Join me inside a camouflaged turkey-hunting blind as I observe a pair of skittish belted kingfishers feeding their chicks tucked deep in an earthen burrow above Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana. Found across North America’s waterways, these jay-sized birds are known for their dazzling headfirst plunges to catch fish near the surface. Their rattling calls awaken us to the sensory beauty of watery homes. The females wear the namesake red belt and are more colorful than the males, an oddity in the bird world.
In this first of seven nesting seasons spent tracking birds on a home creek, I’d named the pair Halcyon and Ceyx after a Greek myth of lovers transformed into kingfishers. All belted kingfishers are territorial, loners, and fiendish to study, so to watch the birds without disturbing them I’d confined my space to the tight quarters of a blind. Yet, no matter how much I slowed my movements, even as I learned to overcome my claustrophobia, the birds took notice. It made me consider “space” in our relationship to wildlife. When is it acceptable to come closer? How can we do it well? What is space for the one who hides and what is it for the one who is watched? And how do we move with grace in the homelands of wildlife?
CHAPTER 4 – NEST WATCH (A shortened and edited excerpt from Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher, winner of a 2022 National Outdoor Book Award)
A kingfisher screamed. The high-pitched concussive sound came from the closest tree and only three feet overhead. Shaking. Every fiber vibrated. Another sensation? Fear. Irrational, yet powerful, as if the bird were the size of a pterodactyl and could skewer me.
The scream happened on the second afternoon of the watch, after I’d decided to hide slightly upstream from the island. There, I could see the hole and give the birds more space. I’d noted first one and then a second kingfisher bolting by. Ceyx landed on the boulder with a fingerling trout. Instead of feeding the nestlings, he flew across the creek to land on a fir tree branch, cantilevered above the rolling waves. He glared at my hiding place in the alders and gave a brief rattle. Then, he flapped past me away from the burrow. I took a deep breath, afraid to exhale. But then, he backtracked and aimed for the hole – trout delivered! The wash of relief proved short-lived.
That’s when Ceyx swerved toward me, knifing the air. He cut his flight short, jamming his landing close by. The jolting shriek was unmistakable: “Get out!”
With ears ringing, I scuttled away among the budding wild rose, tender birch leaves, white clusters of mountain ash flowers, and a lake of arnica flowers radiating yellow light under the rain-laden sky. Until the camouflaged tent arrived, I’d have to be ultra-careful. The next day on the island, I struggled to see through tangled alder branches swaying in the wind.
“Please,” I begged to the trees, “Hide me well.”
Ceyx skimmed by the hole without entering. Seconds later, Halcyon flicked by, uttering a higher-decibel phrase edging toward a caterwaul.
Rain clobbered the skylight above the bed. I thought of Halcyon and Ceyx and their young, forming one warming bundle of feathers deep within the burrow. The next morning, I flipped a few pancakes for my son Ian, waved him off, and jumped into action.
I had a practical transformation ahead – to become so invisible in the much-anticipated blind I could be one with the trees. I’d identified a tent-sized clearing under the alders and dogwoods with a diagonal view of the nest and centered on the landing boulder. The bison-sized rock was chiseled on top, smoothed by currents on the sides, and splotched in somber lichen, which turned vivid lime green when wet.
I knew the blind should be placed farther back than twenty-five feet from the water. However, I counted on the screening trees and the creek separating the tent from the burrow to give the birds a sense of security. Despite intentions to avoid disturbance in the pre-blind-arrival days, I made more mistakes. On the evening of June 8, I couldn’t resist the look my dog gave me as I headed out the door. Arriving at 7:45 p.m., Luna was restless and wanted to drink from the creek. Guiding her back and putting my arm around her, I pressed my nose into her honey-colored fur.
Soon, Ceyx landed on the boulder and looked straight through our leafy hideaway. He fled in a crescendo of contempt. Had he seen Luna? I gripped her collar. She gave me a reproachful look. Five minutes later, Ceyx was back, his calls as crackling as a campfire. Then, he sizzled north like a flaming torch. Two minutes passed. Ceyx docked on the rock, compressing a bluish fish the long way in his bill, so the unlucky trout’s head dangled off the tip. He jerked his head to the right and left. Edgy. At last, he scrolled up from the boulder to feed the young.
