Thursday, 25 October 2012

Swords Drawn at Fifty Feet

When the bridge collapsed, the telephone company erected a pole behind each abutment, guyed them with heavy galvanised cable, and stretched twenty feet of the same between their tops. Over that they looped a single black phone wire, to preserve service for any future settler who proved game.

The Wilson Creek high-wire served two unintended ends. It reminded passersby that, present appearances notwithstanding, the Acres had once been someone's home. And it gave the belted kingfishers a platform from which to fish without belabouring their wings midair like giant hummingbirds.

I often spied their blue jay silhouette on that high perch, overlooking a deep, fish-filled pool; it was also a handy anvil against which to beat senseless, with wetly emphatic blows, whatever prey they lifted back to it. Phone pole height, it also commanded three hundred yards of open river, the forest having been held off to create the pastures, and so was a property prick's dream.

For a kingfisher brooks no challenge. I often heard their ratcheting war cry from the meadows high above, and once observed a pitched battle in the tall alders between Paul's drive and the Willapa River. There two rivals expended an entire afternoon, attempting in real earnest to
skewer one another on their overlarge beaks. They fenced in and out of the treetops, slate blue wings feinting and flourishing like a swordsman's cloak, fifty feet high and in mid-flight. Like hummingbirds again, they expended far more energy patrolling their territory than they would ever extract from it, but their neurosis compelled.

On other occasions I heard the sploosh as they drove like harpoons into the creek. How did they not dash their brains out, smacking the surface like that? Nothing of the smooth entry of seabirds. Nor was mine the only ear listening, as I learned one afternoon when I allowed a slab of clay I'd levered up in the jungle stretch to splash back into the water. Seconds later a kingfisher came shooting upstream, over and under the slanting trunks, to perch on a crabapple and ratchet himself into a lather, his grey flat-top shaking with rage, like a Bircher before a trespasser. A moment passed before I understood: he'd taken my splash for another kingfisher, pirating frogs and cutthroat smolt from a run he judged his own, and finding nothing there at last but a muddy monk, chose to rave about his rights rather than acknowledge the chip on his shoulder. I ran across many his equal in the landowners of my childhood.

But politics aside, I've always been pleased to meet these handsome birds, on both sides of the continent. I learned to name them in Grade 2, and every next one has been brisk company.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photos courtesy of Linda Tanner (male belted kingfisher on lamp post), Magnus Manske (kingfisher in flight), Teddy Llovet (female kingfisher feeding), and WikiMedia Commons.)
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