The Spirit of the River: A Quest for the Kingfisher, Reviewed

Declan Murphy’s passion for nature must have been apparent to his parents from very early on. As a child he spent untold amounts of free time studying the birds that flittered about his garden, noting every minor detail or habit in a notebook, to share with his parents at the next available opportunity.

It reached the stage where he was favouring birdwatching to family mealtimes, and his bedroom was a library of worn nature books makeshift aquariums, rocks, fossils and feathers, all watched over by a small stuffed crocodile centre stage on a high shelf.

Unlike his peers who were dedicated to rugby, GAA or other popular sports, this young boy had a backstage pass to special collections in the Natural History Museum or “Dead Zoo” as it’s commonly referred to. As he admits himself, he was never one of the many. But difference can bring alienation.

Here is an individual who sticks out in the everyday world. Yet, when surrounded by nature, he can blend into the scenery with ease. All that’s needed is a tarp, a flask of tea and a stretch of time dedicated to the under-appreciated art of waiting around.

In his debut book A Life in the Trees, Declan Murphy introduced us to the trials and tribulations of the great spotted woodpecker in the woodlands of Ireland. His latest outing, The Spirit of the River, picks up where the first book left off, deep in the valleys of the Wicklow Mountains.

This time he’s on a quest to find the nesting site of the elusive kingfisher. One of the most colourful birds in Ireland, clothed in a “vivid palette of blues and oranges”, the kingfisher is often referred to as “the halcyon bird” or “the spirit of the river”.

From the pygmy variety in Africa to the laughing kookaburra in Australia, members of the kingfisher family can be found in every continent bar Antarctica.

Unlike the recent settling of the great spotted woodpeckers, Ireland has been home to the kingfisher for thousands of years. This diminutive creature has outlived the likes of the mammoth, the sabre-toothed tiger and the woolly rhino.

The predominant method for seeking out the nesting sites of such birds involves woodland exploring and patient stakeouts close to previous sightings. The search brings Murphy through various woodland terrain, twists and trails leading to dead ends and rocky riverbeds unsuitable for a kingfisher nest.

From calm to furious, quick to slow, the “coffee-coloured rivers of the Wicklow Mountains” have their own personalities. Each chapter uses the tempo of the river and the changing seasons to compliment the drama of the natural world or the musings of the author.

We discover how these birds are woven into the fabric of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, as well as theories on why these river birds so often stray close to human habitat and why they can be prone to attacks from sparrowhawks.

The kingfisher may well be the central character, but fellow animals and fauna play a role throughout. With sightings of the kingfisher rare, the author occupies his time watching other birds, like the grey wagtail, who performs “twirling pirouettes” as it sings to proclaim its territory, and the dipper, who dedicates up to three weeks building its beautiful dome-shaped nest.

We learn how the changing weather greatly impacts the lives of birds. Freezing temperatures can make river diving a hazardous occupation. Heavy rainfall can flood nests. But snow is unforgiving. It can starve vast numbers of birds when covering the ground for an extended time. A cold snap could wipe out as much as 90 percent of a local population of insect-eating birds like the wren.

The prose is as beautiful as it is visual. Perhaps this is because so much of the shared knowledge isn’t retrieved from books. It’s from experiencing an environment first-hand, one where “prehistoric looking” pike can be found in slow-moving water and willow trees extend limbs into watery depths, “swirling patterns and shapes as elusive and insubstantial as smoke”.

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Daniel Seery: Daniel Seery is a writer from Dublin. A regular contributor to RTÉ’s Arena, his work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. His stage play Eviction was a winner of the Shadow of the Rising competition in 2016, and his debut novel A Model Partner, originally published by Liberties Press, is due to be released in the US by publisher Melville House.

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