Birdwatch: Floods trigger survival battle for kings of the streams

Flooding has not only disrupted the lives of many humans but also the birds that live along rivers and streams.

Kingfishers are among the bird life that will be facing tough feeding conditions as a consequence of the floods that have hit Northern England over the last month. Pic: John Foreman.

Kingfishers have found it very difficult to find food in swollen rivers and streams with the water clouded by sediment.

They normally hunt from low perches or by hovering above the water taking small fish from close to the surface.

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This will have been all but impossible for many days recently and, as a kingfisher needs to catch at least its own body weight in fish each day to survive, it seems likely that some will have starved to death.

Recent research has found some kingfishers will adapt their behaviour during time of flood and swim down to the river bed to take prey instead of picking off fish close to the surface, but even this strategy would seem impossible in the recent conditions.

A pair of kingfishers can produce two or three large broods a year but in autumn chase off the youngsters and divide the breeding territory among them.

Many of these young birds have had no chance to learn to fish before having to fend for themselves so in most years more than half of them die during periods when rivers and ponds are iced over or flooded.

Other members of the heron family will have struggled to survive in flooded marshes. The emaciated body of a bittern was found in the flood debris at Swillington Ings, Leeds which had obviously found it difficult to find enough food.

Another bird that will have found life difficult is the dipper. They normally feed on the bottoms of rivers and streams, diving down and walking among the stones to take the larvae of caddis flies.

The waters have been flowing so fast that they must have found it impossible to do this and much of their food will have been swept away.

Some birds, however, have found the floods to their liking.

Ducks such as pochard, tufted and teal have been enjoying the large new areas of shallow water to feed in, large numbers of gulls have been roosting on the open waters, and waders such as snipe, lapwings and golden plovers have had huge areas of soft mud to probe and have been patrolling around the edges of the floodwater picking up insects and worms.

Sightings over the past week included eight Bewick’s swans that called in at Harwood Dale Lake, North Yorkshire over the weekend while more than 30 whooper swans were feeding in fields at Ruston Carrs.

The long-staying drake surf scoter continued to be seen off Filey Brigg while little gulls were reported all along the Yorkshire coast.

White-fronted geese have continued to be reported from a number of sites this week with 18 at Seamer Carrs, Scarborough.

A long-tailed duck Slavonian and red-necked grebe were seen on Hornsea Mere and Slavonian grebe on Beacon Ponds and Kilnsea Wetland.

Meanwhile, a great grey shrike was reportedly seen at Cawthorn on the North York Moors and a ring-tail hen harriers and three short-eared owls at North Ings, Mexborough, South Yorkshire.