Walking the trail homeward at 9 p.m. in the protracted daylight of a Montana summer, I paused mid-step to avoid a rubber boa, a docile snake shaped like a stick with smooth ends, an adaptation to fool predators. I picked up the boa with one hand placed below the head and the other in the middle. When threatened, this snake will wind up into a tight ball with tail exposed to look like the head. Better to be chomped on the tail and live. Kneeling to release the boa to the safety of the forest well away from the trail, I felt the clammy scales of his upper brown body and yellow underbelly slide through my hands like a day’s glide away into night.
On June 10, the UPS driver walked up the sidewalk with a backpack-sized box. Five minutes later, I was driving to the far trailhead and the shortest route to the nest downstream. The lightweight, saucer-shaped blind came in a case with straps for easy carrying on my back. Grasping a folded camp chair, with binoculars swinging around my neck and notebook crammed in a long-sleeve shirt pocket, I paused to regain my balance on the log bridging the ditch. All was quiet on the island at 1:30, although a siesta was nonexistent for kingfisher parents feeding their young.
As soon as I unzipped the case, the blind snapped open as if alive – a tent in a single shake. I secured my hiding place with stakes and pull-out cords tied to branches. The muted browns, greens, and blacks forming leaf and floral patterns melded into the surroundings. Perfect. The blind featured a back door with a zipper and screen windows forming half-circles on three sides. The windows had zip-up flaps on the interior. The trick, I’d heard from photographers, was to keep the back door closed, so the birds could not see a human profile.
I set up the chair, stepped in, zipped the door, and kept the flaps on the window open, hoping the camo-print on the screens would be enough to hide me. The setup took fifteen minutes, fortunately coinciding with kingfisher absence.
The “blind” watch began. Within five minutes of settling into the camp chair, I heard a rapid soft chitter. Halcyon dropped anchor on the boulder with a plump, dark-colored trout the size of an anchovy and compressed lengthwise in her bill. Within my hiding place, I could zero in on the upper blue band, the lower auburn belt, and the way her blue feathers shone on a day of clouds and sun. White speckles sprayed over blue wings, and the white barring on her flirty tail shimmied with each flick. Like a ballet dancer, she flew in a relevé of grace and muscle. I counted three flaps to the hole, where she tucked inside for two minutes before the élancé of a leap skyward.
The world had changed, from within the blind. On the one hand, it felt confining. On the other, I was like Harry Potter wearing his cloak of invisibility. Brits have a different term for “blinds.” They call them “hides.” I could see the advantage of both names. I wanted the birds to be “blind” to my presence as I hid like a child in a game of hide-and-seek.
A robin cantillated into song worthy of a sea shanty, just five feet away in an alder. A yellow warbler brushed against the tent fabric and landed within hand’s reach. Showy as a dandelion, her voice was honey pouring from a jar. A black-capped chickadee jigged among branches. The world had come closer in five minutes.
Bang! A dipper clanged into the front screen. I ducked as if someone had thrown a dirt clod. The groggy bird staggered to his feet and lurched into the air. The dipper’s world had changed, too. A few minutes after the crash, Ceyx touched down with a tumbling of clickety-clackety notes and a fish. There on the boulder, he turned his head toward me. I met his sharp, beady forward-facing eyes right when I lifted my binoculars.
Darn. With all three window flaps down, looking through the camo-tinted screens, I was too visible after all. Any movement would be noticed. Sure enough, Ceyx huffed upstream. I heard jangled notes a few minutes later from downstream. But he returned to dash into the hole, evaporating into the darkness for the span of one breath. He backed out sans fish, turned, and parlayed away.
It’s hard to say which parent was more dedicated so far. Dan had noted males edging out females in numbers of fish deliveries. Would that be true here? My intent was to identify gender and listen to their language.
No rattle was alike, in the way of Rattlesnake Creek, haven of kingfishers. Tunes varied on any given day, and by season. At the blind, curtains of water brushed over boulders like the sound of a receding ocean wave across the sand. Churning mini-whirlpools emitted occasional slurps.
