Christmas Day was mild, muddy and dreary, as it so often is in this part of England. But then we got a sprinkling of real wintry weather: ice, pale sunlight, frost and swirling white mist. I felt compelled to go down to the canal with my camera. In fact I almost ran, anxious to see what was there before the mist rose and the magic dissipated.
Regular readers will know of my love for kingfishers and my constant quest to take a good photograph of one (see this earlier post). As I set off for the canal, I felt confident that I was in with a chance: the cold weather makes them more fearless in their search for food and the bare branches make it harder for them to hide. I also know where to find them depending on the height of the sun and so I made for a specific stretch of towpath.
It wasn’t long before I saw my first kingfisher of the day. He was really close: poised and watchful on a branch over the water. Perfect! Camera at the ready, I began to focus but a sudden clattering noise startled him and off he flew, to a tree a little way down the towpath. I was still hopeful that I would be able to “catch” him but, alas, the noise continued: a man was heaving four bin-bags full of clinking bottles out of his boat and onto the towpath. From there, he proceeded to drag them laboriously and noisily all the way down the path to a wheelie bin. I’m sure this was a joyless experience for him but it was hard to summon up much compassion given the circumstances. The kingfisher had vanished so I turned round and walked off to another likely spot.
I stopped and waited, scanning the trees. I knew I would find one, it was just a matter of knowing where to look and what to look for. Sure enough, there he was, sitting next to a russet leaf for camouflage. Yet before I could focus, he flew off, landing on a nearby fence. With moments to spare, I took a quick sequence of imperfect photos before he dived into the water, shot up again and disappeared into the trees.
As I watched and waited for him to reappear, a Serious Photographer walked past and stopped for a chat. I knew he was a Serious Photographer because he had an enormously long lens on his camera and looked like a one-man film crew. Minutes later, we were joined by another photographer who I can only assume was less serious because his lens was smaller. In fact, his lens was smaller than mine, so for around two minutes I basked in the glory of appearing to be someone who knew something about photography. The conversation turned quickly to the subject of kingfishers and my bubble of lens-pride burst when Serious Photographer asked: “So, what’s your best shot of one?” I had to confide that despite walking up and down the towpath for many years, despite seeing hundreds of kingfishers, I had never managed to take a good photo. With an air of surprised sympathy, Serious Photographer whipped out his phone to display his website, complete with stunning kingfisher photos, all taken in this very location. Smaller-Lens-Man and I oohed and ahhed appropriately – with just a little bit of wistful envy. The conversation then turned to other aspects of kingfishery business: their calls, their behaviours, their habitats. There was something rather lovely about this unexpected meeting but it was far too cold to stand around for long and so I said goodbye, deciding it was time to head home.
As I followed the frozen towpath, I saw several more flashes of brilliant blue to the right and left, but I had given up that quest for the time being. Instead, my heart was drawn to new, less elusive targets. Ice crystals turning berries and leaves into sugary confections. Ghostly boats emerging from the mist. A vanishing path.