King Of The River

King Of The River

by Ruth Lawrence

The brilliantly bright plumage of the kingfisher looks almost exotic in comparison to the modest hues of many birds native to Britain.

If you spend enough time by the water this summer, you might be lucky enough to catch a flash of deep metallic blue, too fast to focus upon as it speeds past. The kingfisher is one of our most spectacular and elusive birds, that once seen is never forgotten.

After glimpsing one or two during childhood, I lost sight of these startling birds until I came to live in Sussex. Since then I’ve seen them hurtle over slow moving rivers, dart across Ardingly reservoir and most surprisingly, watch one dash between trees in Brighton Cemetery. Their flight is so rapid that they are difficult to see and most sightings are simply an impression of vivid colour, there then gone. They fly low, which again makes them harder to see against reflections in water where they hunt for fish and aquatic insects.

Territory is extremely important for kingfishers. Each bird tends to cover about a kilometre of river but may extend to five times this distance. They start to contest territories by mid September and a breeding pair will often divide their summer territory between them. Slow moving, shallow rivers and streams clean enough to supply abundant small fish are their ideal hunting grounds and overhanging branches are essential as perches from which to watch for prey. The water needs to be as still as possible to make viewing clear. Once the bird has located its prey and assessed the water’s depth, it dives in pursuit. At the point of entry into the water, the beak is open and the eyes closed by a third eyelid; this is why pinpoint accuracy is essential as the bird is effectively sightless as it enters the water. After returning to the perch with its catch, the kingfisher strikes the fish against the branch to kill it. They seem to prefer fish just over an inch long but can deal with something much larger. The kingfisher must eat its own bodyweight in fish each day. Hunting is a full time occupation, particularly during breeding season.

The nest is dug into a vertical, vegetation free riverbank and lies at the end of a tunnel two to three feet long. Two or three broods are raised in swift succession and each chick can consume up to 18 fish a day. Once they leave the nest they are only fed for four days before the adults drive them out of the territory to start the next brood. Kingfishers are surprisingly short lived and few live longer than a single breeding season. Perhaps this explains their velocity, as though they are trying to cram in a longer life in such a short time. It makes a sighting of one of these elusive and notoriously shy birds doubly precious, a rare jewel darting by in sunlight.