Wednesday, 23 January 2019


A kingfisher perches on a snowy branch.  The bird is looking down intently (and probably hungrily) into the stream.  The bird's Welsh name 'Glas y dorlan' is printed on the reverse ('Blue of the river bank'). 

I've kept this card on my desk long after all the other greetings cards were put away on twelfth night.  I've been thinking about kingfisher poems.

Gerard Manley Hopkins has a brilliant opening line, 'As kingfishers catch fire' - I picture the sparks of water as a kingfisher rises from the water (see slow-motion wildlife films).  W H Davies begins
   'It was the rainbow gave thee birth
    and left thee all her lovely hues'.
Amy Clampitt frames her poem with
   'the halcyon color portholes
    by those eye-spots' stunning tapestry'
at the beginning, and at the end
   'a kingfisher's burnished plunge, the color
    of felicity afire, came glancing like an arrow.
But most of the poem is about an unsatisfactory relationship.

There's a tendency in most of these poems to veer away from the kingfisher and into something else, and/or to use the kingfisher as a symbol (birds have been lumbered with the freight of myth and legend for millennia).

Mary Oliver's poem uses a central image of the bird as a flower [does this work?]:
   'The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
    like a blue flower, in his beak
    he carries a silver leaf'.
There's a moral at the end of the poem -
   '... he swings back
    over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
    (as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.'

Gillian Clarke's poem recounts a rather tiresome evening which is redeemed at the end by the sight of kingfishers:
   'under the bank, where it's dark, blue
    as fire the kingfishers are hunting,
    blue as storm, iridescent, alive.'

Now for the science.  The kingfisher's plumage contains no blue pigment!  We see it as blue in the same way we see the sky as blue or the earth appears as a blue planet from space.  This is because of what is called the Tyndall Effect.  Blue light has a short wavelength and is reflected by the structure of the feathers (the other longer light wavelengths just pass through).  Those kingfishers in dusty cases in Victorian museums just look a dowdy brown colour.

Les Murray rescued a kingfisher which had collided with a window:
   'Cobalt wings, shutting on beige
    body.  Gold under-eye whiskers,
    beak closing in recovery
    it faced outward from me.'

I've only ever seen a kingfisher twice, although, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, they are not particularly endangered.  I just don't frequent their habitat enough! Once was by a restored canal in Lancashire, and once by a lowland river in Cumbria.  Each time that brilliant cerulean flash reached my retina and there was a split-second delay in my brain's processing the image - the bird had gone.

Poems mentioned:
Amy Clampitt 'The kingfisher' (Collected Poems Faber and Faber)
Gillian Clarke 'Kingfishers at Condat' (Collected Poems Carcanet)
W H Davies 'The kingfisher'
Gerard Manley Hopkins 'As kingfishers catch fire' (Poems and Prose Penguin)
Les Murray 'High Speed Bird' (Taller when prone Carcanet)
Mary Oliver 'The Kingfisher'.
Some of these poems can be found on the internet.

A new book on John Tyndall came out last year:
The Ascent of John Tyndall Roland Jackson (OUP) 

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