November, now of course consigned to history, I've always considered to be a grey month. Of course, it is a progressively darker month as hours of daylight continue to shrink, as indeed they do in December, perhaps another grey month? Yet, with temperatures also spiralling downwards, we have at least been able to enjoy quite lengthy spells of sunshine during those shorter days. I suppose however, we have the consolation that in just another week, we will have reached the moment when the shortening hours of daylight reach their nadir before at last, ever so slowly, days begin to lengthen. The winter solstice offers a vital turning point, although in all conscience there is plenty of winter yet to come!
Despite that all-pervading greyness, nevertheless there have been flashes of colour to enjoy. Goldfinches are thronging to the feeders now, their little red faces fairly blazing in the winter sunshine, their golden wing-bars, which give the bird its name, absolutely glowing. I love the little array of spots on the tail, which, in some parts of the country, give rise to the unusual pseudonym for goldfinches, of 'spotted dick'! Hereabouts, 'thistle finch' remains in common usage.
The sight of a couple of jays, crossing a woodland clearing in single file, with a fair distance between them, reminded me that these colourful members of the crow clan are very wary travellers. They always fly well apart, never in a gaggle, which suggests these canny birds are aware that for years some country folk have been wont to take pot shots at them. The crow connection is not easily forgotten I'm afraid and jays carry with them a reputation for raiding other birds' nests of their chicks in the spring. However, they do provide flashes of colour on the greyest of days, the white rump always visible, the pink body and those brilliant flashes of blue on each wing, very much the jay's hallmarks.
But there have been other flashes of blue, considerably more luminous than those jay wing flashes - more 'electric'! Normally kingfishers seldom give you much of a chance to study them. Most sightings are along riversides, many of mine indeed, from bridges, when the kingfishes have literally streaked under.
The poet, William Faber caught such a moment perfectly when he wrote:-
Swift as a meteor's shining flame
A kingfisher from out the brake
And almost seemed to leave a wake
Of brilliant hues behind."
This is of course, the 'Halcyon bird' of many a myth, perhaps the most famous telling us that the kingfisher broods her eggs on a raft of fish bones on a calm sea, more specifically in the middle of the Mediterranean! Indeed, the bird was even credited with a remarkable ability to calm the waters. Such stories emanate from Greek mythology yet from them come the 'Halcyon days' of Shakespeare and other writers.
Parts of the myth are just that ... myth, for in truth kingfishers nest not on the surface of the sea but in the banks of rivers and lochs, excavating a quite lengthy tunnel. However, with a kingfisher's diet entirely comprising of fish, the eggs may indeed be laid upon a mattress of fish-bones. There were other legends from the Greeks including one, which suggested that by hanging up the body of a dead kingfisher, lightning bolts sent by Zeus would be repelled! Once upon a time, kingfisher feathers might have been thought to be particularly useful in luring fish to the colourful artificial flies wielded by those seeking such piscatorial pleasures, except that when the bird is dead, so too almost immediately, is its plumage. Those brilliant colours, that electric blue and the bright orange of the breast, sadly fade fast when the bird is dead.
Those brief encounters, though in themselves memorable, are what one normally sees when encountering kingfishes, yet there are wonderful moments to enjoy if you manage to track down a kingfisher's beat and its nest. Then you may see the bird in its full glory. Usually kingfishers prefer to conduct their fishing plans from a branch overhanging the water of river or lake. From that perch it will study the water below intently, before launching itself in a fast dive, when a target is identified. Where there are no convenient branches, a kingfisher will often seek its prey during a brief hover over the water.
Everything a kingfisher does, it seems to do at breakneck speed. As quickly as it dives headlong into the water, it returns to the branch with a fish squirming in its dagger-like beak, before slamming its victim against the branch either to stun or kill it. Sticklebacks - a favourite prey - have a spiny back-fin, which is raised to prevent predators swallowing them. Stunning the fish thus, prevents it from raising the spines.
Incidentally, the male kingfisher in the breeding season has an all black bill whilst the female has a flash of red at the base. The plumage colours are enhanced by sunlight, an iridescent bright blue, sometimes going on greenish depending on how the light falls on the crown and wings, the breast a luminous reddish orange. The back and tail, also depending upon the way the sun is shining, can range from cobalt blue to azure. Strikingly, the kingfisher's head and indeed its beak are disproportionately large, compared with the rest of its body. Its tail on the other hand, is unusually short and stubby.
Although I have on occasions watched kingfishers a good few miles north of here, we are nevertheless quite close to the northern frontier of the bird's range. However, the phenomenon of global warming is having the effect of extending the territorial limits of a variety of birds ever northwards. In recent years we have seen several species extending their ranges with egrets for instance, now becoming increasingly common. It may well be therefore that kingfishers will extend their range into the northern half of Scotland.
Therefore, it is certainly a matter of some personal exceitement that they are now making their mark around our local loch. They will add those unique flashes of brilliant colour to become another very special bird to add to an already fascinating list! Thus the scaly occupants of those waters have little respite, no matter how small they may be. If the ospreys are currently plundering the waters of Africa, there are herons, cormorants, otters, goosanders and now kingfishers to ensure that fish of any and every size are pursued. At least there is relief for them just now from the tweed-clad fisher-flok who are currently taking a seasonal break! But it won't be for long!