Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Kingfisher blue, nature's most enchanting colour


If you were asked what is the most memorable colour in the natural world, what would you reply? Off the top of my head I would say the lipstick scarlet of poppies comes close, and maybe the lustrous orange of the large copper butterfly (now extinct in England, but you can see it in Holland) or perhaps the pale purple flash along the flanks of a rainbow trout.

But really one stands out above them all, and that's the blue of a kingfisher's back.

If you haven't seen this in real life, you won't really understand. It's something that doesn't figure in your standard illustrations of perching kingfishers on your greetings cards or your teapots. You see a lovely blue there, sure, but that's the greenish-blue of the folded wings, which contrasts so handsomely with the rich deep orange of the underparts. However, a kingfisher has two blues, and it's the other blue that takes your breath away.

This is the blue you see in real life, rather than on the painted teapot, because your first sight of the bird is almost certain to be of it zooming away from you, and when its wings are outstretched, the feathers of the back are exposed – and there it is. It's a blue so bright that it appears to be lit from within. It's brighter than the sky.

This is not on any colour chart in a paint shop, and I would feel that most people, seeing it for the first time, have a curious, elated experience, which is that their sense of what the world can contain is actually enlarged.

There's no doubt that this is Britain's most brilliantly coloured bird, and we're lucky to have it, because it's our only representative of an avian order called – to go briefly into Full Ornithology mode – the Coraciiformes, which also contains the bee-eater, the hoopoe and the roller, which are all fabulous things, the brightest coloured birds in Europe, but sadly do not get this far north (or only very seldom). And there are 86 kingfisher species in the world and we've only got one, but let's give thanks for the one we've got.

Yet I also have the feeling that although everybody is familiar with kingfishers, far fewer people have seen one in real life than might be expected. They're not rare, but the countryside is not teeming with them and their numbers drop in hard winters when streams and ponds are frozen and they cannot feed: in the winter if 1963, the worst of the last half-century, they were extirpated from much of Britain.

However, they are extraordinarily fecund – they can have up to 10 chicks in a brood, and three broods in a year – and they rebuild their numbers quickly, and in this regard it was heartening to read this week that the annual waterside wildlife survey done by British Waterways showed their numbers back up after the freeze of last January and February.

But you still have to get out near a body of water to see one. A walk along a riverbank will often produce results: they tend to fly straight and true along the water, sometimes, like an old-fashioned steam train, giving a loud peep! as they come round a bend. If they spot you, they will veer off instantly, and you see them disappearing, with that incredible blue light on the back.

Fishermen probably see more kingfishers than anybody else, and there are stories of them perching on anglers' rods, although I've never met anybody to whom that has happened. But my friend Brian the flyfisherman had a wonderful double kingfisher experience a few weeks ago while fishing a small river in Hampshire.

Looking up from eating his lunch, he saw a pair of kingfishers flying past, wingtip to wingtip, something he'd never seen before; later in the afternoon, while standing in the middle of the current casting a fly, a trio, yes a trio of kingfishers flew straight towards him at body height and at the last moment did a starburst, one left, one right, and one vertically up over his head. He told me, still marvelling: "It was like the Red Arrows."

If you can't get out to a watercourse, the next best thing is probably to look at the work of the photographer and wildlife cameraman Charlie Hamilton James, whose intimate portraits of the river next to his West Country house have appeared on BBC TV as My Halcyon River and Halcyon River Diaries.

His images of kingfishers are unforgettable – one of them we show here – and you can find them in his books (Halcyon River Diaries is published by Preface and Kingfisher is published by Evans Mitchell Books).

Charlie actually photographed the most remarkable piece of wildlife footage I've ever seen – two female kingfishers fighting to the death over a male bird, trying to drown each other in the river, a mortal combat suddenly ended by an astounding incident which I will not mention so that when you eventually see it, it will come as the surprise it should.

If you can't get out, you can also find your way to the heart of kingfishers through poetry. There are some surprisingly good modern kingfisher poems. This is the Scot Norman MacCaig:

That kingfisher jewelling upstream

seems to leave a streak of itself

in the bright air....

And this is the American, Amy Clampitt:

A kingfisher's burnished plunge, the color of felicity afire...

And this is the lovely Lancastrian, Phoebe Hesketh, summing up for all of us that vision of electric blue:

... Under the bridge and gone

Yet bright as a bead behind the eye

The image blazes on

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