A piping whistle and a flash of iridescent blue on a springtime walk along a stream and you’ve seen a Kingfisher, albeit very briefly as it zips past you, flying low above the water. May be, at this time of year, you will see two together because April is nesting time for these jewels of the bird world. The male and female are very similar, both with blue and orange plumage, the main difference being that the male’s beak is all black whereas the female has orange on the lower mandible; a juvenile bird will be less bright and greener in colour and the tip of the beak is white. Also, a young bird’s legs are much duller than the adult’s which will be bright orangey-red. In common with other birds that don’t need to do a lot of walking, swallows and swifts for instance, the legs are very short. Kingfishers inhabit lakes, canals and slow-moving streams or rivers; in the winter some travel to estuaries or the coast.
Their main diet is small fish, such as minnows and sticklebacks but they will also take aquatic insects, tadpoles, small amphibians and freshwater shrimps. They hunt from perches, usually branches that overhang the water, and they are able to judge very accurately the depth of their prey. They dive in and bring the fish back to the perch where they will bang the poor beast on the branch until it is an ex-fish and then swallow it whole or, if male, present it to his mate as part of the courting ritual. Fish are more easily swallowed head first because of the way the scales and fins lie, so if he is holding it with the head facing outwards this is destined for his lady or for their young. Both birds work to excavate a burrow in a sandy, waterside bank, with a nesting chamber at the end where the female will lay an average of 5 – 7 eggs, sometimes more. They share the incubation, which lasts for about 20 days, and also the care of the young which will be in the nest for a further 24 – 25 days. Young birds are very vulnerable when they first leave the nest and many do not survive more than a week or two but there may be two or three broods in a season. Hard, cold winters will reduce the Kingfisher population as they are often not able to find enough food to sustain themselves during these times. I was once able to study a Kingfisher at very close hand. When I was a veterinary nurse a client brought one into the surgery. It had been badly storm battered and needed to recover in a quiet cage. Because of the way they feed, this presented us with a problem, so I got some small fish from the local pet shop; these were ones that the owner didn’t think were going to survive so he was happy to let me have them. Wild birds are often reluctant to feed when in captivity, so we weren’t very hopeful but I put the fish into a tank of water in the Kingfisher’s recovery cage and, would you believe it, the bird dived in and caught them! Amazing! I hope you will be lucky enough to see one of these lovely gems; a glimpse will stay in your mind’s eye for a long time.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that a flying animal should evolve to find its food under water and, of course, there are many others which do the same. Sea birds, ducks, swans and waders we associate with water because as well as flying some also swim, so it seems more natural for them to eat watery things. Ospreys and sea eagles, on the other hand, don’t swim but they feed on fish and in some parts of the world there are fishing owls. Nesting underground also seems an odd thing for a bird to do but, again, there are others. Sand martins, puffins, shearwaters and petrels do this and there are lots more around the globe. Birds nest everywhere and man-made structures are used by many. Cavities, ledges, beams, eaves, pylons, shelves in out buildings and even pockets in gardening jackets have all been made use of.
The strangest nesting place I ever saw was a hollow, five feet high metal gate post. A nest full of baby Great tits was right at the bottom! The diameter was about two and a half inches so how the parents managed to get to the chicks to feed them is extraordinary. Also, how did the young get out? But they did! One morning they were all gone. There were Great tits nesting in that pole for two years running and maybe a pair still does. I’d be interested to hear of any unusual nesting sites you have come across.
Some birds nest on the ground and pheasants will be laying this month. The hen sits tight on the nest and she blends well into the background with her mottled brown plumage. It is also thought that, in keeping with other ground nesting birds, she can change her scent to avoid detection by predators.
Towards the end of the month we will see other flying creatures, St. Mark’s flies. They get their name because they always emerge around the 25th which is St. Mark’s day and they will be flying in groups into the early part of May. Also called the Hawthorn fly, it is easily recognisable by the shiny, black body and long, dangling legs. This is the male which has a large head with big eyes – the female’s head and eyes are much smaller. The male’s eyes are interesting because each one is in two sections, the upper half looks out for a female and the lower half judges his distance from the ground. (I wonder how they found that out). He usually flies at about head height around hedgerows and woodland edges as he searches for a female which will be resting on the foliage. After mating she will lay her eggs on the ground and then die. St. Mark’s flies don’t live very long as adults, may be a week or two, as most of their lives are spent in the ground as larvae where they feed on rotting vegetation and roots. The adult flies feed on nectar and are useful pollinators; they can often be seen on Hawthorn blossom.
You can find Dandelions in flower virtually all the year round but this month they are exceptionally plentiful, in fact the 23rd, St. George’s day, is the traditional day for gathering them to make dandelion wine. The name comes from the French Dent de lion, which means lion’s tooth, because it was thought that the toothed edges to the leaves resembled these. In Victorian times the young leaves were highly valued as a food item being high in vitamins, iron and other minerals. They are quite bitter but this can be reduced by covering the plant with a pot to achieve blanching. Dandelions are also reputed to have many medicinal uses, particularly the root, including as a diuretic which gave rise to its other French name pis-en-lit which loosely translated means ‘wet the bed.’ Generations of children have aided the spread of this plant by counting how many ‘puffs’ it takes to remove all the seeds from a dandelion clock to see what the time is; don’t rely on this method if you have a train to catch!
Activities this month include:
• Daffodil Sunday on the 3rd – meet at Honing church.
• Minsmere migration – www.wildlifetoursandeducation.co.uk or 01263 576995.
• Walks at Mousehold Heath, Snettisham beach & coastal park and an illustrated talk about the Norfolk chalk reef. 01603 625540 or www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk
© Sheila Sims 2016