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.

Kingfishers – inside the nest burrow

nestcam2The kingfishers that I have been observing nest in a natural burrow in a fairly fragile bank, so it’s pretty much impossible to know what’s going on inside the nest chamber, however there are now a couple of places online where you can not only see clips of behaviour from inside a nest burrow, you can actually observe the entire process live!

The Nature Channel  – (Holland)

This camera site is based in Holland. Follow this link and select the BroedwandCam for an external view of the nest bank or the IJsvogelnest for an interior view of the nest. I’ve been watching the resident pair for a couple of hours and it’s fascinating. You may find it tricky getting the streams to work, but stick with it as it’s well worth a bit of tinkering, and  if you’re using a Windows PC and Microsoft Internet Explorer you should find it easier. As I type this, the male seems to be uncertain what to do with the eggs, he turns up to relieve the female who seems to be getting brooding underway, but he just pops into the nest and comes straight out again, leaving the female to do most of the brooding, he doesn’t seem to know what to make of the eggs, hopefully he’ll get the hang of it.

Winnall Moor

This live streaming camera was set up by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust at their artificial nest site at Winnall Moor.

Here is a link to the live stream, although I’m not sure if it is running this year, as it seems to be off air as I’m writing this. However, here is a link to their youtube site, where some fantastic clips are available, depicting key moments in the incubation cycle from last year.

I highly recommend having a look!

 

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!

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.

 

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.

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.

Fish of the day

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

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

The female enters the burrow with a fish

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

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

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

Still Brooding

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

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

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

Brooding Kingfishers and an elusive mink

Are you coming out or what?

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

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

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

Double jeopardy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooding underway

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kingfisher catastrophe

Farewell

Well I’m feeling pretty gutted right now. The nest site I’ve been monitoring and photographing under license for the last 3 months has been abandoned. For the last 3 weeks I’ve noticed that I was only seeing the male coming in to the burrow with food. No sign of the female. Also, the male was only bringing in fish (although they were pretty large fish) about every 45 minutes, which on reflection I don’t think would be enough to keep a brood of chicks going.

The first nest burrow at this site was actually dug out from above, I’m assuming by the mink that I’ve seen regularly along the bank while watching the nest site from my hide.

I was really hoping that the second attempt would be successful as another nest site a mile down river had also been dug out from above in exactly the same way.

The second burrow was much deeper and there is no sign of any disturbance, so I’m pretty sure that it’s the loss of the female that’s stuffed things up.

The male seemed to stop feeding about a week ago and on my last couple of visits I’ve only seen the male flying through the territory. He’s no longer perching outside the nest burrow, which I expect contains the corpses of the chicks.

I’ve no way of knowing what happened to the female, but the extent to which Mink are endemic on this stretch of the Trent in Staffordshire is a real worry in relation to the Kingfishers. I’m convinced that the 2 nest sites were dug out by Mink as they were both only about 12 inches or so deep and the holes were dug straight down to nests containing chicks, as evidenced by the fish scale debris left in the exposed nest chambers. The 2 nests were also destroyed within a few days of each other in late April.

The fact that Swans nesting a hundred yards upstream only have one Signet left is also perhaps indicative of an environment suffering from an invasive predator.

Ironically, this is probably the ongoing fall out from when thousands of Mink were released in North Staffordshire in 1998 by animal rights campaigners.

Here are images of the 2 nest burrows after they were dug out. the close up shows the interior with the remainder of fish scales in the nest chamber. Both of these burrows were dug straight down into, so presumably whatever did this (I’m assuming Mink, was able to hear the chicks).