As an artist I find the vivid colours of a kingfisher so irresistible I’ve painted them many times. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about their behaviour. But I’ve always longed to know what happens when these bright birds disappear underground to bring up their young in the dark.

So when a land-owning friend complained about the collapse of a bank where kingfishers regularly nest, I offered to restore it in exchange for setting up a hide to photograph them.

My hide turned out to be so much more than just a place to sit and watch kingfishers. I replaced the missing bank with a garden shed coated in earth and tree roots so that it fitted naturally into its new waterside location.

Inside the shed, I placed an artificial nesting chamber made from papier mache and a CCTV camera system. And, just a few weeks after placing it in situ on the edge of my friend’s flooded gravel pits, a pair of kingfishers moved in.

Photographing kingfishers is a delicate operation; one false move and they can flee. So, to avoid disturbing these birds in the early stages of nesting, I restricted my visits to after dark when I would scan furtively through the CCTV footage.

Mostly, the cameras showed the female as she coughed up and then carefully shredded pellets over the nest floor. Over time she was able to fashion a scape into this debris.

There was no footage of the pair together in the nest, but this didn’t surprise me. Kingfishers are essentially solitary birds and have to overcome a natural aversion to one another in order to breed.

When I eventually risked watching the pair from my hide, I noticed an awkward undertone to their courtship. It began with the male’s spectacular flying displays. I watched as he flew high into the sky, lapping the lakes below in ascending circles. Then he turned and plummeted towards the female, flying so close that the feathers on her head flattened in the slipstream. He landed near the nest entrance and instantly disappeared inside. Encouraged, she ventured in to take a look.

The next time I saw this pair they were sitting, side by side, three feet apart on a sweeping willow branch. The female shuffled towards the male, but he shuffled away, preferring to maintain an equal distance.

But later that day I heard them calling each other across the water, a sweetly hypnotic “peeping” that pinged back and forth until the male dove to catch a fish which he offered headfirst. She accepted with quivering wings and as she gulped it down he stood bolt upright, his tail fanned and sharp beak pointing skywards in a posture that was disturbingly similar to his aggressive stance.

Known as the “fish pass”, this marked a monumental stage in their relationship. Nevertheless it took several days and several more fish passes before he eventually hovered over her to mate. I noticed he crudely grasped the feathers above her eye with his beak as he did so.

A few days later, I switched on the monitor in the hide to find one beautiful, shiny white egg. Kingfishers lay every 24 hours and so I was back before dawn the next day. There was a rustle as she waddled up the tunnel and I watched her feel her way through the darkness with her beak and locate her egg with a gentle tap before settling down on it.

Her tail pumped up and down for an hour as she laboured, then she stood and scuffled out of the nest revealing two eggs side by side. She went on to lay seven pristine eggs, each as precious as pearls and I had been sitting alongside her for six of them.

For the following 20 days the pair shared brooding duties, but as hatching day approached it was clear that the female preferred to be in charge. When the male arrived for his shift, she rushed at him and their long beaks locked like swords as they duelled; the eggs scattering.

Then I noticed the male enter the chamber with a tiny fish clasped in his beak. He rasped loudly and the female rocked briefly to one side to reveal six eggs and one freshly hatched chick.

All seven eggs hatched successfully and the adults worked tirelessly to provide food for their fast growing and increasingly mobile young. But then a cold front lasting three long days swept in and three chicks sadly perished.

I continued to watch as the surviving chicks grew steely silver feather pins which eventually turned into this species distinctive brilliant plumage. On the day they fledged the parents refused to feed them and flew downstream instead. One by one, the chicks followed the sound, down the tunnel and out of the bank.

I felt a pang of pride as all three fledglings took to the air.

Robert’s gallery in Thixendale is now open for private viewings of a maximum of six. Go to to book an appointment.