Some of my most pleasurable childhood memories have to do with riversides in the U.K.
Often I would spend lazy summer holiday afternoons sitting by the river Avon watching the water flow and reading a book. I always hoped for kingfishers, but I soon learned if I deliberately looked out for one, it never obliged. So I’d carry on reading my book and out of the corner of my eye see a flash of electric blue and look up in time to see it streak down the river after a fish.
The kingfishers I saw in England were of the common variety, although I thought that from an aesthetic point of view they were misnamed. How could creatures so beautiful be called common? Their Latin name is Alcedo atthis, and they have blue-green upper parts, orange under parts and a long bill for catching fish. When they fly, the blue appears iridescent, which is why blue is often the only colour we see when the bird is in flight. Gerard Manley Hopkins got it right when he wrote “As kingfishers catch fire,” and we see the hottest blue within the flame of summer.
When I left the U.K. for Bermuda in the early 1970s, I had to say goodbye to rivers and, I thought, kingfishers. I never realised kingfishers do come to Bermuda until years later, after I joined the Bermuda Audubon Society. While on a boating excursion, Andrew Dobson (president of the society) pointed to one perched on a rusty part of the old floating dock in Spanish Point Park. I was thrilled to bits, although the kingfishers that come here, he explained, are not the Alcedo atthis species I was used to. However, they are common throughout North America and not infrequent visitors here in the winter and fall. In fact, Andrew said, “It would seem that many of the wintering birds in Bermuda are deliberate migrants, as they return to the same roosting spots in successive years.”
Because of their distinctive blue band below a white collar, and, in the case of the female, another rufous band below the blue one, these Bermuda visitors are called belted kingfishers, or to be more formal about it, Megaceryle alcyon. It is true that the belted birds are not as dazzling as their common cousins are, but they definitely have their own charm. I love the elegant slate blue of their heads, backs and wings, not to mention the belts over white. And I particularly love their shaggy blue crests like rakish fascinators. These birds are also much easier to spot because they often perch on wires, stumps and posts, and they don’t seem to mind being watched.
In Canada’s Acadia Park, I once saw a belted kingfisher perch on a stump and then hover for over 10 minutes before diving for dinner. In Bermuda, I’ve seen them at Spittal Pond, Harrington Sound, Lagoon Park, Somerset Long Bay and most recently at the recently relandscaped Seymour Pond, where one perched on a bare branch for at least five minutes.
Now I have always had a penchant for literature and myth, but I must confess I never knew until recently the ancient Greek story of Alcyone, daughter of Æolus (guardian of the winds) and Ægiale. She apparently married Ceyx of Trachis. They were punished by the gods for daring to refer to each other as Hera and Zeus. Poor Ceyx was drowned in a storm at sea, while Alcyone, throwing herself into the ocean in a fit of grief, was transformed into a halcyon, a mythical kingfisher. According to legend, she laid eggs during the winter in a nest that floated on the waves. (Real kingfishers don’t do that; they make burrows instead.) Her father’s role was useful: he kept the winds at bay for 14 days so she could brood on her eggs. Thus we have Halcyon Days, two weeks of ocean calm marking the winter solstice.
As a child, I did hear the word “halcyon” but never associated it with kingfishers. People used it to recall happy, peaceful times, particularly the sunny days of youth. Now I realise I have been lucky enough to have had many halcyon days, including those when I would pretend not to watch for kingfishers so that I might have the good fortune to see them.