How to photograph a kingfisher in 5 steps
Wildlife photographer Jules Cox shares his expert tips.
A streak of cobalt blue is the most common view many people get of a kingfisher, vanishing round a river bend before they’ve registered what they’ve seen. But with a little patience and fieldcraft, it is possible to get a much better view - and even a photograph.
“Kingfishers are very territorial. They need to consume a high percentage of their bodyweight each day, so it’s essential that they establish control over a stretch of river that holds lots of small fish such as sticklebacks and minnows," says Jules. "They sometimes rear three broods in a season, and July often sees a lot of activity around the nest."
Here are Jules' top tips for getting the perfect kingfisher image:
1. Get to know the bird
Photographing kingfishers requires dedication and patience. Find a good site, then take the time to get to know the bird and its habits. Watch as the bird patrols up and down its territory. Discover where it likes to fish. Kingfishers have favourite perches along the river from which to catch their prey: bends where the flow slows and fish tend to congregate are a good bet.
2. Set up a perch
Having identified a likely spot, you can discretely place an added perch into the riverbank. This will give the kingfisher a fresh new vantage point from which to stop and fish. Make sure when setting up your perch that the background is far enough back to throw it out completely. That way your images will have a pleasing, soft, clean background without any distractions, such as reeds.
3. Set up a hide
Having successfully introduced your new perch, the next step is to put a hide in place. To get a beautiful frame-filling portrait of a kingfisher your camera needs to be set up a few metres away from the perch. Kingfishers are wild birds and naturally wary of humans. Using a hide is essential if you are to photograph them without causing unnecessary disturbance. Always remember the golden rule of wildlife photography: your welfare of your subject comes first.
4. Settle into the hide
Allow some time (possibly 3-4 weeks) for the kingfisher to get used to the hide and the river life to return to its peaceful rhythm before using it. Kingfishers can become very tolerant of a hide over time. Enter and leave the hide when the kingfisher is not around.
5. Keep quiet
When photographing kingfishers, I pre-focus on the perch to minimise lens movement. Try to keep noise and movement to a minimum. If your camera has a silent motor drive mode then use it. Always try to pick your shots using low bursts rather than machine-gunning away.
Once the kingfisher is used to your perch, you can swap it around to achieve a varied portfolio of images. An aesthetically pleasing, natural looking perch is as important to a successful kingfisher portrait as the bird itself. A bullreed head, mossy branch or rusty old piece of iron all make for beautiful perches. Try to ensure the perch is not so big that it dominates your subject.
Jules says: “Kingfishers are a vulnerable species due to their low breeding number and habitat loss. Consequently they are protected by law, and afforded Schedule 1 status under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This means an official licence is required to photograph them at or near the nest where there is a risk of disturbance.
“Given there is always likely to be a risk of some disturbance when photographing kingfishers at the nest, I would recommend getting a Schedule 1 licence from the relevant licensing authority. For details of how to apply, contact Natural England www.naturalengland.org.uk or Scottish Natural Heritage www.snh.gov.uk.”
13 best places to see kingfishers:
- Lackford Lakes, Suffolk
- Lochwinnoch RSPB
- Rye Meads RSPB, Herts (purpose-made kingfisher bank)
- Radipole Lake RSPB, Dorset (purpose-made kingfisher bank)
- Fairburn Ings RSPB, Yorkshire
- Far Ings Nature Reserve, near Barton Upon Humber, N Lincs
- Shapwick Heath, Somerset
- Leighton Moss RSPB
- WWT Slimbridge
- Forest Farm, near Cardiff
- WWT Martin Mere
- Potteric Carr, near Doncaster, Yorks Wildlife Trust
- Willow Tree Fen, near Bourne, Lincs Wildlife Trust