Five Days with Kingfishers

05th August 2014
Last week, on a walk along the banks of the river Usk near to where I live, I came across three Kingfisher territories. It’s so nice to see these lovely birds breeding on the river, especially after last winter’s unprecedented rainfall.
The banks of the Usk have unfortunately become colonised by large swathes of the very intrusive Himalayan Balsam. In places it is above head height and you have to cut your way through. It is suffocating the river banks, overpowering our native plants that are unable to get enough light to survive. I would dearly love to see it removed, however, it would be such a huge undertaking to eradicate it because if you don’t remove it all then it just spreads again. This plant makes it very difficult to observe wildlife, especially birds.
I was not deterred by this because it’s been a few years since I have photographed any Kingfishers and lately I have been getting an urge to try for some shots. I don’t like sitting in a hide on some pond waiting for a bird to perch on a stick in front of me. Anybody can do that and it wouldn’t give me any sense of achievement. I prefer to try and set my own location up on a river, then I feel that I have actually produced something.
Two of the aforementioned Kingfisher territories were not a viable proposition. One site was too near the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal and this is really busy at this time of year. The birds just hide when water traffic comes along, but it’s different if you are trying to take photographs from a portable hide because you are constantly being interrupted.
Site two was much quieter, however, what put me off was a herd of cows with young calves. These animals were regularly coming to drink from the river very close to where I was observing the birds perching. I am very wary of this situation and only this week I read of a woman in Lincolnshire who was badly injured by cows. This woman got too close and was trampled, suffering two broken arms, a broken collarbone and broken ribs. Cows are fiercely protective of their young and they will attack anything that they feel is a threat.
The third site was not affected by people or animals, it is a very quiet stretch of the river, hardly visited. It is overgrown with Himalayan Balsam in places but this is a bonus because it puts people off. I want to remain anti-social when I’m trying to get images. I shun any company, if contact is inevitable then it’s a polite greeting and move on. Most wildlife watchers are the same if the truth is known.

This is a day by day synopsis of my attempts to photograph this pair of Kingfishers.

Day One
I was on the river at the bird’s territory at first light, this meant getting up at 04.30 and just taking a pair of binoculars, an LED head torch and my Walk Stool, both are invaluable pieces of kit when you are out walking in this type of situation. I tucked myself under the overhanging branches of an old Beech tree and just waited for daylight to break, this happened around 05.30. Soon after I heard the tell-tale ‘PEEP’ of a Kingfisher, this is a very distinctive sound and separates these birds from all others on the river, there is no other bird call like it! Soon after a bird flew past me, characteristically direct and low over the water. It didn’t see me, if you keep quiet and still most birds will not detect you. It flew right up river out of sight and didn’t return for fifteen minutes, however, the light had improved by then and on its return I could see it was a male bird carrying a fish in its beak. This could only mean one thing, it had young to feed. Kingfishers always eat their catch on or near to the perch it was caught from. This process was repeated several times so I decided to try and see where it was going to catch fish. I made my way up river but what I saw next was very disappointing, this male bird was going further and further up river out of sight to catch fish. I watched from a large bend in the river that gave me a view right up and down. I couldn’t believe how far this bird was going to catch fish, I estimated it as being 800yds each way; Kingfishers really do have large territories. I left for the day wondering how on earth I was going to pin him down.

Day Two
After my observations the previous day I had decided I would try and erect a perch that might be attractive to this male bird. The alarm went at 04.30 again and off I went, this time with my machete and wearing wellingtons. Yesterday I had seen a small shingle bank on the riverside that had been exposed by the recent dry spell, the river is very benign at the moment. I found a suitable perch among the many piles of driftwood that the winter storms had piled up. Looking at the height of this wood pile it must have been pretty wild there. I made my way through the shallows and erected the perch and anchored it down with some heavy stones. There was only one problem, because of the high banking I would have to view this perch from the other side of the river. This meant crossing over the Usk in darkness!! I only entertained crossing because of the very low water levels, it is far too dangerous to cross otherwise and I would advise anyone not to attempt it! I cut two pieces of wood to act as walking sticks for the following morning and I left them right by my crossing point.

