07 August 2019 | Posted in Charlotte Owen , Birds
© Jon Hawkins

By Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer 

To catch a fish requires patience and skill.  Armed with intimate knowledge of the riverbank, you select the optimal spot to sit and wait.  The water is shallow and clear, and your attention never wavers from the glistening surface as you scan for signs of movement.  Detecting a flash of silver, your head bobs as you subconsciously perform complex calculations about depth, velocity and angle of entry, before – splash!  Almost too fast to see, you plunge into a perfect dive and emerge a moment later with a mouthful of minnow.  If you’re a kingfisher, that is.

Sleek and aerodynamic, with lightning reflexes and deadly accuracy, the kingfisher is the ultimate angler.  But it doesn’t all come naturally and this year’s youngsters must learn their trade.  Once they’ve emerged from their bankside burrows they will only be fed for a few more days before their parents return to the nest to begin a second or third brood, leaving their fledglings to fend for themselves.  They may be well equipped for fishing but have ‘all the gear and no idea’ so it can be a steep learning curve, and despite their affinity for water there’s a real risk of drowning if their feathers get waterlogged.  Many don’t make it but for those that survive their first dive it’s a case of practice makes perfect.  Their clumsy attempts are gradually refined as they plummet into the water again and again, sharpening their aim and improving their form until their diving reaches the Olympic standard of an accomplished adult.

The ideal fishing perch is one or two metres above the water, with a clear view of any unsuspecting sticklebacks below.  With a target in sight, the sparrow-sized bird plunges from its perch in a split second, crossing the divide between air and water at up to 25 mph.  Its open eyes are protected by a third eyelid, which closes on impact like a pair of built-in swimming goggles as the bird grasps its prey and rises to the surface in a spray of sparkling droplets.  It’s a performance that’s over in a heartbeat but once seen, is never forgotten.

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