On this past Martin Luther King Day, I had an epiphany about the belted kingfisher– a bird as familiar to North America’s waterways as the species is rare to the River Ribble in England, where indeed a wayward male (likely blown by a storm across the Atlantic) has become a winter sensation in the Preston area.
Thousands of “twitchers” (British term for enthusiastic birders known for ticking off new species on life-lists) have braved muddy paths, rain, wind, and brambles for a chance to spot the marvelous, miraculous belted kingfisher. Only the fifth recorded sighting of the species in the UK since 1908, this particular bird is the first “truly twitchable” one, said Nick Moran of the British Trust for Ornithology, as interviewed in the Guardian.
I’ve been reveling over the Brits appreciation of the bird I love, ever since early November when this far-roaming male landed in front of George Shannon as he fished along the River Ribble within the Brockholes Nature Preserve of Lancashire.
“I started uncontrollably shaking,” he said, and reaching for his phone to take a video was enough to send the belted kingfisher flying 50 meters upstream–ah that’s the bird I know! Skittish. Camera-shy. (See the full report and his image on the Brockholes Blog).
Britain, like most of North America, is home to only one kind of kingfisher among 120 stunning species found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. In my forthcoming book, Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher, I devote a chapter to pursuing the common kingfisher– an iridescent flying jewel cloaked in two of my favorite colors, turquoise and amber, and the inspiration for this lovely line of poetry: “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame” (Gerard Manley Hopkins). My first sighting in a dreamlike setting rivaled the bliss of the twitchers. This was my rare bird.
As I write this blog a decade after that stunning moment on Hampstead Heath in London, I’m hoping the belted kingfisher male of Preston is still happily plying the fish-filled waters, but like all those of his species, I suspect he is not particularly chummy with the avian neighbors. However, he is most definitely the star of the show!
Reading through Twitter feeds, interviews, and comments on an article in The Daily Mail, I’ve jotted down a few of the headlines and reactions spanning first sightings through early January of 2022:
• “Twitter meltdown! Rare Kingfisher Spotted in U.K.”
• “What an absolute belter, to see this in the UK is amazing.”
• “It looks like Boris.”
• “Wow. Welcome chap. Stay safe”
• “What a looker!”
• “Not as rare as an honest man in parliament”
• “Mega-rare North American vagrant”
• “Felt really privileged to see this beauty.”
• “An early Christmas present arrived this morning in the shape of the devilishly difficult Belted Kingfisher. Chaotic scenes but eventual smiling faces as the bird showed well around 8.50 catching and eating a small fish before preening out in the open.”
• What a belting start to the year. Successful twitch to Roach Bridge for the BELTED KINGFISHER. The thrill of scoping this bird in the UK is a feeling and twitch I’ll never forget.
Even as belted kingfishers never cease to amaze me, I am seeing them anew through the UK twitchers. I might even have to try out a few of their phrases, especially the play on the word “belted” –“What an absolute belter!”
My epiphany is two-fold. First, apply this heart-pounding astonishment to a bird that is common to us (like a mallard duck or an American robin), and we could each tap into Rachel Carson’s wish for every adult to see with the innocent awe of children. As the great conservationist wrote in A Sense of Wonder: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.”
My hope? We would then be more attuned to the plight of birds at our hands—like the massive destruction of their bottomland forest homes of the southeastern US to feed the wood pellet industry in the UK. We’d express our outrage and support the nonprofits taking on the industrial culprits– Enviva and Drax (See my recent blog). We’d also take the tangible steps to help birds right at home: Keep cats indoors. Plant native wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and grasses, and offer water sources. Prevent birds from colliding into windows. Turn off lights at night to keep migrating birds from flying off course.
The second part of the epiphany relates directly to Martin Luther King Day when people marched and spoke up for voting rights and our Democracy, now teetering on the brink of collapse. On a day of hope, there was also despair in the deepening chasms of hatred and distrust in our country. So where do we find the sun ray? The spark? The bridge?
I suggest we practice opening our eyes to everyday people we might fail to notice, and express our gratitude in simple ways with a smile, a word of thanks, a generous tip, a compliment, or a sense of humor. Notice. Pay attention. Treat people as miraculous rarities. Be inspired by others who go through the world with grace.
A few days ago, I stood behind an elderly woman in a grocery store line. I’d fallen into that trap of checking my emails and messages on my phone to pass the time and tune out my surroundings. Then, I heard her say, “Mickey. Now that’s a wonderful name!” Startled, I looked at the checker’s nametag “Mickey” and saw him—really saw him—the way he brightened, straightened up, and responded to one person’s genuine compliment.
Wearing masks, we cannot see people’s expressions on their lips, but we are learning to take more notice of the signs of smiles—a crinkling of skin at the edge of their eyes that might widen,soften, and even twinkle. When we take off the blinders to let others know “I see you,” we begin to bridge the chasm.
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have one last thought on this subject of finding the rare in the familiar. I believe birds can be the common denominator connecting us with one another.
For instance, I came to cherish a neighbor with opposite political views as we exclaimed over the appearance of a nesting pair of white-headed woodpeckers–the first I’ve seen where I live. We’d send texts to each other when we’d hear or observe this ambassador of a bird hitched to dwindling ancient ponderosa pine forests. Sometimes, we’d cross over the property lines between our yards to gawk together–smitten.
The commonality can come, too, in a chance encounter. In my book, I wrote of lingering by a riverbank with a homeless man on a freezing winter day, the two of us entranced by a belted kingfisher—a bird he knew far better than me as I came and went from a heated home.
Birds fly across borders. And kingfishers? in the origin story of the Arikara people of the upper Missouri, a belted kingfisher laid a great beak across a canyon for the people to traverse on their journey to a better world.
Here are a few new stories about the sensational and rare Belted Kingfisher in the UK:
Wildlife: In search of an elusive bird
“Birders and other naturalists are the guardians of our wildlife and wild places.” (I like this one that reveals what always draws me to seek the skitty elusive kingfisher–all the other surprises along the way, that intimacy with the wild neighborhood whether you see your quarry or not).
Twitter Meltdown: Rare Kingfisher is Spotted…(Daily Mail) (This one has some inaccuracies, but also some hilarious comments.)