The original binomial name for the kingfisher, Gracula atthis, was devised by the great Swedish toxicologist Carl Linnaeus, but later re-named Alcedo atthis, which actually stems from the Greek ‘alcedo’, meaning halcyon, in turn derived from the Greek goddess Alcyone, daughter of Aelous, God of the winds. Atthis was a beautiful young woman from Lesbos, and a favourite of Sappho, the lyric poet. Halcyon days are those peaceful and calm periods just around the winter solstice, when, in Greek mythology, kingfishers are meant to have made their nests out of fish bones which floated on the Mediterranean, with the gods smiling on them with good weather. We recall halcyon days as those that hold fond memories, whenever in the calendar, but usually related to childhood and summer.
Kingfishers have inspired many writers to use them as metaphors, things of beauty and as symbols, representing a multitude of opposites such as transformation, calm, multiplicity, unity, felicity, disturbance and revelation. According to one academic, ‘to poets, the kingfisher magically embodies a joining of opposites, a preservation of variety, an embrace of challenge and change.’ The Welsh poet William Henry Davies wrote ‘It was the rainbow gave thee birth,/And left thee all her lovely hues./And, as her mother’s name was Tears,/So runs it in my blood to choose/For haunts the lonely pools, and keep/In company with trees that weep.’ Gerard Manley Hopkins was also inspired to write ‘as kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’, in the bright spring sunshine. Another great poet, John Clare, in his natural history writings, stated that ‘it flys on the top of the water, down rivers & dykes & often seizes its prey on the wing; it makes its nest on the ground in the reed beds & lays 5 eggs of a dirty brown colour - the young take the water as soon as hatched.’ Andrew Marvell’s Kingfisher is seen ‘flying betwixt the day and night’ and changing as she recedes upstream, into a ‘sapphire-winged mist’. The Kingfisher stands for peace and prosperity, and is connected with Jupiter, which is a symbol for abundance and wealth. It is a symbol of a fertile harvest and good fortune. Certainly, seeing one darting scarcely a few inches above the water, lifts one’s own spirits, and has, in the past, heralded a catch. ‘A kingfisher’s burnished plunge, the colour of felicity afire, came glancing like an arrow through landscapes of untended memory’ wrote the American Amy Clampitt in her eponymous poem.
It is virtually impossible to paint them from life, as they fly as fast as a flash of electric blue lightning, and rarely pose for you on a branch. Delacroix famously once said that ‘you’ll never be a great artist unless you can sketch a man falling from the fourth floor of a building before he hits the ground,’ but that could just be fanciful. Maybe the same should apply to kingfishers? They are also pretty elusive for photographers, even those with the very latest cameras and lenses, and an inexhaustible supply of patience. Having not seen one for the first two weeks on the river, our third trip produced an impressive eight sightings, including one, where my fishing companion Robert witnessed one actually take a minnow off the water. The reason that they were so active was because they sometimes have up to 10 chicks, holed up in a burrow on the bank, and can have more than two broods in a season. Although their diet is mainly fishy, they will sometimes take big, juicy dragonflies or damselflies, as well as other aquatic insects, including water beetles. Dragonflies are amongst the fastest of insects, flying at around 30 mph, both forwards and in reverse, and even while copulating, which is impressive, to say the least. Kingfishers can hit the same sort of speed, only forwards, so the unsuspecting dragonfly may suddenly find that he should have perhaps tried looking sideways, as a blue flash, with a scuba-spear-sharp beak, gobbled him up. They have to catch the equivalent of their own bodyweight every day, just to feed his, and her, brood. Their territory extends for anything between one and five kilometres, and they are extremely protective of their ‘manor.’ There are seven distinct beats on ‘our’ river, each just over a kilometre in length, and the riverkeeper reckons there are at least six breeding pairs. Kingfisher in French is martin-pêcheur and dragonfly is the delightfully-named libellule, while a damselfly is une demoiselle. Mayfly is éphémère, hardly surprisingly. In Germany, the kingfisher is called eisvogel, ice-bird, as it migrates many hundreds of kilometers from Northern Europe to milder climes in winter.
Scientifically, the production of intense blue presents challenges to nature. Most vertebrates are unable to produce blue pigment. The orange of kingfisher plumage is the product of tiny pigment granules but its cyan and blue feathers contain no pigments. These colours are ‘structural’. According to research carried out at Cambridge University, ‘they are created by the intricate structural arrangement of a transparent material which, depending on its precise make-up and thickness compared to the tiny wavelength of light, produces a range of colours by “incident light”, in other words light shining on the sample’. Another scientist went on to explain, ‘we found that the cyan and blue barbs of its feathers contain spongy nanostructures with varying dimensions, causing the light to reflect differently and thus produce the observed set of colours. The subtle differences within colours are produced by tiny variations in the structure of the barbs.’ So, kingfisher feathers reflect light in a way that scientists describe as semi-iridescent. ‘The feathers of peacocks and birds of paradise are truly iridescent. Iridescence is produced by the ways in which layers of material are perfectly aligned and repeated periodically to achieve a shimmer effect. Semi-iridescence is produced when the layers are not quite perfectly aligned but slightly disrupted, thus causing a smaller span of iridescent colour.’
In Japan, their 300kph Shinkansen bullet trains were producing a sonic boom when they came out of a tunnel, and this problem was resolved by an engineer, who was also a bird-watcher. He studied the way kingfishers dived into the water to catch fish, at anything up to 25mph and carefully noted their behaviour. The birds create very little splash when they enter the water, due to the aerodynamic shape of their head and large beak. Imitating the kingfisher’s shape, engineers equipped trains with a tapering nose nearly 50 feet long. As well as producing much less noise when exiting tunnels, the newly-designed train used 15% less electricity while travelling 10% faster.