Discover more from Laura Erickson's For the Birds
Exploration, discovery, and triumph
Whether you're 3 or 71, the world is filled with new wonders to explore.
(Listen to the radio version here.)
On August 19, I was sitting out in my backyard in what I call my Bruce Pomeroy photo blind, a small, camouflaged tent my dear friend Bruce Pomeroy gave me back in 2006.
I was mostly focusing on the handful of birds coming to my birdbath when one of the juvenile Pileated Woodpeckers hanging around here flew into a box elder right in view of me. She opened her beak in sort of a yawn while I was shooting on burst, and WHOA—I got a picture showing the roof of her mouth!
I’ve been birding for over 48 years, and in my Peabody Street backyard for 42 of them, yet I’m still discovering, and sometimes getting photos of, plenty of new things. When I uploaded my photos to my computer and saw this one, I could feel a joyful surge of discovery—the only time I’d ever gotten a glimpse of the roof of a Pileated Woodpecker’s mouth before was when I was rehabbing a fledgling back in the 90s, and that little guy didn’t keep his mouth open for close examination. I barely glimpsed this one with my eyes, but my photo gave me a surge of triumph. This wasn’t just a cool photo—I’m the one who took it! Oddly enough, less than two weeks later, on September 1, I got a photo of the roof of BB’s son’s mouth, too.
That photo was taken when the little guy was repeatedly making the begging call, which has made me wonder if BB didn’t have two sons this year. The one I was photographing in early July and August was often feeding by himself even when he was here with BB.
The only fledgling I’ve seen with BB in the past few days—a male—is constantly begging. I’m thinking this one was the last to fledge and was sticking with the mother closer to wherever the nest was while the daughters and the other son were wandering about with BB. Now I’ve seen BB at my feeder a few times without babies anywhere I could see or hear, and I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t giving his mate a break by taking over care of this one at least part of the time. BB is the only one in the family I can identify for certain because of the band on his leg. The only way I can be certain there were two females in the brood is because I saw two of them here at the same time a few times. There could have been three or more, but there’s no evidence of that, and most Pileated broods have three or four young.
Ever since BB started bringing his children here in July, I’ve been getting images I’d never imagined taking before: photos of him feeding babies…
a video of his son opening his wings in a defensive display against a curious squirrel…
several pictures and videos of the babies trying to figure out how to get food out of a suet feeder.
Studying this one little family has been cosmically rewarding in terms of exploration, discovery, and triumph. Any time I hear or see a Pileated, I know I’m going to be rewarded by seeing something cool about this splendid bird. On August 31, one of BB’s daughters was sitting on the squirrel baffle and after a few small bites, she decided to jump into the suet feeder just inches away and missed, falling ignominiously but adorably to the ground. Whether you’re Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, or anyone else, the best advice in such an awkward situation is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, and that’s exactly what she did, this time sticking the landing. I wish I’d had my camera, but for a birder, witnessing it at all is almost as good.
I think my very best Pileated Woodpecker photo of all was taken November 19, 2018, the day we had a new window installed in our dining room. The moment the installer left, to test how clear the glass was, I grabbed my camera to take some photos of the first bird to show up. An adult male Pileated obligingly alighted in our birch-branch-peanut-butter feeder. I shoot birds using my camera’s “burst” function, so holding down the shutter, I got half a dozen shots. And when I looked, one photo showed his long tongue fully extended! That’s something I’ve seen with binoculars several times, but the tongue goes out and back in so quickly that I never thought I’d get an actual photo, and this time I wasn’t even trying. When we’re not expecting or even aiming for something at all, a triumph is even sweeter.
Just about everything is new and exciting for a three-year-old, and one of the joys of spending time with my grandson Walter is sharing his joys of exploration, discovery, and triumph all over again. No matter what we’re watching—bees collecting pollen on goldenrod flowers, acorns with their little hats below an oak tree, a grasshopper sitting on a piece of wood, or a shovel truck excavating a new driveway—when we see something through the eyes of a toddler we regain our own joy of exploration, discovery, and triumph.
But even when I’m just looking at backyard birds through my old 71-year-old eyes, I get toddler-like surges of joy. There may be nothing new under the sun, and I may have “mastered” birding long ago (at least some ways), but the one thing I know for sure is that the more you learn about anything, the more you realize how much you don’t know and how much you haven’t yet witnessed with your own eyes and ears. Birders and other people deeply engaged in nature study don’t have to hang out with a toddler to bring exploration, discovery and triumph into our lives. I never imagined I wanted a photo of the roof of a Pileated Woodpecker’s mouth until I got one. I wonder what will be my next triumph?