Everyone remembers their first kingfisher

Dubliners can keep watch for this regal bird on shadier bits of the Liffey and Dodder

Kingfisher: off the the bank. Illustration: Michael Viney

Kingfisher: off the the bank. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

In the brownish-greyish-greenish blur of a north Dublin estuary in midwinter, the bird was a jewelled arrow from another, leafier and more opulent inland world. Its mad dash after a sand eel is still there as a tick in the field guide now coming apart in my hands. Everyone remembers one’s first kingfisher, no matter how long ago.

On an island so fretted with waterways, it’s mainly a special bird of the east and south. In Mayo I’d have to travel to the Moy, but Dubliners can keep watch on the shadier bits of the Liffey and the Dodder.

For a species so admired and treasured, conservation has taken time. In 2007 the European Court of Justice, chiding Ireland for lack of attention to waterway birds, put the kingfisher at the head of the list.

Among the responses, a team from BirdWatch Ireland was commissioned to map the bird’s distribution and density along nearly 1,000km of six river systems, already marked as special areas of conservation. They scrambled through long stretches of overgrown banks and used a little flotilla of boats to check for nest holes in them.

They had a rubber dinghy, a Canadian canoe for two, and double and single kayaks. It rained a lot, and there were floods and flows that swept them along too fast. There were weirs and overhanging branches. They should have had wetsuits to catch the drips from the oars. Their notes, made every few minutes, kept getting wet. And their backs ached a lot, for want of cushions.

Nevertheless, as they duly reported to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, there were kingfishers on all the rivers, with most nest holes in stretches of steep, high bank. The Munster Blackwater, Barrow and Boyne led kingfisher numbers, but the river Nore had the most active nests per kilometre.

Idyllic contrast

The team’s travails, river by river, are eloquently summarised. But for fine, idyllic contrast, I recommend a new book from Declan Murphy. Spirit of the River: A Quest for the Kingfisher (Lilliput, €18) follows Murphy’s memorable A Life in the Trees (2017), an intimate study of colonising great spotted woodpeckers nesting in the woods of Co Wicklow. It also chronicled his own making as a naturalist.

Or rather, Murphy was born that way, since the natural world obsessed him from infancy, to the exclusion of ball games and most other people. He was watching birds as a small child and had the right kind of parents, who took him for walks every weekend to the local woods, mountains, estuaries and lakes of Co Wicklow.

His father hoisted him up at the parapet of a bridge just as “a bullet of blue sped out from underneath”, its vibrancy setting the seed of a lifelong fascination with Alcedo athis, the whistling, halcyon spirit of the river.

This was the Avonmore, flowing seawards from Lough Dan through wooded valleys and tangled walls of branches. Murphy’s “quest” for a view of the kingfishers’ private life meant guessing at their ultimate trajectories as they twisted in and out of the tree trunks and rhododendrons.

Kinds of blue

As if to tease, one perched in a birch tree at a river bend. “Sunlight exploded off its plumage in a series of arcs, arches and rays made up of a spectrum of nothing but blue: cobalt, royal, Prussian, denim, powder, aquamarine, azure, all radiated out from the glittering gemstone perched in front of me.”

The quest for a nest takes much of the book, since Murphy is only too ready to share his enjoyment of the river’s other waterbirds. There’s as much, and rightly so, on the domestic life of the dipper, the white-bibbed sprite of the swifter upper reaches, walking underwater for its food.

And the pages spent on the Avonmore’s goosanders, a rare colony of fish-eating ducks, are positively revelatory: who knew of their spring gatherings of 20 or 30 birds, mostly females out to choose a mate?

The kingfishers’ nest, when he finds one, is an obscure hole in undergrowth, well back from the bank. It is here he settles day after day from dawn, with his dog, his back to a tree trunk and shrouded in a sheet, to watch the comings and goings.

Their progress, I have to say, is not nearly as intriguing as phone calls from the Garda that summon him at once to be arrested and face allegations in court. Twice he responds, to a puzzled and amiable reception and prompt discharge for want of evidence.

Of what supposed offence, exactly, or even vaguely, is never shared with the reader. Murphy returns to the woods with his dog, to resume his seat at the tree trunk and pull the sheet (against the midges) around his head.

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