Call of the Kingfisher


  • Call of the Kingfisher by Nick Penny (Bradt Guides, 2023).
  • 248 pages.
  • ISBN: 9781804691113 (Pbk; £9.99); 9781804692004 (eBook; £7.99).

Walking along the River Nene in Northamptonshire and observing how birds and other wildlife change through the seasons is not something most people would consider a chore. While the mile-long stretch between Cotterstock and Oundle might perhaps seem an undistinguished segment of the English countryside, with the right guide all of life can be seen to be contained within it.

That guide has revealed himself in the form of Nick Penny, a locally based musician and sound recordist who has walked the same paths and banks for 40 years or more. Solitary walks by a well-wooded, slow-moving river allow for quiet reflection and intimate encounters with animals, as most birders will know. Penny's detailed observations and philosophical and historical musings fill this gentle book, which seems to walk at its own pace through the gradually changing seasons. Many memorable scenes in local villages and their surrounding countryside are described as the Common Nightingales and other migrants arrive and leave, but it is the resident species that feature most prominently.

One consistent element of the local avifauna is its kingfishers, a bird associated with calm in Greek mythology. As Penny perambulates, it is the kingfisher's whistling calls that accompany us as they shoot along the river, dive from low branches and feed their young – halcyon days, indeed. Humans also feature in his journeys, with copious references to literature and culture ranging from Carl Jung to Shakespeare to Whistle Down the Wind and Wind in the Willows, and snippets of local history dotted throughout. Observations of boaters and visitors to the Kingfisher Café add relatable touches, their movements almost as tied to the seasons as the animals. Those seasons become truly palpable as the author relates his weekly pilgrimages.  

Penny's recordings of his musical compositions often feature his high-quality wildlife recordings complemented by his Paraguayan harp and hand pan playing, but numerous unaccompanied bird sounds are available to readers of the book through a QR code or directly on the Bradt website, providing even more atmosphere. Better known for producing travel guides, the publisher's more recent forays into nature writing are proving popular and this reflective stroll through an English rural year can only help build that reputation.

Written by: David Callahan

 David Callahan is a taxonomist and freelance nature writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Callahanbirder.