HALCYON DAYS

We've been doing a lot of work at RSPB Old Moor recently, most obviously in starting to create a new path alongside Green Lane so that, fairly soon, visitors will be able loop around this section of the reserve rather than simply walking up Green Lane and back again. We're also reforming the area around our Field Pool West hide in the hope of increasing the number of wading birds on the reserve, especially Avocets.

The work is coming along nicely but it was always going to be a bit of a mess when the diggers came on-site and churned things up. Many of our guests have opened the hide door, taken one look at the carnage that until recently was a nice-looking group of pools, and immediately retreated to the serenity of Green Lane. And I can see why they would as at first glance all they see is a desolate mudbath out there. I can fully understand people not expecting to spot any wildlife at all (unless they have my kind of imagination - each time I visit I expect to see a wallowing hippo wiggle its ears at me), but those visitors with even the slightest bit of patience have been rewarded with sightings of one of Britain's favourite birds. Nature, as always, shows its ability to adapt to any man-made chaos (even if it's temporary and in everyone's best long-term interests).

The creation of new water channels has provided a piscine bounty for everyone's favourite little pointy Stickleback-assassin, the KINGFISHER. We've had a bumper year for Kingfisher chicks with many more sightings than usual around the reserve, but the last couple of weeks have brought them all out into the open and several seem to have taken to the posts out in front of the Field Pool West hide.

This is great news for us at Old Moor as not only do visitors love to see them but, as Kingfishers are particularly sensitive to pollution, their presence on our reserve is therefore a good indicator of our water's cleanliness. Their increased breeding indicates that they're comfortable with the habitat that we work so hard to provide as well. That's your monthly donations in action, right there. You could say that without your RSPB membership, we wouldn't have as many Kingfishers in the Dearne Valley. Thank you. Give yourself a pat on the back.

The Kingfisher's association with clean water could also be the inspiration for its (possibly mythical) reputation as a bringer of cloudless skies and calm seas. The so-called 'Halcyon days' – the clear-weather times of your youth when life was magical and everything was new. The sun-drenched days that you look back on with perfect clarity when the storm clouds of later life, both physical and metaphorical, gather. And seeing the Kingfisher as a metaphor for these Halcyon days gives rise to its alternate name of 'the Halcyon bird'. This strange word “Halcyon” comes from the Greek language but, given my Irish heritage, I prefer a term from the auld country, “biorra an uisce”. This translates as “water spear”, a perfect description of these little electric blue darts as they pierce the river surface. They're simply magnificent little creatures, tiny jewels of natural perfection, and they're right here, right now.

And if all that purple prose doesn't make you want to come to the reserve and see one, I don't know what will.

The earliest recorded English language mention of a Kingfisher refers to it as an 'Isen' bird, over a thousand years ago. Isen was the Old English word for 'blue' so I guess that at one time there were indeed bluebirds near the White Cliffs of Dover. It later became more commonly known as the King's Fisher – partly due to its fish-catching ability but also because every one of them was deemed (like swans) to be the property of the monarch. I'm glad that our dear Elizabeth has let us borrow a few these days. While they're not a particularly endangered bird they are very short lived; most won't make it to their second birthday. There are probably no more than 8,000 breeding pairs in the country so we're pleased to have them here. Long may they stay, happy and glorious.

Incidentally, how can you tell the difference between a male and female Kingfisher? The answer that you'll find in boring text books is that a sexually mature female has a orangy-pink lower mandible to her beak while the male's beak is a uniform black. That's true but, way back when I worra lad, I was taught the same information in a much more memorable fashion; Ladies wear lipstick. It may not be the most politically correct term in these gender-fluid days but it certainly makes it easier to remember.

One final myth about Kingfishers is that only the righteous are able to see them. If that's true then the good folk of South Yorkshire must be particularly well-behaved at the moment because well over half of our visitors have reported sightings of these fan-favourite birds recently. But of course they're not the only avian beauties that have been seen this week. BITTERN, BEARDED TIT, WATER RAIL. MARSH HARRIER and more have all been spotted this week by our visitors, staff and volunteers.

Here's the latest sightings board...

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