Halcyon days: Kingfishers on the Nailbourne

Kingfisher at the sheep dip, Sheep Dip Lane, Bridge. Aug. 2014.

Kingfisher at the sheep dip, Sheep Dip Lane, Bridge. Aug. 2014.

Villagers who have recently ambled through the meadows along the river towards Bourne Park may have been lucky enough to spot one of our new residents, the Kingfishers. They are very flighty birds, darting here and there at great speed, but it appears many local people have now seen at least one of them during their constitutional strolls or dog walks. Having seen two together several times on different stretches of the river, I believe we have at least two pairs, but I may be wrong, perhaps there is only one pair which moves along the territory.

Sadly the Kingfisher’s life is not an easy one, Kingfishers need to eat 60% percent of their bodyweight in food every day, which is quite some task, and they achieve this by maintaining a good fishing territory, which is adequate to these needs. In rivers full of fish this may mean a relatively short stretch, while in lesser stocked rivers a very long stretch of river may be necesary to keep the Kingfisher’s family fed. It is common for them to fight other Kingfishers to maintain their territory, and this may involve trying to drown competing birds in the river. River pollution, ice, human activity, lack of fish and predation from mink all lead to difficult times for the birds and only a quarter of the young brood will survive until the next summer. Likewise, because of the difficulties of feeding and staying warm in winter only a quarter of adults survive through to the next summer season. It is no surprise then that the Kingfisher is listed ‘amber’ (meaning at risk) on the RSPB’s endangered wildlife list.

The Kingfisher is well known for its diving and fishing abilities, but success in these skills is honed by an extraordinary technological innovation within the bird’s eyes. As the bird flies and dives it uses its everyday monocular vision, but once under water it can instantly change the way it sees by switching to binocular vision giving it better judgement of distances under the surface.

So why is the Kingfisher orange and blue? Actually the scientists tell us it isn’t, its feathers are a dull brown under the microscope, but sunlight refracts on them in such a way that they appear to be brightly coloured. Of course there is another explanation too. An ancient biblical story states that after the great flood Noah released a Kingfisher from the Ark to see if the flood had subsided; the bird flew so high that when it came back it had absorbed the colours of the blue sky and the bright sun. By coincidence, or maybe not, a Greek myth cites the Kingfisher’s ability to calm troubled waters; they called it the Halcyon meaning ‘calm’.

For the residents of Bridge the Kingfishers have been a much welcome addition to our landscape. They are lovely to see, but they also serve as good indicators of the health of our river because they will not tolerate polluted water. As villagers walk out along the Nailbourne, many it seems can barely contain their enthusiasm for the birds; people who have never spoken to each other before stop each other in the meadows and ask excitedly if they have seen the Kingfishers. It seems that these beautiful charismatic birds have united us all in our appreciation of the wildlife around us.

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