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How do you capture a kingfisher?

There are many elusive creatures that I long to see and photograph in the wild; any of the big cats would no doubt be at the top of my international wish list. Closer to home I would dearly like to photograph otters, the wish made keener by the knowledge that they are in the local area. And I would love to photograph kingfishers.

I have seen kingfishers on a few occasions. Walking by the stream one year I stopped at a clearing on a bend, a usual stopping point as at various times of the year there are butterflies warming themselves in the early sun, beautiful demoiselles stretching and drying their wings, or crayfish looking to hide. The trees to the right and to the left stretch over the water, not to the other side but enough to create a partial bridge and some shade. As I stood looking to see what I could see I was aware of a fluttering to my right, and as I turned, a bolt of lightening came through and landed on the branch over the stream to my left. 

Brilliant! I thought. I raised the camera to my face. A second bolt came zipping through, the first one left the perch and off they flew, upstream through the twist and turns of the trees and weeds that mark the edges of the banks. I was a tad disappointed about not getting a shot, but this was more than countered by the exhilaration of seeing not one but two kingfishers and there was proof that they were on our patch.

The kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) has to be one of the most brightly coloured birds in the UK and is certainly very distinct. It flies very quickly, often apparently close to the water or ground, and despite its plumage is usually hard to spot. It will sit still for a long time, on a perch over the water, watching and waiting for its prey to appear, perhaps a minnow or stickleback. Seeing the fish, the bird launches, streaking to the water, wings back and neck stretched out. As it enters the water, the beak is open ready to grab the fish whilst the closing of its third eyelid effectively blinds the bird temporarily at the moment of capture.

I have tried to capture kingfishers in photographs but I won’t say that I have failed, more that I have yet to achieve that goal. I suppose part of the problem is that I am never in the right place long enough to get the picture, which may go for most of my pictures. In fact my nature photography tends to be opportunistic – I see something that I think is worth photographing instead of deliberately going out seeking a particular beast or bird to take its picture. 

My first and only real photographic encounter with a kingfisher was a long, long time ago. In the summer of 1976, there was a severe drought though we were taking a canal holiday with some friends. The trip was from Nantwich in Cheshire to Llangollen and back. When we started, there were already warnings of poor water flow and that the locks on the canal would only be open at certain times of the day.

The trip up to Lllangollen had little incident worth reporting except that we quickly learned that the most water in the canal was in its centre and if you drifted too far to the bank, the hull scraped along the floor. The weather was back-to-back sunshine and if we weren’t steering, then most of the time was spent sitting on the roof watching the world go by. As we went round a bend I saw a flash of colour that settled on a post at the edge of the cut. We weren’t going very fast, even for a canal boat and I reached for my camera as we got nearer. I lifted it to my eye, looked through the eyepiece, took aim and fired the shutter. Another memory of a wonderful holiday. I put the camera down and watched the bird as we drifted on by. It hadn’t moved. 

When the film came back from being processed – 35mm slide – we smiled at the images of us enjoying the sun, the landscape of the flat Cheshire Plain, the views from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, but where was the kingfisher? There was the picture. That was the bend in the canal where it was perched, but where was it? I still can’t see it 45 years later and with the aid of modern technology. In my mind’s eye, it is as clear as anything, yet there is no proof.

My wife says that that just proves her point. She ranks the kingfisher alongside the unicorn and the phoenix and claims never to have seen one, ever. They are the stuff of legend even though they do exist. To the Greeks, the kingfisher is called the halcyon, named after the Greek goddess Alcyone. Alcyone was married to Ceyx and, unusually for Greek gods, they appeared to be happily married – that is until they upset Zeus, who renowned for not suffering fools gladly, disposed of the husband by sinking his ship. Alcyone, a tad upset by this action, drowned herself too. There was some feeling of contrition amongst the host on Mt Olympus and the loving couple were restored to life as halcyons or kingfishers. 

An interesting adjunct to this tale is that the Greeks believed that the kingfishers built floating rafts as nests on which to incubate and rear their young. This event took place on either side of the winter solstice when the sea – the Mediterranean – was generally calm. This is how the phrase ‘halcyon days’ came about.

Another maritime kingfisher story comes with the deluge. Though not reported in the Bible, there are versions of The Flood story that say that the kingfisher was the second bird released to go in search of land. The rain had stopped and Noah, looking for scouting volunteers initially sent out a raven, crow or rook depending on the version. This bird was then white but as a result of some indiscretion (not coming back, coming back with no answer, etc) was turned forever black. 

The kingfisher, then a drab grey, volunteered and was sent forth. Pleased with the freedom of not being cooped up with all the other forms of saved life, he flew higher and higher, enjoying the clear blue sky and the warming sun. As he flew higher, the blue of the sky reflected on his back until the feathers were the same colour. However, continuing on his upwards trajectory, he made the mistake of climbing too near the sun and burnt his breast a ruddy orange. Thinking he should drop down to see if he could find land, which he did, when he returned to find the ark to give them the news, he could not find it anywhere. In truth the ark had already struck land, the animals and people had long gone and the ark broke up. The kingfisher thought that the ark was lost and so settled on a branch at the waters edge to wait for it to pass by and collect him. That is why the kingfisher sits and looks and sits and looks and sits and looks.

The kingfisher can be seen in many places in Northamptonshire and certainly the River Nene has some wonderful spots. Northamptonshire musician Nick Penny has recently posted a video clip to the Wild Nene Facebook page, clearly showing how even if the wind is nudging the bird on its flimsy perch, the head stays still as the body moves underneath to some silent dance.

The bird is very much a favourite bird for illustrators. Look at Jackie Morris’s pictures in that wonderful book, The Lost Words (words by Robert Macfarlane). I also like the ones by Tunnicliffe, Ruskin and a whole host of others. The illustrations accompanying this article, in lieu of any photographs I have not yet taken, are by brilliant young artist Mime Clare-Jones. 

Kingfishers by Mime Clare-Jones

Despite Gilbert White apparently making no mention of kingfishers they do appear in his memorial window in his beloved Selborne, a pair of kingfishers among the birds around St Francis. Richard Jeffries on the other hand not only watched but wrote about their habitat and behaviour in some detail, even if he also remarked, as unfortunately befitting a man of his time, how easy they were to shoot. It is of course to John Clare though that I turn for a befitting picture, painted in few words so suitable to an elusive glimpse of pure halcyon:

In coat of orange, green and blue
Now on a willow branch I view,
Grey waving to the sunny gleam,
Kingfishers watch the ripple stream
For little fish that nimble bye 
And in the gravel shallows lie.

John Clare (The Fens)

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