Like any great story, the scene is set early in the book. Marina Richie first spots the pair of Belted Kingfishers she grows to love while immersing the reader in her experience at Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana. “To visualize the watershed,” she writes, “cup two hands together. Rattlesnake Creek flows down the center, twisting, ebbing in summer, and rising with the spring floods. Your fingertips form the headwaters in the high peaks of the Rattlesnake Wilderness.”
Richie spends seven years studying this kingfisher pair she names Halcyon and Ceyx, along with their brood. Accompanied by eager friends, experts, and an inherited passion for the natural world, Richie relies on her own knowledge of the bird species, existing research, and the observations she makes while occupying a blind that grants her unique viewing positions among branches, roots, and other bird species. Although we follow Richie’s quest, she acknowledges a growing number or “league” of citizen scientists contributing data around the world: “The more who enlist, the better chance we have of taking meaningful actions to protect biodiversity.”
Curiosity and determination are at the heart of this story. Throughout her journey of learning about the Belted Kingfisher, Richie is intent on arriving at an answer for why the female kingfisher is the one who dons a bright, rust-colored belt across her chest, unlike in many other bird species where the male possesses the eye-catching plumage. She expresses her belief that, unless curious people are willing to spend time in nature, “Our kinship with all life is at stake.”
The author recognizes several similarities between the stages of avian life and those experiences that occur across stages of her own human life. She finds them in the uncertainties that arise when observing birds, when she watches fledglings grow independent, and as she witnesses the courage displayed by female Belted Kingfishers. Aspects of Richie’s observations that she considers important to her research are the new scientific updates that come with the changing times and the foundational, too often forgotten, Indigenous communities’ stories and contributions relevant to her work.
Each chapter opens with a beautiful black-and-white illustration by Ram Papish that is relevant to the chapter, often portraying kingfishers performing dramatic or interesting behaviors. Most of these drawings are of Belted Kingfishers, but some are of other exciting species from around the world. While Richie does encounter some quiet days devoid of the kingfishers’ usual activity she has grown accustomed to, there are other times when it seems viewing her subject, any kingfisher species, is as simple as knowing where to look. Whether that’s through a pair of binoculars at Rattlesnake Creek, across the U.S., or seeing the Common Kingfisher across the pond in London, Richie finds kingfishers.
Richie does not relent in her observations despite instances of navigating unpredictable animal behavior, unfavorable conditions, and sizable life circumstances. Her words serve as an encouragement and call to action for readers: “We don’t have to be biologists; we only have to be curious.”
If we all move through the world asking questions and observing the life around us, we can play a role in preserving the wellbeing of our planet and passing it on to other generations who might also take an interest in the many aspects of nature that engage the senses and inspire discovery.
If Richie were a bird herself, she would likely display a well-deserved, bright belt across her chest. She does things her way. Richie brings to life the story of Halcyon and Ceyx. It is one worth observing.
As a child, Aisha White loved outdoor play. While searching for new subjects to photograph as an adult, her interest in birding was ignited. Now a Georgia-based writer working in content marketing, she enjoys listening to songs on repeat, watching documentaries, and spending time in nature.
Birding is a force for good in our society. Learning and sharing about birds translates into concern for birds and the environment, and the American Birding Association provides resources and community for all people interested in birds!