It started with an old box of books.
My parents dropped it off to me during one of their visits; a relic from the idyllic youth I had spent under their roof. As I opened it, the smell of aged-paper hit my nostrils as it curled up from the battered spines, memories flooding back as I recalled the places I had purchased each book, the times I had poured over their words. For that evenings’ entertainment, I settled on an antiquated copy of ‘Greek Myths and Legends’, somebody else’s name and the date ’1989’ etched in pencil inside the front cover. I dived head first into the Olympian world.
That night I dreamt of war and shipwrecks, of love and devastating loss, of folly and deception, and of a bird that nested by the water’s stormy edge while the gods calmed the seas during her brooding. This was the Halcyon bird, now better known as the kingfisher.
The next morning, I woke before the sun, my mind swirling with blue and gold. I had only seen kingfishers in glimpsing moments; flashes of navy moving so quickly that I barely had time to register them before they were gone, and I was left with nothing but a knot of disappointment in my stomach. But I had awoken wanting more, so spurred on by the enchantment of the Greek myth, I gathered my things and headed straight to a nearby estuary with only one thing on my mind; wanting to have my own fabled moment with the species.
The Helford estuary is an ancient woodland, made up of sessile oak trees which surround a beautiful river. This river has an exciting history; water that was once sailed by great ships, Romans sending traded Cornish tin away to Europe or Tudor smugglers arriving in the dead of night with their French rum and lace, trying to evade the excise men. These days the river is more familiar with the pleasure boaters telling stories of Daphne Du Maurier or oyster men hauling their seaweed-laden dredges up, hoping that the native shellfish haven’t lost their ongoing war against the invading Pacific’s. But it also attracts an array of bird enthusiasts due to the biodiversity the area provides and that day, I was one of them.
Reaching the water’s edge, I scooted myself down a muddy ledge and found a quiet spot to nestle into. The tide was low and I could see grey mullet just inches below the surface, creating ripples as they attempted to catch the insects skipping over the top. The water flowed gently out, the mesmeric sound broken by the occasional call of a curlew or redshank further down the river. This area would soon be awash with waders, picking through the thick mud to find ragworms.
The day was calm, the sun hazed through cloud-crowded sky gently touching the world below, a soft breath of wind rustled through the autumn-curled leaves. A fat robin landed near me and dipped its head inquisitively. I shrugged back by way of apology; I had no mealworms with me.
After a couple of hours of waiting, and several debates about ‘just 5 more minutes’, out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of blue through the hues of orange and brown, and involuntarily sucked in my breath as the sound of my heart thudded in my ears. I waited for split second, before adjusting my position. There, through a tangle of branches, on a piece of stark grey wood sat a kingfisher, its iridescent back toward me. It watched the water’s surface, looking at the stickleback or minnows below. After some time, the bird launched itself from its perch, bright orange legs tucked up into its copper breast, wings flapping at a sharp angle, beak pointing towards the water like a sword held high by a warrior charging into battle. The bird broke the surface, then came back up again before diving once more. The second time it appeared it had been victorious; a slither of silver tucked between its beak. It returned to its perch, the vibrance of its feathers stark against the dull deadwood. It began quickly flicking its dappled head, bashing the fish against the branch in a series of sudden movements before swallowing it whole.
As I watched, I understood why the bird inspired such folklore, such tales of wonder. He was the ruler of the river; adorned in his cloak of blue and gold, quietly surveying his kingdom below, his powerful spear as iconic as Poseidon’s own mighty trident.
The encounter, though salient to me, only lasted a few minutes before he spread his wings and took flight down the estuary, disappearing into the distance as the sun sparkled off the water.
Piece included in the Terra Incognita Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018 book