March 2016 - Warrens

Saturday 19th March 2016

Finding new digs ...

After the fantastic events of last weekend, I was really keen to get back to the hide to catch up on our now 'bonded' pair of Kingfishers. The bonding and the continuation of the male feeding the female will continue for possibly a couple of weeks, so I was hoping for some more shots of that today.

Unfortunately the weather is not too good, although the forecast is for a dry day, it is very cloudy with poor light.

I arrive at the hide at 8.00 AM, the pair are already here, sitting side by side on the low perch, the female calling the male with the now familiar single 'bip'. The male has dived and caught a minnow, the female sits patiently besides him as he stuns his prey before then feeding it to the female.

It seemed less elaborate than last weeks show, it was so quick that I had missed the exchange. The male passed it across almost nonchalantly, without any of the show boating and excitement of the previous exchanges. I think the gloss is already rubbing off of having to feed the female..

The female departs up stream, quickly followed by the male. The events of the day then become like clockwork, the pair are into a routine that makes the day to be honest, a little boring.

They are digging their nest. The pair both turn up with muddy beaks, an obvious give away to what they have been doing. I know it is up stream to the hide as the traffic of the Kingfishers is all oneway now. 

I take a walk upstream to see if I can spot the nesting site. They have found an ideal position, but some distance away from their favoured fishing location. I think this is the territory of the female bird and they have joined up both their territory patches,  and made it into one long patch of the stream. The nest site is a quarter of a mile away, possibly a little longer.

The male is doing the majority of the work, but the female does also help and gets involved.The male doing the majority of the digging, possibly because the female will be required to do the majority of the incubating shortly.

Once completed, the burrow will be approximately a metre in length, an upward sloping burrow (to allow the excreta of the young to drain out), with a small chamber at the end. The burrow has a small entrance, just big enough for the bird to get in and out off. Built in a high sided, vertical stream bank, sandy type soil with over hanging vegetation to keep out predators such as mink and rats. 

Once I spot the potential nest site, I retreat back to the hide. I have little interest in the nesting area as it is critical that the birds are not disturbed as they will leave the site in an instant if they feel threatened.

So back at the hide, the same scenario plays out all day long. The male is now my only visitor after the departure of the female this morning. He comes into fish, no messing about, he flies in straight to a perch, catches his fish and consumes it quickly. 

He then takes another fish, prepares if head first for the female, and departs back up stream.

This happens almost hourly, the male arrives straight onto a perch, one fish for him, and then another prepared for the female, and straight back up stream again. The visit takes no more than a couple of minutes, so it can get a little laborious waiting for such a brief encounter between visits.

They are digging all day, resting when tired, then both resuming the dig, it's a cycle of dig, feed, dig, feed.

The female will not mate until the nest is complete and it is to her satisfaction.

I was hoping to capture the mating, but as the nest site is so far away from the hide,  I don't think this will be likely now.  I am holding out that it may happen by the hide, but as the time I have at the stream is very limited due to having to work during the week, the chances of capturing it on film are somewhat against me.

I would expect their to be a clutch of eggs by the end of the month, early April if all goes well. A clutch being typically 5 to 7 glossy white eggs, hatching in around 20 days. 

This is when the feeding frenzy will kick start with the parents frantically fishing all day long to ensure the chicks are well fed and survive to fledging.

The Spring Equinox has certainly kicked off with some exciting events on the stream, an exciting time ahead to be recording the life's events of our local Kingfishers.

Saturday 12th March 2016

That's my boy !

The weekend is here again, thankfully ! It has felt like it has been a long time coming but finally it is Saturday morning. It's a misty start to the day, but the forecast is good, dry and bright but with a cool Easterly wind.

Wednesday, the stream flooded. We had a day of heavy rain, I hadn't appreciated just how much rain we have had until I popped to the stream after work. The roads were flooded and the water was running off from the farm fields creating huge pools of water.

When I got down to the stream, it had risen considerably by a good 30 inches, the highest I had seen it all winter. The water had washed everything away, perches the lot, and the water was racing down the stream at a considerable pace.

This morning however, although the water was still moving at a faster pace than normal, the water level has dropped a little.

The male is here. The morning sun has broken through the clouds and is providing a nice hazy light, perfect for photography for once. He is looking splendid, the light reflecting from his bolt of electric blue plumage running down his back. He is here to hunt.

I am sure hunting has been incredibley difficult this week since the stream was deluged with rain water. The water clarity is cloudy, the mud and silt stirred up from the stream bed from the rushing water tumbling along the course of the stream.

