Bird brained stories!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

My jinx bird

We all have one, don't we? Most people have a bird that deserves its place as a jinx bird... Spruce Grouse are well-hidden in their habitat, Black-Billed Cuckoos are reclusive in the tangled brush they prefer, giving perhaps only a flash of their distinctive tail before retreating further. My jinx bird is one that judging from photos posted by many is often lured to backyard feeders...the Pileated Woodpecker. I can't really say I've never seen one. I have. I even got a photo of a female once at our cabin in northern Wisconsin. I was lucky that day and moved fast before she glided, pterodactyl-like, into the depths of the tall evergreens. One distant shot, enlarged to that artful pontillism appearance, used many times in my art.

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Still, my efforts to get a really good look at one of these magnificent birds have been marked by following the distinctive laugh-like calls and drumming through brush and burs, only to see but a flash of crow-sized wing with white markings disappear to the other side of the ridge. I have made it one of my birding goals this year to really learn how to find them. After all, I'd been accepted as a search team member for the IBWO project, so I needed the practice.

I headed out to areas where they are heard often and known to live in some numbers. Hixon Forest in LaCrosse. LaRiviere City Park in Prairie du Chien. Each time, clear evidence of their immediate presence was found.

Such as fresh chips and exposed bark on dead trees, like this...

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Other times, I'd spot recently excavated rectangular holes, a clear indicator that Pileateds were at work, like this...

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Befitting its status as my jinx bird, in every instance, I'd hear plenty of calling or drumming and if I was really lucky, a flash of a shadow across the draw in the coulee. That was it.

My luck changed last weekend. I was in northern Minnesota, staying with six other storytellers in a cabin in the woods for a storytelling retreat. I'd gone out in search of boreal birds whenever I could, but the forest was amazingly quiet, save for Black-Capped Chickadees, which I have in abundance at my feeders. Sunday, snow began to fall in big, lovely flakes, and the birds appeared. Gray Jays. A lifer for me, and I was surprised at their size. They entertained me for a while, but weren't cooperative photo models. A Pine Grosbeak, another lifer, but similarly camera shy. A Raven called nearby. Then I heard drumming. Not sure of the instigator, my hopes led to Black-Backed, which would be another lifer. It moved about in a low area filled with dead trees, and I searched for a pathway in. Following a deer trail, I came upon a dead tree with the piles of fresh bark at its base, and heard that laugh-like call. It was getting closer. Closer. There! Not 15 feet in front of me, a flash of brilliant red crest appeared, more brilliant against the snowy background. A male Pileated, gorgeous against the white, worked the side of a tree, apparently unconcerned with my presence. I tried to capture him in pixels, but the timing was miserable. His head would hit the tree and disappear from view as I pressed the shutter, leaving me with a stump on my screen. Fumbling with the erase function, I kept my eye on this beauty and saw him hitch around to the other side, giving me a full body view. Focus, breathe. Compose, breathe. Click. No click! What's wrong? Looking briefly at my screen, I'm told my battery has died!

The woodpecker hopped from the side up onto a dead branch, an uncharacteristic view of this tree hugger. He cocked his head, watched me as I watched him, then glided off into the tangles, laughing the whole way.

Somehow, this story seems symbolic to me. I have no image other than my words to paint the picture of what I saw. Dead batteries left me without a pictorial image of the jinx bird. I could easily imagine myself having the same experience with its much rarer cousin, the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. It wouldn't happen. A few days earlier, I'd made the difficult decision to resign my search team position for the IBWO project due to family issues.

Still, I think my friend the Pileated had a bigger lesson for me, one that transcends shattered birding dreams. One can make beautiful photos, and I wish I had, but the dead battery allowed me to relax and truly appreciate the gift that Woodpecker shared with me, the gift of his close presence for a quarter of an hour... the falling snow, a Pileated Woodpecker and me...nothing else mattered in that golden moment.

For something completely different, check out Aydin's "Blonde on Blonde" inspired "I and the Bird." I'm impressed! Next edition is hosted by the Dharma Bums; get your submissions to them or Mike at "I and the Bird" by February 2.


  • My son and I were east of Cable, Wis. last August on a warm weekday, with no one around and car sounds even further. We stopped at a nature preserve hoping to see a few birds but certainly never expected to see a pileated woodpecker -- the first we'd ever seen -- swoop onto the side of a tree not 25 feet from us. He was in profile, the sun full on him -- a gorgeous photo. But something stopped me from lifting our brand new Canon digital camera with 300 mm lens to my eye -- I can't figure out what blocked the nerve impulses from my retina to the fingertips. I did, however, call to my son to get a glimpse of the bird, and by the time he turned and took a step, the bird was in the air. So all we have now is a memory of that spectacular bird and the loud flapping he made. I think we'll have to head to Cable again next summer...

    By Anonymous John K., at 11:03 PM  

  • Looking briefly at my screen, I'm told my battery has died!

    Speaking of jinx birds, just today I had a golden opportunity to photograph one of my favorites, the Red-breasted Nuthatch. I was on a hike in the woods near my house, and spotted the little guy on a branch just 4 feet over me. I had him filling my viewfinder, it was going to be a great close-up shot. So I pressed the button to snap the pic...

    CLUNK. Instead of taking the pic my camera propped up the flash, which banged up against my baseball cap. Whaaaaaa? I had the camera accidentally set to the wrong mode, and it thought the scene was too dark (which it wasn't). Of course, by the time I squared that away just seconds later, the nuthatch retreated further up the tree, and soon flew off. Unbelieveable.

    So yes, I do feel your pain. :^) But, at least you had a great view of a wonderful bird, as did I. They're all great learning experiences.

    By Blogger Eric, at 11:57 PM  

  • Your last sentence says it all, Gwyn.

    By Blogger Duncan, at 12:22 AM  

  • John and Eric, I think most of us have had this experience. Eric, I'm laughing and crying at the same time about yours!

    Thanks for sharing your jinx bird stories with me. It reassures me that
    I'm not the only one these things happen to.

    By Blogger Gwyn, at 9:55 AM  

  • how wonderful!! aren't they magnificent birds? I always feel like I'm in Jurassic park when I hear them.. and Gray Jays, what a fantastic trip, one I'm sure you'll always treasure.
    Some moments are meant to be just that- treasured and remembered.
    Sorry to hear you've had to resign from the IBW project BUT.. you've shared time with one of the most handsome woodpeckers in North America. Endangered or not, all birds are treasures & I certainly feel our lives are richer for their presence.

    By Anonymous Cindy, at 4:27 PM  

  • I agree, Cindy. Anytime a bird lets me spend time with it is a treasure.
    I just spotted a young Cooper's Hawk in the neighborhood, but it didn't want me too close! I wondered why the feeder birds had all vanished; now I know.

    By Blogger Gwyn, at 4:34 PM  

  • Awesome story, Gwyn. What an inspiration to those of us who still have yet to come face to face with our jinx birds (mine's Ruffed Grouse!)

    By Anonymous Mike, at 9:11 AM  

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