Kingfisher

By Dominic Couzens

Pic: Alamy/Alan Grant

Pic: Alamy/Alan Grant

It was a bitter late autumn day with a gale blowing so hard that any words you tried to speak were whisked unceremoniously from your lips and deposited as junk in the outbox of the airwaves. I caught myself murmuring: “There shouldn’t be a Kingfisher here.”

At this moment, the Kingfisher concerned would probably have echoed the sentiments. It was perched on what looked like a tin can, beside the meandering creek of an estuary at low tide. It was hunkered at the bottom of a mini-downland of raised mud just above the water level, doing its best to find shelter. 

Its neighbours were Redshanks, similarly huddled and hunkered under the brow of mud. They should have been feeding on the super-fertile shallows along the creek, but, in the howling westerly, they risked being blown off their feet. 

Their bejewelled neighbour risked being blown to oblivion. The wind ruffled contemptuously at the gorgeous plumage, still colourful through a rain-lashed telescope lens. The dandy looked incongruous here, like a glamorously dressed woman disgorged from a nightclub in a freezing dawn.

The last time I had seen a Kingfisher looking so out of place was many years ago, when I was birding in the middle of an oak woodland. It was one of those days when all the trees seem bored of summer, the spring green long faded and the hum of activity hushed. 

There came the loud, whistling call and the familiar cerulean flash of diminutive Kingfisher-dom, blue out of the blue. There was no stream through this wood, nor any water within a 20 minute walk. Yet, there was no doubt about the bird’s identity, only incredulity in its wake. These observations, taken in isolation, would prove nothing about Kingfishers except that, in common with any bird species, they can surprise us. However, the truth is that neither observation would even raise the eyebrows of a Kingfisher expert. 

To us, an estuarine Kingfisher might seem out of place, but it is our expectations that are wrong. Kingfishers are routinely found on estuaries. And Kingfishers also wander during the late summer, when they can turn up in the middle of woods and other peculiar places.

Kingfishers suffer from Breeding Bird Syndrome, when our perceptions of a species are wrapped up almost entirely in their summer programme. The same applies to Swifts, which probably spend far more of their lives flying over Giraffes than they do over English cricket pitches, and Puffins, which spend the smallest fraction of their lives carrying sand-eels in their bills, while endless days they are floating in the open ocean. We expect to see Kingfishers by glinting rivers, on a lazy bend with luxuriant growth and dancing mayflies, not on a windswept estuary.

Kingfisher life in the 'off-season'

Pic: Wild Birds, Alius Imago/Alamy

Pic: Wild Birds, Alius Imago/Alamy

None of this takes into account a Kingfisher’s life in the off-season, when everything from the weather to the social climate is different and unsettled. For one thing, all the youngsters have been booted out of their parents’ territories and are on the look-out for a place that they can defend for their own. 

At the same time, adults evacuate from territories that cannot sustain them in the winter months, such as small brooks in the uplands. A few individuals might even enter the country from abroad. All are seeking the nirvana of a smooth, slow-flowing stretch of river where the water is shallow and productive. 

Demand outstrips supply, the best areas are quickly bagged and there is an almighty halcyon reshuffle. Displaced birds fly hither and thither, some just a short distance, some for much longer distances (250km has been recorded). Some individuals find themselves in what might almost be termed experimental territories. They try out fishing in garden ponds; birds plant themselves in brooks in the middle of woods; and a good many are forced into salt water, to estuaries, harbours, even to rocky shorelines, where they fish the rockpools like human toddlers.

These places seem to be a far cry from the ideal, but it is not as though these birds are landing on Mars. Kingfishers eat fish, and their skills are fully translatable from fresh to salt water. British Kingfishers are actually quite one-dimensional in their feeding behaviour – it is ‘dive into water to snap up fish’ or nothing (one exhaustive study on nearly 17,000 prey items found that only 0.07% were non-piscivorous.) The birds are perfectly capable of diving after a brief hover, or even plunging in straight from horizontal flight, but their method is really very simple. Would they need to adapt much to the supposedly sub-optimal habitat of salty or brackish water?

The real question is, perhaps, why don’t we see many Kingfishers on our estuaries and coasts? There are plenty of fish in the sea. If you look at the Kingfisher family as a whole, quite a number of species are coastal specialists, and a few are routinely seen by the beach – I watched a Pied Kingfisher accompanying gulls and terns on a beach off southern Israel just recently. 

The same species has been recorded three kilometres out to sea. Even our own species of Kingfisher may show different behaviour abroad, where it occurs east to Japan; it often occurs in mangroves, for example.

Presumably something isn’t quite right, because otherwise we would all see these birds more frequently on our visits to coasts. Perhaps there isn’t enough shelter, or there is too much disturbance from other bird species? 

