Watching Birds

Occasionally I get caught in the thrill of a bird count, galumphing about notching as many species and individuals as I can, relishing the potluck afterwards with all its friendly rivalry about who spotted what remarkable species. I even know how useful amateur findings can be in the record-keeping, which now, with global warming, is more essential than ever.

But what I much prefer to do is to simply watch birds, a pleasure exciting enough to last the rest of my days. This morning the resident pair of white-breasted nuthatches sidle up and down the dooryard saplings, nearly touching one another, and it occurs to me that I could spend a happy morning observing beaks and adaptations of feeder birds here and how individuals use them.

Sunday morning, to Barry’s exasperation, I left him to do all our shared chores by himself, while I spent an hour sitting on the edge of the bed, close to tears, watching a male hairy woodpecker. While I was getting dressed, the handsome, largish bird had slammed into the window, apparently stunning himself. He fell more than flew to the snow-covered canoe below the window, and it was then that I started my sorrowful watching. I couldn’t help it. I suppose you could say it was a prayerful, compassionate, sort of watching. I simply needed to be with the woodpecker as he regathered himself.

This was a bitterly cold morning, so I was specially anxious about the injured male. Breathlessly I watched as he slowly, occasionally turned his head from side to side, a good sign, I hoped. I discovered that little birds flitting around him didn’t disturb him. Evidently,
they were part of his web of awareness. However, our indoor noises did startle him. I suppressed hurtful thoughts that he was wounded because we, intruders, had built a house here. His wings were sprawled open unnaturally, leaving the downy undercovering of his back exposed to the cruel, icy wind. I could only guess how dangerous this exposure would be for him.

Finally, hoping to stir me into making breakfast, Barry put on his boots and trudged through the knee-deep snow, planning to scoop the woodpecker up in a work glove and bring him in to rest quietly in the basement in a shoe box until he recovered. In a burst, the hairy eluded him, flying awkwardly to a nearby aspen, where he clung by his spidery talons.

Breakfast was delayed further as I made repeated returns to the bedroom window, looking anxiously at the motionless bird gripping the tree. Perhaps an hour later, when I looked, the tree was vacant, leaving me wonder whether the woodpecker had truly flown off or whether he had fallen lifeless into the thick, fluffy snow.

Never before had I had an opportunity to sit for an hour simply observing a single bird so intimately. After the woodpecker’s disappearance, the wintry landscape felt much the poorer for the loss of him.

This story has a happy ending. The hairy’s red marking feathers on the back of his head were paler than those of the other local males, so the next day when I saw him working capably on a block of suet, I felt fairly sure it was the recovered bird. Each day he returned to work the nearby trees, and at the end of the week, I caught him courting the imposing, tough female hairy, impressing her with his tree work.

About Peri McQuay

Peri Phillips McQuay is the author of Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home, The View From Foley Mountain, a book of nature meditations on her experiences living for 30 years at the Foley Mountain Conservation Area and A Wing in the Door: Life With a Red-tailed Hawk is the story of her adventures with Merak, a human-imprinted hawk, who lived free but saw McQuay and her family as her special people. Also Peri has written numerous essays, articles, book reviews and a weekly column, published in the Kingston Whig-Standard Magazine. Her credits include Country Journal, Harrowsmith, Bird Watcher’s Digest, The Snowy Egret, Seasons, The Fiddlehead, Herizons and Brick.
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