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!

 

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!

 

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.

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.

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

 

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.

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!

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.

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.

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).