Walking undeterred through thick brush and downed trees along Rattlesnake Creek, Marina Richie smiled and proclaimed, “This is kingfisher mansion.”
Richie, 63, was referring to an eroded section of shoreline a few miles north of downtown Missoula where a pair of belted kingfishers — the only pair she knows of in that area — reside in the last of its many underground burrows that dot the bank. Unlike most birds, which build nests from sticks, moss, or other detritus, the belted kingfisher burrows into a vertical or nearly vertical bank of dirt, clay, or sand.
Belted kingfishers are just one of 120 species of kingfishers, but the only one found in much of the United States. Their unusual homes and habits are listed in Richie’s new book, “Halcyon Journey”, published in May. Richie, a former longtime Missoula resident who now lives in Bend, Oregon, also shares how her search for the elusive bird connected her to her own neighborhood’s ecosystem and helped her manage the death of his father.
If you want to see the bird in person, good luck.
“Kingfishers are the hardest birds to track because they are very nervous and wary, they don’t like to be around people, they are always known to shy away from you,” Richie said. “And they are not many. They are scattered.”
Although not a wildlife biologist by trade, Richie was uniquely placed to write about her years observing kingfishers. Richie’s father was a senior National Park Service official. Growing up living in or near national parks across the country instilled in her an appreciation for the natural world and its creatures. A competitive runner, she graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in biology.
But then Richie said she “kind of fell” into a job as a reporter for a small weekly, the Blue Mountain Eagle in John Day, Oregon. Her few years as a full-time journalist prompted her to seek a journalism degree somewhere “that could also combine my interest in the environment and wildlife.”
So she came to Missoula, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana. This led to a job as a nongame animal information specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. After that, she worked as the Observable Wildlife Coordinator for FWP, then moved on to overseeing observable wildlife programming in an interagency position with FWP, the US Forest Service, and The Nature Conservancy.
She continued to write in these jobs, mostly copying interpretive sites and columns for publication. Eventually, she transitioned into full-time freelance writing.
Living in the Rattlesnake neighborhood of Missoula, Richie has immersed herself in nature, including one of her favorite animals: birds. She decided she wanted to write one.
“I love water, mountains and wild places,” Richie said. “And one day I read this definition of the word halcyon as a noun, and the number one definition is kingfisher (referring to another name for the species). And I thought, well , ‘halcyon’ means happiness, peace, tranquility, good times, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to follow this bird.'”
She decided to “chase a bird of good fortune” and started looking for kingfishers along the rattlesnake in 2008. She got more serious a year later and finally found them, she said. . And through her pensive expectations to spy on the birds, she also worked through the grief of her father’s untimely death at 70.
“I had a father who was a huge influence in my life,” she said. “I grew up in the National Park Service and he had died quite young, at 70,” she said, “just a few years before I started this project.
“And he was a bird lover. I just thought he would like this project, and I surprisingly felt very in tune with him while I was here too, and really managed to reconcile that loss.”
Richie had more than enough time to think as she searched for belted kingfishers: her study of the birds lasted more than seven years and took her as far as South Africa to observe other species of kingfishers in their natural habitats, all of which are recorded. in “Halcyon Journey”.
“I didn’t know too much about them when I took off, but I’m a bird,” Richie said. “But I soon discovered that they hadn’t been studied very well. Surprisingly, they are everywhere in the country where there is clean water and fish, (and yet) relatively little studied. And I can see why, because they are very hard to study, hard to find a nest.
“I got really serious about finding a pair on Rattlesnake Creek in 2009 and thought, one season is probably all I need and then maybe I could write a book, you know? And then it was like, oh no, there’s so much more, so much more to do, and I got really curious and it took seven years.”