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."
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 Whatbird.com)
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.