You’ve probably heard the expression, “halcyon days”: it defines the calm, restful time of summer that we finally have laid claim to.
The word halcyon comes from the Greek myth about Alcyon, a young woman who plunged into the sea in grief after her drowned husband. Her father Aeolus, the God of the Wind, calmed the winds so as to aid the couple who had turned into kingfishers and who fish best in quiet, clear water.
The scientific name of the Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon), mirrors this mythic heritage.
And it is one of the Yukon’s birds you can see a lot of if you are on the water this time of year.
For the past six weeks I have been training for the Yukon River Quest, finding current on the Yukon River, paddling for hours at a time between the Marsh Lake dam and Lake Laberge.
The ever-present sight – and more often the sound – of a kingfisher is a welcome one, for its name represents what all River Quest paddlers long for: windless, glassy water in which to race the gruelling 740 kilometres from Whitehorse to Dawson.
There are lots of things to admire in a kingfisher aside from its name.
This large, chunky-looking bird – bigger than a robin – is marked by its slate blue-and-white plumage, with a belt of white on its neck, its shock of blue head feathers making it look somewhat punk.
It is often seen alone dashing from side to side on the river, a feisty presence matched almost by the eagles who watch sentinel-like nearby.
Perching prominently on overhanging trees and snags on a shoreline forest, the kingfisher screeches its call if you approach, often racing at warp speed to the other side of the river before alighting again.
An expert fisher, with a long, pointed beak, this bird mainly eats young grayling or any fish around, diving headlong into the water – sometimes well below the surface – to catch it.
It will then take its prize back to the perch to quickly eat – maybe with its back to you – or head off to feed its babies. (The males are attentive caregivers in this bird family.)
One of the special things about this bird is that it makes its nest in riverbanks, digging holes well into the bank. Inside, it will lay around five or six clean white eggs that hatch after about three weeks in mid to late June.
The hatchlings then spend the next few months with their parents, learning how to fish. Apparently, they get to practise by going after dead minnows that Mom and Dad drop into the water for them.
Another unique thing about this bird is that the female is the one that dresses up. Unlike most female birds, the better half of the kingfisher couple likes a little more colour than her guy, and sports a pretty brown band on her belly.
As bank dwellers, kingfishers are equipped with cool dinosaurish-looking feet that include two long, almost-fused toes – perfect for power digging.
Lucky for us, there are lots of Belted kingfishers in Southern Yukon, and they can also be found on other waterways, though not as commonly in Northern Yukon.
If you are paddling this time of year or just hanging out by the water somewhere, keep your ears and eyes open for this character. There’s nothing like the halcyon days of summer to take time to enjoy the colourful and able kingfisher.
Jenny Trapnell is the field trip co-ordinator for the Yukon Bird Club. For information on trips, go to www.yukonweb.com/community/ybc/ or e-mail [email protected] to request a free notice of upcoming events.