Search for a ‘bird of happiness’ with ‘Halcyon Journey’ author Marina Richie | Local News

Walking undeterred through thick brush and downed trees alongside Rattlesnake Creek, Marina Richie grinned and proclaimed: “This is the kingfisher mansion.”

Richie, 63, was referring to a section of eroded riverbank a few miles north of downtown Missoula where a mating pair of belted kingfishers — the only pair she’s aware of in that area — resides in the latest of its many subterranean burrows that dot the bank . Unlike most birds, which build nests from sticks, moss or other detritus, the belted kingfisher burrows into a vertical or near-vertical riverbank of dirt, clay or sand.

Belted kingfishers are just one of 120 species of kingfisher, but the only one found across much of the United States. Their unusual homes and habits are enumerated in Richie’s new book, “Halcyon Journey,” released in May. Richie, a former longtime Missoula resident who now lives in Bend, Oregon, also chronicles how her search for the elusive bird connected her with the ecosystem of her own neighborhood and helped her process her father’s death.

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If you want to see the bird in person yourself, good luck.

“Kingfishers are the hardest bird to follow because they are very skittish and they’re wary, they don’t like being around people, they’re always known for flying away from you,” Richie said. “And there are not many of them. They are spread out.”

Although not a wildlife biologist by trade, Richie was uniquely suited to write about her years spent observing kingfishers. Richie’s father was a high-ranking official in the National Park Service. Her childhood living in or near national parks across the nation instilled in her an appreciation for the natural world and its creatures. A competitive runner, she graduated from University of Oregon with a degree in biology.

But then Richie said she “just kind of fell into” a job as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, the Blue Mountain Eagle in John Day, Oregon. Her couple of years as a full-time newshound spurred her to seek a degree in journalism somewhere “that also could combine my interest in the environment and wildlife.”

So she came to Missoula, where she completed a master’s degree in journalism at University of Montana. That led to a job as a non-game animal information specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. After that, she worked as a watchable wildlife coordinator for FWP, and she then moved up to overseeing watchable wildlife programming in an interagency position with FWP, the US Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy.

She kept writing in those jobs, mostly interpretive site copy and columns for publication. Eventually she shifted to full-time freelance writing.

Living in Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood, Richie immersed herself in nature, including one of her favorite animals: birds. She decided she wanted to write about one.

“I love water and mountains and wild places,” Richie said. “And one day I read this definition of the word halcyon as a noun, and the number-one definition is the kingfisher (referring to another name for the species). And I thought, well, ‘halcyon’ means happiness, peace, tranquility , good times, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to follow that bird.'”

She decided to “pursue a bird of happiness” and began casually looking for kingfishers along the Rattlesnake in 2008. She got more serious a year later and eventually found them, she said. And through her pensive waits to spy the birds, she also worked through the grievance of her father’s untimely death at 70 years old.

“I had a father who was a huge influence in my life,” she said. “I grew up in the National Park Service and he had died pretty young, at 70,” she said, “just a few years before I started this project.

“And he was a bird lover. I just thought he would love this project, and I amazingly felt very attuned to him while I was out here, too, and I really came to reconcile that loss.”

Richie had more than enough time to reflect as she sought out belted kingfishers: Her study of the birds lasted for more than seven years and took her as far as South Africa to observe other species of kingfisher in their natural habitats, all of which is recorded in “Halcyon Journey.”

“I didn’t really know too much about them when I took off, but I am a bird person,” Richie said. “But I soon found out they haven’t been studied very well. Shockingly they’re all over the country where there’s clean water and fish, (and yet) relatively understudied. And I can see why, because they’re very hard to study, hard to find a nest.

“I got really serious about finding a pair on Rattlesnake Creek in 2009 and I thought, one season, that’s probably all I need and then maybe I can write a book, you know? And then it was like, oh no, there’s so much more, so much more to do, and I got seriously curious and it took seven years.”

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