Country diary: a flicker of turquoise morphs into a kingfisher

Langstone, Hampshire: As it turns to face me, its burnished copper breast-feathers glow in the late afternoon sun

Before it reaches Southmoor Meadow coastal grazing marsh, a nature reserve and site of special scientific interest, the Langbrook stream passes through Havant, flowing past a supermarket and several fast food outlets. As I walk into town, I’m unsurprised to find the bank strewn with sandwich and burger packaging, while midstream the resident moorhen pair pick their way across a weed-tangled raft of discarded soft drink bottles, crisp packets and chocolate bar wrappers.

Up ahead, a flicker of turquoise blue catches my eye. At first glance I assume it is a piece of wind-blown litter snagged on a twig, but as I draw closer the smudge of colour morphs into a kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Sensing my approach, it turns to face me, its burnished copper breast-feathers glowing in the late afternoon sun.

Kingfishers are a fairly common sight in the harbour throughout the winter. At this time of year these sparrow-sized birds need to consume their own body weight in fish every day. They are resident in much of their range, but they often move from inland rivers and lakes to the coast in search of food. In Germany they are called Eisvogel – or ice bird – perhaps alluding to this migratory behaviour, though there may be a more macabre origin to the name: on the continent kingfishers have been found entombed in ice on frozen ponds and canals, perfectly preserved, with their wings tucked into diving position.

A female kingfisher with its beak wide open
A female common kingfisher calling for food from the male, a prelude to mating. Photograph: Jonathan Lewis/Getty Images

I’m surprised to see this female – identifiable by her orangey-red lower mandible – hunting so far upstream. Parish records indicate that eels, brown trout, sticklebacks, freshwater shrimps and miller’s thumb (European bullhead, Cottus gobio) were once abundant in this shallow, slow-moving watercourse, but I pass this section of the stream several times a week and on just one occasion have I caught sight of a shoal of small, silvery fish – possibly minnows (Phoxinus phoxinus) – schooling in the shadow of the A27 underpass.

I watch as the kingfisher’s beady black eyes scan for prey. The usually clear water is clouded brown with sediment and urban runoff, and there is no sign of the tell-tale circular ripples of fish rising to the surface, but the mere presence of this jewel of a bird is a glimmer of hope in this unpromising suburban landscape.


Claire Stares

The GuardianTramp

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