Day Three
I was on the river at 05.00, I found my two walking sticks and I tentatively made the first crossing with my camera bag and tripod on my back, this is where the LED head torch is priceless. I came back across the river and then carried my portable hide across, I made two crossings because the combined weight, although stable on dry land, was a little awkward in a foot of rushing water. I find it best not to look down for too long at the water because it can make you feel dizzy and you can lose your balance quite easily, it’s better to probe the water with your sticks and find a smooth path across. Once across I quickly set up my hide and got undercover. I didn’t have to wait long the birds were active almost immediately. I waited and waited, three hours in total but both the birds flew past completely ignoring my perch. I was hugely disappointed, it was obvious the perch was not in the right position. I waited until the birds went on their usual flight up river and I quickly packed-up and crossed back across the river, Twice! I put all my kit out of sight and kept watch once more and to my surprise the male bird flew and landed on the stones right on the river side. I could see a large tree branch shaped like the Loch Ness monster near to the river bank and that set me thinking, so when the bird flew up river I crossed over again and dragged this tree branch into the river. I positioned it so that the ‘Body’ was in the shallows and the 'neck and head' were over the deep water where I could see shoals of Minnows. The male bird returned and immediately saw the new perch and he almost landed on it but veered off at the last second and flew up into a large Willow tree above. What happened next surprised me as he proceed to dive into the water from this Willow, a height of between twenty and twenty five feet, I have never seen a Kingfisher dive from this height before. He caught a fish and flew down river with it, presumably to the nest site. I waited for another half an hour and that ‘peeping’ told me he was on his way back up river, he flew low past me and I hardly dared to look as he landed right on top of ‘Nessy’. Hooray! At least I had him perching; that was an achievement in itself. I resolved to be back at first light to hopefully get some shots. I decide to leave my hide hidden at the river because I didn’t want to carry it in the dark the following morning. I hid it in an old tree surrounded by ivy and holly, nobody would see it there and anyway nobody goes there to see it. I covered it up with bin liners to keep it dry and I left full of hope.

When I got home I was severely disappointed after seeing the weather forecast predicting an inch of rain to fall overnight! I have seen what an inch of rain can do to that river, I was absolutely drained, all my hard work could be washed away, literally.

Day Four
There was no point in going to the river early, in fact there was no need to take any gear with me I just went to have a look at the water levels. When I got there my original perch, the one that had been ignored was still there, solid as a rock. However, I could see ‘Nessy’ keeled over lying flat where it had been swept away by the river. I felt really deflated and that it just wasn’t to be. I could see that I couldn’t cross the river with Wellingtons because it had risen about three inches and was flowing much faster. However, I had come this far and I picked myself up and became more determined to overcome these problems. I returned home and got an old pair of shoes that I use in the garden and I dug out an old pair of shorts. I took a few bin liners, a towel and my machete, all in a rucksack. I arrived back at the river and stood on the bin liners, removed my shoes, trousers and socks and put my old shorts and shoes on. I crossed the river again with my two trusty sticks, crossing was harder this time as the current was much stronger. I carried some large flat stones to the river’s edge and proceed to re-erect ‘Nessy’. I weighed it down until it was really solid and I then added another upright stick to stop it from keeling over again and to act as the final perch. I was confident it was stable so I crossed back over again. I dried off and redressed and just sat under the trees never expecting anything to happen. I could hear his tell-tale peep as he came back up river and he landed without any hesitation right on my perch. I couldn’t believe it, I thought I had made too much noise for him to come anywhere near. That was it; I decided where I would place my hide, it would be no good trying to assess it in the gloom tomorrow. I hoped I had turned a corner and I might get some shots after all.

Day Five
Up at 04.00 again, I was really feeling it now, the accumulative lack of sleep was catching up with me. What drove me on was that I had hopes that this morning would be the final piece in the jigsaw. I arrived in the gloom, I wasn’t taking any chances on him seeing me erecting my hide, I know he tolerated the noise yesterday but no two days are ever the same.
I set up and got under cover, as it started to get light I was almost falling asleep. It’s quite comfortable in these hides, out of the cold and sitting in a canvas chair. The first hour or so after day break are no good for photography anyway; you have to wait for it to get brighter. I could hear the 'peeping' as he flew back and fore up river and then he landed right on my perch, exactly where I wanted him, however, I just had to wait for the light to build. At around 07.30 with the bare lens at f4.0 and with the iso up a touch to 400 I had a reading of about 125th of a second on shutter speed. This was good enough to start with and the next time he perched I shot him and as the light improved he came back time and again, he was really favouring this perch. He posed in numerous positions and he appeared to be totally oblivious to me. I was sitting there waiting for him to return again when a bird landed on the perch and it seemed different to the male. I looked closer and I could see it was a female, Mrs Kingfisher obviously, I gratefully accepted her to the perch, having a pair to photograph is very nice indeed. I took many photographs as they went about their business over the next few hours and in the end I was really glad I persisted. I have left the perches there just in case the youngsters start flying about over the next week or so, that would be nice.
Please see Favourites, Kingfishers.