Its perch serving as lookout and diving board, a kingfisher waits above the still waters of an English river, which reflects trees and sky. This flashy hunter can dive and return with a fish in two seconds.
A flash of electric blue—that's as intimately as most people will ever know the common kingfisher. But it suffices. . "Everyone in England who has ever seen one will remember where they saw it," says photographer and kingfisher thrall Charlie Hamilton James. "I saw my first one when I was a boy. I've been completely obsessed ever since." For a few years he traipsed empty-handed after the bird near Bristol, in southwest England. Later, to justify the hours spent on the gloomy riverbanks that kingfishers haunt, he took along a camera. That was 20 years ago.
Alcedo atthis (also known as the Eurasian, European, or river kingfisher) has inspired many an obsession. In the world's temperate zones, where drab plumage is the norm, this kingfisher, unlike its North American cousins, bedazzles. Slicing the air like a turquoise missile, it is impossible to disregard.
The yellow, red, orange, and brown birds of the world assume their hues because of a pigment embedded in the keratin matrix of feathers. But blue feathers result from refraction, a prism-style splitting of light inside a feather. Under a microscope each long kingfisher barb, finer than a human hair, glitters with shades of the Caribbean. Tiny structures in the feathers choreograph incoming light, reflecting sapphire in one direction, emerald in another.