Pure fish eaters are few and far between but the Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo, wingspan 150cm) is one of them, and its increase in inland waters in the last 30 years has brought it into conflict with anglers and fish farmers. The government has authorised the culling of 6,000 over two years, a decision which looks to have been based more on fear of offending people with presumed electoral clout than on sound science or environmental understanding.
Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis, wingspan 25cm, bill 4cm) are nothing like so numerous. There are around 5,000 pairs but this has reduced since 1970, in part because of river ‘improvements’ relating to flooding, such as canalisation, that have removed a number of the sheer earth banks the species prefers for breeding.
They are also highly territorial, with the youngsters ejected by the adults fairly soon after fledging, and need a fair-sized patch of water in which to forage. While occasionally taking invertebrates such as caddis flies, as shown in the image above, essentially it is small fish all the way. Understandably the natural feistiness appears at an early age, as the immatures tend to display against each other without actually giving any indication they know what’s going on.
To help prevent predators such as stoats gaining access, the nest is dug into a bank, around a metre above the river – breeding at ponds is much less common because of the lack of steep sides. The spring nests in April are prone to flash flooding but Kingfishers can have three broods a year, and providing there are plenty of small fish such as Minnows (Phoxinus phoxinus) and Bullhead (Cottus gobbio) the birds will do well. (With a brood of four, a parent would need to catch up to 100 fish a day to maintain momentum.) This ‘speed breeding’ helped them recover after the hard winter of 1963, when numbers suffered a dramatic fall.
If your spirits fail to soar when you’re walking along a river, or angling, as a Kingfisher flies past, abandon all hope. Oddly, the plumage is not spectacular when seen ‘cold’ – the brilliant colouring, similar to that found in Magpies (Pica pica) and Tufted Ducks (Aythya fuligula), comes to a large extent from the scattering or reflection of the short blue wavelength of the light spectrum known as the Tyndall Effect.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.