Sunday, November 19, 2017

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds, a book by Alex Preston & Neil Gower

Some weeks ago, my dear friend Ken loaned me a gem of a book, one he had enjoyed and he knew that I would like it too, entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds, by Alex Preston and Neil Gower, an exploration of birds in literature.  I started it very soon after that day, but then the library alerted me that a book I'd requested, a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, was being held for me and Chernow's more than 1,000-page book diverted me for many weeks.


When Ken brought me his book, I told him that another close friend of mine considers the kingfisher to be her totem bird. This is how birders talk, gentle reader. We are all a wee bit bonkers about birds. The Red Oak House library holds many different books on birds we've accumulated over the years.

But back to the book in hand. Each chapter is devoted to one species of bird and the first page is a remarkable illustration of the bird subject.  Although, just as I struggle to identify my favorite bird species, it is difficult to decide which chapter I liked the most.

Preston interweaves stories about the bird with various poems and prose. T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and many others make an appearance.  The writer lives in England and he works from his lifelong collection of notes on the topic, citing hundreds of books, leading me, the reader, on a path to even more books I wish to read.


This morning, as I was in my home office, there was a hairy woodpecker and red-breasted nuthatch on the suet feeder.

One of the books Preston writes about is The Christmas Robin, a book my children and I have read dozens of times over the years. Soon when I decorate the house for Christmas, I will find this book.


The book ends with a chapter on nightingales, a bird I've not seen nor heard. So I looked up the song and listened.  It is particularly beautiful and I hope to hear it someday in the wild.  He writes "I wanted the nightingale to be the last chapter in this book precisely because the bird seems to be live trapped, trembling, between the page and the sky. Poets have broken themselves, and their language, trying to express in words the eternal moment, always dissolving, of the nightingale's song. There is a nobility in this struggle, to make new a creature that has become a trope, more fable than bird. In our age of great lies and slippery truths, attempting the accurate expression of something as pure, as unpartisan, as a nightingale's song is a political act." (page 174)

Serendipitously, this past couple of days the folks of the ND-Birds world (a listserv that shares sightings for those in North Dakota who are interested in birds), have posted notices of the sighting at Lake Tschida, south of Glen Ullin, of an accidental (the word for a bird that is not normally in a location) red-throated loon.

I finished this delightful book just as Jim was home from running errands and told him that I'd like to make the road trip, so we did.  While I drove, he looked up the loon in the Audubon app on his phone, reading the details to me, including that this bird is almost always seen on the coastline, in the ocean.

Shortly after we arrived, two other birders joined us and they had with them the bonus of a spotting scope. And, we added a new species to my life list on a cold and windy day. A red-throated loon. Hurray! We also watched a bald eagle fishing on the lake.




Below is a photograph of my trusty field guide in which I've noted details on each species, the sighting location, and date. I started keeping track in 1982. The red-throated loon brings me to a life total of 419 species.




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