Summer is upon us, bringing mainly hot conditions without many of the spectacular thunderstorms that bring relief from the scorching temperatures. However, in my opinion, summer only really begins once the magical turquoise birds called woodland kingfishers (Halcyon senegalensis) start to make their first appearance. Most of my childhood visits to the lowveld always seemed to coincide with the December summer holidays. The beautiful trilling call of these electric blue birds are embedded in my memories of those days forever.
These summer visitors are intra-African migrant birds, which means that every year they follow the rains down to Southern Africa from tropical Central Africa to breed. They spend November to March with us and then migrate at the beginning of our dry season back to where they came from in central Africa. They are a common sight and can be easily
located by their very loud, distinctive calls that dominate the bush. They are seen singly or in pairs and defend their territories aggressively against others of their kind as well as other species of birds. They nest in holes in trees, often taken over from woodpeckers and barbets. Clutches normally contain two to four eggs and are incubated by both of the parents for around two weeks. Although the chicks leave the nest at about three weeks old, the parents continue to care for their young for five weeks after they’ve fledged.
These birds are adaptable little hunters that are part of the tree dwelling or non-fishing kingfisher group of birds from the genus Halcyon. They hunt mainly insects or sometimes small vertebrates such as frogs. They utilise a ‘’sit and wait’’ hunting technique from a perch such as a tree branch. Once they spot their prey they dive down, grab the prey and then fly back up to the same perch where they usually beat the unsuspecting victim to death.
This family of kingfishers get their name from a famous myth and legend. It was believed that the Halcyon bird made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea. It was thought that during the nesting period, she had the ability to calm the seas and ward off storms. When the Halcyon was nesting around the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, many days of calm weather was expected. The Halcyon days are generally thought to begin during the second week of December. The idea that the bird had the power to calm the sea began with this ancient Greek myth. Aeolus (the ruler of the winds) had a daughter named Alcyone, who married Ceyx (who was a King). The story goes that Ceyx was tragically drowned at sea, causing Alcyone to throw herself into the waves desperate to join her husband in death. However, Alcyone did not manage to drown herself. Instead she was transformed into a beautiful bird and carried peacefully to her husband by the wind. Around the 14th century the myth entered the English-speaking world and by the 16th century the phrase ‘halcyon days’ had taken on a different meaning. It had lost its association with the bird and began to mean ‘calm days’. Shakespeare even used the phrase in two of his plays, Henry VI and King Lear. Our current use of the term ‘halcyon days’ tends to be nostalgic, recalling the endless sunny days of youth often used to describe an idyllic time in the past that is remembered as better than today.
Our two lodges, Singita Lebombo and Sweni, here in the Kruger National Park have been closed for the last nine months due to the pandemic. I am extremely optimistic that with the woodland kingfishers returning to their summer breeding grounds here coinciding with the lodges reopening, that they bring with them the promise of a prosperous, happy and successful era that will unfold in 2021 and beyond, recalling “the halcyon days” before Covid.