“It was the Rainbow gave thee birth,
And left thee all her lovely hues;”
From ‘The Kingfisher’ by W.H. Davies
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.