Today, he is still struggling a little, he made a few attempts and come back to the perch empty. Finally, he catches a minnow.

He dispatches his prey with the familiar routine, slamming the fish against the base of the perch until stunned, and straight down the gullet, head first. That's breakfast caught, the normal routine after would be for the male to maybe hang around for an hour, or go off to patrol his territory. 

But this morning ... unbeknown, magic was about to happen.

The stillness of the stream is stirred within a few minutes, I can hear a call, it's a Kingfisher, it's a female. The male instantly becomes alert, he calls back, a single hi-pitched 'bip', the female responds.

She appears from around the bend of the stream and perches 15 metres down stream, the male takes off from the hide and goes to joins her. The calling continues for a few minutes, the male perched above her on an over hanging branch.  Both appear excited and very animated, they go off together down stream, both calling loudly. It's wonderful to see, finally, we have a pair of Kingfishers in our patch.

Within ten minutes they are back. The female flies straight up stream towards me, she perches on a branch by the hide, it's so good to see her after so long of only having a male on our patch of stream. The male appears on a perch a couple of feet away, in front of the hide. I now have the pair I have waited so long for, male to my left (below pic), the female to my right (above pic).

How do you decipher between the sexes ?. The easiest way and most noticeable is that the female has an orange lower bill, quite vivid in this instance, where as the males bill is all black.

The calling between the two birds has got faster, they are exchanging the high pitched 'bip' almost on the second. It's quieter though, but more rapid than before. It's reminds me of the pips ten seconds before each hour on the radio, the male calling, a second later the female returning the bip, synchronised to perfection.

A vital part of a Kingfishers courtship is a time when the male catches a fish and then presents it to the female. This is the equivalent of someone getting down on one knee and presenting their loved one with an engagement ring.

Was it about to happen now ? In front of the hide, in front of me ? 

I could sense something was about to happen. I will admit, my heart was pounding a little that there was the potential to witness something very special. 

The male dives, he returns with a fish to a low perch, this is it, this is the moment. The female becomes animated and is calling louder, she is calling for the fish. I am thinking to myself this is the magic moment, I am willing the male to feed the female, I have never seen this part of a Kingfisher behaviour.

But then ... my heart sank within an instant, he has eaten the fish for himself. You bloody idiot I think to myself, conditions and the set up are perfect, and he has blown his chance. The females call has stopped for a few seconds. Ahhhhh !! so frustrating.

The male dives almost instantly, he has spotted another target. The female senses this as well, the calling resumes as if she is encouraging him, cheering him on. Back in the hide I am really getting behind him as well, if I could cheer him, I would.

It's hard being still and quiet in moments like this, there is pressure on myself not to make a mess of this one potential opportunity of my own. Times like this do not come along often.

The male has caught me out somewhat, he has flown to a branch that I never expected him to use. I try and move the camera to locate him, the focus is out for a second on the lens and I can feel a little sense of panic that I may miss this. Everything happens in a flash normally with Kingfishers and I knew I just couldn't afford to lose this.

The lens comes into focus, in front of me is the male, the fish already prepared in position of head first, this is it, this is the moment. The male is calling loudly, the female is responding, the calls are varied and loud, whistles and shrieks as the excitement builds for this magic moment between the two Kingfishers. 

The female appears into the shot, she is side by side to the male, both very animated.

The magic moment unfolds in front of my eyes, the Kingfishers lock bills, the exchange is happening. An unbelievable moment, pure magic.  

The males appears to be reluctant to let go of the fish, the calls between the pair are fantastic. I have never heard them call like this. The female is really tugging at the fish, the male still gripping it tightly as if making it clear to her that this is his catch before handing it over. 

The exchange in real time was no more than three or four seconds, but I was thrilled to finally witness a ritual that is not often seen, let alone unfold in front of me. It's times like this that make the hours and hours spent sitting in a dark, uncomfortable hide in the rain and snow, all worth while.  

The male finally releases the fish to the female. As quick as it started, it is over.

The male then stands upright, tall and thin as if in some kind of display, his head weaving left to right, still calling with excitement. The female clutching the fish firmly in her bill, the male then flies off down stream, shrieking and calling loudly.

The female remains behind on the perch, her gift still in her beak as she turns to face the camera, as if showing off her engagement ring. The fish is then swallowed, the deal is done, the ritual complete.

The female takes off down stream in search of her new love. I sit in the hide thrilled to be a part of the mornings events, such a wonderful wildlife experience to be able to watch.

