The birds were a roiling mass of black and white as they tumbled out of the towering cottonwood tree. Their legs were tangled and they were spinning toward the water, their wings in frenetic motion, calling frantically.
For just a second, I saw a flash of scarlet.
The display ended a moment after it began. The two birds unlocked their feet, miraculously righted themselves, and pulled out of their dive just in time to avoid the river.
As the two birds chased one another back to the safety of the cottonwood, my mind sorted out what I had just seen. The birds were dark on top and light below. Curiously, no red was visible as the birds returned to the tree, but a ribbon of white on the edge of the tail was diagnostic. These were eastern kingbirds.
Eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) are members of the flycatcher family. They are 8.5 inches from tip to tail and have a wingspan of 15 inches. These birds have sturdy black bills, ebony heads with a slight crest and coal black eyes. They have gray wings and backs that yield to black once again on the tails.
The only light spot on the top side of the bird is the white border on the end of the tail. Eastern kingbirds have a creamy white chin that extends into a partial collar. The breast is a faint gray that gives way to a white belly and vent. The sexes look alike.
So where did that flash of crimson come from as I saw the birds tumbling through the sky? During the mating ritual, which I had just witnessed, the eastern kingbird displays a bright red crest that is almost always hidden under the black head feathers.
I hadn't seen this ritual flight before nor its extraordinary splash of color.
Flycatchers are a common and diverse family of birds. Ornithologists count more than 400 flycatcher species worldwide; 37 of them breed in North America. Eastern kingbirds can be found throughout central Canada and almost the entire lower 48 states during the summer.
They retreat to South America during the winter, spending months in Peru and Bolivia.
In spite of their numerous relatives, eastern kingbirds are relatively easy to identify.
They are the only flycatcher in the East to have a combination of dark tops and light undersides with that distinctive white ribbon on the tail.
It was late in the season, so the kingbird pair that I had just witnessed doing their dervish mating ritual may have been preparing to start a rare second brood.
The female eastern kingbird will lay three to four eggs in a cup nest that she has constructed. She will incubate the eggs for two weeks and then brood the helpless chicks for another two weeks until they are ready to fledge.
The male's only contribution is to bring food to the chicks, a duty he shares with the hard-working mother.
Kingbirds catch insects on the wing. Usually the bird starts from a branch overlooking an open area. It will spot a beetle or bee flying by and swoop off the perch and nab the bug in mid-flight, then return to the same perch.
The kingbird's relatively large, wide bill is ideal for capturing insects using this hawking behavior. While on the wing, these birds will occasionally pluck ripe berries off the vine, but the diet for the young chicks will consist almost exclusively of protein-rich insects.
Fidelity to place extends beyond their perches. Kingbirds return to the same area annually to breed.
They are intensely territorial, frequently chasing much larger birds away from their nesting sites. Earlier this year, I saw a pair of eastern kingbirds attack an intruding crow. One even briefly landed on the back of the flying crow, pecking at it until the larger bird shook off its assailant. This tyrannical behavior is what gives the bird both its genus and species Latin names.
Eastern kingbirds prefer the kind of habitat where I was treated to their courtship behavior. The riverbank is teeming with insects, and the cottonwood tree provided a perfect launching pad for hawking bugs.
I have seen kingbirds regularly along this stretch of the river and had not given them much notice. They lack the musical song of thrushes, the majestic size of eagles and the elegant flight of hummingbirds.
Today, they forced me to look at them anew.
It was like hearing a quiet co-worker offer an insightful analysis or discovering that a friend is an accomplished artist. Suddenly, old perspectives are found flat.
A momentary flash of crimson was all it took to get me to look at the kingbirds with new eyes.
And I ask myself, what else am I missing because my perspective is welded to yesterday's experience and not today's possibilities?