Nature’s Fishermen

Dust off your walking boots, dig out your binoculars and head out for a walk by the water this spring. Riverbanks and wetlands are great places to watch for the electric blue flash of a kingfisher and much more, suggests local wildlife expert Wendy Carter of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

Bobby Dazzler

The jewel-like kingfisher is one of our most stunning birds; its luminosity is the stuff of legends. Stories of old tell us that this small bird, just 16cm long, was once plain grey. However, when one individual flew too close to the sun, its belly took on the amber of its rays and its back the blue of the sky.

 

Most of us only get to see an occasional fleeting glimpse of these cobalt bullets as they pass through the air. With their vivid azure backs and deep turquoise wings, orange cheeks and belly and pure white neck, their plumage is an electric combination. You can distinguish the sexes by taking a closer look at their lower bill – it’s red rather than solid black in the female (as if she’s wearing lipstick). However, it is possible to get a more satisfying sighting of them locally.

 

In our area kingfishers can commonly be found on most brooks and rivers like the Piddle or the Avon as well as at larger ponds and lakes. They love quiet waters and slow moving streams. They need a nearby bank in which to nest and trees that overhang the water from which to fish. Kingfishers are birds with tremendous patience and they will hover or perch on projecting twigs and branches at length, waiting for the perfect opportunity to grab a bite to eat, before plunging into the water. Look out for sites that meet this criteria when you’re out walking; listen carefully and you may get advance notice of one of them coming along – a high, elongated whistle or ‘peeeeep’. If you’re lucky you can follow the sound and spot where it lands.

 

The favourite prey of kingfishers is small fish but they’ll happily eat invertebrates that live in the water too. They have a habit of bashing their victim, held firm in their long sharp beak, on a branch to subdue or kill it before swallowing it down head-first. When a male bird is trying to impress a female, he’ll spin the fish around in his beak so that he presents it to her head-on.

 

Once kingfishers have paired up, they build a nest together by excavating a tunnel and chamber in a vertical riverbank then lining it with regurgitated fish bones. Females lay up to seven eggs at a time and will use their nest for two or three broods a year, which makes raising kingfishers a messy business! For this reason, it’s not uncommon for the adult birds to dive straight into the water to wash following a feeding session.

 

Amazingly, a brood of young kingfishers can demand more than a hundred fish a day from their parents. Unlike many other species, the nestlings take it in turns to eat so the youngest of the brood doesn’t necessarily go hungry.

 

Fortunately, the days are gone when kingfishers were hunted for fashion. Prized for the purity of their colour, they were in demand from taxidermists and milliners who used their feathers to adorn ladies’ hats. However, the conservation status of kingfishers is still Amber, which means that their population is vulnerable. They certainly suffer in floods and freezing weather and are also susceptible to habitat degradation such as pollution or the unsympathetic management of riverbanks.

 

Grumpy uncle

Herons had always struck me as being like a grumpy old uncle – they ‘bark’ rather than sing, are muted in colour and quite serious. As birds go, they can live to a ripe old age; the oldest recorded grey heron was over 23. However, a couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to find myself close to a hunting heron and I had the chance to observe it properly. It was almost like seeing it for the first time; they are much more beautiful than a quick glance would have you believe.

 

At just short of a metre tall, the grey heron is one of our biggest, and most unmistakeable, birds. They have long legs that enable them to wade through mud and water and a strong dagger-like beak that allows them to seize and hold onto their prey. Their colour is wonderfully varied, encompassing a myriad of shades of grey, with dashes of black and streaks of white; the black and white pattern on the front of their neck and breast is thought to break up their shadow on the water. Adult herons also have longer looser feathers, or plumes, that hang over their folded wings and a lengthy black crest that droops down the back of their neck. When they display to either an aggressor or potential partner, they can fluff up their breast, throat and crest feathers making them look even more impressive.

 

If you catch sight of a heron on the riverbank – they can often be seen along the Avon - you’ll probably spy an elongated neck and a head held high as the bird surveys its domain and keeps an eye out for potential food. If you spot a heron in flight, the first thing you’re likely to notice is its huge wingspan, in the region of two metres across. You will also see its peculiar flying position – note how far the head and neck is pulled back and body hunched, leaving it with no option but to trail its legs behind.

 

The eyes of herons are set wide, not only to enable them to look through water to find their food but also to help them accurately judge how the refraction of the water affects the depth and position of their prey. Herons are not fussy eaters. Fish are the first, obvious choice but they’ll also feed on frogs, newts and ducklings. They will even stalk small mammals on land if they think there’s a chance of catching them. Usually quite solitary birds, they almost always hunt alone.

 

Perhaps the most amazing fact about herons is that they nest in trees. Their nests consist of one metre-wide platforms made of twigs. They build them early so by late February, most nests will already have eggs in them. More often than not, herons nest communally but sadly heronries are not as commonly found in Worcestershire as they once were. That said, we were delighted to have an entry to our photo competition last year from a gentleman in Offenham who photographed one in a neighbour’s garden. The photo went on to win him a place in our 2019 calendar.

