When I built the new Wykeham House in Hiltingbury I got the digger driver to dig out a large pond in the back garden, piling the spoil at one end in readiness to make a waterfall. This was the basis for our landscaping, planting and stocking once the lining and filtration system were in place. The day at last came when we flicked the switch and the water gushed and eddied down the waterfall. This comforting sound has stayed with us for the past fifteen years and it is a joy. When the water had cleared and the balance was right we stocked our pond with twenty golden rudd, some green tench, three black comets and three shubunkin – and the odd goldfish contributed by neighbours.
Over the years, and thanks to the early morning visits from a hungry heron, we lost some fish – usually speared and left on the grass – so we had to find an ingenious way of heron-proofing the pond. At first, we didn’t mind the heron’s visits; seeing that majestic bird landing and taking off was exciting but he was greedy and cruel and had to be deterred. We strung fishing line across the pond and installed a water sprayer triggered by a motion sensor. So far, so effective………..
Every early summer there are a few days of frantic activity when the water froths like a cauldron and a month or so later a large shoal of small fry of mixed variety can be spotted and, over the years the fish population has multiplied alarmingly.
The pond is a watering-hole magnet for birds, insects and animals and a constant centre of interest. It hosts newts, damselfly and dragonfly larvae but, for some years now, frog spawn has been noticeably absent.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a kingfisher arrived one afternoon and started fishing. He stayed around for several days, clearly enjoying the abundant source of food. It must eat its own body weight of food each day so was very active – but we didn’t mind him eating us out of house and home – he is the king after all! We thought of it as being like a Tudor monarch on a Royal Progress from castle to castle, enjoying sumptuous banquets and feasts and not having to pick up the tab at the end of the day. A feast of hare, stag, stuffed chicken, veal pies, a second course of roe deer, pig and sturgeon, goslings, pigeons, rabbits, herons and a fat capon. Having depleted the host’s larder, the monarch would move on to the next castle for further indulgence.
Similarly with our kingfisher; he departed and we didn’t see him for several years until he came last November when we had just covered the pond with netting to keep the leaves off. He dived off a tall post at the edge of the pond and bounced back up as if on a trampoline. After two or three more attempts he decided it wasn’t worth the effort and departed in a huff.
Last Saturday we removed the netting and, lo and behold, at first light on Sunday morning, there he was diving and feeding with abandon. How did he know to come back? He must have kept our pond on his radar every day.
Kingfishers inhabit slow-moving shallow rivers or streams which are clean enough to support small fish. We think he must live on one of the many tributaries of Monk’s Brook or the river Itchen at Allbrook. Their territory will cover three to five kilometres and any nearby water that provides good fishing, which our pond clearly does, will be included.
We are in total lockdown and are happy to exist in our home and garden until we are jabbed. Since Sunday, we have been privileged with a visit every day, sometimes twice a day and yesterday there was an extraordinary occurrence:
Our kitchen window has become our lookout hide, 8 metres away from the pond. Yesterday morning, our male kingfisher was joined by his female partner. He had been fishing for a while, watching the water carefully to locate suitable prey and assess its depth, and, in the twinkling of an eye, diving off a post and flying off into a rhododendron bush to demolish his breakfast. When his partner arrived they sat for a while on an archway looking at each other and then he did an amazing thing: he hung upside down from the arch with his beak wide open allowing his partner to fly beneath him and extract fish from his gullet. He shared his meal with his mate. Many of us will remember when we were first courting sharing the same pudding in an act of bonding. Same principle, I think.
In the spring they will dig their nest tunnel in a riverbank – up to 90 centimetres long with a chamber at the end and a slight depression to prevent the eggs rolling out. Like all good partnerships, they work hard together.
He came back this morning and flew with gay abandon, diving into the pond from the top of a rhododendron bush at high speed and later splashing for ages on the waterfall to have a shower. He came back again this afternoon, sat on his favourite post, repeatedly dived in and caught a fish and took it into the same rhododendron bush as before.
Kingfishers prefer fish about 23millimetres in length but can handle fish up to 80 millimetres in length. This magnificent bird is doing us a favour reducing our fish stocks to a manageable and sustainable level. We wait, with great interest and anticipation from the warmth and comfort of our hide, to see what happens next.
We are, indeed, very fortunate and privileged to have nature unfolding in front of us.
NOTE: Kingfisher photographs, with kind permission of Mike Lane FRPS