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Alcyone returns

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Winter is upon us, and Mallorca is seeing some cold, hard weather now. And while the skies can be grey, the winds biting and the vegetation lacking the usual spring colours, there is one winter visitor that will brighten up any day – not just because of its vibrant colours, but because of its charisma too.

For a number of weeks now, the electric-blue Kingfisher has been making an appearance, with La Gola in Puerto Pollensa seeing the return of a winter visitor, using the favoured post as a perch at the top end of the wetland in which to seek out its prey from. Other areas such as the Albufera will have several present and a drive along the backroads of the Albufereta always reward me with one along a section of the little river adjacent to the road.

Albufereta back road river section.

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The Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is derived from the word ‘halcyon’. In Greek mythology, Alcyone was a goddess punished for her boasting and pride by being reduced to a bird. Some compassion was shown however, and she was given seven days each side of the solstice (which were referred to as halcyon days). Being peaceful and calm days, she was able to then raise her young without tempest or storm.

In Greek mythology, Atthis was a beautiful young woman from the island of Lesbos. In some areas it is also known as the Eurasian Kingfisher and River Kingfisher. 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. Usually this is all the observer sees of the bird, but sit down quietly and wait and you will be rewarded with good views as they feed.

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They are important members of ecosystems and a good indicator of a freshwater community. More birds indicate habitats with clear water, which permits good visibility, and trees and shrubs along the banks. Measures to improve water flow can disrupt habitats however, and any replacement of natural banks by artificial confinement reduces populations of fish, amphibians and aquatic reptiles. Even waterside birds can be lost.

Although they will be gone by the spring, Kingfishers in their breeding areas are highly territorial, possibly because they must eat around 60% of their body weight each day, so having control over a stretch of river is essential. Mainly they are a solitary bird, roosting alone in dense cover, and although pairs can form in the autumn and winter, each bird retains a separate territory.

If you do visit regions that have breeding Kingfishers, such as in the UK, then the nest will be excavated by both sexes in a soft river bank, with the straight, gently inclining burrow being around 25 – 35in long and ends in an enlarged chamber. The unlined nest accumulates a litter of fish remains over time and regurgitated pellets.

Regurgitating a pellet.

Up to ten glossy-white eggs are laid, but the early days for fledged juveniles are hazardous – first dives into water about four days from leaving the nest can see them become waterlogged resulting in drowning. Most young will not have learned how to fish by the time their parents drive them out of the territory. Most die of cold or lack of food, and a hard winter can kill a percentage of birds. Other causes of death can be from Cats, Rats and collisions with windows or passing vehicles.

Any diving bird faces a change in refraction between air and water. To compensate for this, the eyes of such birds have two foveae (the area of the retina with the greatest density of light receptors). The Kingfisher can switch from the main central fovea to an axillary fovea when it enters the water, allowing the image it sees to swing temporarily as the bird drops down onto its prey. Food consists mainly of small freshwater fish, some aquatic insects and crustaceans.

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They are 16 – 17cm in length with a wingspan of 24 – 26cm and a weight of 35 – 45g. The voice comprises of Starling-like bubbling whistles and also a plaintive chattering whistle call. If there is not a suitable perch available, they will hover for several seconds before plunging into the water.

An unmistakable bird, the Kingfisher has a long bill and a relatively large head and dull-orange legs. The adults crown, nape moustache and all upperparts are a bright blue tone (depending on the light and viewing angle). There is a pale sheen on the back and the crown and wing coverts have pale blue spotting. Scapulars, flight feathers and the tip of the tail are a darker blackish-blue, while the face , underbody and underwing coverts are a rich orange-chestnut, paler on the throat and centre of the belly.

Eurasian Jay

White spots in front of the eye, on the side of the neck and under the chin sometimes stand out against the long dagger-like bill (which is all black in the male with orange on the lower mandible of the female) – the best way to tell sexes apart. Juveniles lack the brilliant colours of the adult with their greener upperparts and bluish-grey breast.

I sometimes get asked when presenting a course or leading groups, why is a Kingfisher so brightly coloured if it hunts by stealth? The answer is simple, fish are attracted to the colour above the water as it flickers and shimmers, and is why in the UK and Spain, the blue feathers on the wings of the Jay are used by fishermen as they tempt the fish towards the moving colours.

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On the Albufereta back roads, I have often found a quiet spot to sit down, and wait to see if the Kingfisher makes an appearance, and while I am waiting, I can watch the other birds go about their business, such as the Coot, Moorhen, Mallard and on occasion, a Purple Gallinule. Sometimes a Grey Heron is hunting along the stretch of water, or a small group of Cormorants are ‘drying ‘their wings after some swimming and diving for food.

At La Gola, viewing tends to be much easier, where sitting on the bank by the reserve building, overlooks the inlet, fed both by the sea and by the Gotmar and Siller torrents, and will see the strategically placed perch in the water where the Kingfisher likes to dive from.

Here, a variety of small fish allow the Kingfisher to feed regularly, entertaining the observer with its diving skills and electric-blue colours, which reflect onto the water as it flows low and fast. Here, whilst waiting for the Kingfisher to show, there are plenty of birds to entertain, such as Common Sandpiper, Little Egret, Grey Heron and the chattering from the Tamarisks and vegetation from Sardinian Warblers, House Sparrows and finches – with a Black Redstart and Chiffchaffs never far away.

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