My garden bird feeders are besieged by young blue tits, slightly less brightly coloured than their parents and busy finding their way around. It’s a reminder that this is the best time to see wild birds – their population is at its most inflated – and youngsters have not yet learned to be wary.
I was reminded of this recently when I took a stroll along the Wharfe near the Cavendish Pavilion. It was a busy scene – parents and grandparents, children and dogs all enjoying the warm sunshine. I found a convenient bench on the riverbank away from the crowd and waited. A couple of birds flew over my head, landing in the meadow behind me, soon to be followed by two more: a family of young mistle thrushes taking advantage of the newly mown grass to hunt for insect prey. Mistle thrushes were once common in Wharfedale but numbers have declined: I was glad to see this evidence of successful fledging.
I returned my gaze to the river just in time. A bird flew directly towards me and perched on a rock about five yards away at the edge of a shingle bank. It was facing me and it took me a moment to realise that the rather dull rust-coloured chest was that of a young kingfisher. We sat for several minutes, my eyes fixed on him, his on the shallow water below his rock. Occasionally he fidgeted slightly and I got a glimpse of electric blue; then suddenly he dived into the puddle below, returning immediately to his perch empty-billed – no fish there. This behaviour that I could only explain as practice was repeated twice more before he took off and streaked fast downstream unnoticed by the other visitors on footpath and shingle beach. My best sighting ever of this brilliant little bird!
I’d barely recovered my wits when another movement caught my eye. A grey wagtail, resplendent in white, grey and egg-yolk yellow was flitting over the pebbles opposite my vantage point, flicking his tail and giving little leaps into the air as he hunted flies. Then, as if on cue, a darker shape flew fast diagonally across the water in my direction quickly disappearing round a bend in the river. It was a common sandpiper, another summer visitor to our valley. So – three of our most attractive river birds in about 15 minutes and a fine example of the old bird-watching maxim – it’s better to sit still and wait than walk and hope!