Flamboyant! A Ringed Kingfisher dazzles from the mangroves arcing over our small boat passaging through a narrow channel of La Tovara National Park on the west coast of Mexico, near San Blas. Only five minutes from the dock, and there he is off the right bow. He’s a tropical Goliath at twice the size of his closest relative, the Belted Kingfisher. His titian red belly flares like the sun’s last gasp before sliding into the Pacific Ocean. His white neck ring blazes against the shady greens and browns of vegetation and a rippling crest surges with the colors of a thunderstorm.
Our guide Mano cuts the puttering motor. Silence. I’m drinking in every detail as fast as I can, knowing all kingfishers are skittish. He flicks his short, barred, blue-gray tail and shifts his weight. And then he’s off on powerful blue-gray and white wings that row the humid, salted air.
Mano tells us we are lucky. “Muy suerte!” This bird does not pose for tourists. If I could without tipping the boat, I’d be jumping up and down. Instead, I’m laughing and repeating the name to my companions- “A Ringed Kingfisher! A Ringed Kingfisher!”
The encounter does not feel accidental. I’m suffused with joy for kingfishers right at the time I need it most, as I seek resolve to bring my book about the halcyon bird to the finish line.
Soon after, a diminutive Green Kingfisher sparks in front of us and is gone. We’ve entered a surreal realm of mangroves that stand on their roots like long-legged bird feet, as if the trees might lift into the air in a leafy flock. Adapted to withstand the rise and fall of tides, mangroves slow and absorb floodwaters and harbor fish, turtles and crocodiles alike among their interlacing toes.
Tracing a winding channel through mangroves, open marshes, and forests to the clear cool headwater springs, we nudge past black crabs with scarlet claws and iguanas camouflaged on trunks of trees I do not know. Anhingas with wings spread wide salute the sun.
In the second most thrilling event of the day, a male Green Kingfisher alights close to us. He grips an anchovy-sized fish in his bill, knocks it against the branch to stun and crush its bones, turns it headfirst. and neatly swallows. Despite the unfortunate end for the little fish, I’m cheering for the beguiling green leprechaun of an angler, all dressed up in a sprightly white neck ring, red breast, and white lower belly.
This is the estuary of fishing birds—of Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Little Blue Herons, Tri-colored Herons, Great Egrets, Anhingas, and the marvelous Boat-Billed Heron I’d never seen until this day—with a bill like the bottom of a keeled boat, shaped to scoop amphibians and fish from the shallows.
The next morning back in Chacala (our home for a transformative writing and yoga retreat), I set off to find a jacana I’d spotted the evening before in a shallow pond on the outskirts of this sweet town, where the squeaks and chortles of grackles compete with mariachi music. I’d walked only about 50 steps when I saw her—my muse, my halcyon bird come at last to visit me in Mexico–a Belted Kingfisher and a female no less.
I watch her in flight, sanding away the rough edges of the world with each downward wingbeat. I listen to her call that here where Spanish is the language and salsa is the dance sounds like the allegro beat of timbales. She dives at a slant, strikes the surface with her bill, comes up with a fish, and flies across the cove to dine in the company of pelicans assembled on lava boulders.
Only a half hour earlier, I’d walked a labyrinth on the beach with my best friend Sandra and all my new friends from the week, and felt in every meditative footstep, a lightening, loosening, and a releasing of worry over ever publishing my book that stars the Belted Kingfisher.
“Yes,” I promise her. “I will dive headfirst, too.”