Seeing a kingfisher flash along a waterway, like an iridescent turquoise-and-orange arrow, is one of the joys of a walk in the countryside - if you’re lucky. This jewel-bright little fish-eater is very vulnerable to human disturbance, harsh winters, pollution, habitat degradation and insensitive management of water course and there has been a steady decline in it numbers in the UK since the 1970s. Fishermen no longer persecute kingfishers, or anglers kill them to use their feathers as lures. But in many areas, spotting one has become a bit of a wildlife-watcher’s one-upmanship "Brownie badge". With beginner’s luck, I saw one skimming along the surface of the Wandle while walking the dog during a lunch break while I was working as a wildlife hospital volunteer at London Wildcare in Beddington Park. My companion was furious - he’d been watching out for the fabled local kingfishers every time he visited the park, for the previous five years, entirely without success.But you may be surprised to learn that you don’t have to even leave “The Borough” to catch sight of a kingfisher. Itinerant males have been seen visiting a nature reserve in the north of Southwark (Globe Pond, Russia Dock Woodland) and, even closer to home, they have been spotted hunting in Peckham and Dulwich Parks in recent years.
Kingfishers are small birds (around the size of a house sparrow) and the lives of most are short - usually less than a year. Only about a quarter of youngsters make it to maturity and even adult birds only have a 25 per cent chance of surviving through to the next breeding season (parent birds shoosh them away from the territory very quickly and it‘s feared that many may not have had sufficient time to learn to fish for themselves before they leave). But if they do pick up survival skills in time, they go on to be very prolific breeders. They can produce two or three broods of chicks in a season, with up to six or seven eggs in a clutch. Obviously, parent birds need to find a lot of aquatic insects, crustaceans, invertebrates and small fish, like sticklebacks, to fuel so many hungry beaks - but first, they have to find somewhere in which they can safely lay their eggs.
Male and female kingfishers form pair-bonds from about February. To date, visiting birds have been seen checking out possible nesting sites locally, but they haven‘t yet been able to stay on. Although they can live near a variety of water bodies (rivers, slow-flowing streams, canals, lakes and occasionally garden ponds) which contain enough aquatic live-foods for them, they require a very specific nest-building site. In the wild, kingfishers excavate a burrow (some 60 to 90 cms long) - with a slight dip at the end to stop eggs rolling back out - typically dug into the soft sandy soil of an undisturbed rive r bank. The tunnel must be clear of stones inside and of vegetation outside, narrow enough to foil bird and mammal predators and positioned in such a way that hot sunlight won’t turn it into a roasting oven for the chicks within. Kingfishers feed their young on the fish and other prey they have caught (first beating it to death) before cramming it down the gullet of each youngster in turn. Once a nestling has fed, it turns away and moves to the back of the nest burrow, allowing the next sibling in line to take their place. But in a home that’s barely shoulder-width, queuing is clearly the only answer at mealtimes!
Dulwich has long been a magnet for human families with young children and now it may also prove equally attractive to kingfisher pairs seeking a home. The Dulwich Society, supported by The Friends of Dulwich Park, have successfully bid for a £5,000 grant from Southwark under the Dulwich Community Council’s Cleaner, Greener, Safer programme for 2008/9 and the money is being used to build a specialised artificial sandbank nesting site for kingfishers alongside Dulwich Park lake.
An on-site meeting at the end of July was held in order to choose the ideal spot for the bank, which will be constructed along the lines of ones so successfully used by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at their national centres; they have eight, including their most famous one at Slimbridge, founded by the late, world-famous naturalist Sir Peter Scott.
It is hoped that it will give Southwark’s kingfishers an invaluable new habitat which will help their conservation (they are amber listed as fairly rare at present but with increasing housing and transport development pressures, and increasing usage of waterways for leisure activities, there is no room for complacency). It will also give a lot of people, of all ages, a great deal of pleasure when they visit Dulwich Park and catch a magical glimpse of one of Britain’s most brightly coloured and interesting birds.
Chair, Dulwich Society Wildlife Committee