In my last column, I described how I built an artificial nest for kingfishers rigged with cameras. When a pair laid a clutch of seven eggs in it I was delighted.
Kingfishers nest underground and I watched looking in on their daily interactions like a spy. After two weeks of incubation the male called the female from outside the nest. Instead of flying out as usual so he could take over, she stayed put.
He called again, before entering the tunnel. I watched on camera as he made his way to the nest chamber. The female, instead of greeting him, rushed forward to peck him. Their beaks locked and they twisted and turned their heads, as if in a sword fight. The male grabbed the female by the head and spun her round. The eggs scattered. But, the female gave the last jab, grabbed him by the head and evicted him.
The male flew off and splashed down into the water to rinse off. The female reversed up the tunnel, with a waddle akin to a clockwork toy. She gathered her scattered eggs back under her and re-arranged her nest. One egg had been damaged.
I found the brutality shocking. It was a brusque reminder of how kingfishers have to overcome their habitually insular nature to join together to breed.
The female regurgitated a pellet and shredded it with her beak to add to her bedding of fish bones and scales. This keeps her eggs off the damp soil and helps soak up the mess from the chicks’ droppings.
Twenty days after laying, the first egg hatched. The female was brooding and the male came to the nest chamber. He had one tiny fish in his beak. She shuffled to one side to reveal six eggs and one freshly-hatched chick. The chick was blind, naked and helpless. He called to encourage the wobbly chick to feed. It’s pitch black inside the nest, which made it difficult for the male to line up the fish with the chick’s tiny open beak. It didn’t help that the hatchling’s head was swaying around.
The next morning the female was on the nest and I found that four of the chicks had hatched and started to feed. The male arrived with a fish which he pushed beneath the female’s wings. She seemed reluctant to move.
He left with the fish and returned soon after with a smaller one, which he proffered under the female’s wings. The wobbly head of a chick appeared between the feathers. The male presented the fish to the tiny chick, head first, which it surprisingly swallowed whole.
During the night, one bird brooded the eggs, which I knew by now weren’t going to hatch, and the other brooded the chicks.
The adults rested their beaks on one another’s backs. Each time they nodded off their beaks would slip off their smooth feathers, waking them with a start.
When I visited three days later, although the chicks seemed fine, I reviewed the footage and found there had been a near-disaster.
The parents had left the chicks in the early morning chill and the whole clutch had nearly perished. The male had left the nest at dawn to hunt and the female followed suit at 7am and didn’t return for over an hour.
The male returned with a fish to find her missing. The chicks were dangerously cold and were lying down, barely moving. Ignoring his dying young, he began to brood the addled eggs instead. The male called the chicks to take the fish, but they were unresponsive. One chick wriggled across and snuggled under him for warmth.
Five minutes later the female arrived with a fish and the male left. The chick moved to re-join the others which were cold and virtually motionless so the female ate the fish and brooded the eggs instead. After an agonising 20 minutes the male returned with a fish. He realised that the chicks were huddled at the back and brooded them, just in the nick of time. But, it wasn’t until midday that they were warm enough to feed.
At three-days-old the chicks were not the prettiest: they sat tall, like pink baby pterodactyls. After two weeks they developed a blue and orange tinge as their feather pins started to show. But they didn’t come into feather until the week before they fledged.
Then a second disaster. I tore my ankle ligaments and was wheelchair bound. Returning to the hide on crutches a week later, the juveniles were venturing down the tunnel, where the adults were now feeding them, and by the next day, the young had left the nest. Three were in a tree near my hide. I watched their first adventures outdoors after 26 days inside a dark nest.
Two sat literally cheek by jowl on a branch with a third a few inches away. They took in everything around them, bobbing their heads at the slightest movement. A duck landed on the water and their feathers tightened in alarm. After a while they relaxed and two of the chicks started to preen. A sparrowhawk flew over but thankfully it was distracted by swallows dive bombing it. When the chicks saw movement beneath the surface their feathers tightened as if preparing to dive – they have to learn how to fish in as little as four or five days as the parents focus on their second brood.
One chick plunged into the water and like most first dives, it didn’t go well. The chick swam to the pond’s edge and flew to a willow branch, virtually out of view from my hide.
To get shots of it drying off I needed to get closer. I crawled my way pulling my camera along. It regurgitated a pellet, then flew off. I then heard a ‘plop’ as another chick went for a dip. It didn’t catch a fish but didn’t get completely soaked.
The female arrived and fed one of the chicks. It was only just in sight, so I couldn’t get any shots.
It was a longer wait for the next feed from the male who arrived with his signature pip-pip call. The chicks responded, calling back frantically. But he didn’t relinquish his fish. He flew off in the direction of a large fishing lake and the chicks took chase.
The male often moves the chicks away from their immediate territory, enabling the adults to rear their next brood, and unable to follow them, I knew that I would probably not see the chicks again.
Robert’s kingfisher study is his most ambitious wildlife project yet and has produced ground-breaking images that recently featured on the BBC’s Springwatch programme.
Robert’s latest exhibition, ‘Bringing Up Baby’, featuring videos from his experiences of watching the kingfishers raise their young runs until next Sunday, June 25, at his gallery at Thixendale.