Kingfishers...Gone Fishin'.....

09th June 2013
This April found me travelling to the Midlands to attempt some pictures of one of my (everyone's?) favourite and iconic birds, the Kingfisher. A distinct lack of them in my local area made me make the decision to narrow the odds and travel to a recognised spot for them. After staying overnight in a local hotel I headed off early to the venue with a day of according to the BBC "some sunshine and some clouds and occasional showers" likely. As it turned out the varying light helped in some ways and not in others but more of that later.
The venue is tucked away on a lovely small river on a farm on private land. Two well known professionals have spent 4-5 years building a hide, studying the birds, trying to protect their environment here so the birds are fairly regular. However I knew the sightings had dropped dramatically of late indicating the female was probably sitting on eggs at which point the male Kingfisher becomes quite lazy as he doesn't need to catch his mate fish to impress her for a few days until the chicks hatch. But I persevered and whilst I didn't get many shots and the light drifted between perfect (when birds usually not showing) to grey and drizzly (when they were!) I got a few I'm happy with. Here was an early bird coming in and landing perhaps 30 feet from the hide...

I was actually using two cameras. My D4 set up with a 70-200mm VR 2.8 on a low level tripod at water level for the diving shots with a remote control and then in the hide I had my 500mm VR f4 attached to my D300 body. The remote release and the 10 frames a second speed of the D4 gave me a good chance of getting the shots as the birds were in flight but they flew incredibly quickly and it was almost impossible to get birds in the air before they hit the water. The problems were numerous but the main requirement was to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/2500th of a second but with varying light this meant making sacrifices with the ISO setting and also the aperture. Whilst I can always live with the slight graininess the higher ISO setting brings the issues with aperture were different. By needing to use a relatively wide aperture (here f6.3) it meant the depth of field was perhaps just a few centimetres at best so whenever the bird wasn't in exactly the position I had manually focused on it wouldn't be in focus. (I had to focus manually as there was no way the autofocus could react quick enough to catch the Kingfisher as he dropped.) I guess this resulted in about 1-2 out of each 20 at most being in focus. However when you take into account the ones where birds were too high/too low/a wingtip missing/obscured by water etc that ratio plummeted as quick as the Kingfishers! Frustrating but still fascinating.
The bird below is the female emerging with what I think was a minnow. For the technical minded it was ISO 1400, 1/2500th, f6.3, 160mm on the 70-200mm VR 2.8 lens.

As I said, with two cameras set up it gave the opportunity for some lovely portrait shots of this stunning bird which I've never photographed before except from a long way off in places like the Norfolk Broads. When the sun did make an appearance the colours were stunning and with my D300 and the 500mm lens the birds at time were seriously close to filling the frame. The picture below has hardly been cropped at all. I always try and catch the glint of sunlight in the birds eye as it seems to bring a picture alive. This is again the female (she has a red lower bill unlike the male's totally black one). Here she's caught what looks like a small trout or possibly tench.

As the day progressed the visits were fairly infrequent but for about an hour around lunchtime (appropriately!) there was a more frequent number of visits with probably 3-4 sightings in the hour. However the best visits came just as a period of 15mins of perfect light had just finished !..Also the sheer speed of the bird's entry and exit often meant there was no bird showing or sometimes half a bird disappearing from the shot , and this despite my camera hitting 8-10 frames a second ! But once back home and reviewing the images a few came through with the eye nicely sharp and the crystal clear water frozen in motion to give that sense of life and movement I wanted. I'd love to go back and experiment with reflections and different settings but it was still a magical experience to watch the habits and behaviour of the Kingfisher.

Finally an image that reflects the difficulty of catching a dropping Kingfisher in time and in focus etc but what it does show, which I wasn't aware of, is the bird's behaviour as it prepares to hit the water. It protects it's eyes by use of a nictitating membrane which slides across to protect it's eye (Dippers have a similar membrane), opens it's beak very slightly in preparation to grab the fish and it ruffles up it's neck feathers to act as a shock absorber on impact with the surface (both of which you can see here).It actually has two parts to it's eye (called foveas) which have different jobs when targeting a fish effectively giving it stereoscopic vision. An amazing example of evolution.

I hope you enjoyed the images and feel free to send any comments...


Photo comment By Jeff Brown: Interesting article with great photos and useful information, many thanks

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