The "critter" in Sierra's current issue is the Kingfisher, a prodigious fishing bird that must provide its young with 2,000 little happy meals before they fledge. Exactly how they do this can be seen in this amazing slo-mo video (see below) shot on the River Shannon in Ireland by Colin Stafford-Johnson for the PBS documentary, Ireland's Wild River --they fly underwater. Kingfishers don't swim great distances or for long periods like penguins or cormorants, as you can see in the underwater footage toward the end, but instead pinpoint their tiny prey from above and dive straight down like multi-colored missiles to nab their lunch.
As we noted in the magazine, the kingfisher is also known as the "halcyon" (from its Linnaean name, Alcedo atthis), and is associated with fine weather:
In ancient times, the kingfisher was believed to build floating nests on the open sea at the winter solstice, during which time the waters would miraculously become clam and navigable. Pliny the Elder cites this story as the origin of the term "halcyon days."
Now come Christina Chronopoulou and A. Mavrakis in the journal Weather with an article entitled "Ancient Greek drama as an eyewitness of a specific meteorological phenomenon: indication of stability of the Halcyon days." Their study of weather references in classical Greek plays shows that the 5th Century BCE was pretty darn halcyon--so much so that audiences of the time could expect to watch open-air performances in amphitheaters in mid-winter. In fact, says Tim Radford at Climate News Network, Greek dramas of the time were replete with halcyon references:
Euripides in Medea in 431 BC mentions "the temperate and sweet breezes" while Aristophanes in The Frogs in 405 BC actually addresses "you halcyons who chatter by the ever-flowing waves."
"Combining the fact that dramatic contests were held in mid-winter without any indication of postponement, and references from the drama about clear weather and mild winters, we can assume that those particular days of almost every January were summery in the 5th and maybe the 4th centuries BC," said Chronopoulou.
Thus the kingfisher provides paleoclimatologists new clues for unravelling the fluctuations of weather, the better to chart our own drastic effects on the world's climate.
Image: Colin Stafford-Johnson
PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and dad. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber