August brings us sunshine and smiles in the stream… and it also brings us the results of nature going about her quiet business.
This week, a tale of two watery juveniles who met their death, a kingfisher and an otter.
Guests on holiday at Watermill Cottages found the body of a beautiful kingfisher. This year we’ve all been seeing them whizz up and down the stream, so fast, it seemed impossible that anything could stop them. Its body wasn’t damaged, just the tip of its beak was bent.
We stood amazed at the brilliance of its plumage, stroking its darting, iridescent, gleaming, turquoise-blue and gasping at the burnt orange contrast.
The same day, other guests found half a body of an otter at the edge of the stream in the valley. Again, they’ve been heard and seen all season. What would kill an otter? When we went to look nature had taken over and the carcass was gone – foxes, badgers, crows feasting as they tidied.
I rang Slapton Ley Field Centre and spoke to Nick Binnie, Reserve Officer, who gave me a fuller picture.
There were three likely causes of the otter death. Perhaps a juvenile otter had strayed into the territory of the Gara Brook otter family and had not picked up the scent of the spraint. Spraint is how otters mark their territory – and they defend it viciously.
Or it had died of illness. Or perhaps a female otter had given birth to three kits. Nick told me that a female can only raise two kits to adulthood; if she attempts to raise three they all die. So she waits until they are juveniles and then makes a decision which to abandon…. which is the weakest… This is the most likely cause of death.
Nick asked me a few questions about the kingfisher. ‘Does it have a white tip to its beak? if it does, then it’s a juvenile.’ I looked, and yes, it did have a white beak tip.
‘The problem is, as with human juveniles, they have a taste for speed but are not yet experienced enough to navigate fully so there’s more likelihood of them crashing into things like windows and dying.’
His other option, that perhaps a sparrow hawk had taken it and had been disturbed before plucking it, and had dropped it, seemed unlikely as there were no wounds to the body.
So now we know…
… yet In animal classification, ‘Halcyon’ is the genus for kingfishers. A word that also means ‘happy, joyful, carefree’, as in the halcyon days of childhood. It comes from the Greek word for a bird which in legend is linked to the kingfisher.
The legend says that the bird nested on the sea in winter, which it calmed in order to lay its eggs on a floating nest. It meant that the ancients expected two weeks of calm weather around the winter solstice. This is why we use ‘halcyon’ as a term for peace or calmness as well as joyful and carefree.
I can see why a bird of such beauty inspired legends and words. It seems apt that it lived in our beautiful, peaceful and carefree valley.