Natural Eden Images Nature Photography by Stephen James Thompson
Natural Eden Images Nature Photography by Stephen James Thompson

Photographing the Kingfisher

In my opinion and from experience the Kingfisher is one of the most difficult bird species to successfully capture in a photographic image.Due to there fast lifestyle and there background of cover amongst riverside trees all these things make photographing them a real challenge but half the battle is won once you locate them in there territory.Most people live there lives without ever even seeing a Kingfisher and often if they do see one its that fast blue blurr as they fly past heading up or downstream low to the water of a river.This page gives tips on the best approach to photographing this species.


Before even lifting the Camera i set out to identify the birds territory along the river this was easy for myself as i had known from seeing them in certain parts of the river at regular times which gave me an advantage in discovering there favourite perches for catching fish.As i dont have a licence to photograph Kingfishers at there nest site and have no interest in photographing them at this stage in there life as it can disturb the bird and threaten there future on the river i always keep my distance from the nest holes.Although i dont photograph them at the nests i do know where they are which is a real bonus as you know that this is in there territory and the birds are going to cover a stretch of water a good few metres above and below where they have there nests.During the breeding season and certainly in the lead up to this time the area surrounding the nests is a great place to view busy activity as they prepare to sit on eggs.There comings and goings to the nest site from a perch a good distance away is what i concentrate on as not to disturb the birds in anyway.Your aim in wildlife photography should always be to ensure that the welfare of the subject to be paramount.The first thing to do to establish if there are kingfishers in a certain part of a river is to just sit close to the water and wait just sit and listen and watch with plenty of camo especially over your face.Once you see a bird pass you just slowly walk in its direction whilst listening intently for the alarm call as it will sound if you disturb it from a perch as you walk.If you hear the call look into its direction and look for the blue streak of it taking off then scan the surrounding area of riverside bushes and trees and look for dropping marks on the branches or just any branches that look suitable for a kingfisher to use and just stay sat watching this area and remain completely still for a good 45 minutes and you can bet the bird will return to the spot.If the bird passes the area dont give up as the kingfisher often does a fly by a couple of times before landing on its favourite branch.

A feeding perch

In my experience most feeding branches on both the Eden and the Caldew are low to the water and used after the bird has caught its fish from a higher branch.In one territory in particular a male would plummet from a good twenty feet from a tree into the water,catch the fish then fly twenty yards upstream to a low branch a few inches off the water to consume its pray.As with most wildlife photography situations the closer you are to the subject the better for sharp detailed images with this in mind the narrow river of the Caldew was much easier for getting closer to birds than on the wider Eden.Watching the Caldew birds was much more intimate in there more enclosed surroundings compared to the much larger area of the Eden.I also found that on the larger river they held a much more spread territory and there movements were much harder to trace.

An Eden Kingfisher out in the river on an island of rocks

Taking up your position.

Once a favoured area of river is found the next important thing to do is set up a hide so that you are well hidden in many cases i tend to just cover myself in scrim on top of my camo clothing and my face covered.But in other parts where it is possible to use a pop up hide i have one set up and especially if i plan for a long session.Building fixed hides for kingfishers can be the best as they are there all the time and the birds become used to the structure on the riverbank my favourite is the use of pallets roughly constructed with a sunken sitting position which are left in position and the overgrowth grows around them through the year i have a number of these that i make use of in certain territories.Whichever method is chosen stealth is the all important aspect of viewing the birds successfully you should always enter and leave the position when the birds are not there so not to disturb them.

This recently taken image was captured from sitting covered in scrim.

Ive personally found that the use of the stealth ghost scrim used in pigeon shooting to be the best on the market ive purchased two or three of these for the job i also use them to throw over my pop up hide to add to the blending in of the surrounding backdrop.Any movement that is made is instantly noticed by the kingfisher aswell as the sound of the shutter release but they soon get used to the shutter but movement is not normally tolerated and they are fast spooked so being comfortable is important to maintain a very still position whilst photographing the bird.

