A flash of electric blue and a shrill piping call reveals the presence of one of the local kingfishers, a bird flushed from its perch by riverside walkers.
The kingfishers have been much in evidence along this stretch of the river over recent days and I suspect that somewhere nearby they will have a nest.
Kingfisher numbers are influenced by the severity of the winter weather; if conditions are cold, and favoured waterbodies frozen over with ice, then high levels of mortality will reduce the size of the population the following spring. The mild weather that we experienced during winter 2013-14 would explain the numbers of birds being seen locally this year.
The kingfisher is a lowland species, favouring slow-flowing rivers where it can fish and nest with ease. Each pair excavates a nesting chamber within a riverside bank, the entrance hole placed a few feet above the water’s surface and reached by a tunnel some 2-4ft in length. The entrance is usually fairly obvious, although it may be hidden by over-hanging vegetation. If it is still in the process of being excavated then you are likely to see a pile of sand and soil immediately beneath the hole, unless, of course, the hole has been placed directly over the water. Later in the season, a smear of droppings and disgorged fish remains around the entrance will indicate that a brood of kingfishers is in residence.
In my experience, kingfishers are sensitive to the approach of a human observer and will slip from their perch and fly away. However, they will approach you more readily if you happen to be sat quietly and it is even possible to attract them by careful placement of a suitable branch offered up as a fishing perch.
Seen close up, it becomes evident that a kingfisher is a surprisingly small bird, not quite the size of a song thrush and certainly smaller than a blackbird.
Our kingfisher population is doing rather well at the moment, having recovered from a period of decline that occurred during the 1980s. Birds are now being seen along many urban stretches of river and are also encountered fairly commonly around disused gravel pits. These delightful little birds bring a splash of exotic colour to our river systems, although the brilliant blue plumage can be surprisingly hard to pick out when a bird is perched in shadow beneath a riverside willow. Small fish make up the greater part of the diet, with aquatic insects also taken by birds as they plunge dive to strike at submerged prey. Most of the time kingfishers will hunt from a suitable perch, but they will sometimes dive from a hovering position and, very occasionally, they will take insects in flight, a bit like a flycatcher. You can’t fail to be impressed by these birds because they are so full of character.