Perhaps the fish themselves stay deeper in the water and are more difficult to catch. There are certainly many more foragers on estuaries than along rivers. But, for the moment, we can still be surprised to see these gaudy birds there.

Kingfisher quirky behaviour

A couple of recent studies have unveiled another interesting quirk of Kingfisher non-breeding behaviour, one that I haven’t ever witnessed myself. It throws a harsh light on the difficulties young birds face when they initially leave their birthplaces, and suggests a novel way of dealing with it. It seems that, on occasion at least, siblings settle in a new place together and look out for each other.

Pic: Naturfoto-Online/Alamy

Pic: Naturfoto-Online/Alamy

On a river in Poland (ie central Europe), the observers found that, while adult Kingfishers always dispersed singly to their winter territory, in four out of 24 cases, juveniles came in twos. 

Under the pressure of competition from other birds using the river, youngsters were often displaced from the first few territories into which they had settled, only remaining for a short time. 

However, when the birds arrived as pairs, they occupied the best territories and remained for a much longer period of the non-breeding season. Working co-operatively, birds making up these pairs were able to fight off the competition for longer. It is believed that such pairs are probably from the same family. 

In the Kingfisher family, blood relatives often occur in permanent groups (kookaburras, for example), so perhaps European Kingfishers are exhibiting a family trait. The makeup of these pairs (and occasional small groups) is still not fully understood, though, so it could be a fascinating area of study.

For now, though, we can all contemplate an even stranger sight than a Kingfisher cowering in the bowels of a bitter winter estuary – two Kingfishers cowering together. 

Kingfisher factfile:

Scientific name: Alcedo atthis
Length: 17-19.5cm
UK numbers: 3,800-4,600 breeding pairs
Habitat: Alongside still or slow-flowing water
Diet: Fish and aquatic insects
 

Long-tailed Tit

By Ian Parsons

The Long-tailed Tit is not a typical tit, in fact it isn’t actually a tit at all! It turns out that the long-tailed visitor to your bird feeders is actually more closely related to the babblers of India and South-east Asia than it is to the Blue Tits and Great Tits that we associate it with. But the long tail is longer than the rest of the body, so other than not being closely related to the true tits, the Long-tailed Tit is a very well-named bird indeed!

They are also on the increase, which is an unusual thing in British birds and one that is definitely worth celebrating, especially as a main part of their preferred habitat is towns and cities – meaning that these delightful little birds are an increasingly common sight for many of us. 

Pic: David Chapman/Alamy

Pic: David Chapman/Alamy

Feeding the birds in your garden is a great way to see lots of species close up, it is a rewarding experience for us and one that many people are rightly enthusiastic about. It is also very important for many bird species, with the Long-tailed Tit being a great example: the reason that this bird is doing so well in the urban and semi-urban habitats of our towns and cities is because of us feeding the birds in our gardens.

But, just because the Long-tailed Tit is doing well doesn’t mean that life is easy for it. The population in the UK is extremely vulnerable to the weather, with very cold winters resulting in large drops in numbers the following year. 

But it isn’t just the winter weather that can cause problems for the bird, the weather in spring and autumn is also strongly linked to the bird’s survival, with studies showing that warm weather in both seasons has a positive effect on numbers, whereas wet springs and cold autumns have a negative effect on numbers.

However, Long-tailed Tits are able to bounce back relatively quickly from periods of bad weather thanks to their potential breeding output. The result is large fluctuations in their overall numbers year on year; thankfully though, the trend is an upward one at the moment.

The winter is the time that Long-tailed Tits are at their most obvious. They form loose flocks ranging from five to 30 birds (even up to 50!) that rove the local area looking for feeding opportunities. Sometimes these flocks intermingle with other small birds, while at other times they are purely Long-tails! 

Pic: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy

Pic: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy

Being in the middle of one of these feeding parties is always a delight. Their soft, bubbly contact calls fill the air and you find yourself surrounded by these great little birds, hanging off the branches above your head or flitting past your face as they move from tree to tree, seemingly oblivious to your presence.

Birds form flocks for many reasons. For example, the more eyes there are, the better the chance a predator will be spotted early enough for the flock to take avoiding action. More birds can also mean more chance of finding food (although it then has to be shared!), but it seems as if Long-tailed Tits form their flocks for another reason. They form them to keep warm. 

While, undoubtedly, the birds get other benefits from grouping together, it seems that a major reason behind this behaviour is to help the birds get through the long, cold winter nights.

The threat of winter for Long-tailed Tit

Long-tailed Tits are tiny birds. Their long tail makes them look bigger than they are, but the reality is they are very small. Small bodies lose warmth far more quickly than larger ones and, therefore, Long-tailed Tits are prone to hypothermia during the chilly nights of winter. 

