Kingfishers in Leeds city centre

What’s your favourite British bird? With more than 400 to choose from, it could be a tough decision. Not for me. I’ll answer in a flash – a flash of brilliant blue and orange, in fact. It’s the kingfisher.
It’s not just their improbably beautiful appearance – like an exquisite work of art being propelled at high speed – that makes them so special. It’s also about where and when I see them.
I spend my working days in Leeds. Like most cities, it has its fair share of streets clogged with traffic and pavements thronged with pedestrians more intent on their smart phones than on the world around them. But – a little over five minutes’ walk from my office – it also has a river.
The River Aire rises at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales and eventually joins up with the larger Ouse about 90 miles south-east before flowing out into the Humber. On the way, it passes through some of the most industrialised areas in the North of England. That used to make it one of the most polluted rivers in the country, with large stretches turned into dead zones for wildlife.
The good news is that, over the past 20 years or so, determined efforts have been made to clean it up. Clean water has brought fish back to the river – and that attracts a whole host of wildlife that preys on them.
It also attracts me, determined to leave the office as many lunchtimes as I can manage and head for this wildlife oasis in the heart of one of Britain’s biggest cities.
As you cross over Knight’s Way Bridge towards Leeds Dock, take a moment to look at the weir – built in the last couple of years as a flood defence. There’s a good chance a heron will be standing stock still here, a deadly sentry waiting to stab a passing fish.
Walk a hundred yards or so past the Royal Armouries, then look up at the roof of Rose Wharf, a Grade Two Listed former warehouse. A group of cormorants are likely to be drying their wings up there.
Once, just once, I and a handful of other excited passers-by spotted an otter swimming here. I’ve seen a red kite soaring above the bridge, and watched little grebe, grey wagtail, goosander in winter, terns and sand martins in summer.
But for me nothing beats the thrill of catching a glimpse of a kingfisher. They’re here all year round, although I can sometimes go weeks without seeing one. Usually, it’s a case of hearing a thin, whistling call, then scanning the river to spot a blue streak whirring low over the water.
Sometimes I’m treated to a better view – a long, powerful beak emerging from a hole in the riverbank during the breeding season; two chasing each other up and down a stretch of river; one perched on the deck of a canal boat. I once managed three separate sightings in less than an hour, although I suspect it may have been the same particularly active individual.
On a sweltering day last summer, a confused kingfisher even flew through an open window into a friend’s riverside office before slumping onto a sofa and having to be rescued.
A couple of decades ago, it would have been unthinkable that you could see a kingfisher on this highly urban stretch of the River Aire, let alone find one popping into your city centre office. So, amid our myriad challenges and failures when it comes to protecting Britain’s wildlife, it’s heartening to realise that we are managing to get some things right. That’s good news for Leeds’s kingfishers – and for fans like me.

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rodshelf

Wildlife enthusiast, walker and journalist. Lives in Yorkshire.
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