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Sundial spotlight: kingfisher

The fourth in a series of blogs celebrating the flora and fauna of our local river.

By Catrin Rawstorne

Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) are small bright blue and orange birds which can be spotted near slow-moving or still water. They fly rapidly and low over water, like darting jewels, occasionally hovering just above the surface, and hunt fish or aquatic insects from riverside perches.

These small birds are widespread, especially in central and southern England. Kingfishers breed in their first year, and pairs are usually formed in February. Both male and female birds excavate the nest burrow into the stone-free sandy soil of low stream banks, usually about 0.5m from the top. They choose a vertical bank clear of vegetation to achieve some protection from predators.

animal-1851127_1280The nest tunnel is up to 90cm long with a 6cm diameter that is only a little wider than the birds. The nest chamber has a slight depression at the end to prevent eggs from rolling out but no material is brought into the nest. Two or three broods are raised in quick succession, usually in the same nest.

The first clutch of eggs is laid in March or early April. Both birds incubate the eggs and chicks hatch after 19–21 days. Each chick can eat  up to 18 fish a day and they are fed in rotation: once a chick has been fed it moves to the back of the nest to digest its meal and the others move forward. Chicks usually leave the nest when they are 24 days old but this can take up to 37 days if the food supply is poor. Once they have left the nest, the young are only fed for four days before the adults drive them out of the territory and start the next brood. Kingfishers are short lived and many fledglings don’t survive for more than a couple of weeks because they haven’t learned to fish for themselves before being driven out of the parents’ territory. Territories typically cover at least 1km of water but may extend over 5km.

According to the ancient Greeks, kingfishers build their nests on a raft of fish-bones and then float them on the sea, where they lay and incubate their eggs. To allow this, it was said that the gods always calmed the winds and sea immediately after the winter solstice. The Greek name for kingfisher is halcyon which is where we get the term ‘halcyon days’.

Kingfishers feature in the poems of John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Andrew Marvell, who describes the impression of ‘sapphire-winged mist’ created by a kingfisher in flight. In King Lear, Shakespeare refers to the medieval tradition of using stuffed or dried out kingfishers as weather vanes. Birds were hung from a string to rotate freely, and whichever direction their bill pointed would show where the wind was blowing from. Today, kingfishers are more at risk from domestic cats or rats and from river pollution caused by agricultural runoff.

They’re also the subject of many haikus.

Hazed mist of morning
kingfisher iridescent ~
sticklebacks beware.

(Michael Newman)

This mosaic has been commissioned in celebration of our centuries old relationship with the river. Local artist Josie Webber has created designs featuring native species nominated by local residents, and incorporating pottery fragments found in West Oxford. The marker stone form part of a human sundial on the site. This project has been made possible thanks to the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund.kingfisher

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