The King of the River

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I didn’t expect to see a kingfisher in the Abbey Gardens. But here it is, close to King Alfred’s statue in bustling Winchester. Admittedly, this is a two-dimensional bird, depicted on an information board, but it surprises me that kingfishers are part of this landscape. Not only have they been spotted fishing from Winchester City Mill, but they are in residence at Winnall Moors Nature Reserve a short walk from the city centre.

Here on the riverside path, the Itchen is crystal clear, but fast flowing. A gang of mallards struggle against the current, paddling furiously to reach bread scraps thrown by a small boy. Momentarily defeated, they drift sideways downstream, before resuming their energetic paddling.

The kingfisher prefers calm, or even still, waters; rivers, canals and lakes where minnows and stickleback thrive. It’s happy to hunt for tadpoles and water insects too. Today we’re enjoying an unseasonably warm October day. But with the threat of a long, cold winter ahead, the kingfisher will have spent the past month or more fighting to establish a territory which can provide plenty of food. This can be as much as 5km of prime waterfront, with plenty of low-hanging branches for a first-class view of the river. The Dutch may call it the ‘ijsvogel’- the ‘ice-bird’ – but winter is tough for the kingfisher. Although it may produce multiple broods of chicks, only 25% will make it through to next summer.

The middle of town, in the middle of the day, is not a likely location for kingfisher spotting. It is an elusive bird and easily disturbed, but I have seen one, and once seen, it’s not easily forgotten. Two autumns ago, I spent a week in a quiet corner of West Sussex, not far from Pulborough Brooks. My temporary lodgings were in the ‘granny annex’ of a charming, but somewhat faded country house at the end of a long winding drive, which provided the ideal environment in which to get some research and writing done.

Every afternoon, before the sky turned to dusk, I took a walk down the lane towards the river. I’d been told there were kingfishers, but my week was nearly at an end, and I had yet to see one. It was drizzling, that sort of rain which seems negligible, but which gradually soaks you through. I plodded off down the drive wearing outerwear the colour of mud and moss. Despite the miserable weather, it was a pleasure to be in the fresh air after hours at the lap-top, and my mind began to clear.

I walked briskly as darkness would fall early that day. Yet, being alone, with neither a snuffling dog, nor a chatty companion, I also moved quietly. Reaching the stone bridge which crossed this narrow stretch of river, I stopped and looked down into the slow-moving water. Rain-drops rippled the surface but the shadows of small fish were visible beneath. It was a day when the riverbank and woods alongside were a picture of greys, browns and greens, with no hint of colour to lift the sober palette. Until now.

A flash of blue burst from the trees and flew low over the water. It seemed to hover for a moment, then folded its iridescent wings and dived. Then up it rose, a minnow still quivering in its beak, and landed on a post in the middle of the river. I held my breath. The kingfisher sat mere metres away, close enough to admire its orange chest and the sapphire blue feathers on its head, wings and back. Close enough to watch as it whacked the fish against the post and swallowed it. Then it was gone. I waited, hopeful for an encore, but the kingfisher was trying his luck elsewhere. I couldn’t be disappointed. Getting so close to such a stunning bird even once in a lifetime was a thrill.

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