When I started birding I had no idea how much birds would teach me about life. And here I am, four years in, learning about how to live. I have become a student of birds and, at the same time, a student of birding.
It’s humbling, this being a student business. I’m forced to take things slowly, enjoy incremental progress, make countless mistakes, ask what seem like the most basic of questions. And practice. Every week, I go out and hone my skills, practice the art of recognizing field marks, the occasional song, and, most importantly, exercise my ability to stand still and observe. There is absolutely nothing passive in careful observation: it’s the fiercest workout in being fully present in the moment. (Yes, the stuff that self-help books write about; how much more progress I would have made as a student of self-help narratives had I just donned my binoculars and gone out into the field to look!)
Yesterday, I saw my first Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). The sighting happened to be both highly planned and entirely spontaneous.
Here’s the fantastic wonder of a bird. Photo by Cam Millward.
We had read the reports carefully, and knew that the Red-headed beauty was hanging out in a woodlot near Vineland, ON, in the Niagara region, but when we arrived at said woodlot, there were hundreds of trees, and innumerable woodpecker holes, and it seemed that he could be lurking just about anywhere. And we waited, ears perked for drumming, and eyes peeled on the woodlot, looking out for any kind of movement.
And nothing. An hour and a half of absolutely nothing. Well, I’m exaggerating a little. There was an exquisite Merlin (Falco columbarius) perched in a tree, surveying the territory. He (likely a juvenile or a female) sat tight the entire time we were there, shifting his gaze, waiting to pounce on his prey. There were American Robins singing up a storm, a Turkey Vulture flying overhead, and a lone Mockingbird sitting atop a branch. But our target bird, the exquisite, fabled, mythical Red-headed Woodpecker was nowhere to be found. This was my second time looking for the Red-headed (the first being two years ago, when we spent 2.5 hours in a field, only to find out that the bird appeared a few hours after our leaving) and I began to despair that it would turn into my nemesis-bird. Worse, I began to worry that the bird didn’t really exist after all.
After a break for lunch, we decided to return to the woodlot, and give the bird one last chance. I feared the worst, but also felt that we had nothing to lose. And back we went. The Merlin greeted us happily, the Robins were still singing, a Killdeer flew by, and then, my binoculars peeled to my eyes, surveying the woodlot tree by tree, traversing the length of each trunk, my neck aching, I caught a glimpse of something red. Below it a black and white body! I’m not sure what happened next, but I believe I screamed, partly out of shock that I was actually staring directly at a Red-Headed Woodpecker and partly because I was the one who managed to locate the bird!
The bird couldn’t have been more thrilling. A brilliant, red head, almost enflamed in the sunlight, am otherworldly creature. I watched it for about 20 minutes, through my binoculars, through the scope, with my naked eye. Suddenly I couldn’t relate at all to that person I had been an hour before — the person who had almost given up, who no longer believed the bird existed, who thought the day had been wasted. How close I had come to abandoning all hope. How ashamed of that I now felt.
What began as such a lacklustre, boring, disappointing day turned into one of the most thrilling days of my life as a birder. An object lesson in perseverance, patience and hope against all odds. What could be more important?
And another. Can one ever have too many Red-headed Woodpecker photos? Pics by Cam Millward.
How much more birds still have to teach me. And how excited (and humbled) I am to be their student.