Staying within tight confines would take practice. Longing to jump from the blind and thrust both hands in the frigid water, I planted my feet instead. This first afternoon, I stayed within for three hours and recorded four fish feedings: Halcyon at 1:48, Ceyx at 2:20 and 2:32, and Halcyon at 4 p.m.: a fifty-fifty shared effort.
The spotting scope on the tripod fit well by the chair and promised to magnify more than the birds. I had zipped the screen flaps up higher for better screening. At 9 a.m. the next day, sun brightened the nest entry. The creek had receded with the ebb of spring floods and mild weather. Two-foot-high waves sprayed festive jets in a funnel of whitewater alongside the boulder.
A faint rattle up the creek. Then nothing. Forty-five minutes later, Halcyon’s kkkkkk . . . kkkkkkk ushered her in. Poised on the boulder with her beak pinched down on a fish, she was the circus actor about to perform an acrobatic feat. Or so I thought. As I moved to look through the scope, she turned to face me. Suspicious. Halcyon fled. How would a kingfisher ever be “blind” to my presence? Six minutes later, she flew in with the same fish, silvery in the light and four inches long, double the size of what I’d witnessed a week ago. The trout head draped off the end of her beak.
Even inching my head to the right to look through the scope proved too much motion. She fretted away in silence. Why was she so leery? I would not move a muscle. Two minutes later, she returned, glowering at the blind. When she spurted up to the hole, I sighed in relief and confusion.
Stymied. What could I adjust? Then I saw the problem. Sunlight entered the blind through the downstream screen and revealed my silhouette, even with partially closed side windows. Fixed, but the interior had turned cave-like. Ten minutes later, Ceyx rattled and darted into the hole with a fish. He then zinged upstream, a master of efficiency. To so quickly beak over his fish, he must have met the chick near the entry.
During the ensuing lull, I reread Dan Albano’s belted kingfisher dissertation on feeding and fish size. By the third week, the parents bring fish of about three and a half inches in length. The growth rate is highest during the first ten days after hatching. In sixteen days, the nestlings are almost fully feathered and as big as the adults . . .
My journal entries proliferated with fish deliveries and scrawled notes on the passage of dippers, swallowtail butterflies, and rough-winged swallows. Often, I added my unchecked elation. How was it possible for the parents to depart from a sandy, dusty hole without one speck of dirt and feathers all in place? If I’d trundled into an earthen tunnel, I’d come out smudged and rumpled.
Enamored with so many views of their blue feathers morphing in sunlight, I researched the whys. Scientists had long theorized birds look blue in the same way as the sky. When the sun’s white light enters the atmosphere, red and yellow wavelengths pass through, but the shorter blue wavelengths bounce off particles and scatter.
Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale, challenged this premise after an intensive study of blue feathers. In 1998, he and his colleagues published their research. Within each feather are molecules made of stringy keratin. Those protein molecules separate from water, like oil from vinegar. When a cell dies, the water evaporates and is replaced by air. The keratin then looks like loose spaghetti. The feather structure is ready for the blue phenomenon. When white light passes through a feather, the keratin patterns that are unique to different shades of blue feathers cause the red and yellow wavelengths to cancel out and the blue wavelengths of light to strengthen and intensify each other, and then reflect to the observer.
So, yes, the blue does come from light striking the feathers, but it’s the shapes and sizes of the air pockets among the keratin that creates the arrays of blueness.
Light matters. Feathers matter. Sun always illuminates.
This watching was about stepping into the light, experiencing each fractal and unexpected beam.
Every day the birds took notice. The slightest movement from within caused a head swivel in my direction. The rattling notes were a torrent of disapproval. Sometimes I succeeded in stillness. Like a sapling tree, I had much to experience. Often, I felt both astonished and gifted by the salvos of fish feedings, accompanied by so many chatters and rattles.
I breathed kingfishers. When not there, I tracked them in my mind, conjuring crest feathers rippling in the wind as a parent perched on a limb and scanned for motion in the eddy below. Not any fish would do. What human angler could so precisely pluck the fish of a specific size from within a swimming school?
If I were a biologist sticking to protocol, I would have selected certain times to collect data on morning, midday, and evening. Ideally, I would have been there from sunrise to sunset, like a fire lookout in a tower scanning for the first wisps of smoke.
