As July comes to a close, I’m sharing an excerpt from chapter six of Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher. I chose these few pages in honor of the 2022 kingfishers of Rattlesnake Creek. Earlier this month, my naturalist friend Lisa (hidden in a blind ) watched a chick launch from the lip of the earthen nest hole high in a vertical streambank. The next day she witnessed a second chick flapping wings and trusting the fall, and then a third fledged an hour and a half later. Lisa definitely has the magic touch!
After a week of 100-degree-plus weather here in Bend, Oregon, I also felt drawn to any passages in my book that required entering the icy, wilderness-fed currents. The two scenes are both excavations– one literal and the other an inner journey of how we perceive the world around us.
From Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher (pages 107 to 110):
It was time to return to the place of beginning for the three young birds, when they knew only earthen darkness and were unaware of the greater purpose of feathers, wings, and piercing bills.
Lisa and Paul were up for the task on a sleeveless-shirt day in August. Armed with a shovel and measuring tape, we crossed the swift yet shallower creek. First, we calculated the hole’s distance from the top of the bank down, at two and a half feet. Next, Paul extended the tape measure into the hole and tunnel to record four and a half feet of hard-won slightly ascending excavation.
Kneeling on the top of the bank, we stretched the tape to the length of the tunnel, and then dug out a square flap of grassy earth that we would tamp down afterward. Taking turns shoveling in the reddish soil with few rocks, we broke through the roof close to the depth we’d measured. The burrow’s stench was rank from uric acid. The chicks had ejected their excrement on the back wall and then pecked a bit of soil to cover it up. Fastidious.
Like people, kingfishers have stomach acids to aid digestion. However, the chicks hatch with an extra dose of acid to digest fish bones and scales. Before fledging, their chemistry changes. Acid levels diminish, and they cast pellets like adults.
The odor was so terrible that I pulled out a bag from my pocket and gathered some of the excrement-laden soil to take home in an overzealous act of writer research.
In early September, I walked alone to the nest bank with a question. After so many hours living the whirl, lulls, and adrenaline of the nesting season, how would I perceive this place? Wading into the knee-deep stream that still knocked me off balance, I placed one sandaled foot after another on the slippery, smooth, frying-pan-sized rocks.
Climbing up on the commodious boulder tucked close to the nest bank, I sat with knees pulled up to my chin, bathing in the solitude. With nothing comparable up or downstream, this landing pad for kingfishers qualified as a glacial erratic, the term for a massive boulder carried far on a river of ice when glaciers carved valleys like this one.
Resting on the stream-carved boulder, I fingered the sandpapery lichen of pencil gray quarter-sized splotches. Sunshine cast a net of molten silver on the rapids. The perch boulder absorbed the day’s warmth. The creek rushed with the sound of a thousand hushed voices. So many times, when writing in the blind, I had tried to articulate the shifting cadences.
Each time a kingfisher landed on this boulder, I’d hoped to escape those penetrating black eyes, even as my brown eyes drank in the vision of an alert bird in crisp patterns of blues and whites with slicked-back crest and a minnow gripped in a fierce bill.
The summer before, I’d had the privilege of teaching an outdoor bird class to children with vision impairment. I brought bird study skins, feathers, skeletons, and audiotapes of calls to a summer camp like no other I’d known. On the shores of Flathead Lake, we flapped arms, stalked like herons, hooted like owls, and whistled like loons. The kids drew the birds they could not see, and I was humbled. When night fell, there were no lights to guide us to cabins in the darkness. I stumbled without a flashlight. They did not.
While at the camp, I met Dan Burke, who had gradually lost most of his sight from a disease called retinitis pigmentosa. Dan was then working at University of Montana as the assistant director of disability services. Dapper in his trimmed salt and pepper beard, with the lofty brow of a thinker and a keenness for nature, he tapped his way with a white cane. When the subject of kingfishers came up, Dan shared this poem written by a friend:
Two old friends and a young boy’s restless energy
beside a pond in brilliant October sunshine.
Still air cleaved by the chattering flight of a kingfisher;
blue blur against cloudless Montana sky.
It finds its perch on a highway of perfect vision,
and I know you cannot see it.
What does it look like?
you ask your son,
who has tracked every dodge and weave.
Does it have a crest?
What color is it?
He is becoming your sight,
as I have been,
and for a moment something tightens in my chest.
I remember other times, other October days
a thousand moments of shadow and light
and I wonder what you’ve lost.
Then Sean replies,
and I hear him learn the form of a kingfisher
by describing it.
It’s all so perfect and eloquent
that tightness fades and memory shifts
to vivid moments, endless changing scenes
I’ve learned to see,
and he’ll learn to see
through the lenses of your blindness.
— For Dan, my friend (by Eric Wahler)
Through hungry eyes, I’d hunted for the kingfisher of jaunty crest, of strong bill, and shiny eye. In the many hours of solo observation, I’d whispered to my father, either asking for his help or describing birds, as if my words could reach an unknown sanctum. For Dad, Dan, and the children at the camp, I had a promise to keep.
I would do more than observe within a life-giving creek sustaining kingfisher, dipper, swallow, thrush, warbler, flycatcher, tanager, eagle, osprey, deer, bear, squirrel, chipmunk, mink, coyote, wolf, moose, elk, and all the multitudes of diversity. I would transcribe for others in the way of my favorite woman conservation champion Rachel Carson, who wrote, in A Sense of Wonder,
“For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”
Sliding off the boulder and into the nippy waters, I crossed to shore and hiked the hill to the main trail, where cyclists pedaled, people walked dogs, and runners leaped over roots.
Somewhere along this creek, the young kingfishers employed their innate qualities of superior eyesight, muscular and rounded wings, and bill and body shape ideal for a stealth dive. On their own, they roamed the dimensions of sky, water, and earth.
For the latest on my 2022 book, Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher, check the top of my blog home page: Halcyon Journey Book News.