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The Story Behind my TV Kingfisher Film

I’ve been filming a kingfisher pair inside their underground nest from cameras hidden in a box I made especially for them and the footage has been so groundbreaking I featured on BBC Springwatch.

I’ve felt like a bit of a spy looking in on their daily interactions. My last blog tells the story up to the point that the first eggs were hatched. Click here to read it. After two weeks of incubation the male called the female from outside the nest. Instead of flying out as she usually did so he could take over, she stayed put. He called again, before entering the tunnel. I watched on camera as he made his way up 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. This really was a serious domestic. 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, chasing him part way down the tunnel.

The male flew off and splashed down into the water to rinse off.  The female reversed up the tunnel, with a waddle comically akin to a clockwork toy. She gathered her scattered eggs back under her and re-arranged her nest. I could see that one egg had been damaged: it was dinted. 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.

Wildlife Artist Robert E Fuller Research
Kingfishers are solitary birds. To mate they need to overcome their insular nature.

The female regurgitated a pellet which she shredded with her beak to add to her bedding of fish bones and scales. This keeps her eggs off the damp soil and acts as good drainage to soak up the mess produced by the chicks’ droppings. 20 days after laying the first egg hatched. I was over the moon. The female was brooding and the male came into the nest chamber. He croaked in a rasping voice to announce his arrival. 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 uncontrollably. The male gave up and brooded the chick and eggs instead. But he continued to call with the fish in his beak. Eventually he gave up and ate the fish himself.

Wildlife Artist Robert E Fuller Research
The chicks at two days old. They looked like baby pterodactyls

When I visited the following morning the female was on the nest and I was amazed to see 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 two minutes later 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 surprisingly, it swallowed whole.

My cameras recorded the adults taking it in turn to feed and brood the chicks. As one bird arrived with the food, the other left to hunt. The chicks were thriving. The adults roosted in the nest at night. One brooded the eggs, which I knew by now weren’t going to hatch, and the other brooded the chicks. The adults rested their long beaks on one another’s backs, which was a pleasure to watch. Each time they nodded off their beaks would slip off their smooth feathers, making them comically wake with a start.

I visited the hide three days later, the chicks seemed fine. But when I reviewed the previous day’s footage there had been a near disaster. The parents left the chicks in the chill of the early morning and the whole clutch had nearly perished. It showed how vulnerable these precious chicks still were.

The male had left the nest at dawn to hunt and the female followed suit at 7am. She didn’t return for more than an hour. The male arrived back with a fish to find her missing. The chicks were dangerously cold and were lying down at the back of the nest chamber – barely moving. Ignoring his dying young, he began to brood the addled eggs. 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 back to join the others. The chicks  were cold, virtually motionless so the female ate the fish and again she brooded the eggs, rather than the chicks. There was an agonising 20 minute wait before the male arrived back with a fish. At last he realised that the chicks were huddled at the back and brooded them. Just in the nick of time. It wasn’t until midday that the chicks were warm enough to feed.

After this dramatic turn of events things returned to normal, with dozens of fish being fed to the chicks every day. But it made me wonder if this was perhaps this pair’s first brood. At three days old the chicks were not the prettiest: I was surprised by their posture as they sat tall, like pink baby pterodactyls.

Wildlife Artist Robert E Fuller Kingfisher Research
The chicks grew fast on their diet of fish

As they grew the size of the fish they received got bigger too. The chicks could swallow surprisingly large ones, which they left hanging out of a chick’s beak for ages as they slowly went down. Sometimes the adults brought in fish, which the chicks had no chance of swallowing. The adult birds ate these themselves. After two weeks the chicks 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 struck, not to the kingfishers, but to me this time. I badly tore the ligaments in my ankle whilst on the trampoline with my kids! I was unable to walk and was wheelchair bound. I missed a whole week of watching the kingfishers. When I made it back to the hide on crutches,  the kingfisher chicks had begun to venture down the tunnel, where the adults were now feeding them.

Wildlife Artist Robert E Fuller Kingfisher Research
The female kingfisher feeding the chicks
Wildlife Artist Robert E Fuller Kingfisher Research
The male feeding the chicks
Wildlife Artist Robert E Fuller Kingfisher Research
The chicks started to go down the tunnel to receive food from the adults before fledging.

By late afternoon the following day, the young had left the nest: but luckily they hadn’t gone far. I spotted three in a willow tree near my hide. I was able to watch their first adventures in the outside world after 26 days inside a dark nest. Two of them sat quite literally cheek by jowl on the same branch with a third a few inches away. They were taking in everything around them, bobbing their heads at the slightest movement. A duck landed on the water and they visibly tightened their feathers to their bodies in alarm. They still had to learn who they could trust and who to avoid. After a while they relaxed and two of the chicks started to preen.But the peace didn’t last long and the two had a spat, stabbing each other with their beaks and nearly knocking each other off their perch. A sparrowhawk flew overhead, this bird of prey could be a real threat to these fledglings, but thankfully it was distracted by swallows which were dive bombing it.

Artist Robert E Fuller Kingfisher Research
Three of the chicks on the day they fledged at 26 days old

The chicks kept looking into the water expectantly. When they saw movement beneath the surface their feathers tightened up as if preparing to dive. These birds have to learn the skilled art of fishing in as little as four or five days’ time as the parents focus on their second brood. One chick plunged into the water. Like most first dives, it didn’t go well. The chick swam to the edge of the pond, propelling itself with its wings. It flew to a willow branch which was close to the surface of the water, but virtually out of view from my hide.

Wildlife Artist Research Robert E Fuller
Two chicks on the day they fledged

To get some shots of this chick drying off I needed to get closer, which was easier said than done with one leg out of action. I crawled on my hands and knees pulling my camera alongside me, negotiated a fence and then clambered along a muddy bank. It regurgitated a pellet, then flew off. I heard a ‘plop’ sound behind me – another chick had gone for a dip. This one was slightly more successful. It didn’t catch a fish but it didn’t get completely soaked. I crept back into my hide – I could only see one chick now.

I waited patiently to see if I could capture an adult feeding one of the chicks. 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 a whirring of coloured wings 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. So I knew that I would probably not see the chicks again. With my ankle in this state – I was unable to follow them.

The kingfisher family have been such a big part of my life this year, I will miss watching them each day and hearing that magical pipping call.

 

Wildlife Art Robert E Fuller
Just Fledged: Kingfisher at 26 days old

Enjoyed reading this story?: Then click here to find out what I did to attract kingfishers into this artificial nesting chamber and how I followed the courtship of the kingfishers.

 

UPDATE: Below is the painting that this experience inspired:

Brooding Kingfisher: Original Acrylic Painting £5,950 Framed size: 28.5″ x 35″ Image size: 16″ x 22″ NOW SOLD

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5 comments on The Story Behind my TV Kingfisher Film

  1. It was a fantastic insight Robert into the life of them, I recently spent 8 weekends on the trot photographing them from burrowing to fledging, the same pair are now on there second brood, I really enjoyed your insight on springwatch, many thanks.
    Regards
    Bruce.

  2. Belonging to an Australian FB group called Birds of Oz I found your story compelling. One of our favourite Aussie birds is the Laughing Kookaburra – one of the largest of the kingfishers and one of my favourite birds.
    Robert, thank you sharing your kingfisher journey.

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