Kingfishers fighting back!

16th September 2012
It’s been an extremely bad three years for the local Kingfisher population on the River Usk. During the desperately bleak winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 the river margins where these birds dive for food were frozen for weeks at a time. Temperatures of –10 to –15 degrees C persisted. This weather caused a high mortality rate among these birds, this was borne out by hardly any sightings around the area. Dippers and Wagtails were able to relocate to the small feeder streams to find food, Kingfishers were unable to do the same as they were too shallow to dive into. The local ponds and lakes were also all frozen so their food simply became unavailable.
Finally the winter of 2011/12 was very mild and I had hope that if any birds had survived those 'bad winters' they would have a chance to breed in the Summer of 2012.
It is now well documented that the summer of 2012 was the wettest for over a hundred years. This caused continuous flooding of any Kingfisher nests in the river banks, the weather can be particularly cruel to these beautiful little birds. The last Kingfisher I managed to photograph was in the September of 2009. This was a male bird, I remember the sequence of events quite vividly, not only for the lovely bird but for the circumstances surrounding it.
I had taken some nice shots of the bird and I was packing my kit up, I had put most of it in the car and was returning to get my portable hide. I had noticed previously an old wire fence which had once bordered the river but had now collapsed and was basically trodden into the earth. I paid little attention to it, however, I should have because the top wire had for some reason began to break clear from the earth and unknown to me was now sticking about three inches above the ground. On my return I caught my foot under it and this caused me to lunge forward, I knew at once that I was going into the river, it is a strange feeling when you realise the inevitability of the situation which is about to unfold. The only thing that I felt was in my control was the manner in which I entered the water. Would it be a flamboyant affair? a la Greg Luganis, the legendary Olympic diver, or a more pragmatic entry. I opted for the latter and just threw my legs from under me and jumped in. I landed with an almighty splash and found myself up to my waist in three feet of very cold water. I was wearing Wellingtons which were now obviously full and very heavy. I waded and then scrambled up the river bank, I was absolutely freezing, it’s quite remarkable how quickly you can get very cold. I still had to pack away my hide and I was now shivering with the cold, finally I got back to the car. Luckily there was no one around because I had to remove my trousers, I couldn’t drive home in them they were just too wet. I drove home in my Boxers, It’s a good job I wasn’t stopped for a routine check by the police because it would have taken some explaining!
The River Usk can be a very dangerous environment, just an inch or two of rain can transform a pleasant stretch of water into a violent, raging torrent. Two unfortunate people have lost their lives in the last two years on this river. Both of these tragedies near to the main bridges in Brecon town.
I have often said how on earth can someone fall into a river if they take reasonable care. I fully understand now how it can happen and it has had a very sobering effect on me. This year because of very high river levels I have just kept away. However, lately we have had a dry spell of weather and the water has returned to normal safe levels. With this in mind I went down on the river at first light just to see what birds were around. I sat down underneath my favourite old Beech tree and waited, I saw four Dippers feeding around the now exposed rocks and three Grey Wagtails which was very nice. I was thinking of leaving when a flash of electric blue whizzed past me and landed in a bush just up river. I must admit to feeling a bit emotional, it was so nice to see a Kingfisher back on the river. I had time to see it was a male before it flew off up river.
I wanted a closer look so later in the week I was up at 04.30 and on my way to the Usk. I was driving through Talybont on Usk in the dark when I thought I saw a small Rabbit in the middle of the road, I slowed down and a Tawny Owl took off and flew into the trees, a great start to the day. The area where this Kingfisher is, is quite awkward to get to, it is down a steep banking through a narrow tunnel of vegetation, bad enough in daylight but a lot worse in the dark. I have invested in a quite powerful LED light that fits on my head and it allows me to keep both hands free in situations like this.
I lowered my hide down first then made my way down. I had cut a nice branch on my previous visit and hidden it in the undergrowth.
I knew where I wanted to erect it because I had pushed a stick into the banking to mark the place. It’s no good searching around in the gloom you have to plan before hand, I got everything set up and got under cover.
Dippers were about first and it was about an hour before I heard a faint ‘Peep’, about the only noise a Kingfisher makes, a little later I could see a bird about ten yards away. It’s always tense as you hope it lands on your branch, it flew towards me but went straight past, nothing you can do except wait. Then out of nowhere a bird landed right on the branch, when I looked I had a real surprise, although it was bit gloomy I could see it was a female. This was great news, a male and female in the same location. I took a few shots as she sat there contented, she flew off but returned shortly after obviously liking her new perch. I took further shots as the light improved until she finally flew off, I happily packed up and left. I now have new hope for next spring providing we have a reasonable winter this year.
Fingers crossed!!