Time was ticking. Rising from bed on an early June day, I felt unsettled. Somewhere on Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, a pair of Belted Kingfishers tended their chicks snugged deep within an earthen burrow.
In May, I’d witnessed dawn flights coming and going from a mysterious location downstream from an arcing vertical bank peppered with nest holes. I suspected the parents were taking turns incubating eggs. Clearly, they had snubbed the equivalent of a kingfisher mansion that offered plenty of tennis-ball-sized holes for remodeling and fresh soil for new excavations.
Why hadn’t I found the active nest? It was time for a new tactic. Vowing to employ all the tricks of a naturalist, I arrived at the trailhead and did not hike, run, or walk along an established path. Instead, I sauntered, crawled through wild rose thickets, and squelched in mud for the half-mile leading upstream toward the perplexingly empty nest bank.
Often, I stopped to apply the art of wide and close focus. I took in the entirety of cottonwoods, ponderosa pines, and Douglas firs rippling against a lazuli sky. Then, I opened my senses to the nearby. A Hammond’s Flycatcher quipped a three-part song from a perch on a lichen-encrusted branch. A goldenrod crab spider crouched in a daisy’s center, and a western tiger swallowtail butterfly swayed like a yellow leaf above the singing creek.
Two hours later, and three minutes after leaping a ditch onto a small island to reveal a hidden bend of creek, I saw her. The female kingfisher landed on a boulder I would come to know well. She grasped a silvery fish lengthwise in her black dagger beak. With a single rattle call, she cranked up and into the perfect hole. When she backed out empty-billed, her red belt and white breast sparkled — free of dirt specks from that tight squeeze into the tunnel.
I envisioned several chicks clustered in a companionable heap in their football-sized burrow at the tunnel’s end. I watched their mother loft into the air, only to hover, streak headfirst down to the creek, and power up with a second fish. Soon, her mate would fly in with his catch for the hatchlings in an equal partnership of raising a family. Already, the nest entry showed twin furrow marks from the parents shuffling in and out.
On that pivotal day of my first season following kingfishers in 2009, I experienced unforgettable joy and a revelation that expanded over seven nesting seasons and continues today in Oregon. I’ve come to value and practice the naturalist way of slowing down, staying put, and returning to know one place as both familiar and new.
To be a naturalist, you need not go far. You need not be a scientist or a full-time observer. You need only to be curious and open-minded. Naturalists are never bored and often delighted. They have a purpose that does not require an assignment or justification. Their “work” is to head into the field ready to notice all that unfurls — from ferns to the spiraling notes of a Swainson’s Thrush.
I believe it is time for a naturalist renaissance — one that’s accessible and invites people of all ages and backgrounds to explore, record field findings, and connect with nature. In turn, we will amplify the voices calling for protecting biodiversity and intact ecosystems. Increasing numbers of gardeners will plant native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in their yards, and more volunteers will restore degraded habitats. More children will investigate schoolyards and pollinator gardens — encouraged by adult mentors.
When we know the timing of birds migrating, courting, nesting, and raising chicks and of trees budding, flowers blooming, and insects hatching, we can take informed actions to help species in trouble. Similarly, every naturalist’s note about animal behavior and interaction leads to a greater understanding of that species, as well as the ingenuity of individuals. Those observations can lead to strategic habitat protection and to creative efforts to help declining species survive in this era of accelerating climate change and loss.
A naturalist as a student of nature often joins in community science — participating in vital research. For example, to counter the demise of shallow wetlands in California’s Central Valley, scientists paired eBird shorebird sightings with NASA satellite data to identify when and where the birds needed to rest and refuel for their long journeys. This led to paying landowners to flood their fields only when the birds passed through. The ongoing and successful win for birds and farmers has a catchy name — pop-up wetlands.
I’m encouraged to see eBird participants adding 100 million sightings annually, as well as iNaturalist with more than 29 million observations that document some 232,000 species — fungi, plants, insects, spiders, reptiles and amphibians, mollusks, fish, birds, mammals, and more.
The first step toward a naturalist renaissance
Identification is the first step to becoming attuned to the ways life supports life — and to something else quite wonderful. Spending so many hours in the presence of kingfishers on Rattlesnake Creek, I tapped into my younger self and those carefree days playing outdoors. As a child and even into my teenage years, I often climbed a tree and settled into a comfy nook to read in the companionship of birds.
