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More than a blue flash – kingfishers in Dorset

Adrian Groves captures one of Dorset's most spectacular birds

Getting ready to dive into the river waters below

In Victorian times, kingfishers were hung from a thread in a misguided attempt to predict the direction of the wind from how they swung; these days, although they cannot predict the wind, kingfishers are very strong indicators of the health and cleanliness of a river. They need clear, clean running water in order to see their prey and they typically live and feed along a stretch of river from 1km to 3.5 km long.

It almost looks as if the fish is pulling this male kingfisher along as the latter takes to the air

So, if you are looking for kingfishers, all you need to do is find a stretch of nice, clean river… and then wait. One of the main hobbies of Wimborne’s Adrian Groves is fishing and, while fishing, he has spent many hours by the various local lakes and also by the River Stour, which is where he says he spotted his first kingfisher: ‘At first I only spotted the blue flash, flying low along the river, but then, as I learned more about their behaviour, opportunities arose to take photographs of them. The more time I spent watching them,’ he recalls, ‘the more they fascinated me. The flash of blue turned into a photographic opportunity, of which I took full advantage. I spent so much time near to them that they became used to my presence, enabling me to capture some amazing shots.’

A kingfisher captured underwater when diving for a fish

The kingfisher has a tough life: most do not last long after they are forced from their parents’ nest and territory; they may not have developed enough to make it out of the water before they have to start the extraordinary task of eating up to sixty per cent of their own bodyweight – each day – in fish, supplemented by aquatic insects and in colder periods, by river crustaceans like shrimps.

A female lands on a riverside branch with her catch. Kingfishers will generally whack the fish on a branch before eating it head-first.

 

A closer look at the extraordinary eye of the kingfisher

They are aided in the task of seeing and catching their prey by an incredibly complex eye system – their eyes see individually in air, but in binocular vision (so that they are able to judge distances) underwater, thanks to a second pair of fovea specifically for underwater vision and an egg-shaped lens in each eye. They also have a third, transparent eyelid which permits them to see underwater, and a specialised series of pigments in the retina thought to help them see better in the murk underwater.

Just resting up

So how do you find a kingfisher? Look for (but do not disturb or approach too closely) a branch or post around one or two metres above the water. If there are fish in the river and a kingfisher in the area, you will eventually see one. Given the difficulty of their lives, it is perhaps not surprising that they breed twice, sometimes three times in a year. From laying eggs to chasing the young from the nest takes about six weeks. When not breeding, the male and female live separately; when incubating, both male and female will take turns, but the male only does the day shift. Typically, around half-a-dozen eggs will be laid, but a couple of these will not hatch.

• You can find more of Adrian’s stunning wildlife images on www.flickr.com searching for the profile name Ady G

Gazing along the riverbank

 

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