Evening sunlight melts like golden honey oozing from the Pacific horizon across Coos Bay to lap upon the sandstone outcrop that stands between me and the kingfishers. The receding high tide yields just enough room to edge around the corner within view of the earthen bank, holder of those holy of holes–each one a possible nest for a kingfisher.
My rubber boots squelch through ribbons, lattices, and squishy layers of seaweed flung from the sea to land here on Fossil Point, named for the abundance of fossil clams, scallops, and even marine mammal bones mostly cemented and locked tightly in the Empire Formation of the Miocene era, some 10 million years or so ago.
I pause. Listen. There! The cry of the belted kingfisher is not the bouncing ball of the wrentit that frequents this stretch of the Oregon coast. It’s not the raucous chuckle of a crow or the ethereal chords of the Swainson’s thrush fluting away on a salty breeze. The kingfisher’s rush of ratcheting notes is an awakening, a heralding of all that’s immediate. Come alive! Sense of hearing? Got it. Sight? Indeed. Engaged smell, touch, and taste? Yes. I am the tuned piano with every key aching to be played.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I step closer. I’m below the salal bushes that overhang the tawny rock face like a mop of unruly hair. In my black down jacket, gray pants, and black boots, perhaps I might pass as some kind of prehistoric version of a cormorant hugging the cliff. I press my way around the corner and crouch low.
The kingfisher pinwheels in, her white wings flashing. She lights on a lichen-draped branch only about 20 yards away with a fish clasped in her bill lengthwise, making her dagger bill appear thick. The minnow-sized prey is a sign that the chicks are small, likely in their first week since hatching. As they grow, the parents will catch bigger and bigger fish for them until they are ready to fledge at about 29 days old. I imagine as many as seven chicks tucked far back in the tunneled nest hole, cozied up in darkness within a football-sized burrow, all excavated by the diligent parents.
This parent is just as wary as the Rattlesnake Creek kingfishers I studied in Montana. Now, I face the full fury of an indignant queen mother. She turns up the volume and her volley of notes is commanding. “Leave!!” I gaze longingly at her lovely burnished copper red belt clasped on her moon white chest, her rippling blue-gray crest, and her wings that she spreads in affront. Silently, I beg… “Please. I’m your subject. I will stay right here and fasten myself to this sandstone like a barnacle. I won’t be in your way….” But no. It’s not enough. She flies up from the branch in a flurry of reprimand and flashes away, her wings breezing over a white egret and great blue heron stalking the shallows. With a bow of my head, I back away into the linger of last sunlight, leaving the kingfishers in peace. For after all, these are the halcyon birds.