The researchers I’d interviewed followed a rigorous schedule to test their hypotheses in the field. My observations were less consistent, yet what I recorded had merit. What was the question I was trying to answer? While tempted to settle on one query, other entrancing possibilities arose in addition to the mystery of the female’s colorful belt.
Where did the kingfishers like to fish on the creek? What kind of fish were they catching, and when? Were they angling for other prey, and visiting ponds or ditches? How did the chicks spend their days in the dark? Next spring awaited with the promise of filling in the blanks of mating, excavation, and incubation I’d missed during the month of the missing burrow.
The jumble of questions reminded me of eleven-year-old Sam Beaver, the main character of E. B. White’s classic, The Trumpet of the Swan. When I was about that age, I read of the boy with raven hair sneaking up on the swans, walking with one foot straight in front of the other, and never snapping a twig on the ground. I even changed my gait to be like him. I remain a bit pigeon-toed.
Sam kept a diary by his bed, and before going to sleep, he wrote what he’d seen and thought about and often sketched a picture. He ended with a question to ponder, like, “How does a bird know how to make a nest?” In this time of kingfishers, I was finding my inner Sam.
Three stoneflies had entered the blind. I picked one up to place on my arm, the better to admire the long wings like stained glass etched in brown. The creekside stones bore the shed skins of the nymphs with their two long tails. If people could hear in the register of an adult stonefly, they would note the drumming of a male as he taps his abdomen against a hard surface – and if he’s lucky, a female would drum back.
What I did hear that morning were kingfisher calls like skipping stones skittering across the creek to the far side. Even so, two hours passed before Halcyon descended to the boulder with a stupendous fish held sideways, as if she’d sprouted a handlebar mustache. Her eager tail flipped up and down. Although edgy, she looked in a direction other than the blind. I bathed in the view of the classy queen holding court. In my journal, I wrote, “I’m ecstatic. Just when I’m feeling restless in the blind, she transforms this place, a bringer of life, yet in her bill, she clasps a very dead fish.”
Returning at 3:30, I wondered if this would be a languorous or a romping afternoon. Five minutes later, as a dusky flycatcher hid in an alder a few feet from me, Ceyx landed on the boulder with a burst of kkkk kkkkkk! Without thinking, I turned my head. He flew away in a frenzy, but not before I could see his slicked-down crest from his recent dive and a fish clenched in his beak. Two minutes later, blue and white wings strobed by, flashing. Another minute passed. He landed, whistled up to the hole, dropped off the fish, and spurted off. Three minutes later, he returned with one more. A romp indeed.
Grasping a travel mug of coffee in one hand and over my right shoulder slinging a canvas bag heavy with my laptop, notebook, pens, and water bottle, I jumped the ditch. It was all too wonderful to leap out of bed at 5:20 a.m. and drive four miles up the road and hike to the blind, a half hour from bed to another home on a halcyon arc of stream where all that mattered was to witness.
Leaves glowed after the rain showers. Swainson’s thrush song steamed skyward like a whistling tea kettle. This animal trail had become so known I could close my eyes and sense where the path angled downstream and then forked to the left and toward the waiting blind. Ponderosas, cottonwoods, and Douglas-firs crested high as ship masts above roller waves of mock orange, chokecherry, serviceberry, dogwood, and alder. A male western tanager streaked by in a flash of fruity colors – tangerine, lemon, and blackberry.
I often chewed on new questions, like, “Are these birds smart?”
Even after I’d spent a week in the blind situated twenty yards from the burrow, they still treated any motion at all from inside as a threat. With the camouflage flaps raised partway, I dared not move when the male or female commanded the boulder.
Kingfishers may be what scientists call “evolutionary smart.” They don’t habituate to us like a chickadee plucking a sunflower seed from between our thumb and forefinger. Instead, they are always on alert, especially with chicks in a burrow. A mink could slink up from the creek bank, a bull snake could slide into the nest, or a goshawk could even grab an adult from the boulder.
That could explain why the kingfishers stared, chittered, and surveyed for danger. I appreciated their watchfulness, which improved my stillness skills. Other birds (far less perturbed) came closer. A certain Swainson’s thrush would land at arm’s length from the blind. How could this subdued, brown, robin-sized bird with a white eye-ring open his beak and pour forth a glory of chorded notes? My father had an affinity for thrushes and opera. However, if he had to choose a favorite, he would have picked the ethereal song of the thrush.
