Kingfishers in the South East

Winter can be a challenging time for kingfishers, says Naturalist Conor Jameson, who shares his tips for places to spot this elusive bird in your area

Kingfishers in the South East


I recently posted a photograph of a kingfisher on social media. I found the bird by chance as I reached a riverbank. Friends who live locally were intrigued, wanting to know where exactly it was, and how I found it. There is a simple secret to kingfisher finding which I am happy to share.

Finding a kingfisher is a bit like panning for gold in a bed of grit. Like a precious metal or jewel, of course the bird sparkles and delights when found, but the finding is the trick. And what I always say to friends and family, when walking or sitting by a river or canal, is listen for the clue, the thing that makes the search and the finding so much easier. It is the kingfisher’s contact call. Learn the code, find the bird.

The signature call is a simple and far-carrying whistle, of a kind that carries far on the surface of the water, and penetrates the sound of water or wind-blown waterside vegetation. It is often uttered as the bird flies, in its fast, direct way, low over the water, and I have learned to automatically strain and scan for the streak of azure in the back of the bird as it moves upstream or down. And you do have to react fast. Be ready, as you reach any channel of water.

Kingfishers are with us all year, and if anything they are easier to find in the winter months, when streamside vegetation will be less likely to conceal them, when their vivid orange chests and blue wings will stand out against any drabber backdrop.

It is always worth scanning the banks of a waterway, slowly and carefully, with binoculars if you have them, for this gleam of colour. Kingfishers spend long periods poised on an overhanging branch, waiting for small fish to pass below, within range. Look out too for tell-tale nest holes near the top of vertical riverbanks. These may also be easier to see in winter, and the birds may roost in these deep tunnels through the year. I have even found kingfishers nesting in a pipe, protruding from a brick wall, in central Cambridge.

I visited a tree nursery by a tributary of the River Trent a couple of years ago, and a house right by the river. I chatted to the owner about kingfishers, and, much as he loved seeing them, he had never seen one from the house. “Install some perches for them”, I immediately suggested. The riverbank over which his patio had great views had nowhere for the birds to sit. Perch provision for birds, in places where you can easily observe them, is another tip I often give friends and family. Birds like a seat with a view, too.

Winter can be a challenging time for kingfishers. In icy conditions they can struggle to find fishing opportunities, and of course a frozen waterway is no use to them at all. They are adapted to this by being mobile birds, and very dependent on our network of inland waterways to commute sometimes long distances to find feeding places. They will even visit the coast, to escape prolonged freezes.

With the cleaning up of rivers and canals in recent years, and helped by milder winters, kingfishers have made something of a recovery in the UK, and have spread north.

We use the expression ‘halcyon days’ to conjure a golden age. defines halcyon as “a mythical bird, usually identified with the kingfisher, said to breed about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and to have the power of charming winds and waves into calmness”.

How apt for our own winter kingfishers, thriving now with the help of Canal & River Trust’s network of waterways, and with the knack of bringing a sense of wellbeing to those lucky enough to find one on a windy winter’s day. So remember, just listen for the call…

Where to spy a kingfisher in the South East

The Grand Union Canal links London to Birmingham, passing through rolling countryside, industrial towns and peaceful villages. It is our longest canal, the ‘trunk route’ of the system. The Grand Union Canal is the result of amalgamations between 1894 and 1929 of several independent waterways, the oldest being the navigations around the River Soar in Leicestershire. The longest is the Grand Junction Canal from Braunston to the River Thames. ‘Grand Union’ is now generally taken to mean the canal from the Thames at Brentford to the Digbeth Branch in Birmingham. There are a number of places along this stretch where kingfishers may be encountered – and a walk on a clear winter’s day is a good time to look out for them. One area to focus your search is the towpath along the Aylesbury Arm, which brings you past the Kingfisher House – a clue, perhaps, that the area has been known as a place to see these elusive birds. Look to the skies and you may also be lucky enough to spot red kites overhead – as this is close to their Chilterns stronghold and they are an increasingly familiar site in urban areas.

Kingfishers can be vulnerable to disturbance, particularly at nesting time. Photographers wishing to photograph birds at or near a nest will need to seek a licence. Click here for advice on licensing issues for kingfishers or other Schedule 1 species.

Charlotte Tisdale, David Merrett, Flickr