And any hero worth his salt needs a nemesis, someone who will test him to the point that he almost, just almost, doesn't save the day. An adversary who becomes something much more, perhaps a blurry reflection, or an echo of the hero, distorted but somehow resonant, a part of life that cannot be ignored. And between them needs to develop a grudging degree of mutual respect.
Fortunately I didn't have a real-life nemesis as a child, but now I do. Every time I'm around a river, lake, or estuary, I'm instantly alert for my nemesis' maniacal laughter. He's not furtive; on the contrary, he makes his presence known with annoying regularity. In fact he's positively ubiquitous. The inland waterways of Florida, the lakes of the Pacific Northwest, the rivers of the Appalachians—he seems to be everywhere. Seen frequently at a distance as a silhouette against a rising or setting sun, or as a dark broken reflection in the water as he stands high above it, as if posing for the cover of a pulp fiction novel. His top-heavy profile as distinct as Batman's Batsignal. Even his name sounds like one of the more obscure villains from a campy '60s comic book: The Belted Kingfisher.
Yes, my nemesis is a friggin' bird. As an amateur photographer and wannabe naturalist, at some point I was going to start taking pictures of birds. First it was songbirds at feeders, then large wading birds that seemed indifferent to my presence, then large hawks unconcerned about my being there as long as I kept a respectful distance. It wasn't until my hobbies of whitewater paddling and birding came together that my nemesis entered my life.
While paddling rivers with my friends, I noticed the bird seemed to always be on a branch at every curve of the river. As we approached, it would fly off with a chittering call, only to reappear several hundred feet downstream on yet another snag. When in a good mood, I would imagine it scouting the drops for us in a stereotypical aggro-extreme voice, calling out the proper line that would get us through. "All right, brah, come in middle-left to avoid the nasty pourover, then boof the big rock center to bridge the stompin' hole center-right, and then eddy out far left!" But on days when my skills were lacking and I found myself at the bottom of a rapid, soaked and emptying out my boat after a nasty beatdown in a hole, the bird's voice seemed to take on a more evil, mocking tone.
Cruising the flat water between rapids, occasionally I would catch sight of the bird doing what it did best, fishing. Its name is well earned. It would climb for a broad view of the river, momentarily hovering gracefully, tail and bill down, like a monarch with an enormous crown, standing on a cliff surveying his domain. Finally, as though it could no longer hold aloft its enormous cranium, it would dive, head leading the rest of its tiny body. And more often than not, emerge holding a small fish tightly in its spear-like beak. It was this mix of absurdity and grace that put a good photograph of Megaceryle alcyon on my must-have list. Even the scientific name sounds like a comic book villain—any villain whose name starts with MEGA- has to be a badass.
I've had several opportunities to shoot photos of kingfishers, and I've had a small measure of success. By success I mean that I've gotten photographs in which the spot at the center is recognizable as a kingfisher, if only by its distinctively outlandish proportions. But any time I've been up close and personal with a bird in the wild, fate conspires to ensure that I end up with a picture of kingfisher butt flying away. A dead branch falling, day-hikers out with their Labrador retriever—something alerts it to my presence, and then the critter turns tail and flies away, its chatter echoing in my ears.
My opportunity to break the streak arrived one day along the Black Point Nature Drive at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Starting early on a weekday morning, I had the entire loop to myself. A beautiful female kingfisher, distinguished by the chestnut belt across her abdomen, sat in the sun across a small channel along the road. Amazingly, she let me pull my car within 75 feet of her. I climbed out slowly, using the automobile as a blind. I left the door open so as to not spook her with the sound of it shutting. I slowly worked my way around to the back, braced my camera and lens against the rear bumper and… THUMP! The door shut loudly on its own. As the bird flew off, I stood there dejected.
There had been no breeze. I opened the door again and let it sit that way a few minutes. Nothing. If anything the car was leaning toward the driver side, as I had pulled over onto a high shoulder. I climbed back into the car and had an epiphany. I wasn't the hero, I was the villain!
The rules state that if I always end up losing, then I must be the bad guy. That bird, that cursed bird, had somehow, against all odds, triumphed again and again. Now what? I twirled my mustache in consternation. Do I continue on, knowing my role? If I do get my shot, does that mean suddenly I'm the hero? Or does it simply mean that my story has suddenly become a French film where it is perfectly all right for the bad guy to win?
My wife accompanied me on my last trip to the same wildlife refuge. I told her the story of my nemesis, the kingfisher. She listened with a tolerant if skeptical ear. After we finished the wildlife loop, we got back on the narrow two-lane road out of the refuge. Then we changed our minds and decided to go on a short hike to see if we could spot scrub jays and, because my wife is an amateur arachnologist, to get pictures of the massive colonies of orb weavers I had spotted on my last trip.
The road was dead straight for miles, with canals on both sides. Two points into an impromptu three-point turn in the middle of the road, a male kingfisher landed across the channel. I had a perfect shot straight out the passenger window. My camera with the telephoto lens was easily within reach, resting on the center console. "Go!" my wife stage-whispered, "There is no one coming either way."
I threw the car into park and had the camera about halfway to my eye when the kingfisher turned, pointed his rear end at me, and promptly shat. Then immediately flew off.
"Jeez," said Sue. "It really is your nemesis."
Except I might have to rethink that whole mutual respect thing.