As I hiked down from the top of Spencer’s Butte on cruise control, nice pace on the Tie Trail, suddenly a bird, all white underneath, flew across the trail.  That was unusual. I stopped, heard the bird call nearby and remained still. The bird called again.

I had trouble localizing exactly where the bird was, wondering if my worsening hearing was also affecting my ability to localize sounds. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I saw movement, and the bird appeared behind a few sword ferns on the side of a downed Douglas fir. It looked at first like a nuthatch, but I’ve only seen nuthatches on standing trees, and this bird was too big. Then, as if to give me a hint, it turned and I saw a small patch of red on the back of its head. Continuing, as if to show me all the right places, the bird moved so I could see the large white patch on its back. It was a Hairy woodpecker.

No big deal, really. The bird is common, but it got me to stop and identify it, not call it a Downy, Three-toed, Pileated, a Flicker, or something “interesting.”  Seeing and identifying this bird made this one hike memorable. That’s special.  There is some evidence to suggest that being fully focused on something enhances one’s recollection of it. Why wouldn’t it?

Indeed, I have a fond recollection of an autumn day several years ago when there was a flock of golden-crowned kinglets at the top of the butte. I counted myself lucky in Arizona if I saw one. These guys were everywhere. That day.  Maybe only that day. But I was there when they were, and that mattered. It’s remarkable how a single event may be burnt into one’s memory, perhaps not completely accurately, but often good enough.

I’m not more than a novice birder, and while I keep a life list, I haven’t updated it since before the pandemic. I have trouble with teals, struggle with sparrows, wonder about warblers, ask about accipiters, and blank out with buteos. More than half of the seven hundred birds on my list I saw overseas as part of a solar eclipse trip. One hundred alone were on a single memorable day in Kruger in 2002. The eclipse was clouded out, but the birding almost made up for it. Almost. I took exactly one formal birding trip in Nebraska in 2007 and saw 98 different species, but the most important lesson I learned that week was that such trips weren’t for me, much as I understand why people take them. After all, I volunteered for a week in late winter for ten years at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska in spring, doing everything from cleaning toilets to running the cash register, just so I could be in the viewing blinds twice a day with visitors answering questions about the Sandhill Crane migration in weather ranging from a blizzard to 85 degrees.

I am not disappointed if I don’t see wildlife in the woods. They have their schedule, and I’m only a visitor, probably an unwelcome one at that. But every animal I see is a gift, and this woodpecker made my day. Do I have low standards? Perhaps. But if  I’m easily pleased, that’s a gift, too.

See you on the trail. 

From the Obsidian Bulletin, March 2023

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