Tuesday, January 17, 2012
I went running Sunday morning, even though the road was snow-covered and what wasn’t snow was ice. Thanks to ice and circumstance, I’d taken an unprecedented three days off in the last week, and I needed to get out. The sun was brilliant and right in my eyes; it was 22 degrees and as long as I kept moving I was fine. Chet and I lingered in the cemetery, he sitting on my lap as I sat on a headstone. We warm up his paws that way. I wrap my arms around him and rest my cheek on his back and we just sit. I sometimes think that if we were lost in the woods we would sit that way until we figured out what to do.
As I came up our driveway headed home I saw fresh bootprints in the snow and the words BIG NEWS drawn in a drift. I quickened my pace. Came up the sidewalk to find Phoebe still in PJ’s, clutching my camera with 300 mm. telephoto lens, frantically waving me inside. “There’s a red-headed woodpecker at the feeder RIGHT NOW! Get in here!”
She was the one who had run out to look for me; she the one who'd scratched M. HURRY HOME and BIG NEWS in the snow on the driveway. And now she was following this vagrant bird from window to window, frantically keeping tabs on him, willing me to get home before he flew away forever. She shoved the camera in my hands and pulled me to the kitchen window.
You can't buy a 15-year-old girl like that. You have to make them, with a healthy assist from Luck and Fate. This is Phoebe, having just found a short-eared owl's roosting nook (yes, they roost on the ground), and the fresh warm poop left by the flushed bird.
She knows how to make her mama's heart sing. And the best part is it thrills her just as much. More on that later.
There he was! just off the kitchen window in all his natty glory, pecking away at the peanut feeder. It was a little like seeing a unicorn in the garden. Phoebs had taken a bunch of documentary shots already. I flipped all the way out, then started shooting. Red-headed woodpeckers are vanishingly rare in Ohio now. A couple of pairs used to breed in a stand of giant oaks over a cow pasture about two miles from our home, but have since deserted that place. We’ve had flyovers every year in September, October and May, most of them spotted from our tower (red-headeds fly slowly and very high, so they can watch for hawks) but only one other red-headed woodpecker has landed in our yard in 20 years. That one ate corn for a morning and was gone before Bill got home from work. I've never forgotten that bird, that lost chance to share its miraculous beauty.
Of course, Bill was away at an Ohio Ornithological Society board meeting. Irony of ironies. He was missing his absolute # 1 favorite bird while figuring out how to make Ohio birding better for everyone else. It about killed us to know that.
Over the next seven hours, that woodpecker tried everything we had. He contemplated suet; he tried black oil sunflower (but seemed not to know how to open the seeds). He ate peanuts from our peanut feeder, and cached several in the bark of a dead tree just inside the woods. While he sat in our sycamore, I moved quietly out and replenished the Zick Dough in our birch log feeder, leaving conspicuous piles on the deck railing, too. He watched me. And not five minutes later he was tasting what I’m sure was his first beakful of homemade manna. From then on, he bopped between roasted cocktail peanuts and Zick Dough, storing quantities of both in the dead tree’s bark.
He was ugly to all the other birds, something I found oddly endearing. This newcomer, this rara avis, acting as if he owned the place. I was ready to sign the title over. The kids were enthralled, running from window to window to watch him. I was beside myself. How could this happen again, with Bill away?
I opened the deck sliders and sat quietly in a rocking chair and clicked away at him as he fed only 12’ away. He wasn’t bothered by the sound of the shutter. What a guy.
Lazily scratching his face on one of our feeder perches. Tip from my slim archive of bird photography pointers: Put the food in holes in a rotty log (birch is my favorite!), then prop some groovy looking dead branches all around your feeders, so you can get natural looking photos. You can only go so far with a photo of a bird on a feeder. Because ultimately, all feeders are pretty ugly compared to a weathered branch or a rotting birch log. If you plant birches in your yard, you'll always have rotty logs to play with.
Because birches love to grow, but they love to die even more.
Needless to say, we fell completely in love with Garrett, as Phoebe named him, and the feeling seemed mutual. He watched to see what I'd put out for him next, and sampled it as soon as I was inside. He's bombproof, ignoring the slap of our shutters as we aim our lenses at him from inside the darkened living room only ten feet away. But would he hang around for us?
And because I know you'll ask, here's the recipe for Improved Zick Dough.
With the whole story about why it needed to be improved. More Garrett in my next post.