Winter colour from rare visitor

ACCORDING to last Monday’s Irish Examiner, birdwatchers from far and wide travelled to Kylemore Abbey, County Galway, to see a rare American visitor.

The belted kingfisher arrived at Lough Fee on Oct 5. The unusual winds from the Atlantic, which brought us so much rain recently, have a bright side; they also carry exotic birds.

The kingfisher has been welcomed with open arms. The same, alas, could not be said of the first member of its species to visit our shores; that unfortunate bird came to a sticky end. Indeed its demise made minor legal history.

In Nov 1978, a belted kingfisher turned up near Ballina. Birdwatchers flocked to the area; some even came from Britain. The bird seemed to like Mayo. At any rate it stayed on for the winter. However, on Feb 3, 1979, a local man shot it and put the body in his freezer. Such behaviour was common in those days but times were changing. Three years previously, the Wildlife Act had been passed, giving protection to all species other than those classed as game or vermin. BirdWatch Ireland, then known as the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, alerted the gardaí. The culprit was prosecuted and fined, the first case of its type under the new legislation. As honorary secretary of the Conservancy at the time, I played a part in the saga.

We retrieved the carcass of the kingfisher from the offender’s freezer and took it to the Natural History Museum. The specimen wasn’t too badly damaged, so the curator had it mounted and it’s still on permanent display at Kildare Street. The fate of the second belted kingfisher to visit Ireland was no better; it was shot at Dundrum Bay, County Down in Oct 1980. Public anger at such vandalism was especially intense because the victims were kingfishers, among the most celebrated of birds. Alcyone and her husband Ceryx, fleeing from Zeus, plunged into the sea and were turned into kingfishers. Each year, around the winter solstice, the Halcyon bird makes a nest of fish-bones. It floats on the water and the gods protect it by restraining the winds. The story is not without its grain of truth; the Mediterranean is often calm during the ‘Halcyon days’ of mid winter.

In 1986, the Canadian Central Bank began featuring birds on its notes. The belted kingfisher appeared on the $5 dollar bill.

Our European kingfisher, with its orange and blue plumage, is especially colourful. Its American cousin is elegant but not as gaudy. As with all kingfishers, the head seems much too large for its body, the dagger-shaped bill is enormous and the legs are ridiculously short. The bird is longer, nose to tail, than a jackdaw, sky blue on the back, pale underneath and with what looks like a blue ‘stole’ across the breast, the feature which gives the bird its name. Both sexes have head crests.

Unusually, the female is slightly bigger than her mate and more glamorously attired. She has two ‘stoles’, a blue one like his and a rusty chestnut one further down the breast. Oddly, juvenile males also have the brown ‘stole’ but lose it as they mature. This common noisy bird of rivers and streams is the only kingfisher normally found in Canada or north of Texas and Arizona in the United States. Hovering like a kestrel, it plunges vertically into the water in pursuit of fish. Unlike our own kingfisher which is almost exclusively a fish eater, the American one also takes frogs, lizards, insects and rodents. The European species nests in a tunnel, which it digs into a muddy river bank. The belted kingfisher does the same but incorporates an ingenious design feature; the tunnel slopes upwards. If there’s a flood, the eggs and chicks will survive in the air bubble trapped by the rising water. Icy conditions in winter force belted kingfishers to move south or to the coast. They are, however, fairly reluctant migrants and it’s unusual for them to cross the Atlantic.

So what will become of our visitor? A bird was recorded on the Azores during the month of March. Was it an exile trying to return home?

It seems unlikely the Mayo bird could do the same.

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