Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Woodpecker

I started watching birds when I was just nine years old. We had moved out of suburban New Jersey to a more rural (although still suburban) area, outside of Rochester, New York, that year. The house, more modern than the one we'd left, had a huge picture window in the living room, framing a back yard that overlooked a creek and some woods. Unlike my native New Jersey, where the birds were pretty basic, this area had a lot of interesting birds, both native and migratory, and my mother placed a birdfeeder outside the back door where it could be viewed from the picture window.

We had always had a bird book around, and I started trying to identify the various birds we saw from the window. That first winter we had a whole flock of dull olive colored birds with black and white wings. We weren't sure what they were since there were so many drab little olive-colored birds in the book. Then, lo and behold, spring came, and some of the birds developed bright yellow feathers and saucy black caps! It turned out they were hardy little Goldfinches who wintered in our woods, and had shed their bright feathers for their winter garb.

My mother and I would go walking in the woods with our binoculars, and over the years made a lot of exciting discoveries, including various migrating warblers. Once we even saw a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, singing in a tree. I'd always wanted to see one of those birds, and I recognized him at first from his song. I had a record back then called "Bird Songs in Your Garden," which familiarized me with a myriad of calls and songs of birds of all kinds, both common and uncommon. To this day I can still whistle a fairly credible imitation of the song of the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.

Now that I'm back in New Jersey, we don't see a lot of "good" birds, but once in awhile something more unusual does stray into our yard. One time we saw several Golden-Fronted Woodpeckers sitting on our fence, which I'd never seen before - or since.

One woodpecker I'd always been fascinated with was the Pileated Woodpecker. It was pictured in my bird book right next to the extremely rare (until recently thought extinct) Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, and looked almost like it.

Neither of these species are ordinary woodpeckers. They are huge, larger than crows (in fact, the Ivory-Billed is so big and spectacular it is known as the "Lord God Bird" - because when people used to see it they'd exclaim, "Lord God, what was that?!").

Naturally the only woodpeckers I ever saw were the most common ones - the Downy Woodpecker and the Hairy Woodpecker.

These are two almost identical woodpeckers whose biggest difference is size. They should be called the "Lesser Speckly Black-and-White Woodpecker with a Red Patch on the Back of its Head" and the "Greater Speckly Black-and-White Woodpecker with a Red Patch on the Back of its Head."

Downy (left)

Hairy (right)

Well, this past weekend in the Adirondacks I finally saw a Pileated Woodpecker. We had been visiting our property (which we're closing on this Friday, finally!) and were just driving down the road after exiting the unpaved gravel road that leads to the cabin.

Suddenly, up ahead, I saw a huge black and white bird with white wing patches and a bright red head fly across the road. "Holy shit! Did you see that?!" I said to DH. (Does this mean this bird should be nicknamed "The Holy Shit Bird"?)

We saw the bird fly up into a tree as we went by, and there was no doubt about it. It was a Pileated Woodpecker.
(Picture courtesy of

We continued our drive down the road, and ultimately, home to New Jersey.

But all last week, throughout the financial chaos and all the negativity, every once in awhile my mind returned to that moment, the flap of the wings, the flash of black and white, the bright head, and I'd feel a quick burst of joy.

I'd forgotten the happiness that the mere sight of an unusual bird can provide, a feeling of gladness that I can hold close inside, like an ember, to keep me warm in the cold days ahead.


Suzi Riot said...

LOVED this! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I started bird watching when we moved to Georgia. I had the same experience of noticing the goldfinches in their dull colors and then discovering in the spring that they were brilliant yellow!

I love seeing the woodpeckers, too. I get a thrill when I see our little Carolina Wren show up. I love the chickadees, nuthatches, jays, cardinals and sparrows. We also get a good number of finches, barn swallows and twice, I believe, we've had the rose-breasted grosbeak visit.

But the one time that I saw the pileated woodpecker on the pine tree in our backyard, I flipped.

I can see how you hark back to that moment. It was birding magic.

Candace said...

Wow - Fred's gonna freak!
I'm glad you got to experience something wonderful like that. I can't imagine seeing a woodpecker that's larger than a crow. Or hearing one, for that matter!

Candace said...

Crap. I meant "Baxter," not "Fred." I got my double ems mixed up. Mauigirl's Meanderings/Baxter; Morning Martini/Fred.

Although ... Fred would freak, too; I'm sure of that.

Anonymous said...

wow. :O i've never seen a woodpecker.

Christopher said...


As you know, we live in Penfield (your old stomping ground) and what you say is so true about birds.

I don't know anything about them, other than some are brown, a few are blue and others are red. But they are everywhere here. Even the woodpecker.

We have a 12'x 20' deck off the house and the woodpecker(s) hammer away on it and under it. At first, I didn't know what the hell it was making the hammering noise -- it's amazingly loud for such a little creature, but man, are they determined!

The other birds we see fly over are (I think, anyway) geese heading south (to Florida?) for the winter. They make this strange bleating sound and fly together in formation like a chevron.

Fran said...

We have lots of Stellar Jays here... larger birds with beautiful blue color.
On the local river we occasionally get a glimpse of Blue Herons-- they look like Blue flamingos! They can have a 6 foot wingspan & the long spindly legs..... really beautiful.

I wonder if this is also a political commentary? This election year stuff is *for the birds*.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I saw a pileated woodpecker once in Florida. It was very exciting.

We do get downy woodpeckers here sometimes.

Billie Greenwood said...

//To this day I can still whistle a fairly credible imitation of the song of the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.//

You have talents we haven't even begun to fathom yet!

Anonymous said...

We have a large feeder out from our living room window, and we get more than a dozen different birds now. The rosebreasted grosbecks come in the spring, as do the orioles. We get several varieties of woodpecker, and I think the pilated one is the "woody woodpecker" look alike. We love it, and every year more come. indigo buntings and on and on. The cats sit in the window and chatter at them in the winter. It's like TV!

Mauigirl said...

Suzi, I'm so glad you liked it. Sometimes I need to think of something besides the political scene!

DCup, I'm glad my mother and I weren't the only ones fooled by winter Goldfinches! I love the wrens, I had never realized we even had them before until they nested in our yard, and now looking back I think I've heard their singing before and just didn't know it. I'm jealous you have had Rosebreasted Grosbeaks visit! One time at home we had Evening Grosbeaks. A whole flock. And then they never came again!

Candace, probably any cat would freak to see a woodpecker that big! Baxter indeed would, because he's kind of timid!

Kouji, they are interesting birds! It's amazing to me the way they can hammer with their heads and beaks to make holes in wood.

Christopher, yes, there are lots of birds up there. My husband doesn't know birds as I do either and he's so funny - he says they're all sparrows. Red sparrows, blue sparrows, whatever. However, even he was amazed by this bird. Sorry to hear the woodpeckers are pecking at your deck! Hope they don't do any real damage! Also, I'm glad to hear your Canada geese actually migrate south. Ours stick around all year down here in the office parks with the big lawns, where they live a nice cushy life!

Fran, I love herons - we don't see too many around here as we don't live near a marsh. But I have seen them in other locations. I don't think I've ever seen the Stellar Jay - is it western?

Ruth, I'm glad you have also seen the Pileated! Apparently from what I read on the internet about it, its population has been increasing somewhat in recent years, which is good news.

BE, yes, I am amazingly talented with my bird calls, LOL! I can do a credible Screech Owl too!

Feather, I'm so envious of your wide variety of birds at your feeder! Maybe I'll have a great selection like that if we put out a feeder in the Adirondacks. I'm not sure I should though if we aren't going to be there all the time.