I love kingfishers. They are brightly colorful, noisy, and like to fish. Growing up in Oklahoma, the Belted Kingfisher was the only species I ever saw, most often when fishing with my grandfather or camping at the lake.

On my first visit to Laity Lodge, my wife and I stayed at Black Bluff. While sitting on the veranda of our room our first morning there, a Green Kingfisher worked its way up the river past me, chattering “tick-tick” from limb to limb.

I didn’t see Ringed Kingfishers, and I wasn’t surprised. Sources said they stayed further south, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from Brownsville to Laredo.

When I came back to the Lodge for my first Men’s Retreat in January of 2009, I led a bird walk on Saturday morning, and as I was crossing the river on the stepping stones below the dam, I looked behind me to see a flash of deep blue fly toward the headwaters.

I thought to myself, “No way.”

After lunch, I worked my way stealthily toward Blue Hole, and sure enough, got my first look at a Ringed Kingfisher, perched calmly on a limb overlooking the water.

A sighting like this is always a surprising gift marked by a sense of joy and wonder.

Fast forward. This January, I began a sabbatical and spent the first four weeks at the Lodge. As I unloaded the car, carrying my stuff down to Lanier, I noticed some electronics and speakers on the veranda–and some significant white stains on the railing! The staff informed me that a pair of Ringed Kingfishers were spending a lot of time there.

I turned the noisemakers off, and sure enough, while descending the stairs to Lanier after lunch, I heard their distinctive “machine gun rattle”—ke ke ke ke—as I disturbed them from their favorite perch.

Thus began my four-week relationship with this pair of kingfishers.

I had a desk for reading set up in the living area of Lanier so that it overlooked the river. Each morning and throughout the day, a pair of Pied-billed Grebes would be fishing directly in front of Lanier. As I had my first coffee almost every morning, I would hear the kingfishers, most often perched on the wire that crosses the river just upriver from Lanier. If there was enough light, I would grab my camera, though they were keen listeners and could hear the sound of the door opening if I wasn’t careful.

It took me a while to realize when they left, they would head for Echo Valley. Ringed Kingfishers like deeper pools of water, which explained why they alternated between the Lodge/Headwaters area and Echo Valley on a daily basis.

On some evenings, I was the only one staying in the Lodge area. One evening, I came down to the kitchen to see what leftovers were available and startled one of the kingfishers perched on the porch railing outside the Dining Room. He paused nervously but flew before I could get my camera set.

The wildlife in the Canyon makes space for us while we are there, but take back that space whenever we are gone. Green Kingfishers stay low over the river and perch on low hanging branches over shallow areas; Ringed Kingfishers perch higher and over deeper pools.

Birding is for me what fishing is often said to be: “a perpetual series of occasions for hope.”

For most birders, the life list, a list of all the species one has seen, is pre-eminent. (I added seven species to my life list during this visit to Texas.) But the quest for the new often results in a lack of attention to the beauty of the ordinary.

2020 was a year in which many things slowed down. Paying attention to birds in our backyard made me recognize “bird-time.” Some birds show up in certain seasons, then leave. Others pass through in spring and fall. Still, others are there year-round. This year was an irruption year for typically northern species, meaning feed crops were slim up north for whatever reason, so here in the south we had more Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and Red-breasted Nuthatches than normal.

While the kingfishers became familiar to me during my four weeks at Laity Lodge, they were never ordinary. However, we have probably 20-25 Northern Cardinals at our backyard feeders on a regular basis. I’m regularly tempted to consider them ordinary.

A week ago, a female Cardinal collided with our window. When I went out to check, she was laying on her side, still alive. I gently picked her up and sat her upright. I observed her up close as she sat, still stunned and blinking her eyes. She was absolutely beautiful.

— Kenny Benge, Lent 2021
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