Caught by the River

The River Soar

Mat Bingham | 17th September 2014

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Words and pictures by Mat Bingham

I had been looking for a pair of kingfishers to film this year for a project I am working on to make a wildlife documentary. However, despite finding paired up birds on several different rivers the location or setting had not been suitable.

Local to where I live on the River Soar there was a pair I watched last year with a view to filming this year, but after the winter flooding they had been conspicuous by their absence. By August I had pretty much given up on the idea and put it on the list of stuff to do for next year. One evening in mid August I took the dog and my son for a walk near the weirs in our village when the dog flushed out a pair by accident when she jumped in the river to cool off.

One of the birds had a fish in its mouth but I couldn’t tell its sex as it flashed by calling in irritation as it headed upriver with its companion. My son and I moved a little further along the river and sat down, waiting. I tried in vain to keep my son and the dog who was picking up on the excitement, quiet. I was hoping the kingfishers would return to give me an idea of the approximate location of the nest. We didn’t have to wait long before they were back. Luckily my family’s enthusiasm was drowned out by the noise of the water rushing over the weirs nearby. The male bird disappeared from view into the bank whilst the female perched nearby. Satisfied I had found a nesting pair we headed for home and I made up my mind to return the following evening after work to get a better look.

The next day I arrived on my own, the dog couldn’t be trusted to stay quiet and the promise of more of the same (kingfishers and stinging nettles) was beaten into second place by the Power Rangers, so my son didn’t want to join me either.

Rounding the bend on the river I could hear a kingfisher calling. There was a male sat on a perch with a female close by. He promptly flew towards the bank a few meters from me and disappeared from view. She then flew through the woods cutting off the bend in the river. I waited about thirty minutes before she returned with a fish. He then flew out and she flew in. I could see that an old willow tree on an island opposite where I was crouched would give me the perfect place to set up a hide and get some good footage.

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The river can be a bit tricky to wade across as there are deep hollows, scoured out by the force of the water when in spate which can be difficult to see. The best route to the island fortunately is from a friend’s front garden. I gave him a call and arranged to navigate my way to the island with him, a couple of days later to set up a hide.

I was surprised at how low the river was when we finally met up and negotiated our way out to the island. I was wearing waders but I could have easily made my way across in wellies. Sitting quietly under the weeping willow I got a good view of the opposite bank where I had been standing two nights earlier.

I waited a while and the kingfishers returned signalling their arrival with high pitched calls. It was now clear to me where the nest was, very low down in the bank. It struck me as odd that they should choose such a nest location. There hadn’t been a pair seen near here since the floods. I thought that perhaps they had recently paired up and that they were inexperienced adult birds given where they had decided to start a family.

We began setting up the hide made of scrim nets and I decided to put a couple of perches at either end of the island made of dead branches to entice the kingfishers closer. Whilst setting up the perches a rumble of thunder signalled the start of a short and fairly intense downpour. Perches and hide complete, we made our way back across the river and I decided to return at dawn the following day.

I woke before sunrise and according to the weather forecast, the day promised to be largely fine with the odd shower. I headed down to the river and used a head torch to make the crossing to the island in the dark. In the night the river had come up making the crossing much more tricky. It was now flowing above my knees. I managed to reach the island without falling into one of the hidden hollows and I set up my camera, waiting for dawn.

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The kingfishers left the nest not long after sunrise to feed. With reasonable light I could now see how much the river had come up overnight. The nest entrance was close to being flooded. The adult birds seemed to sense this. They flew in and out of the nest a few times with breakfast for their young but seemed nervous of the rising water. I watched feeling the parents growing concern. The sun was shining but there were periods where it clouded over and rained which could only be contributing to the rising water level. One of the birds, the male I think, had started to use the perches I had put up the previous day. On one occasion he even fished from one managing to catch a minnow but he didn’t hang around long enough for me to film him.

Eventually the water rose to the point where the entrance to the nest was flooded. The adults couldn’t get in to help their chicks and sat close by, calling in vain. Part of me felt I should head around to the other bank and rescue the chicks but then what would I do with kingfisher chicks? They would just as likely die with me as they would drown from the rising water. I decided to stay and let nature take its course as much as I wanted to intervene. The adult birds stayed for a while calling in a futile effort to their chicks as the river continued to rise. Eventually they gave up and left presumably when they couldn’t hear their offspring calling any longer.

I waited a while and then decided I should leave also as the river had risen substantially whilst the morning’s drama had unfolded. When I reached the riverbank on the island, I was in for a shock. No longer the slow flowing channel of earlier, the water was being funnelled through between the far bank and the island carrying all manner of debris with it. I slowly entered the river trying to keep my footing and using a pole to keep my balance. I needed all my concentration to stay upright and I had to float my camera gear across in a watertight box, tethered to my arm, whilst dodging tree branches thicker than my arm floating past with the current. The water was up to the top of my chest waders in places. I made slow progress but eventually I reached the far bank and the safety of my friends garden.

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I looked back at the river, which was now all white water and in full fury. I think if I had left it for a couple more hours before making the crossing I would have been stranded. Since the drama of that day I have seen at least one of the adult birds in the area, I just hope they are more successful next year.

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