a badgers sense of smell I don’t think it would be safe, so I will be securing the surface with a large metal grid in the next few days.

 

 

Nest predation

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While everything has been going well with the Dutch kingfishers, on the Trent things have taken a disastrous turn. My local birds appeared to have been running about 2 weeks behind the dutch birds and I was expecting to see fish being taken into the nest this weekend. On arrival this morning at the nest site I sensed something was wrong, both birds were outside the nest flying upstream and downstream and perching below the nest borrow entrance. The female wouldn’t enter the burrow, and while the male entered, he came out immediately.

My usual viewpoint is on the opposite bank from the nest, so I had to drive and walk across a field to access the nest bank. As soon as I arrived I could see that the nest had been dug out from above, there were egg fragments on the ground, and a hole going straight down to the nest chamber, which was about 10 inches below the surface.

nest-predation1This has happened before at this site, in 2011 the same thing happened, so I had placed a metal grid above the nest chamber for each of the last two years. The metal grid I’d placed above the nest this year looks like it was just a bit too far back, and the unknown predator had dug down at the side of it. I’d assumed the nest would be about 3ft from the bank face, but unfortunately it was only about 18 inches deep, so it remained exposed, despite my efforts to protect it.

I had thought that it was the noise of chicks in the nest that might bring about this type of raid, however, this nest obviously still contained eggs, so I’m assuming that the predator was using scent. It’s probably fair to assume that the regurgitated pellets that the kingfishers use to line the floor of the nest chamber must have a fairly pungent scent.

The only positive I can take from this is that both adult birds appeared to be fine. If they dig a new burrow I will use a larger grid to try and ensure that the burrow is protected. It does concern me though, that if this has happened twice in three years at this location, how often is this happening at un-monitored kingfisher nests along the river.

A little miracle

Since discovering the Dutch Nature Channel website with its live webcam feed from their kingfisher nest bank, I have been checking in most days to watch the adults brood the eggs and slowly fill the floor with tiny bone fragments from the pellets they’ve been regurgitating.

Today, twenty days after the adults began brooding at around 11am (UK time) the first chick emerged. Here is a video of the event.

Having observed Kingfishers for over ten years, being able to witness this event is a real treat for me. It’s one of the best things about modern internet technology, to be able to share such a privileged view of the natural world.

All 6 eggs have now hatched (a seventh egg was accidentally knocked out of the nest about a week into brooding). The first 5 have all hatched within the space of two hours, with the final chick emerging about 4 hours later… quite remarkable!

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.