Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ First Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Sometimes when we wait a long time for something to happen, it’s the waiting itself that makes the actual event so wonderful, when it finally happens. There are a handful of birds that I yearned to see for years, or even decades, before I finally saw them, and yes, they were every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped. The two that come to mind are the Resplendent Quetzal, which I first saw in Costa Rica in 2001, and the Cuban Tody, which I saw in Cuba in 2016.

Resplendent Quetzal

I got fixated on the quetzal before I even started first grade—I saw its picture somewhere and fell in love, with the bird and with its name. For years, I managed to fit the word “resplendent” into all kinds of situations, some more appropriate than others, just because the word itself seemed so resplendent.

Cuban Tody!!

I didn’t become aware of the tody until the early aughts, but the moment I saw a picture, I was smitten. When I started writing a blog in 2005, I wrote about it so often, always calling it the “most adorable bird in the universe,” that even today if you Google “most adorable bird in the universe,” the top one or two sites are mine about the Cuban Tody, and the top images always include it.

The first bird I became fixated on as a birder—I fell in love with its image in my first field guide the very morning I received it as a Christmas gift—was the Pileated Woodpecker. I didn’t see any my first year of birding, and got almost halfway through my second year before I got close. I’d taken two college ornithology classes and went on several Michigan Audubon field trips to all kinds of habitat but never saw a Pileated. Then on June 5, 1976, Russ and I visited Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan on an Audubon field trip. Our leaders said that was a place where the pileated was fairly likely.

Our group arrived late that morning after driving up from Lansing, and we covered a few trails as a group all afternoon, but none of us saw any pileateds. At dinner, Joan Brigham, one of the field trip leaders, suggested a particular path in the park where she had had luck on many previous occasions, and so Russ and I headed there for an after-dinner walk on our own.

Me, Joan Brigham, and Russ
Forty-two years later, here are Russ, me, and Joan Brigham!! We just happened to have reconnected in Florida last month.
It was lovely spending a little alone time together—birding in a group is more fun for the real birder in a couple than for the one who is just tagging along—so I tried to make this walk pleasant for him. The problem was that early in the morning we’d be heading on to Grayling to see Kirtland’s Warbler, so this was my last chance to see a Pileated in what could well be, from my perspective as such a beginner, my entire life. It wasn’t near dark yet, but I was very antsy to move on to the right trail to see that bird.

Unfortunately, a whole lot of spring wildflowers were still in bloom, and Russ hadn’t had a chance all day to stop and photograph them. He got fixated on a little stand of nodding trilliums, parked himself on the ground, and started taking photos. This was back in the days before digital photography, and we were poor students without money to waste on a lot of film, so he had to be judicious in setting up each shot. I felt SO impatient—there could be a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker right around the corner, and here we were wasting time with stupid little white flowers in the leaf litter! I was begrudging Russ’s fun even though I’d been having a splendid time all day, and this was the first time he’d been having a genuinely good time. I tried not to voice my impatience but was getting antsier and antsier.

And suddenly, there it was! A Pileated Woodpecker, flying past my face so close that I could feel the air rushing from its wings! He alighted on a nearby pine, close enough that Russ could get an identifiable photo with our 50mm macro lens!

Laura's LIFER Pileated Woodpecker
Well, it's not THAT identifiable. You have to zoom all the way in and search the exact  center of the photo, slightly above and to the right of the bridge railing. 
If we’d rushed on to the other path, we may well have missed seeing it altogether! And without Russ’s photography, we’d never have had a photograph to memorialize this incredible moment. The bird stayed in the tree for an eternity—a few minutes at least—while I drank in every detail through my 7x50 Bushnells.

The thrill of the living bird, just as huge and spectacular as the field guide promised, in the magic of this deep woods, Russ there to savor it with me—every element of this beautiful moment was perfect. This was the experience that taught me patience—that I might as well enjoy where I am while I’m there rather than being ever impatient to move on to the next place.

This was one case where the anticipation did not exceed the actual event—indeed, a full 42 years later, I still smile whenever I see a nodding trillium, still able to conjure the delicate wind on my face from a Pileated Woodpecker’s wingbeats, the startling vividness of that very first one’s plumage, and the special joy of this shared experience with my husband. That Pileated Woodpecker was the Best Bird EVER!!

Backyard Pileated Woodpecker