Journey to a Kingfisher

 

“It was the Rainbow gave thee birth,
And left thee all her lovely hues;”

From ‘The Kingfisher’ by W.H. Davies

 

 

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It’s the little bridges and streams that lead me to my favourite kingfisher country. I saw my first when I was 8 years old; my retina was forever stained by the turquoise sprite that sped up and down the diminutive River Dour, where it runs through Kearsney Abbey in Kent. ‘Comet!’ I said to my mother. It was 1986 and we’d not long seen the passing of Halley’s old rock.

 

 

King of the Northern Marshes
Kingfisher, Kentish coastal marshes, December ’18

 

 

The bird elicited a similar reaction and still does now. Their paucity raises their stock. Even if you encounter several a week (which I do, when I’m lucky) your glimpses are brief and will only make up a tiny proportion of your lifespan. How many more hours, minutes or (God forbid) seconds of kingfisher time do I have left? It’s a good thing, then, that they paint the air with such indelible ink.

 

 

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Kingfisher Country

 

 

The last time I saw one was a week ago. As I walked alongside a dyke, I disturbed a bird in the nearside reeds. It flew across to the other side of the bank and, best of all, kept going. It flew straight out into the adjacent field, skimming the long grass for forty yards or so until it came to another section of the drains. This memory is saved as the ‘Field-Hopper’; it joins a folder in my brain full of similar images, ranging from ‘The Kearsney Abbey Comet’ to the ‘First Time Flyer’. The latter refers to the first time I saw a kingfisher hovering before diving, as opposed to launching from a branch or reed.

 

 

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Fairies among the reeds

 

 

Kent is still 85% rural and the kings have many strongholds here. In fact, they’re also present in many of our built-up areas. I love seeing them anywhere but prefer to meet them in the fields. Grove Ferry and Pluck’s Gutter are hot-spots but my recent outback of choice has been the coastal marshes, where I like to go perch fishing in the colder months.

 

 

Kingfisher nodding, Northern Marsh
Preparing to dive for dinner

 

 

I’m not always successful but it’s fun hopping between the various villages, sampling new pubs and seeking out the whispers of the old country. It can be daunting at first but with the aid of an O.S map and a willingness to get chatting to locals, you can tilt the landscape in your favour. In no time at all, you’ll be able to inscribe your map book with various feathers and fins that you can revisit in seasons to come.

 

 

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Welcome to the old country. Vast and flat, the Kentish coastal marshes are a mosaic of different farming types, centuries-old hedgerows and ancient flood defences.

 

 

Two ingredients are essential for success when kingfisher spotting and perch hunting; firstly, find a lowland river valley. Secondly, locate a shoal of fry. Both the fish and the bird are partial to the latter for supper. So off we go in the early afternoons; the three river hunters- the perch, the kingfisher and I, searching underneath bridges and weedbeds, nosing about bends in the stream and, if fortune favours the hunter, finally intercepting those fry. Last season’s closest encounter came in December; I was walking a small marshland stream where I’d done quite well for perch in the previous autumn.

 

 

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Et in Arcadia ego

 

 

On this particular day, the first bird I remember seeing was a jay, just after noon. Marshes don’t have many trees, but what few are out here seem to be occupied by either woodpeckers or jays. Both species are present all year round; I hardly see the former but hear them each spring. As for the latter, they sometimes get sloppy and allow me a peak. This one flashed at me from between a ‘V’ in his tree, before vanishing.

 

 

Jay between the leaves
Vanishing Jay

 

 

But not from my imagination. I associate both jays and kingfishers with perch angling; any ‘contact’ bolsters my superstitions. So I was jumping for joy when I saw a pair of kingfishers come strafing up the stream an hour so later. I’ll save any fellow anglers the suspense and admit now that I caught no fish on this occasion.

 

Kingfisher aficionados, keep reading.

 

Having spent the best part of the afternoon terrorising the local fry stocks, one of the birds began to hunt from an old tree stump directly in front of me. It is a fact that if you sit still for long enough in the same spots, most English creatures will become desensitised to your presence. Fishermen, painters and idlers are all favoured conduits for our wildlife and so it proved today. Having hunted for some time from the same old perch, diving into the stream with a loud ‘plop’ and then coming back up again, the bird began to stare not at the water but at me. For so long in fact, that I put my binoculars down and picked my camera up.

 

 

King of the North Marsh
Orange on the lower bill… A female.
King of the Marshes
The Queenfisher contemplates… Gudgeon for dinner or stickleback?…

 

 

The pouting should be enough to identify this kingfisher as a female but the orange marking on her lower beak confirms that this is the lady of the pair. It’s a neat way to remember their gender. The males are quite macho and won’t wear lipstick, although this one couldn’t have been that tough as he never came as close as his partner, who stayed with me until well gone dusk. When I finally left, she sat glimmering in the darkening reeds- no doubt smugly digesting all the fish I’d failed to catch. On the last shot I took, the gloam activated the auto-flash on my camera; I turned it off to save frightening her but she didn’t seem to care.

 

If I’m not mistaken, she may even have been winking at me.