I quickly pack up, leave the hide as silently as possible and make my way home. I know we now have the potential of mating, nesting, chicks .... raising of the young, fledging !! So many exciting events ahead to look forward too, roll on next weekend. 

Saturday 5th March 2016

C +  Must try harder ...

It's March, the meteorological Spring is here ... brilliant, let's check the BBC weather app for the Spring forecast for Saturday ...

Great ! In reality the day started worse than the forecast had forecasted ! It's snowing when I got out the car, just a light flurry but enough to produce sporadic patches of white on the walk to the hide. 

I am wrapped up like one off Shackletons arctic adventurers, complete with balaclava, but even that's no match for the Northerly wind. The heavy grey slate sky seems unforgiving as I trundle across the fields, tripods tucked under each arm, camera rucksack on my back and shoulder bags over each shoulder, it's always a relief to reach the short distance to the hide.

I set up and wait ...

I can hear the Kingfisher calling down stream as he is making his way towards the hide, the unmistakable high pitched shrill makes me prepare for his arrival. Within a few seconds he is racing round the corner of the stream, hugging the waters surface before rearing up like a jet fighter, expertly landing onto a high perch.

It's stopped snowing, the clouds are still dark and menacing. I am not expecting too much from today, just a hope that we may see signs of courtship of some description. It's March and this should be well underway now.

The usual quick fire fishing routine unfolds in front of the hide, the minnow being waved around in the air as if in some sacrificial offering to the Kingfisher Gods.

This minnow was quickly consumed within a flash and he was soon back scanning the stream for another target. The stream is running clear at the moment as the weather has been mostly dry over the last week, this makes it easier for the Kingfisher to spot prey.

The male has soon dived and returned with another fish, this time he hasn't consumed it for himself. We maybe getting somewhere ? 

He carefully positions the fish with the head pointing outwards, this is a sign that he is planning to pass the fish to another Kingfisher ... a female ! 

Feeding of the female is part of the courtship process, usually that latter stages of bonding.

The male scoots off down stream with the fish in his bill. He has been coming and going up and down the stream with some purpose, giving the impression he knows exactly where he is going and who the fish is for. Positive start to the day, positive outlook looking to the future.

Ten minutes he is back, again announcing his arrival with a call as if to forewarn me of his impending arrival. This is always appreciated as sometimes my attention tends to wonder between visits, my nose in social media passing the time.

I was hoping for the male to continue fishing and to take them off down stream to his mystery location and hopefully, Mrs Kingfisher.

Unfortunately this didn't happen. For the next two hours he just sat at the side of the stream, casually preening and watching the stream leisurely meander pass him. He didn't appear that enthused to do much female chasing !

He eventually springs back into action and resumes fishing ... disappointingly for himself !

The Kingfisher returns to the perch with a nice sized minnow, this time the fish is fighting for all its worth. I can see the Kingfisher just holding onto the fish, just making sure he doesn't drop it. After a minute, the fish has for a second stopped thrashing about, the Kingfisher takes this opportunity to flip the fish into a better position. 

Now repositioned in the birds vice like grip, the Kingfisher slams the fish violently against the base of the perch. The protective membrane covering the eye for protection.

He then checks for movement in the fish, the fish is still not fully stunned and when raised up, it continues to struggle. 

Slam ! The Kingfisher continues to beat the fish relentlessly at lightning speed, I can hear the thud of the fish from the hide.

The fish is stunned, he positions the fish again with the head pointing toward its throat and consumes the entire fish whole, in three big big gulps.

The weather is turning again, I can see droplets of rain hitting the surface of the stream and can hear it on the roof the hide. The wind is freezing, my feet and hands are like blocks of ice. 

I visited a mountaineering / trekking store last week and purchased a pair of socks for £35.00 ... 35 quid on socks !! I only brought then on the enthusiasm of the salesman who said that professional mountaineers wear these socks whilst climbing Everest and that they are space age technology, my feet would be toast under any circumstances.

Well he lied ! Whilst the weather today is cold, I would imagine that it is positively tropical to the temperature on the top of Everest, and my feet are numb with cold.

The Kingfisher is tucked away into the side of the bank again after stuffing his face with more fish. I don't think I could face another two hours of sitting in the cold awaiting his return, my feet definitely couldn't. 

I quickly pack up, the clouds are looking angry above me and are almost black. I make it back to the car in time and the heavens open, hale first which then turns to snow.

I'm glad to be heading home.

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