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The bird that rules the river
Discover the magic of the kingfisher
Before I moved to London, I had never seen a kingfisher.
I’d been to plenty of places perfect for a kingfisher to hang out - gentle streams with plenty of overhanging branches to perch on - but maybe I was just unlucky, or not paying attention, or simply talking too loud.
I would never expect to see a kingfisher in urban East London.
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The urban kingfisher
When I was looking for somewhere to live, my partner and I viewed a flat in Stratford.
Surrounded by construction works and next to a congested and polluted main road, the flat overlooked a brown, oily canal with plastic bottles snarled up in abandoned shopping trolleys. The last place I’d ever expect to see a kingfisher.
Yet there it was - a flash of blue and gold, in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment out of the corner of my eye. Barely 15 centimetres long, it darted across the water to pause on a stick poking through the railings on the other side.
The canal was a stone’s throw from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, built for the 2012 Olympics and now home to plenty of urban wildlife along the canals and wetlands, so the chances are it was taking a little day trip down the river.
Despite this incredible first sighting, it wasn’t the place we decided to call home. Instead, we chose to live further up the Lea Valley, in a small flat that also overlooks water.
There’s at least one breeding pair of kingfishers in the local area, and I regularly see them fly not only up and down the stream but also across the road to the canal on the other side. Part of that reason is because I am always on the lookout for them, and a few times I’ve even caught them from the bedroom window.
The sound they make is an unmistakeable zip, zip as they flash past, flying low to the water. They tend to have a few favourite spots that they regularly nip between, keeping a close eye out for minnows.
Kingfishers live for the river. They nest in long burrows that they dig into sandy banks beside the water, and the fledglings very quickly learn how to fish from their parents.
Whether it’s their poise and agility when diving for an unsuspecting fish, or the exotic blue and metallic gold of their feathers, kingfishers have captured the imaginations of the locals where we live. Photographers compete on an almost daily basis to share their best kingfisher pictures, and the birds have become used to their fans lining the river path.
There are kingfishers all over the world, and I’ve been fortunate to see them in Tobago, Sri Lanka and Australia. If you’ve spent any time in Australia you’ll no doubt recognise the iconic laughing kookaburra, which belong to the kingfisher family despite not living near water.
But it’s the European kingfisher that holds a special place in my heart. Elusive, vibrant and dignified, no river ecosystem is complete without that brilliant flash of colour.
Spend some time near your local river or canal and keep your eyes peeled. If the water is clear and there’s a handy perch nearby, you never know when you might be treated to a kingfisher’s fly-by.
I’d love to hear about your own kingfisher experiences, so feel free to comment and share this with your friends.