Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is probably the most “want-to-see” bird at St Nicks! For those people lucky enough to see them, the usual view is a brilliant flash of iridescent blue as the bird flies up and down Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Becks.
But Kingfishers spend a lot of time perched, looking in the water for fish and other prey that they can dive in and catch. When they are perched, they are a lot less visible because the bright blue of their backs is only visible in flight. When perched, the most obvious colour is the warm orangey brownish red of its underparts – not easy to see if the bird is perched in shade. And they are tiny – about the size of a House Sparrow! If you are very lucky, you might detect their presence by their soft call – listen to it here.
Territory is extremely important for Kingfishers all year round. Any bird that is unable to secure a territory with an adequate food supply is likely to perish. This is particularly important before the onset of winter. The birds start to contest territories by mid-September. At this time, the young birds, having been taught to hunt by their parents, will be forced to move out of their parents’ territories and have to find their own hunting grounds. Any bird that is unsuccessful in this search is likely to perish.
Kingfishers, who excavate their 1 metre long nesting burrows in sandy banks, are known to breed along the River Ouse, and possibly the Foss, but there are no suitable nesting sites at St Nicks (we hope to be proved wrong!). Territories are usually about 1 km in length, tightly aligned to the course of a stream, although they could be as great as 3 – 5 km in length. Sightings of Kingfishers at Osbaldwick, 2 km upstream from St Nicks are fairly regular, so it is possible that they breed in this area.
We know, from observation, that Kingfishers do fly overland, possibly from one beck to the other, and in one harsh winter, several years ago, a female was photographed perched on the roof of the bird table in the Environment Centre garden!
So, how do we know it was a female? Well, given a good view of a perched view of a bird, check out the beak. The adult male has an all-black beak, the lower part of the beak (mandible) of the female is a dull reddish colour, and juveniles have a white tip to the beak. But there’s little chance of spotting these differences in flight.
Why do Kingfishers come to the becks in St Nicks? Food! Our two becks have a good fish population – just watch a clear area of water and you’ll see circular ripples indicating fish rising to the surface. Although Kingfishers also feed on molluscs and insects, small fish are their favourite prey item – and their young are reared on a bed of piled fish bones. Kingfishers, after diving to catch their prey, will stun their prey by beating them on a branch before turning it round to swallow it head first so that its fins and scales lie flat.
Although Kingfishers face continuing problems (they suffer in bad winters and with stream pollution), they have one factor in their favour – they are seldom preyed upon because they taste horrible!
Finally, the correct English name is “Common (or European) Kingfisher” to distinguish it from the other 86 Kingfisher species in the world!!
Please report any St Nicks Kingfisher sightings to the Environment Centre. We would appreciate your records.
All the photos on this page were taken at St Nicks.