Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received.
― Richard Nelson, The Island Within

For seven years, we’ve watched a nesting pair of kingfishers on one secret stretch of Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana. Paul and Lisa Hendricks are fine naturalists who share my passion for kingfishers, beauty, and the magic of returning again and again to this  wild stream that flows from wilderness headwaters.

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Nest bank on Rattlesnake Creek in April—kingfishers need banks like these that have just the right substrate for digging a slightly ascending tunnel deep into the bank and creating a comfy burrow where they will raise their young.

This time, I’d come as a visitor to Missoula from my home in La Grande, but like the kingfishers who court, mate, and nest in a bank above prime fishing waters, I will always be coming home here too.

We don’t know where the male and female have spent the winter, although Paul, Lisa and I have our suspicions. The female likely flew south of snow, ice and cold, maybe as far as the southwest to some favored fishing stream. The male? Well, he sure looks like the sentry kingfisher of downtown Missoula in winter, not far from the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and the Clark Fork River.He leaves his wild abode for urban wilds, fishing from wires and listening to the engine noise of cars on the bridge, and the chatter of walkers and runners on the river footpath.

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A male kingfisher perched on this wire above Missoula’s Clark Fork River in winter–see if you can find the white dot that indicates his presence–he might be “our” kingfisher who nests on Rattlesnake Creek.

On this day, April 9th at a civil time of 9 am, Paul and Lisa and I are reunited, joined by Steve Loken (guest watcher–Only select people allowed!).  We walk our familiar pathway down through the cottonwood and ponderosa floodplain of spring, where buttercups blaze yellow at our feet and a few nodding glacier lilies bloom like sunshine starbursts. Quiet. Choose our steps with care. Kingfishers are perpetually wary.

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Can you see a kingfisher nest hole in the bank?

The creek rushes higher from yesterday’s warm temperatures. There!  We know that staccato alert call anywhere. Within a few moments, the male lands on an alder perch by the nest bank and the female flies upstream. We’re in love all over again. And so are they. What we did not see is likely happening again, as captured in the photo below by my friend Richard Ivey on a visit to Salt Lake City a few days ago:

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Kingfisher love: a male balances briefly on top of a female for what is known in bird jargon as the “cloacal kiss”

In our years of watching, we’ve witnessed breathtaking aerial courtship and jet-like chases as two females likely compete for the rights to the male and this bank. We’ve puzzled over nesting holes, lost the birds, found them again, and when we’re truly lucky have set up blinds to observe the season of incubating and then feeding fish to the young, until that final grand moment of fledging.

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by Kate Davis: photo of a belted kingfisher fledgling in June a few years back at our bank –checking out the world before first flight

In our focus on kingfishers, we’ve also come to know the wild neighborhood, from buds and blossoms to the passing deer to a parade of birds, from wheeling bank swallows to flycatchers and warblers. On this day, we leave the kingfishers in peace and wend our way downstream. We watch a dipper fly from its mossy nest ball under a cliff and a pair of red-breasted nuthatches excavate their perfect round little tree hole. There’s a certain pond in our secret stretch too, where we find Canada geese nesting on ledges of tawny high cliffs. Much honking and to do at the pond! The day warms, we savor our annual ritual and our kinship as naturalists and kingfisher companions always.

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The next day in a backyard downstream and a few blocks inland from the creek, a pair of kingfishers circle overhead with rattling greetings and then vanish. The timing was impeccable. Sadness had struck just then. The dark clouds sometimes are unavoidable in life, and the kingfishers arrived as if somehow they knew.

After all, these are the birds of halcyon days. They remind us that joy is fleeting, yet joy? It’s there in spades on a spring day of wildflowers, courting birds and free-flowing icy waters rambling over rocks of many hues. Return to nature. Return to the place you love. There, you find healing. And if you can’t go back exactly to your favorite place? Look up. The birds are brushing the sky with their feathery wings, and our hearts too.

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Photo credit: copyrighted Jim Neiger