It was a slow afternoon at the parking lot. I was sitting in my camp chair, reading Bless Me, Ultima between talking to visitors. Suddenly something flew in front of and past me at eye level. I caught a flash of red as I looked up. The large bird had flown within a few feet of my head. My eyes followed it into nearby trees.
It landed low on a tree trunk and stood there for many seconds, maybe even a minute, maybe two. Time stretched long as I regarded the bird.
I could see its long bill and the red crest of feathers on its head. I knew it was a woodpecker, probably because it did actually bear a resemblance to Woody Woodpecker of cartoon fame. It didn’t laugh like Woody or use its beak to extract insects from the tree, but I was certain it was a woodpecker.
An older couple exited the trail across the street, and while I tried to signal them silently to be quiet and look over there, the woodpecker flew away.
The next day I told my co-worker (a third generation Californian who lives in the area year-round) all about the bird. I described it as big, woodpecker, red head. My co-worker said I’d seen a pileated woodpecker. He told me this is the bird whose pecking we hear reverberating like a jackhammer through the forest.
I looked it up in my book The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada by John Muir Laws, and my co-worker was absolutely right!
The books says the bird’s scientific name is Dryocopus pileatus. Its habitat is the forest, and it’s the size of a crow. The males and females look quite alike, with the males having a red stripe on its face under its eye, where the female has a black stripe. (I wasn’t looking for the red stripe, so I don’t know if the bird I saw was a male or a female.)
Interestingly, none of the other woodpeckers in the book have a crest of feathers on the head, so I probably would not have identified any of them as woodpeckers, unless I had seen them actually pecking at a tree. But the pileated woodpecker I saw looked like the Platonic ideal of a woodpecker.
I was pretty excited to have seen the bird, even before I knew what it was, especially since it had flown so close to me. My co-worker told me many people would give their eyeteeth to get a glimpse of that bird. I love getting paid while I’m spotting wildlife and enjoying nature.
I’ve seen the bird (or one of its close relatives) twice more since the first sighting. My co-worker saw it the other day too, and said it is probably a female, based on its smallish size. He thinks the bird hanging around the parking lot is a good omen.
I wondered why I never saw the bird in the parking lot last season. According to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/id,
Pileated Woodpeckers are forest birds that require large, standing dead trees and downed wood.
Last season we didn’t have so many standing dead trees and downed wood. I think the pileated woodpecker moved into the neighborhood because now there are many dead trees and down wood. The bird is a kind of silver lining. Many trees may have died, but they’ve brought a pileated woodpecker to the area.