Yesterday I crouched in ferny woods for 45 minutes or so, waiting for the pileated woodpeckers to show themselves. It was 6:30 in the morning when I settled myself on a damp fallen log in the tick-infested woods, within view of the nest, but not too close.
I watched red-winged blackbirds chasing one another and sounding off. A broad-winged hawk lit on a branch over my head and gave me one brief, piercing look before taking flight to escape some marauding grackels. By 7:00 I was getting chilled, my feet were falling asleep, and my trick neck was threatening to jam as I looked up wistfully at the woodpecker cavity.
Suddenly, Mrs. Pileated appeared, a silhouette against the sky on a neighboring tree. She pecked away quietly, making sure the coast was clear, then whooshed to the tree and went inside.
She wasn’t in there long before Mr. Pileated appeared. He surveyed the scene carefully from several different trees, including one right in front of me.
Then he made his move.
I left, being careful to use a different route than the one I took coming in.
It was thrilling. I think of pileated woodpeckers as belonging to the wilderness, and I felt privileged to see them going through their routines together. I still haven’t seen any little beaks poking out. How many nestlings do they have? When will they fledge? I don’t want to hound them by coming too often, but I hope I’ll see a glimpse of the youngsters at some point. I’ve never seen a juvenile pileated woodpecker.
What is it that drives me to such an activity early on a Saturday morning? I’ve been thinking about it today. My woodland explorations have come to seem like some of the most real moments of my life. It’s the ultimate “unplugged” experience, for one thing. The sights and sounds and smells are all vivid and direct. For another, there is no pretense in nature. All around me are creatures busy at the task of survival. They need food; they need to mate and raise young; they need to stake out territory to provide for themselves. It’s life and death for them, and it exposes many of my human rituals and “concerns” as simply trivial. Which brings us to humility. It’s humbling to get these glimpses of the complexity and variety and beauty of the non-human world. Humbling, and deeply inspiring.
What better way could there be to start a weekend?