I’m helpless. There’s nothing I can do; the bird is wild, alert, seemingly unperturbed. There’s no hope of catching it—and if I did, what then? The likelihood that anyone could do anything to restore sight to that milky eye is hopelessly small. But how can it judge distance? Binocular vision would seem to be essential, particularly for a kingfisher plummeting from its high wire to snatch a lizard or beetle from the ground. How can it catch prey? How does it avoid striking branches when it arrows through the willows?
I watch, wondering how long the bird will survive. I know I’ll now look carefully at every kotare near here, looking for the bird with one eye, hoping to see it so I know it’s still alive. In a strange, macabre way, this bird has become an individual; I know it’s this kotare, not another, because of its injury.
How did it happen? Injury or disease? How long has it been like this? How has it managed to survive? Again I’m hit by that helplessness, the wanting to do something, the awareness of futility. The bird turns its head, looks at me with its good eye. I study it even more carefully, looking for other signs of ill health, but it seems fine. It turns away, its dead eye towards me. I move a little closer, stopping when it checks me again with the good eye. It’s late autumn here, less than a month from the shortest day. I can’t help thinking this small bird, now so alive, won’t see the Spring—it can’t possibly survive the winter with a handicap like that.
And then I think, what’s the tragedy? What difference does it make if it dies this winter or next? Eventually all birds die, like us. Life implies death; death implies life. If death is inevitable, then the tragedy must be because this one is somehow premature. But some birds die earlier than others—most, I suspect never reach adulthood. Perhaps this is an old bird; perhaps its blindness is at least partly because it’s old? Even if it is young, even if it will die before reaching the average life expectancy, that simply influences, to a tiny degree, that average life expectancy: in other words, some birds have to die before that age. Half, in fact.
I don’t know whether these thoughts are a comfort or not. I look at the bird, watching its brilliant, sunlit eye looking back at me. I lower the binoculars to see it with my own eyes, so there’s nothing between us. We look at each other for a while, then it takes to the air, speeding away towards the willows. It alights on a branch; no hesitation, perfectly judged.
In that moment of hope, I wonder why death terrifies so many of us, wonder, perhaps, whether I have the right to accept my own eventual death but not that of others—the right to say spare me the technology to keep me alive but not the right of another to postpone his own death. And if, somehow, I could have caught the kotare and found a way to heal it, to restore the sight in that eye? I’d have done it.
I walk back up the road, leaving a good luck wish hanging silently in the air, a small attempt to reciprocate the blessing. Thinking about the name:
Kotare, Halcyon sancta. The sacred kingfisher.
 I still can't work out why blogger decides to display some photos at their original size but others reduced (for example. the original Melianthus and blackberry photos are exactly the same dimensions but the blackberry photo won't display at the reduced size (400 pixels wide)). If anyone knows what's happening, please email me (the address is under my profile photo)).
 As is often the case, these photos are not intended to illustrate the post. There's a connection, but they're not riddles—my hope is that you'll simply understand (at some level) the relationship between text and image. What you might find and be able to articulate is an intellectual exercise: interesting, but not essential. I've probably said too much anyway.
Photo 1: Cape honey flower, Melianthus major; Point Arthur, Eastbourne.
Photo 3: Evening beach near Pencarrow Head, Wellington harbour.
Photo 3: Wild blackberry flower; Pohangina Valley.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor