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