4th November 2009
Ms. Hannah Holmes
Mr. Charlie Hamilton-James
c/o Editor in Chief
National Geographic Magazine
Dear Ms. Holmes and Mr. Hamilton-James,
I have asked your editor to pass on this letter to you because I want you to know how much I enjoyed your "Flashy Kingfishers" I would like to share with you a quotation from "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh. It sprang to my mind as I read your text and looked at your photographs.
Waugh is describing how he felt the night he first saw his lover, Julia : "That night and the night after and the night after, wherever she went, always in her own little circle of intimates, she brought a moment of joy, such as strikes deep to the heart on the river's bank when the kingfisher flares suddenly across the water".
I, too, have felt that leap of the heart at the sight of the kingfisher in flight in places as far apart as the Clare Glens in Ireland and a valley near Sai Kung in Hong Kong. In gratitude for your article I share some precious memories with you.
Another kingfisher that has thrilled me in Hong Kong is the Pied Kingfisher. It isn't as spectacular as the Common Kingfisher but it has, however, an equal turn of speed. One day as I was watching an enormous container ship coming up Lamma Channel my attention was suddenly caught by a Pied Kingfisher speeding over the water of the harbour. Hong Kong is a place of contrasts.
A third kingfisher, the White Breasted Kingfisher, was a regular inhabitant of the football field in Wah Yan College, Kowloon where I taught for many years. It hunched on the crossbar between the goal posts and would suddenly shoot across the field to a hole in a bank beside Wylie Road. On the other side of Wylie Road are the railway tracks which daily carry dozens of trains to the towns of the New Territories and to China just twenty miles away.
Beside the football field and within yards of the playground and car park I had one of the biggest surprises of my life. There I trapped a real, true wild animal which you will be glad to hear I immediately released back into the wild. The animal was a a civet cat. Its "wilderness" was a low scrub and tree covered ridge, crowned by Hong Kong's inevitable blocks of flats. This true wild animal lived within a six or seven minutes walk of Nathan Road, arguably one of the busiest city streets in the world. You may well ask why I was using a trap. I was catching (with some success) stray dogs which had banded to-gether and were becoming potential hazards to students and passers by.
On the headlands of Hong Kong Island's east cost I have rejoiced in the sight of the White Bellied Sea Eagle circling watchfully over the waters of the Tathong Channel. Over the harbour Black Eared Kites ride the thermals in graceful, relaxed circles. Out in the New Territories I have often chuckled at lemony - white Cattle Egrets standing long-legged on the backs of Brown Cows and Water Buffaloes, both parties perfectly content with the arrangement.
One morning I was unable to shoo an invading bird out of my office in Wah Yan College, Hong Kong. I had to catch it in order to release it through the open window. I gasped at the cloissonne like colours of that glorious little Fork-Tailed Sunbird.
On the western side of Hong Kong Island where I now live, one can regularly see and (unfortunately) hear the Sulpher-Crested Cockatoos whose ancestors were released by their owners during World War II. Their strident squawks are compensated for by the lovely song of the Hwamei and the rich, meditative, almost absent-minded notes of a Laughing Thush. Last night as I wrote this letter I heard the tiny Scops Owl cooing plaintively from the small, rough valley below us.
Since I don't know you personally I can't be sure if you would like to hear about a couple of the animals one can occasionally and fleetingly see in Hong Kong. I'll take a chance!
Just once in forty-five years I saw a flash of brown as a Barking Deer slipped through the undergrowth near the Taipo Forestry Reserve. On the branches of the banyan tree which almost touch our dining room windows scamper squirrels attracted by the ripe fruit. And this only a couple of hundred yards from Pokfulam Road, a major artery, which funnels buses on twenty six routes down to Central and beyond.
Two final Hong Kong treasures I would like to share with you are the Bamboo Orchid and the Variegated Bauhinia. On the slopes of the Pat Sin (Eight Immortals) Range in the New Territories and on the bank of a stream in Tai Tam Reservor I have found the tiny Bamboo Orchid. In many places all over Hong Kong the Variegated Bauhinia can be seen in parks and by the roadside. Looking up through its flowers on a summer day I often thought that I was looking though a cloud of pink and white snow flakes dancing in the air.
My delight in all the sights and sounds I have been telling you about must undoubtedly go back to the blackbirds, thrushes and curlews of my Irish childhood and to other priveliged revelations of nature at its loveliest and most moving.
When I was in, primary school during World War II our classes were enlivened by the brisk clip clop of the hooves of four immaculately groomed horses and the cheerful toots of a long post horn. Lord Adare, a local landowner, did his bit to solve the petrol shortage by putting a stage coach on the road betwen Limerick city and Adare village.
Overhead dozens of swifts screamed as they swept through the air to dive into their nests set under the window-sills of the old Georgian houses in the Crescent. You can understand why my lessons may have been a bit distracted.
To this day I can still see in my mind's eye the Swedish grain ship just arrived in Limerick port. Surprisingly she was almost completely white. Even more unbelievably (for I know and love ships too) the ship was festooned with hanging pots of red geraniums and cages of canaries and other brightly coloured birds. All the, way from Buenos Aires she was. I thought of an Irish poem which begins: "There came a ship from Valparaiso" Same continent ! Equally romantic.
Most of all, however, my thoughts go back to two scenes of my early boyhood soon after I learned how to ride a bicycle.
In a second I am back sitting on a bank of the Mulcair in Co. Limerick with my father. We are watching salmon, coiled into half circles, jumping a waterfall on the river. With equal speed I am standing one Spring morning on a winding country road near Patrickswell in that same county. The mist is slowly lifting to reveal in all their sleek elegance dozens of mares and foals dotted all over an enormous, sloping pasture of a bloodstock farm. Another magical moment.
I intend to circulate this letter to some friends, colleagues and students in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Once again I thank you for sharing with us your magical moments.
Sean Coghlan, S.J.