Ian Rotherham: A renaissance of wildlife as rivers thrive once again

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RIVERS suffered badly throughout the 20th century, with pollution and riverside development in urban areas and intensive agriculture in the wider countryside.

Riverside birds like herons and kingfishers suffered a double whammy of land-use change and riverbanks being straightened and engineered, and of pollution, especially pesticides such as DDT.

However some of the county’s birds have made spectacular recoveries. Even though the robin was named yesterday as Britain’s national bird, the kingfisher and the grey heron are two success stories of recent decades.

With improving water quality, fish are returning to even the most unpromising situations – from once dead, stinking, degraded urban rivers, to damaged rural watercourses.

Today the kingfisher is a bird enjoying a remarkable recovery and is a welcome bonus, bringing sparkle to the waterways. This azure jewel of river, lake, and pond, is now turning up across Yorkshire from the countryside into many urban heartlands, from York or Hull, to Sheffield, Leeds or Bradford, an urban riverside walk is potentially a promising wildlife safari.

Riverbanks teeming with wildflowers (and alien invaders like Himalayan balsam) attract good populations of insects and these provide food for fish such as trout. Minnows, grayling, trout, and others then attract and support kingfishers, herons, and even otters.

Amazingly, along with our urban badgers, otters are now to be seen in Sheffield city centre and may be displacing the problematic American mink. However, the kingfisher is surely the “jewel in the crown” of our rivers and streams.

A sighting, even a glimpse of a kingfisher, gives huge pleasure to the watcher, but nowadays, the view is often much more than fleeting.

Yorkshire photographer Brent Hardy recently captured a stunning sequence of photographs as he sat on the banks of the River Don. He explained that he was lucky enough to spend over five hours watching a male kingfisher defend his territory from another male. The birds took turns to chase each other away but on two occasions they locked beaks and fell into the river fighting.

He managed to picture the two rival males and also the male and female together. Like many birds, especially on linear habitats like rivers, kingfishers are extremely territorial during the breeding season.

However, although disputes occur regularly, we are rarely privileged to witness the intimate interactions so closely. The male holding territory must establish and defend a length of river, to provide food and lodgings for himself, his mate, and the brood of hungry youngsters that follows. Having secured a patch and attracted a mate, he battles against all comers; hence the bitterness and violence of territorial clashes.

This is a life and death struggle for survival. Outside the breeding season, the stresses reduce and kingfishers may turn up in many other locations such as park ponds and even garden ponds.

To experience this wonderful renaissance for our waterside birdlife, take a stroll along any of the main rivers or canals across Yorkshire, then sit quietly, and wait. Patience is probably the key and this is why anglers tend to get such good views. However, you even have a good chance of sighting the “River King” when you are simply walking along a riverbank or a canal-side towpath.

Sometimes all you see is a flash of blue and you hear the rapidly repeated, high-pitched, metallic call, “chee” or “chee-kee” and the bird is off. At this time of year, with the birds tied to their breeding sites, you may get a second chance; the adult birds will certainly not have gone far.

Then, later in the summer and through the into the winter months, they move off to other places such as urban park ponds and similar sites.

Good sites to try include the River Don in urban Sheffield, right on the doorstep of Sheffield Hallam, Rotherham, or around the Don Gorge at Sprotbrough, the Porter Brook in Sheffield, the Dearne in Barnsley, the Aire in Leeds, or the Ouse in York.

The rural Yorkshire Derwent is an excellent river to look for them. Really though, almost all our rivers have streams may turn up a jewel at this time of year.

The various wetland nature reserves like Potteric Carr, RSPB Old Moor, and Wheldrake Ings, and water reservoirs are all good winter sites. However, if you really want an easy place to see kingfishers in winter then try Sheffield’s Endcliffe Park ponds during a cold snap – satisfaction guaranteed. Well, almost.

Thorne & Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum are hosting a presentation and talk by Jeremy Purseglove, author of Taming the Flood, on July 31 at Crowle Community Centre – starting at 10.30am.

Email execsec@thmcf.org for further details.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham is researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues at Sheffield Hallam University.