To combat this, the group of Long-tailed Tits get very busy as dusk approaches, feeding up before selecting a nice thick shrub or tree to roost in. Within the confines of the branches the birds huddle together. By getting up close and personal with the other members of the flock, who are often related, they minimise the amount of heat that they lose. It is a brilliant and sociable adaptation. 

Pic: FLPA/Alamy

Pic: FLPA/Alamy

Come the spring, with its warmer nights, the flocks disperse and the birds pair up to breed. The breeding season starts early for these little birds, often in February, but the reason for the early start has nothing to do with maximising the broods it can produce in the one year – it is all about their fabulous nest, an avian architectural wonder. 

The nests are basically a large pouch with a small entrance hole towards the top, constructed by both the male and female. They can take up to three weeks to make. They are made by using moss, lichen, feathers and spider silk, which the birds gather from the silk egg cocoons of various spider species. There are around 6,000 individual components used to make these wonderful structures. The spider silk is the glue holding together the moss, lichen and feathers, but it is even cleverer than that. 

A study of the construction of the nests revealed that the spider silk is used to form small loops that snare the tiny, hook-like leaves of the moss, creating a strong bond that prevents the nest falling apart, even when it is full of youngsters. You have to wonder if the person who invented Velcro ever watched Long-tailed Tits make a nest...

Once the nest is constructed, the birds then need to line it, and this itself is a mighty task. The tits line it with soft downy feathers, but they don’t just use one or two, they use about 2,000! It is amazing to think that they are able to find that many downy feathers, but find them they do, and the nest must be really comfortable as a result. 

I remember, many years ago, approaching a Goshawk nest site early in the season to check occupancy (under licence of course). On my way in to the site, I passed the raptors’ main plucking post (always a great thing to check out!) and, as I did, I flushed up a Long-tailed Tit. 

At the time, it didn’t register with me what this bird was doing, but as I think about it now it makes sense. A plucking post is going to be a great source of downy feathers. Nothing is wasted in nature.

Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

Despite the care and attention that goes into building the nest, many actually fail. When this happens, the adults involved sometimes help out with a nearby nest, helping to provide the young with food and to keep predators away. 

The birds that do this are often related to the birds that they are helping, so they benefit by ensuring the future of related offspring. It is also thought that they gain experience, which may mean that the following year they are less likely to suffer a nest failure again. 

One thing is for certain, this behaviour greatly benefits the young in the nest. Studies have shown that they have much greater survivability if their parents have been helped out in rearing and defending them. The Long-tailed Tit is a social bird. Whether they are helping a relation rear their young or snuggling up to them in the depths of winter to keep warm, these are birds that look out for each other.  

Where to see Long-tailed Tits

You can see these little birds pretty much anywhere, except for the far north and west of Scotland. Look (and listen) for them in woodland, farmland hedgerows, scrubland, parkland and also in your garden – check your feeders! 

They will form a flock with other tit species during the winter months.

Alternative names for Long-tailed Tit

Old English names for the Long-tailed Tit include: Long-tailed Pie, Mumruffin, Bottle Tit, Bum Barrel, Bum Towel, Oven Bird, Bag and Hedge Jug to name a few!

Long-tailed Tit fact-file

Scientific Name: Aegithalos caudatus
Length: 13-15cm (8cm of which is the tail!)
UK numbers: 340,000 UK breeding territories
Habitat: Towns and cities
Diet: Mostly insects, occasionally seeds in autumn.

 

 

Goosander

By Dominic Couzens
 

Pic: Alamy

Pic: Alamy

Whatever you have learnt about ducks probably isn’t true about the Goosander. This is a very different animal from your quacking park staples, and almost everything they do, it doesn’t do. 

If you take a list of unusual duck facts, many of them will be true of Goosanders. The Goosander is a duck apart, a thoroughbred and a maverick. Far from being a portly, bread-ivorous consumer of benefit handouts, the Goosander is
a big-game fishing duck. 

Instead of occupying slummy waters in the urban sprawl, this bird is at home in fast-flowing, highly oxygenated, supercharged wild rivers and deep pools. It lives, in many parts of its range, among forests full of bears and wolves. It is the antithesis of the duck that is, if not domesticated, then domiciled. It is wild and untamed.

My first experiences with these characters always led me to assume that people, in the view of Goosanders, were to be avoided. From deep reservoirs in winter to streams in summer, you tended to see the back end before you saw the front, the big, torpedo-shaped bodies whistling off and away, not a thought for pleasantries. There is no breaking bread with a Goosander.

Their diet, too, is the opposite of a handout. Many species of ducks, throughout the world, take an extremely leisurely approach to feeding. Mallards, for all their adaptability, give the impression that they are never making any more effort than we would to dig up carrots. Shovelers bulldoze the water surface, Teals pick seeds from the mud; Pochards graze underwater and sleep for much of the rest of the time; even Eiders in the sea only dive down to yank immotile cockles from the sea bed. 

