Kingfishers need no introduction. A bird that’s top of many photographers list, August is a great time to head out in search of them in your local area. Stunning in colour, with fantastic behaviour and feeding traits, they’re a true pleasure to spend time photographing. Here are a few tips for tracking them down in your local area.
Like all subjects, tracking kingfishers down is a question of looking for the right habitat. Slow moving rivers and streams or fresh water lakes are preferred, especially if they have a good stock of fish. Minnows and sticklebacks are the food of choice. Areas with shaded regions are often favoured, as they allow the kingfishers to far more easily see though the reflections on the water, helping them to locate their prey, almost always from an overhanging branch or perch.
Obtain a license
Breeding wise, they look for steep-sided banks where they dig nest holes. One key factor is that kingfishers are a Schedule 1 bird, so photographing them at the nest without a license is illegal. One can be obtained from Natural England, but in most cases to get some great images, moving down away from the nest can be equally or more rewarding photographically.
In order to go about creating some great images, you’ll want to build a setup to attract the birds in. This revolves around developing a perfect habitat for them to feed, one that will offer you the chance to get some great close-ups. One of the best ways is to introduce a stick for them to feed from. With permission to work in your chosen location, one way to create a setup is to use a piece of scaffold pole, inside a breezeblock to give you a strong base for your more photogenic sticks.
With the pole acting as a base, you can add more attractive perches to give you natural looking images. Position the changeable perch in slow water that’s a foot or so deep, with the perch being 3ft of so above the water. Move it closer to get frame-filling shots if needed. Also think about your background and keep enough distance behind the perch to give clean shots at your preferred aperture. With patience the birds will often find the new perch and start to use it to hunt.
Getting the shots, however, isn't so simple, as now you need to conceal yourself in order to take images. This can be done with a simple scrim net to give you something to shoot behind, but often a fully closed tent-style hide works better, not only giving a better level of camouflage for shooting images, but also in terms of comfort for the long hours you will likely spend inside. A decent chair, flask and snacks are highly recommended.
Working from the hide, make sure everything is perfect and that the stick is right where you want it. Now it’s a waiting game. In some cases the birds will find the location quickly, while sometimes it could be a few days or more. Be persistent! Once the kingfishers are using your new perch, shoot images slowly - don't motor drive as soon as they land as this will spook them, resulting in less photographic opportunities. Slowly frame and shoot, and watch their feeding behaviour, as when they’re looking down into the water they’re relaxed and comfortable with their surroundings. Shot wise, I love the blue of the birds’ backs, especially when their bodies are facing away with the heads tilted to one side. It gives a stunning view of their electric blue feathers for some great images.
Use the right gear
Equipment wise, depending how close you want to be, lenses from 18mm to 600mm can be used, but something in the 300mm region will give a good working distance. A 100-400mm zoom will give a great range for a collection of different images, although primes will tend to give better overall performance, especially when the setup has been geared to a specific focal length.
Long days photographing kingfishers are fantastic. Summer evenings spent waiting for those blue flashes is pleasurable to say the least, and with some hard work and effort the results can be more than worth the time taken to develop a location. If you can’t find your own spot, however, there are a number of established hides around the country that provide locations for photography. Honesty though, there’s nothing more rewarding than doing it all for yourself.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.