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Watching Kingfishers: From Courtship to Egg Laying
This year I have undertaken my most ambitious wildlife project yet: to watch kingfishers via cameras hidden inside their underground nest chamber for a new exhibition of paintings on how different animals raise their young. My footage has been so ground breaking that BBC Springwatch plan to use it in this year’s series, which begins next week.
The project began after a friend who has fishing lakes where kingfishers have nested for years agreed that I could photograph them there. Their nest chamber was burrowed deep into the side of a bank. But last year this bank collapsed. The pair couldn’t find a suitable alternative nearby and didn’t go on to breed there. So, I spent a month turning a shed into an artificial bank with room inside both for a nesting chamber for the kingfishers and for me and my camera equipment. The shed was made with one wall sloping outwards so that it was wider at the top than the bottom. This was to prevent predators like stoats, rats or mink from being able to clamber up into the nest.
The nest chamber replicated exactly what a kingfisher would build for itself. This consists of a long tunnel, which they dig with their beaks, leading to a globe-shaped chamber. I covered a balloon with papier-mache to re-create the shape of the chamber and moulded the tunnel from a 5cm drainpipe. I packed a mixture of cement, sand, peat, PVA glue and fine tree roots inside it to make it look as natural as possible. It was crucial to get this bit right if I was going to entice kingfishers to use it. I used the same mixture to render the front of the shed which I curved at the top to mimic the overhang of a natural bank.
Once it was ready, I enlisted the help of two friends. We spent a full day working in waders in a foot of freezing winter-cold water hammering 18 scaffold poles into the bottom of my friend’s fishing lakes. We then fixed a five metre long base onto the poles. On the third day, we pieced the shed together on site and insulated and soundproofed the hide with carpet. It was just getting dark when a bird flew over and landed right next to the bank. I couldn’t make out any colour as it was silhouetted against the water. I held my breath. It paused for a moment before flying off. I felt sure it was a kingfisher – but could it be too good to be true?
On March 1st I had a quick look in at the nest. There was no sign of a kingfisher having been in. I revisited four days later. This time I noticed white bird droppings inside the nest chamber. The tunnel was also smooth, as though there had been some traffic up and down it. And, to top it all there was a shallow indent in the chamber itself – a clear indicator of a nest scrape. Then, I spotted a pellet, I picked it up and it crumbled it between my fingertips. It was made up of fish bones and scales. There was no doubt left in my mind: a kingfisher had found my nest. I punched the air with joy!
I stayed away for a few weeks to avoid disturbing them. At the end of March I returned and watched through a hatch I had built in the bank as the male kingfisher caught a fish and carried it off out of sight. I hoped that this was a sign that he had found a mate and was taking a gift to her. I could hear another kingfisher calling – could this be the female? If these kingfishers were courting I wanted to see them. I placed a branch in front of my hide that night. At dawn the female flew up and perched on it. I knew then I had struck lucky. The male flew straight towards me and into the nest hole. “Peep, peep, peep”, he called to entice her to come and take a look at this prospective nest site.
Next, the pair sat close by on the same willow branch. Kingfishers are essentially solitary birds and so when they come together to breed they can seem quite offhand with each other. These two sat three feet apart looking straight ahead, avoiding eye contact. Then the female began shuffling towards the male who in turn shuffled away. It was comical to watch. She tried to re-approach him and again he moved away. Their tiny feet side-stepped in tandem, until he reached a protruding twig. He was cornered! She shuffled ever closer and when she got to him, she launched at him with her beak open, demanding he give her the gift of a fish. It was clearly all too much for the male kingfisher who promptly flew off.
The following day I was in the hide early. The male settled on a willow branch whilst the female perched on an elder. They pinged their high-pitched whistling ‘chi’ call back and forth to one another. The sound reminded me of the tennis-like computer game we had on our TV in the early 80s called ‘Pong’ where my brother and I bounced a ‘ball’ between too ever diminishing paddles.
Game over, the male then flew down to catch a fish. Once he was back, the female fluffed up her feathers and began whistling away ‘chi-chi-chi’; begging for the fish. The male landed on her elder twig and offered the fish to her, head first, which she took from him. The male stood to attention; bolt upright, his tail fanned and his sharp beak pointed skywards. The posture is similar to its aggressive stance– a reminder that this insular bird has to overcome its natural animosity towards other kingfishers in order to come together to mate.
It was incredible watching these stiff, awkward advances. At times the underlying hostility between this pair of kingfishers flared up and at one point they actually tussled over a fish. Often these outbursts were the result of the female being a little too ‘forward’. The male seemed to consider his role to be that of provider and often she begged, her wings quivering, well before he had even had the chance to stun the fish that he was planning to give. However, once satisfied that all was in order, he handed it over politely and they sat on the branch together tensely, tolerating one another’s presence for a while. He hovered over her calling for a moment before grasping at the feathers just above her eye with his beak in order to hold on while he mated her.
He then dove for another fish and landed on the same branch to stun it, bashing its head on the twig. She shuffled across to him again, begging as she went, but this time he ignored her and swiftly swallowed the fish whole. She was clearly upset at this post coital snub and rushed straight at him with her long, sharp beak open and pushed him off the branch.
A few days later I returned to hide, switched on the monitor linked to a camera inside the nest box, and there on the screen was one perfect, white egg. I couldn’t believe my luck as I gazed down at it, beautiful and shiny in a bed of kingfisher pellets.
The following day I got to the hide well before dawn. I soon heard a peeping sound. It was the female in the willow tree. I held my breath. I knew how important this moment was. If I had guessed correctly she was about to lay her second egg. She flew into the tunnel. I could hear her rustling as she made her way up towards the nesting chamber. The tip of her beak appeared on the monitor. The tunnel was pitch black so she had to feel her way along the dark tunnel. She tapped her egg gently with her beak to locate it in the darkness before settling down on it. Her tail went up and down, as if she was labouring. An hour later she stood up and prepared to leave the nest. She croaked as she left the chamber – and as she moved forward I noticed there were now two eggs in the nest. It’s hard to describe my feelings at having been just one metre away from a laying kingfisher.
She flew out and began to splash in the water, rinsing off. She shook herself dry and began to preen her feathers. The male hovered over her, trying to mate, but she pecked out at him in rebuff. I didn’t blame her: after all she had just laid an egg.
She went on to lay seven eggs in total, one a day, at roughly the same time each morning. After the last egg was laid she took turns to brood the clutch with the male. It was nice to see that the bond between this reluctant couple had at last forged. Kingfisher eggs usually hatch 20 days after the last egg is laid. All I had to do now was wait.
I’ve but together a short film about the experience below. For more on my exhibition and other observations on how animals bring up their young in the wild follow this link.
Enjoyed this story? Then, click HERE to find out what happened when they hatched and how these kingfishers became TV stars!
UPDATE: This experience inspired a flurry of new kingfisher paintings. Take a look at them below.Author: Robert E Fuller