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.

 

Nest predation

nest-predation2

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.

First 2013 brood fledged!

I’m pleased to be able to report that the first brood has successfully fledged, or at least I think they have. The first youngster emerged on Friday morning at 7:30am but was not followed out by any others. The male continued to take fish into the burrow on Friday and then on Saturday morning a second young kingfisher emerged from the burrow. I don’t yet know if this is the extent of the brood or whether any more are going to emerge or are hiding somewhere and I’ve just not spotted them yet.

Either way it’s a relief to see the youngsters fledge after the problems with predation and flooding last year. On Saturday the female appeared to be doing all of the feeding, as well as keeping an eye on the young outside the nest. I’m hoping the male is OK as he really has been a bit of a hero, continuing to bring fish to the nest while carrying an eye injury for the last couple of weeks.

Fledgling about an hour after emerging

Fledgling about an hour after emerging

I have some footage of the youngsters which I’ll post as soon as I get chance to put another short film together.

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 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.

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

 

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!

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.

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.