Urban kingfishers making a home on London's waterways

Image copyright Tomos Brangwyn

Tomos Brangwyn has been photographing wildlife since he was a child growing up in south London and in recent years has turned his attention to taking pictures of kingfishers living in London's network of concrete water channels.

Here Brangwyn offers an insight into the project which is also part of a film for the BBC's The One Show.

As a young boy growing up in London, kingfishers were the blue, exotic jewels that I saw flash by whilst exploring my local river, the Wandle. It was hardly believable that such a strikingly charismatic bird could be living so close to my home in south London. I soon began cycling to the river after school, trying to get photos of them fishing, with my dad's old film camera.

My first attempts were largely unsuccessful as I never had the big lenses needed to get frame-filling shots and my bicycle would always be vandalised while waiting for the kingfishers to arrive. It wasn't until some 15 years later that I finally mustered up the courage and patience to get the pictures I had always dreamt of.

Image copyright Tomos Brangwyn

In the UK, there are fewer than 5,000 breeding kingfisher pairs. They almost exclusively eat fish, making them extremely vulnerable to the effects of waterway pollution caused by agricultural run-off and chemical spills. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the population of kingfishers has been falling since the 1970s, though this may be starting to improve in some areas as rivers, particularly in cities, get cleaner.

Image copyright Tomos Brangwyn

I wanted to document the way that Britain's most colourful resident bird had found an unlikely refuge in drab, litter-strewn concrete channels that people rarely associate with wildlife. Far from just survive, kingfishers were thriving. They had adapted to using concrete pipes as nest holes and had come to tolerate the bustle and hubbub associated with city life.

Image copyright Tomos Brangwyn
Image caption A male kingfisher takes a fish to his offspring on an urban tributary of the River Thames

What made the project even more extraordinary was the way the birds were flourishing on rivers that within the last 50 years had been classed as open sewers. It was an incredible turnaround, largely thanks to the end of industrial activity and the work of local councils and conservation groups which had helped to re-wild sections of river, making areas once again habitable for fish.

Image copyright Tomos Brangwyn

It took many weeks of close observation to predict where the kingfishers would come and land. Each individual would have a favourite fishing perch and these were often bits of discarded rubbish like metal pipes and shopping trolleys, anywhere that would give the bird a good view down on to a shoal of fish. White streaks of guano and dry fish bones were the most reliable signs that a kingfisher would soon return.

Image copyright Tomos Brangwyn
Image caption The picture was captured using a remote controlled camera that had been placed near a perch where a kingfisher had landed previously. It took about three weeks for the bird to finally return to the exact same branch.

It was then a case of setting up a camera near the area and triggering it with a remote control. I always kept a large distance between myself and the cameras so as to not disturb the birds - their survival depended on them being able to catch fish without interruption.

I tried to make a point of using wide lenses to create more contextual images that would illustrate the story of kingfishers living in such a surprising habitat. It was hoped that I could show the striking juxtaposition between the astounding beauty of the kingfisher and the brutal, concrete nature of their home. It had been manipulated and curtailed by man to every possible extent, yet somehow, wildlife still managed to thrive.

Image copyright Tomos Brangwyn

Kingfishers are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is illegal to take, kill or injure a kingfisher or its nest, eggs or young, or to intentionally disturb the birds during breeding season.

Watch The One Show clip on the return of Kingfishers to urban waterways.

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