The belted kingfisher I pursued all summer on a wild stretch of Rattlesnake Creek now perches on a high wire above the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, Montana.
He’s gone urban this winter. How could he have become such a suave, natty bird who seems to have forgotten the meaning of the word skittish in the environs of crows, pigeons and house sparrows? So many times he eluded me in the labyrinth forests of cottonwood and ponderosa by the cold, clear creek.
The bird I thought I knew belongs four miles upstream from Rattlesnake Creek’s nearby confluence with the Clark Fork River, a place the Salish (Séliš ) people knew as Nɫʔay, translated “Place of the Small Bull Trout.” Not so long ago, the sizzling fragrance of fresh trout cooking on a fire permeated their camps, as they caught, dried and stored fish for the winter ahead.
My kingfisher pays no heed to the rumbling cars rattling across Higgins Bridge, the honking of horns, or the thudding passage of walkers and runners. He likely comes from generations of male kingfishers flying downstream in a seasonal pilgrimage to find the ice-free waters with best fishing on a river then unencumbered by a small city of 70,000.
His mate has flown south and will return by late March or early April to the home nest bank along Rattlesnake Creek. By then, my kingfisher will have flown upstream to guard his prime nesting territory from upstart males.
I come to see him often, finding some patterns in his movements. If not on the wire, he tends to be poised on a cottonwood tree limb, or he’s patrolling his mile-long winter territory from Madison Bridge by the University of Montana downriver to the Orange Street bridge.
On one late sunshine day, he scrunches down on the high wire. His feathers appear fleecy gray without a speck of the typical blue. His crest flurries into a peak with that distinctive two-part divide. From a distance, he looks like a baseball impossibly balanced on the wire. Through binoculars, he’s slimmer and alert, snapping his tiny tail and peering at the ice chunks coasting downstream.
He is predictable only in context of the dynamic river and shifting ice. With below-freezing temperatures, the ice expands from the shore outwards. The wire allows him access to the river’s center, where he dives headfirst at an angle to pluck an escaping trout from black waters.
One day as I watch him on his wire perch, I have the feeling of not being alone. I turn to see an unshaven middle-aged man in a torn jacket standing a few feet away.
“A kingfisher!” I say and point where my bird has flown to the limb of a young cottonwood leaning out over the river close by.
“Yes, a kingfisher!” He nods back and we stand together in silent appreciation of the bird with the tousled crest, head cocked forward and bill pointed downward.
A kingfisher doesn’t stand out like a bald eagle swooping down to nab a duck on the ice, or a great blue heron stalking the shallows with long-legged precision, or the mergansers and goldeneyes rafting the waves. He’s more like the man I met, invisible until you become aware of him.
This kingfisher I watch does not divide urban from the wild. By the river’s edge are red-osier dogwoods and willows among boulders that harbor a broken whiskey bottle or a torn shirt. Beavers gnaw trees. The wilds nudge into the city. The city nudges the wild. I’m always cheering for the wild to win, yet acknowledge that if a kingfisher could vote, he’d endorse the presence of wires over the river that give the ideal view of the fish below.