Last week I visited Belgium for the first time. A friend invited me down to photograph kingfishers. He called me a few days before the eggs were about the hatch, and I managed to find a long weekend where I could take days off from work. Tickets were not cheap buying them only days before departure. I ended up flying Ryanair and had luckily no problems keeping the weight limit of 10+15 kg! It was a late evening flight and I got picked up at the Charleroi airport.
Without me knowing we crossed more or less the whole Belgium that night, ending up in a small village close to Roselare. I got in bed 01:30, just to get a 2,5 h power nap! At 04:00 we got up to prepare a small breakfast and food for the day, minutes afterwards we were in the car in the direction Brügge. Our goal was to be the first to get to a hide in the Warandeputten Nature Reserve. And yes, we were the first to enter the hide both this and the following morning. The two hides in Warandeputten are free to the public and operated as first in, first served. The park guard popped by both days I stayed there, and repetitive told us that none of the hides were built for bird photography, but were actively used by bird watchers. So true, the hide we were sitting in, had space for 10 people, but only two spaces were interesting and that were the ones with a clear view on to the stick were the Kingfishers landed on their way to and from their nest.
Normally the hide would be full already before it got light. But this year was different. The Kingfishers were for an unknown reason not successful and none of the eggs hatched. So me and my friend were most of the time alone in the hide, and got plenty of opportunities to photograph the Kingfishers.
The Warandeputten Nature Reserve
The nature reserve is located on the Ghent-Bruges channel. It is a very small eco system that receives only rain and groundwater, with a very rich marine life including green frogs, dragonflies and damselflies. For birds that are all tasty snacks and with some luck you can see both Moorhen, Coot, Mallard and Blue Heron here, but from time to time also many other water and marsh birds. The absolute superstar in this nature reserve is the kingfisher, and people come from all over Belgium to see it.
I did a half hour walk and had then walked through more or less the whole park. It is a swamp forest combined with flower-rich grasslands. Through the swamps you are only allowed to walk on the paths. It was fun to see such a small eco system full of life, squeezed in between roads, railways and channels. The whole thing felt only to be a few football fields big. But I guess that is Belgium trying to take care of the small green spots they have left.
Doing bird photography as a hobby, I got to do my homework as well and learn a little bit about the birds that I photograph. There are many types of Kingfishers, but in Europe we only have the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). I had long wanted to photograph this colourful, little bird. It isn’t much bigger than a sparrow and has azure-blue upper parts, orange underparts and a long bill.
The Kingfisher is actually quite difficult to photograph, as a grown up is only about 16 centimetres long with a wingspan of 25 cm and weighs 34–46 grams. The bird gets really small when you are sitting in a hide up to 15 meters away! So as we entered the hide, we realised that I would not be able to photograph the bird with my 120-400mm lens. So lucky me, I was to photograph with a 600mm for the first, and not only that, I was also to use 1.4 and 2.0 extenders.
But it gets even worse, sitting with such a large lens it doesn’t help that the flight of the Kingfisher is fast, direct and usually low over water. The short rounded wings whirr rapidly, and a bird flying away shows an electric-blue “flash” down its back. But at least I managed to get a few very good photos of the Kingfisher as it was about to land.
The Kingfishers can be found in most of Europe, occasionally also in Southern Norway. It is resident in areas where the climate is mild year-round, but must migrate after breeding from regions with prolonged freezing conditions in winter. Most birds winter within the southern parts of the breeding range, but smaller numbers cross the Mediterranean into Africa. It is for instance a common bird in Hungary, just that I have never seen it there so far.
Common Kingfishers are highly territorial; since they must eat around 60% of their body weight each day, it is essential to have control of a suitable stretch of river. If another kingfisher enters its territory, both birds display from perches, and fights may occur, where a bird will grab the other’s beak and try to hold it under water. Pairs form in the autumn but each bird retains a separate territory, generally at least 1 km long, but up to 3.5 km and territories are not merged until the spring.
My Kingfisher photos can also be seen at Exposure and Flickr.