Steve Westerman

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

IT is always exciting to see a kingfisher – and the autumn can be a particularly good time for this. In recent weeks they have been active in several places along the River Wharfe. To increase your chances it’s worth listening out for the rather shrill ‘peep’ that they frequently (but not always) make in flight. If you hear it – quickly cast your eyes to the river and scan for the telltale flash of blue, as a bird darts by, fast and low, over the water. These are territorial birds that will ‘patrol’ a stretch of river – so if you don’t see one immediately then waiting quietly at a good vantage point can be a successful strategy.

Outside the breeding season kingfishers tend to be solitary – so I was surprised recently to see two birds apparently flying ‘together’ and then perching on the same branch, where they remained for a little while. However, I think this may have been a relatively ‘low key’ territorial dispute. Both birds were adult males. Females have an orange underside to their bills and juveniles tend to have darker feet. So this ruled out the possibilities of a breeding pair that was still together or a late departing youngster. There was no direct aggression, but the birds did seem to be engaging in ‘threat’ posturing, including a good deal of head bobbing and some wing spreading (see photograph). Eventually, they flew off in the same direction – presumably one pursuing the other.

Kingfishers have also been known to pursue other small birds. One morning I saw a dipper apparently beating a hasty retreat, closely followed by a kingfisher. Perhaps this determination to control a territory (and its food supply) is because kingfishers have a precarious existence. Winters can be particularly difficult for them with high mortality rates when conditions are harsh. For this reason, we need to be careful not to disturb them during the breeding season. This can extend to half the year as they can have two or even three broods.

So this can be a good time of year to see a kingfisher, when they are no longer raising their young, and when the falling leaves mean they have a little less cover. With patience, and a bit of good fortune, it’s sometimes possible to identify a favourite stopping place - or even a fishing perch - that a bird will use regularly on its travels up and down the river. Good luck!