Note from Liz: While Stephanie is off exploring the exotic wilds of Europe, she organised a guest post to inform, delight or horrify, depending how you feel about birbs.
This time on Birds of Australia: The Sacred Kingfisher, a very inner norf birb
I first got interested in birdwatching right as we moved to Melbourne – the perfect hobby for someone with no nearby friends and a penchant for nerdiness. As I explored the city I gradually started to get a handle on the common birds – the New Holland and white-plumed honeyeaters, the impossible-to-differentiate thornbills and the teals, mallards and coots of the waterways. That stage of bird-nerdery is incredibly exciting – everything you see is new and interesting (you should see the dismissive way I treat white-plumed honeyeaters these days now that I’m a grizzled, cynical birder) and even quick walks through inner-city parks turn up lifers.
I soon found myself spending a lot of time wandering the nearby Merri Creek, a polluted and mistreated waterway that has been slowly resurrected thanks to the tireless work committed locals. It was a good place to see lots of interesting (but common) birds and to slowly develop my skills. The area around CERES market is a bit of a hotspot along the creek and I’ve spent ages wandering slowly along there obstructing cyclists and joggers alike with my head craned up at a spinebill or pardalote. There’s a lot of guff around CERES about sacred kingfishers and how wonderful it is that they live around the creek and, I must confess, for the first year or two I was deeply, deeply sceptical. I figured that maybe a kingfisher had stopped off once for a few days and CERES had embraced the chance to build up some local enthusiasm.
Part of my scepticism was down to my complete cluelessness – in all the hours I’d spent around the creek I’d never spotted a sacred kingfisher, a fact at least partly due to their migratory lifestyles. During a lot of my wanders, the kingfishers would all have been up in Queensland sunning themselves. Still, every time I visited I got my hopes up – maybe this time I’d stumble across one of these shining jewels. But I failed, again and again and again, eventually convincing myself that I’d need to go further afield to track one down. Until, one morning, there they were – a gorgeous breeding pair of sharp-beaked turquoise beauties, chasing each other up and down the creek. It remains one of the most satisfying moments of my birding life. I spent ages that summer going back and watching them – and every year now I keep a close eye on the creek through September, October and November hoping to catch them as they return (sadly, there don’t seem to have been any residents in the past few years – hopefully they come back soon).
This is all a convoluted way of saying that, no matter what the character of these birds is actually like, I’m going to give them five feathers – they’re completely entangled in my experience of coming to love birdwatching, and even writing this some 8-9 years later conjures up the ridiculous thrill of spotting them by the Merri for the first time. Fortunately, they’re worthy of a high rating: they’re gorgeous to look at, they migrate the length of the country and they’re efficient, deadly hunters. They dig burrows out of termite mounds or creek banks to nest in and the males and females share the workload of incubating the eggs and raising the young.
There’s something about sacred kingfishers that imbues them with meaning. Along with my tiny story, they also have deep symbolic value in various cultures – the ‘sacred’ part of their name comes from the bird’s important place in Polynesian culture, in which it is thought to control the oceans. Indigenous Australian communities have an array of stories about the kingfishers, and for the local Wurundjeri people they were the vessel that carried away the spirits of the dead when they left the area at the end of summer. In recent years, their return to the banks of the Merri after an absence of decades has made them a key symbol of cultural reconciliation, environmental regeneration and hope. A big symbolic burden for such a tiny bird.
Well, I wish I had a big emotional story to impart upon you all about how much sacred kingfishers mean to me, after that eyes-rapidly-blinking, chest-tightening review from Michael, but sadly I don’t. I don’t have any stories at all to impart about sacred kingfishers, because the plain fact of the matter is I have never even SEEN a sacred kingfisher in the feather with my human eyeballs.
A lot of this comes down to the fact that I am, when all truths are arrayed to be told, a pretty shitty birdwatcher. I very rarely prepare to seek out certain birds, making sure to follow areas where they have been previously spotted, arranging to be there at the time of year where they are most easily seen. My birdwatching plan is invariably “stumble about in some random landscape probably being way too loud and if you happen to come across any birds at all, let alone ones that happen to be lifers, well that’s a good day.” Which is fine if you’re content to be a mostly satisfied idiot (which I VERY MUCH AM thanks very much), but doesn’t tend to lead to exciting, more rare bird sightings, flukes aside.
I haven’t had much luck with spotting kingfishers in general, apart of course from the (highly majestic, to my mind) kookaburra, which is extremely common across the continent. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of seeking out the azure kingfisher, which is a wee thing of a kingfisher, only about 17-19 centimetres tall, and as their name implies covered in blazingly bright blue plumage and a rufous-orange belly. But given my laisse faire attitude towards birdwatching I will probably only ever stumble on one by accident, and that goes for the sacred version too.
So alas, my thoughts and feelings as to sacred kingfishers amount to nought. It seems unfair to even apportion out a rating, given the fact I have never even clapped eyes on one, so I shan’t. Just go and read Michael’s piece again, there’s some good dears. Hopefully our next bird will inspire high passion or seething loathing, I don’t like having to give you an emotionless shrug in place of a proper review.
Bird: Sacred Kingfisher
Michael: Five Feathers