One of the pop up hides used to photograph the kingfisher

Capturing the "Dive"

The pond

Heavy rains pour down over the Caldew Valley in Cumbria sending the river into full spate.The brown fast flowing,sediment filled water makes any fishing for the Kingfisher virtually impossible.After the low pressure passes over out to the east the pair of Caldew birds are left with a difficult situation but a familiar one that they have learned instinctivly to cope with during there short life alongside the stream.A short distance from there territory along the river lies a hollow that is spring fed which keeps it filled with clean water making it suitable for a good head of Minnows and sticklebacks that have occupied the water since there eggs were dropped in by a Mallards webbed foot not long after the ponds creation.Once the rain clouds have gone the clear night sky causes the temperature to drop like a stone,the light frost touching the grass as the shoals of minnows huddle tight in deeper water just further in from the ponds margin overhung by bare bushes.Slowly the early morning light plays through the mist that hangs above the still water like thin smoke.The familiar notes of a group of long tail tits echoe out as they busily make there way along the edge of the pond moving from branch to branch.The song of a Robin plays away in between the loud repetetive calls of a Great Tit.Just as the smokey mist starts to slowly lift there is a piercing whistle that gets louder as it swiftly approaches the bushes.The bright blue flash cuts through the mist as the male Kingfisher takes its position on its pondside branch.Once stood on the young birch tree branch the small bright bird focuses on the glass calm water its not long before its partner swiftly arrives and lands a few metres further along the pond edge.A quiet single call acknowledges there position at the pond.Meanwhile below the cold waters surface a small shoal of Minnows start to become active as they search for food after there night of docile inactivity in the depths.Around ten feet straight up from the surface the male Kingfisher looks intently from its branch only disturbed by the raucious calls of a group of Jays that squabble high up in an ivy covered tree where they prepare for nesting.Slowly the Minnows move closer to the edge of the pond as they comb the substrate.The Kingfisher suddenly tilts its head as the movement is registered by its keen eye and in a flash without warning the bird is plummeting like a torpedo to the waters surface and with a plunge the blue plummage dissapears below the surface.After a delay of 3 seconds or so it emerges with its fish as it leaves the water at speed.

Emerging with its prey

After catching the Minnow the male wastes no time in flying to a branch on the opposite side of the pond from where it stood to make despatch the fish and swallow it whole calling to the female straight after.This prompts the female to change position further up the pond as she searches for her own fish from a closer position to the surface.

Capturing the moment

Sat a few metres away under a sheet of scrim and wearing full camo head to toe and being as low and as close to the waters edge as comfortably possible i watched the whole scene played out as the same sequence of events was repeated a dozen times.The speed at which the birds dive is breathtakingly fast with no warning which forces the photographer to rely on predicting where the bird will strike the water from its position in the tree.It helps when the bird fishes from a high position as it gives you time to track the bird and point the camera in the correct position of the water where the bird will enter and exit with a fish.Setting the highest shutter speed is paramount so as with most scenarios in wildlife photography you need to set the exposure before the birds have even turned up then just a little fine tuning is needed during the session where light levels change or the angle changes of the subject.The above image was set at ISO 500 with a shutter speed of 1250 at F8 the beauty of strong light allows you to stop up a bit for sharper detail in the image which with my 500mm lens is its best quality aperture setting as you find with any lens they have a sweet spot at a certain aperture where they perform at there best.

fish missed!

The fish was missed on this occasion as the bird exited the water empty beaked.As with all wildlife photography good fieldcraft is needed to get close to your subject and a good knowledge of where your subject is going to be at either certain times of day or during times of different weather situations as here with the Kingfishers i knew that they would move from there territory at the river due to the flooded water so you must try and think like your subject and also investigate the area that you know they inhabit and search for places where they will retreat to in order to keep feeding.Many hours are spent in the field without even carrying the camera as you observe there movements as you tap into there patterns of life.As ive discovered nature tends to have a distinct pattern as i found with this pair of Kingfishers as they had a system of working the pond to catch fish.

busting out

After diving into shallow water the male got more than he bargained for as he bust out of the water with a beak full of dead leaves and algae aswell as his targeted minnow!!So to sum up the capture of a diving or flying kingfisher just remember the fast shutter speed patience and predict where the bird will enter the water before it plummets from its branch,stay very still and wait for the birds to come near you.



The plunge

Once you discover the pattern of the kingfishers feeding habit and are familiar with there well used branches,photographing them becomes much easier and your chances of a good shot increase ten fold.

Early mist on the pond

The above image shows the setting of the pond with one of the kingfishers poised on one of its branches used to look for fish.

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