 

 

Queenfisher
Wink from the wild side

 

17 thoughts on “Journey to a Kingfisher

  1. Hi Gareth, another interesting and descriptive blog, I agree the Kingfisher is a wonderful splash of tropical colour as they skim by above the water, we even see them in Canterbury town centre sometimes. (plenty of minnows, gudgeon and fry for them) it certainly lifts ones spirit!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Philip, Thanks for taking the time to comment. How fascinating to see them in urban centres! My other favourite water bird is the grey wagtail; apparently they will sometimes fight over territory. Not seen that. Not sure I’d want to! I’d imagine the kingfishers would win- they can be quite aggressive, in their own way. But what a gift they are… And likely to do well around your way, as I’d imagine town centre stretches of river might stay warmer in the winter- Best Regards, Gazza

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  2. A lovely piece Gareth. I see them along the dykes, drains and rivers. They dive from moored boats, reeds any vantage point is a restaurant. One of my favourite perch holding areas is in an old farmyard and they nest under the willow opposite. This pair do well because if the river freezes the farmer breaks the ice with one of the attachments on his tractor or his teleport. I’m sure they appreciate the act of kindness too. Kind regards, John

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    1. Good to hear from you, John- Those kingfishers must love that farmer! If we get more cold snaps in the future, they’ll need more like him. Iconic isn’t the word for these birds, is it? Bernard Venables called perch the ‘totem fish’; well, kingfishers must be the totem birds. Just so evocative and have to be conserved. I remember David Boag the famous kingfisher writer/photographer used to rescue them from floods and feed them fry in his garage. If global warming kicks in, there’ll be more of us doing the same…. Hope the spring’s treating you well, mate! I’ll be bassing, soon. Any day now… Best Regards, Gazza

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      1. The EA and the drainage board wanted to take the clump of willows down because they were supposedly weakening the banks but after a discussion where he told them about the nests he said if they did he’d push their vehicles into the river. that was eight years ago and now leaving the trees is, according to them, their idea. You couldn’t make it up. there two nest about twenty yards apart down in the roots. There are masses of other little birds living in there too. The Environment Agency, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Kind regards, John

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      2. Haaaa! What a guy, this farmer! Absolutely brilliant. So nice to hear about someone like that. Wow. That’s the type of people we need out there…. Eyes and ears of the countryside, In Kent, many farmers have gotten right into barn owl conservation. A huge proportion of the species now dwell in those man-made barn owl boxes. I hope this spirit of conservation continues…

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    1. Might try for the stripeys in the summer this year, Tim, rather than waiting all the way until the autumn- that deep hole I found last September would fish well in late June, I think… It already feels like a long time since I caught a good one. Perhaps that’s why I’m fitting them into kingfisher blogs…

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  3. Beautifully written Gareth, a lovely tale! I’ve had a Kingfisher wizzing past me on several occasions this morning whilst I’ve been having a go at the Tench. It always makes my day….

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    1. Judging by the size of that tench picture I saw, the birds really must be lucky, Mal- What a corking fish! Would love an ‘8’ this summer but I’m not sure if I’ll get the time. Got a lot of bass fishing coming up- have ordered one of those cheap 8/9-weight outfits that are doing the rounds. Won’t be too heartbroken when I either snap it or drop it in the drink! Speak soon, Gazza

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      1. Yes Mal, I live on the cliff-tops in Ramsgate and can walk down to a prime bass spot within 5 minutes; about time I took advantage of it! I’ve been receiving advice on what flies to use. When I trout fish, I only really use about three or four flies- the classics. Black gnats, pheasant tail nymphs etc… But the names of these bass flies are really out there: clousers, deceivers, surf candies- love it! Not ordered flies, yet. Got to do that today but will tie my own next winter ready for the next season….

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  4. another lovely presentation from the home of the ‘cantiaci’

    digressing somewhat …. re your thoughts about a possible book fishing mill pools etc … if you didn’t pursue that option then as i look through these entries standing out – for me at any rate – is a base collection of varied subjects well worthy of a book … whether as a larger compilation or rewritten

    however that’s only my opinion !

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    1. Ave Cantiaci! Wow, thanks Beverly- What wonderful praise! Very much appreciated. I think I would like to write something longer one day. Sometimes with a blog, it can get quite intense fitting everything into a short space. I’ve got recurring themes but I’m not sure it allows me the depth to really explore and return to a topic they way you can in a small book. That’s an interesting idea about the existing entries… I most enjoyed writing those recent owl stories and the Black Dyke/perch chapters. They could well lead to a longer take on the marshes hereabouts… Hmmmm…. Speak soon! Gazza

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      1. gareth

        owing to a cock up by me you received a post in my poor wife’s name alas … she hasn’t time for blogs as most of her time is involved catching up with ‘ ncis’ repeats and northern soul outings ( not so much all nighters as all afternooners and home by 10.00pm

        years ago i read a book by john hillaby entitled ‘ journey through britain ‘ … during the country length walk he obviously made copious notes of things he saw and then researched and expanded the tale for a very interesting book … food , drink, natural history etc etc – i still laugh at ‘olaf the fart’ and ‘ ragnar hairy breeks ‘

        recently a book called ‘norwegian wood by lars mytting – nothing to do with the ‘fab four’ – but subtitled ‘chopping, stacking and drying wood. the norwegian way’ was printed circa 2015/16 and became the best selling book of 2016 !!!
        obviously a niche subject was very cleverly supplemented by stories, local history etc etc .. point here is of course that once reviews came out and the book became well known it must have become very worth while financially … mmmm

        keep up the good work

        ron

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      2. Hello Ron! I thought something was amiss as I recognised the surname. How interesting about that book. Amazing what can get through. Maybe I could take a year off (which to be fair, I’ve already done a few times if I add up the amount of breaks I’ve had between jobs these past few years) and live as a gypsy. Caravan, fishing rod and a rifle?! Sounds crazy but what a book that would be- and what an adventure?

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