One of my favorite authors then and now is E.B. White. In The Trumpet of the Swan, the boy Sam Beaver ended each day with a question in his diary, like, “How does a bird know how to make a nest?” In the time of pursuing kingfishers, I found both my inner Sam and an avian guide.
The kingfisher led me through a labyrinth of life within a wild creek and forest to reveal intricate connections I would have missed otherwise. Seeking the evasive birds also lured me outdoors no matter how stormy the weather or busy my schedule of juggling work and motherhood. By staying put in a camouflaged blind, stumbling in the predawn, and shivering in spring snowstorms, I experienced rich rewards. Once, when dipping my bare toes into the cool currents one indolent September afternoon, a mink leaped over my outstretched bare legs. I’d become rooted.
I chose the Belted Kingfisher the year I turned 50, a time when I still grieved the loss of my father, Dave Richie, who had died of cancer at age 70 a few years earlier. He was the keystone for our family of five — supportive, loving, and a quiet leader we turned to for advice. His National Park Service career influenced my profession and passion as a writer and environmentalist. Dad also had a knack for identifying birds by ear and for bushwhacking to find a waterfall or glorious view. Beyond missing his presence, I craved his belief in my abilities whenever I felt unmoored.
The day I learned that one definition of the word “halcyon” is kingfisher, I took a leap my father would have encouraged. Why not track a bird of happiness dwelling in blissful, watery locales? I set out with naivety and was instantly humbled. Solitary, territorial, and skittish, a kingfisher can be a maddening quarry. When I faltered, I drew on the endurance I’d developed with my dad when we backpacked and ran long distances together.
One season was far from enough. By the creek’s edge, I connected with my father’s spirit, gained inner strength, and even found where happiness resides. I also became a keener observer, especially in the company of Lisa and Paul Hendricks, naturalist friends who often joined me in the quest and continue to track the birds on Rattlesnake Creek.
They recently published a finding in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology showing kingfishers aren’t nearly as quiet around the nest as one might expect. They documented that the birds often make a rattling call when they approach and leave the nest — a mystery since the behavior unnecessarily advertises the nest location.
During the second kingfisher season, the three of us observed an astonishing drama that led to our published finding of aerial ramming, appearing in the same journal in 2013 (with Paul as the lead author). All had seemed in order with the season’s pair of kingfishers until one fateful spring morning. We’d gasped each time a bird would hover from a dozen feet way and fly full tilt to strike the hard surface that lacked any holds for those tiny toes to find purchase. The bird would bounce off to wobble in dizzy flaps to a tree branch. Over three days, the pair took turns until the small dent became a bowl and then a hole big enough for them to enter one at a time to kick out the soil.
Thirteen kingfisher species exhibit this feat of aerial ramming, but only three crash into earthen banks — Belted, Common, and White-throated Kingfishers. The others aim for termitaria, trees, or some combination of surfaces. Our finding resulted in the addition of the Belted to the list. There’s both thrill and meaning in noting a behavior not yet recorded in scientific literature. Every anecdote matters in this era when adaptation to climate change is critical for species’ survival.
The web of life
In the realm of kingfishers, I also began to decipher nature as a holistic interweaving with each participant vital to the fabric. The chicks on Rattlesnake Creek depend on their parents’ fishing prowess. The native trout thrive only with plentiful aquatic insects to eat. In turn, those insects rely on cold, clear water — shaded by an intact riparian area of willows, dogwoods, mock orange, chokecherry, alders, cottonwoods, pines, firs, and larch. The coolness and quantity of water depend on wilderness headwaters and late-season flows from melting snow.
Over the years, I’ve strived to embrace the wisdom of Salish elder Louis Adams. Standing straight as a pine with his gray hair in braids and his brow lined with wrinkles, Louis told me of his grandmother Louise Vanderberg, born near Rattlesnake Creek’s confluence with the Clark Fork River, where his family had come to catch bull trout.
“No one was in a rush then because everywhere was home,” he said, words that resonate even more after his passing in 2016.
Now I reside far from Rattlesnake Creek, but whenever I am in the presence of rivers, streams, and ocean bays, I am on the alert for the swift passage of a lone kingfisher. I’ve also added a new guide. I’ve set my sights on big and ancient trees as havens for birds, especially, and perhaps another excuse to find that child’s sense of wonder climbing up into welcoming branches.
To be a naturalist is to be joyful, inquisitive, and at home in the world. To be home is to treat every life form as a family member.
This article appears in the July/August 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.