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KINGFISHERS IN CUMBRIA
It was probably a “once in a lifetime” experience when we looked out of the window at 8 a.m. one July morning in 2004 to see a Kingfisher sitting on the washing-line! Perhaps it was digesting a fish from a neighbour’s pond? Those who have lived in the neighbourhood for fifty or more years do tell of Kingfishers being seen along the nearby beck in the past, but this is the first time we have seen one in the Ulverston area. Given the time of the year, it would be nice to think that this was a juvenile being encouraged to disperse by its parents.

In early June 2005 an adult bird was seen carrying a fish upstream on the beck; it returned empty after a minute, so hopefully a nest was in the vicinity. The birds had returned by 21st April in 2006 and in most years since. It is likely that these birds spend the winter on the coast between Canal Foot and Bardsea, with occasional forays perhaps to Urswick and Mere Tarns where they are also sighted in winter.

Late Victorian writers do record that Kingfishers frequented the creeks of the local saltmarshes, but one suspects this is possibly an autumn occurrence as many move to the coast at that time. Indeed, Leighton Moss in autumn is one of the most likely places where Kingfishers may be seen, often resting on the posts outside the hides. I have been lucky enough to see one dive and retrieve a fish here. More usually one catches a fleeting glimpse or hears its piping call; occasionally one sits long enough for a photo (see right), when it is then possible to see the lower mandible - if it is orange, as here, the bird is a female.

Other strongholds in the county are on the rivers Crake and Leven near Haverthwaite, the river Eden, especially around Appleby, and the rivers of the Solway Basin. Records from the west coast of the county are surprisingly rare.

The Cumbrian population of Kingfishers is estimated at up to 200 birds (The Breeding Birds of Cumbria). After lean times, it seems that numbers are on the increase, especially after a series of mild winters and the improvement in the quality of many watercourses. They become less abundant towards the north in Britain, but they are certainly increasing their range in Scotland at the present time. Kingfishers are amber listed because of their unfavourable conservation status in Britain and Europe.

Kingfishers suffer severe mortality during harsh winters but they may have up to three broods in a season, and up to six chicks in a brood, so numbers can recover rapidly.

Ignoring the beak, Kingfishers are just a little bigger than a House Sparrow and smaller than a Starling and are most likely to be seen as a moving flash of turquoise following the line of a river or stream. Anyone lucky enough to see a fishing Kingfisher in late autumn as the low sun reflects from its plumage is in for a breath-taking sight. Despite their relatively small size, they fiercely defend their stretch of river at breeding times and can catch prey heavier than themselves.

Nesting takes place in a tunnel half a metre or more into the river bank. For the first two weeks the nestlings sit in a circle, with the one nearest the entrance receiving food before shuffling round to let the next one in - this behaviour is innate and is known as a Kingfisher carousel. Any bird trying to cheat gets rough treatment from the others! Later the arrangement changes to a "team photo" pattern with nestlings squatting at the front with a row of standing birds behind, each having to beg in the traditional manner when the adult brings in food.

Curiously, most of the world's kingfisher species don't catch fish, but eat grubs, insects and small lizards.