An insect wriggled across the laptop keyboard like an animated long grain of rice. Bees, wasps, and flies hustled in and out whenever I opened the screens. Always, the creek resounded with gusts, sighs, and breezes. Like a mayfly rising and falling in the air currents above the waters, my brain fluttered with perplexities. How big were the chicks? When would they shuffle down the tunnel to peek into the sky? How would I make sure not to miss fledging? I’d circled June 27.
Eight days to go – maybe. Three minutes after settling into the blind at 5:50 a.m., Ceyx crystallized on the boulder. The creek roiled. His beak moved, but all sound belonged to the Rattlesnake. The snows were melting, and the pell-mell race of water overtook the songs of birds and of predators hunting prey. Ceyx turned toward me. I froze in the act of reaching for a granola bar with what I thought was the slowness of a sloth. Phew! He gave me a pass. When entering the hole, he pressed his wings tight, vanished, remerged, backed out, pivoted, and lifted away. I never tired of the dance move.
The fishing must have been fabulous in the high waters, which remained clear even in snowmelt. When Halcyon jigged in at 6:12, her crest wasn’t even wet, as if she had scissored a flying fish. She wasted no time. After three seconds on the boulder, she flew to the hole. Ceyx returned at 6:26, gripping a fat fish. His calls seemed to urge, “Come closer!” The tactic worked, as if the chicks were almost at the entry. He bowed and departed. No time to waste with chit-chat.
The kingfishers quieted for an hour and a half. I never stopped looking at the hole. Blinking my weary eyes, I turned my attention to a historical account I’d brought with me.
In 1938, a naturalist named Henry Mousley observed a burrow in a pastoral scene where young boys tussling in the creek proved a nuisance to the kingfishers. One day, three cows ambled to the edge of the bank right above the nest. When the kingfisher parents returned, the pair “made the grove ring with their united rattlings.” He wrote,
First one and then the other would fly directly almost to the mouth of the hole, but instead of entering it, would rise up suddenly and fly over almost touching the backs of the three standing cows in an endeavor to frighten them away, whilst rattling all the time to show their displeasure at this intrusion of their home ground.
As a recipient of kingfisher “displeasure,” I could imagine the scene. Deer often passed above the burrow, but what if a black bear plopped down for a rest? That would be a far greater possibility, where there were no cattle or children running wild.
Not long after I moved to Missoula from Oregon in 1986 to attend graduate school in journalism, I stumbled upon the urban wilds of Greenough Park. I’d often bring my notebook to jot ideas for the weekly column I wrote for The Kaimin (University of Montana’s student newspaper). One day, as I scanned Rattlesnake Creek for a dipper, a boy of about ten came up to me and said, “Are you looking at that big bird up there?” He pointed to the perched osprey twenty feet above me. I had my theme, of missing the obvious and learning to see anew through a child’s eyes.
A few months later, I’d joined a crusade to save the beavers that Mountain Water Company had proposed to trap in an ill-advised attempt to rid Rattlesnake Creek of giardia, a water-borne parasite, which entered Missoula’s water supply in 1983. Until then, the creek served the city with “pure” drinking water. The company then tapped the valley’s aquifer, with the creek as a backup supply. Although beavers can spread giardia, so do many other animals, including pets, livestock, and people.
We called ourselves CASTOR, Citizens Against Senseless Trapping Of Rodents (Castor canadensis is the scientific name for beaver). I wrote a column chastising Mountain Water Company and lauding the beaver as a keystone species. Without the keystone, the ecology collapses. Someone cut out the column and posted a laminated copy on a prominent sign within Greenough Park. I was pleased. The head of Mountain Water Company was not. We did win the fight, and beavers continue to dam various arms of the creek, creating pools that serve as nurseries for young trout, the prey of kingfishers.
I’ve known and defended this creek over the years; at last, I was becoming an inhabitant. My idea of community was shifting. My home creek had become a sentient being, the holder of all stories, sustaining life and carrying memories toward a confluence.