 

In the past herons had a mixed fate. During the Middle Ages they were eaten at royal feasts and, like swans, they were deemed royal birds, meaning the Crown decided their fate. Historically, laws forbade the capturing of herons by any means except falconry or long bow and the poaching of herons in Scotland could lose you your hand, yet hunting them with peregrine falcons was considered ‘the’ sport, so long as you had authority to take part. Today, thankfully, herons are a protected species and it is illegal to kill them.

 

Snow-white interloper

Little egrets are small white herons, roughly 60cm tall, with rather smart white plumes of feathers on their back, chest and crest during the breeding season. Their black legs are adorned with bright yellow feet and their bills are black, a featured that distinguishes them from the much larger great white egret, which is rarely seen in Worcestershire.

 

Watching little egrets can be amusing. They waggle their feet around in the mud to try and disturb fish and other potential prey. Watching closely, they spot any movement then stab their head into the water to catch their meal. Most food is downed quickly with only bigger items of prey causing a commotion but on more than one occasion I’ve seen a little egret shake its head as though questioning why it was born a bird that has to catch its food underwater!

 

Little egrets have only been common in the UK for a few years; the first recorded sighting in Worcestershire was 1992 at Bredon’s Hardwick. Although historical records showed odd birds turned up in the UK occasionally, it wasn’t until 1996 that they first bred on our shores. It is the change in our climate that has enabled them to expand their range from Europe, through France and into Britain.

 

Since their arrival, numbers have increased tremendously and they’re now a relatively common sight in Worcestershire. Whilst they’re normally only seen in ones or twos, in September 2017 at Grimley, just outside Worcester, a total of thirteen little egrets were counted. That same year, little egrets were recorded at Ripple Pits, near Upton upon Severn, almost every month.

 

Like grey herons, little egrets nest communally in trees. Unlike grey herons and kingfishers, which may only leave their territories to find food when the weather turns to ice and snow, little egrets are migratory. In the past, this has seen them head to the warmer climes of southern Europe and North Africa but more recently some birds have spent their winter with us. In fact, many of Worcestershire’s recorded birds are from late summer when it seems likely that juvenile little egrets from nests in southern England disperse to find their own patches. It must only be a matter of time before they breed in our county.

 

As little egret numbers are expanding, the species is not currently of conservation concern but this wasn’t always the case. Like kingfishers, they have been hunted in the past, particularly in the Victorian period. In the 1880s, it’s estimated that five million birds a year, globally, were being killed for the fashion industry and northwest Europe saw the last of its little egrets. Their beautiful neck plumes were considered a highly desirable hat ornament and at one time they were more valuable than gold. Even worse, these birds were targeted during the breeding season, when their crests and plumes were at their finest, meaning their eggs and chicks were also condemned to death. Fortunately, protection campaigns arose in many countries and, as we can see on our own patch today, little egrets have bounced back.

 

Enjoying nature’s fishermen

Where you should hang out and how you can help:

 

• If you’re lucky, a walk along the Avon, Severn or your local brook may reward you with all three species but take note of the habitat you’re walking through. Kingfishers will need branches whereas herons and egrets need shallower areas.

 

• Try spotting birds at viewpoints across rivers and wetlands as well as on walks – Avon Meadows in Pershore, Bredon’s Hardwick, Ripple Pits, NT Croome or our nature reserves at Hill Court Farm, near Longdon, or Upton Warren, near Bromsgrove, are all rich in wildlife.

 

• Keep a lookout for large birds looking rather incongruous in trees – they may just be nesting there.

 

• Think about your actions at home and whether they affect the environment that our wildlife needs to stay healthy. Use phosphate-free washing liquids and ensure your washing machine is properly plumbed. Check that any oil or septic tanks are properly sealed, not leaking into the ground and, ultimately, into local watercourses.

 

• Support our work so that we can help wildlife on our reserves and in local communities – please come along to our events, buy our gifts or join as a member.

 

 

Find out more

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/wildlife/species-explorer

for help with identifying wildlife

 

 

What’s On

Thur 21st Feb – Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean, Wulstans Hall, Pershore. 7.30pm, £2.50

 

Sat 2nd & Sun 3rd Mar – Log and woodchip sale at Tiddesley Wood, Pershore. 10am-1pm

 

7th Mar – The Secret Life of the Adders, The Lyttleton Rooms, Malvern. 7.30pm, £2.50

 

20th Mar: Wild on Wednesdays – Top Trunks Tree Trail family activities. Lower Smite Farm.

6pm, £2

 

20th Mar – Return of the Pine Marten - Bishop Allenby Hall, Worcester. 7.30pm, £2.50

 

21st Mar – Weevil in a Haystack – Wulstans Hall, Pershore. 7.30pm, £2.50 n 4th Apr – Ancient Woodland Plants and their Conservation – The Lyttleton Rooms, Malvern. 7.30pm, £2.50

 

Wed 17th Apr – Scottish Wildcat Project – Bishop Allenby Hall, Worcester. 7.30pm, £2.50

 

Sun 5th May – Tiddesley Wood Open Day, Pershore. 10am-5pm, £3 adults, £1 children

 

 

Get involved

 

Pledge a Patch for wildlife

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/pledgeapatch

 

Nominate your Worcestershire Wildlife Hero

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/wildlife-heroes

 

Enter our photo competition

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/photography-competition

 

 

For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT

 

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk

Tel: 01905 754919

 

 

 

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