Patience is a Virtue (Especially with birding)

“I find if I just sit down and think, the solution presents itself.” Henry Jones, father of Indiana Jones from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

image of a pileated woodpecker on a treeIn 1969, my junior year of high school, me and two of my friends had all become ravenous birders. Out every day searching for new species, studying our field guides and many afternoons playing “hangman” using bird names as a memory aid. We were, as they say in poker, “All in.” That same year we decided to take a field trip. A long field trip in search of the uncommon Pileated Woodpecker. Although fairly common in the eastern US this mighty bird of great dimensions and a powerful jackhammer of a beak was a rare sighting in northern California where I was living at the time in Palo Alto. We planned a quest north and to keep going until we found the great one.

The Pileated Woodpecker is one most striking forest birds on the continent. Approximately the size of a crow with black with bold white stripes down the neck and a flaming-red crest. This unique bird hammers rectangular holes in trees in search of their main prey, carpenter ants. Thanks Pileated Woodpecker! Their nest holes often offer crucial shelter to many species including swifts, owls, ducks and bats.

After convincing my friend Kevin’s father to let us use his Simca 1204 for our voyage of discovery, we packed our gear which consisted of a Coleman stove, sleeping bags and a cooler. Travelin’ light as they say. Wasn’t any room for much more except binoculars, field guides and my trusty Minolta SRT 101.

We headed north across the Golden Gate bridge and into Marin County. Camped by the Pacific “free as birds.” The next day we headed into massive redwood forests always on a sharp lookout for our big bird.

Winding along the serpentine Route 101, the famous Pacific Coast highway, which offers breathtaking views and white knuckle tension, we saw amazing species which we entered into our field guild’s life lists with delight. Among our sightings was the Acorn Woodpecker, a very unusual woodpecker that lives in large groups and hoards acorns. Group members gather acorns by the hundreds and wedge them into holes they’ve made in a tree trunk or telephone pole. Another striking bird we happened upon was the Phainopepla which looks like an all black Cardinal with red eyes. Its name is from the Greek phain pepla meaning “shining robe” in reference to the male’s plumage.

Pulling over again and again, tramping deep into the great forests, straining our eyes and ears for clues but-no luck. Late that afternoon we decided to camp by Redwood Creek which is about 50 miles south of the Oregon border. We sat down, tired and frustrated, when lo and behold a huge bird flashes by – the one, the only, awesome Pileated Woodpecker makes its appearance while we just sat with a sense of wonder.

The journey was fantastic fun, buddy trip and all that, foot loose and full of new birds. Saw my first Raven by the side of the highway, the brilliant Steller’s Jay and one of the largest birds in North America, the Golden Eagle which soars with a wing-span of over 6 feet.

image of a pileated woodpecker on bird feederWe returned home tired but elated with our discoveries.

Three years later, I found myself in Maryland as my father had taken a job at the FCC. I took my then girlfriend to a park in Washington, DC. As we were sitting on a bench talking… not 20 feet in front of me what lands on the side of a tree? You guessed it, a Pileated Woodpecker! I was stunned.

I still bird watch all the time, which you can do anywhere of course, since birds are all around and I have found that very often, if you just sit still, a magnificent bird will appear. Recently I sighted a Pileated Woodpecker, quite possibly my spirit bird, on one of my feeders, as if for good measure to tell me…

“patience is a virtue!”

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Ross Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.


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