Goosanders, though, are birds that chase, and their prey is both fast and reluctant to be caught. They are among the very few ducks that catch fish for a living, along with their ‘sawbill’ relatives, the Red-breasted Merganser and Smew. These ducks need pace underwater, and they need unobstructed space in which to spot and snatch their prey. 

Almost any fish species less than 20cm in girth may be consumed, anything from a stickleback to a salmon. They catch what is most abundant; in extreme cases they can swallow a fish 36cm long. They will search among the sediment and among stones, in a submarine world it is hard for us to imagine. They have excellent vision and will hunt well into dusk, or even after dark. 

The serrated edges of their mandibles allow them to hold slippery prey.

Goosander: Hunting and homes
 

Pic: Alamy

Pic: Alamy

Where fishing is good, Goosanders will gather. In contrast to the quarrelling Mallards spitting over bread, these sleek hunters will hunt co-operatively, and with deadly effectiveness. Sometimes they dive as one to startle fish into rash decisions, and sometimes they will form a line to drive shoals of prey into shallow water. There is no jostling in this classy species.

Goosanders don’t follow the duck trail in much of their breeding behaviour, either. Despite being large, they nest in holes in trees, or sometimes rocks or strange sites, such as hollow logs on the ground, or in buildings. 

These holes may be anything from 1m above ground to an impressive, decidedly lofty 30m. True, that epitome of duck-hood, the Mallard, will sometimes nest in tree-holes as well, but among duck species as a whole it remains unusual. Most types, from Tufted Ducks to Gadwalls, nest among vegetation on the ground. 

One might immediately sense a problem for Goosanders, when looking for nest-sites: where can they find anywhere big enough? You could fit a Mandarin or a Smew into a small space, but not a Goosander. The penthouse suite must be spacious. Fortunately, in most parts of their range, Goosanders can call in large woodpeckers to provide housing. 

In Europe, it is Black Woodpeckers and in North America, Pileated Woodpeckers, both of which are impressively bulky, and the woodpeckers’ habit of continuously excavating holes means that the ducks can keep their numbers up. 

In Britain, where Black Woodpeckers are absent, Goosanders can use other holes and hollows, perhaps where branches have broken off. They will also use nest-boxes.

Almost all duck species’ progeny are quickly led to water almost as soon as they hatch. Nestling Goosanders spend their first day or two in the hole and then conform to type. 

Of course, this arrangement comes with a snag, if you are 30m above ground. The chicks might be lightweights, physically, but they certainly aren’t in courage; necessity urges them to make the jump to ground, and then the mother urges them on, during the walk to water, however far that might be – 1.5km has been recorded. 

It is quite a jolting start in life. In their early days, the mother may treat the chicks to a parental quirk which is unusual among wildfowl, a ride on her back. Presumably this has some survival value, but she isn’t always able to accommodate the whole brood, which can number 12, and occasionally as much as 17.

Pic: Alamy

Pic: Alamy

Goosander mystery solved
 

Looking at the Goosander’s overall behaviour, it seems to follow almost every unusual lead in the world of wildfowl, from hole nesting to ferrying young to chivvying fish. 

Yet another strange behaviour that it exhibits might qualify as the strangest of all, and it is taking place at about the time you are reading this article, or just after.

You are probably aware that some birds perform special migratory movements for the purposes of moult. The most famous of these birds is the Shelduck, which flies from Britain to Germany in the summer, while Barnacle Geese sometimes fly north of the breeding grounds to moult. They go for no other reason than to change their feathers in a safe environment.

It has been discovered quite recently that Goosanders also have a moult migration, yet extraordinarily, it is confined to the males. For many years, it had been noted that the drakes were absent from their Scottish rivers from June to October or so, even where the mothers and broods were feeding, and for many years their whereabouts was a mystery. 

It has now been shown that these drakes undertake a remarkable journey, travelling all the way to the North Cape of Norway. Here they mingle with 35,000 other males from other parts of western Europe and loaf about, moulting their plumage.

It is well known that ducks commonly show differential migration, with each gender exhibiting a different migratory strategy – for example
male Smews remain close to the breeding grounds in winter, while in Britain, further away, we see more females and immature males. 

However, for the male Goosanders to migrate such a significant distance, leaving the females behind, is of a different order of magnitude.

On the other hand, for such a remarkable, unconventional duck, it is just another example of doing everything in its own way.

Goosander facts:
 

Scientific name: Mergus merganser
Length: 58-68cm
Wingspan: 78-94cm
UK numbers: 3,100-3,800 breeding pairs /
12,000 wintering birds
Habitat: Upland rivers in summer, lakes, gravel pits and reservoirs in winter
Diet: Fish