Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seven-Woodpecker Day

During what was literally the darkest hours after Hurricane Sandy blacked out my neighborhood, my husband and I wondered if we would be traveling on our planned vacation to North Carolina.

Sandy was only about a month ago but it seems like yesterday. We had power in two days. Our neighbors just a block away were out over a week. The power grid works in mysterious ways.

Even after the power came back on, MH and I were paranoid. We feared losing power again after the nor’easter blew through. We bought few groceries that week because, we hoped, we’d be traveling and didn’t want to stock a freezer only to lose the goods in the next storm. Even though my neighbors without power were running generators (I don’t have one - yet) I was afraid someone would plug into my outside outlet. People without power could be capable of anything, we thought.

We would look hard at people walking along our quiet side street if we didn't recognize them, wondering if they were looking for an uninhabited house to rob. Even tho’ we could put our alarm on, I am ashamed to admit we were ready to cancel our vacation - the only week I could afford to take off this year - if the rest of the area was still in the dark. We would stay and protect our home.

Luckily, it never came to that. The neighbors got their power back, the noisy generators were shut off, the mowers and blowers and chainsaws did their jobs and we went off to a barrier island of North Carolina that, unlike the barrier islands of the Jersey Shore, was not damaged a bit by Sandy.

We’d never been in Atlantic Beach before. We wanted to try a different place than the Outer Banks, where we’ve been twice. Besides the ocean and the sound, what made me choose this area were the natural areas close to where we’d be staying.

The barrier island Atlantic Beach is on is very much built up. A Sandy hitting it would do the same damage seen in Holgate, N.J. But unlike New Jersey there was plenty of public beach access areas where we could walk (and, more important, use the bathroom) unimpeded and without paying a fee.

Each time we stopped at one we saw something different and surprising. Surfers. Surf casters. On the bird end we had pelicans, willets, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones plus terns, different gulls and skeins of black scoters and cormorants.

We went to a road near the aquarium to find the Theodore Roosevelt natural area but while we found parking there were no trails. It was literally a “wildlife viewing area." What you viewed was from the road. We saw a grand variety of birds including the brown thrasher pictured here that didn’t care we had parked next to it.

We were also told by our waitress at a diner one morning about a little trail she’d seen next to the Food Lion supermarket. It turned out to be a trail running next to a creek on which the Union Army traveled down to lay siege to nearby Fort Macon. We’d never have known had we not told her we were there to bird, not fish and she had seen the sign when she parked to get groceries.

But the best part of the four days we spent there was hiking Croatan National Forest. It is a huge chunk of land, many big pieces of which are given over to hunting. (There was a lot of hunting going on. We could hear the rifle shots at many of the places we stopped in our travels). Thanks to the Internet I had found a trail that was on a part of the mainland not far from us that was said to be good for birding.

I almost lost MH when he saw a sign at the entrance warning people to wear orange if they were going in.

I was not going to be stopped from going into this forest because I heard this was prime habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

This is a bird found only in the south. It builds nests in living pine trees, particularly mature long-leaf pine trees. You will not find this bird in suburban housing developments. In our two visits to the Outer Banks I had sought this bird in every pine forest. The red on this woodpecker, despite its name, is quite small (if it is there at all) but the bird has a large white cheek patch that distinguishes it from its more common cousin, the downy. I always admonished MH to “look for the white cheek!” if he saw a woodpecker in those North Carolina woods. We found none.

Now I was on the doorstep and I was going in, orange or no orange. He reluctantly followed.

It helped we were on a trail that led to several loop trails and we took the inner one, figuring any hunting would be in the forest at large and thus affect the outer loop. As it turned out, we heard no shots at all. In fact, two guys and their small hound came bounding onto the trail and walked on the outer loop without a care or an orange vest.

On our loop trail we saw a lot that we expected - brown-headed nuthatch (a southern cousin of the white-breasted nuthatch seen in NJ) and many myrtle warblers - and that we did not, including a solitary vireo, a pine warbler (pictured) and an osprey, all of which left my part of NJ long ago.

But at one point I heard a rattling that sounded vaguely familiar, and that is when I looked up and found a redheaded woodpecker.

This is a very striking bird, and I have seen it in New Jersey, in Great Swamp and, one spectacular February day after a heavy snow had melted, along the linear county park near me known as Patriots Path. But MH had never seen one and each time one was sighted in NJ or NY I would rush him out on a wild bird chase. We never found it. He didn’t care but I very much wanted him to see one.

Now he had, and he understood why I had bothered.

As you can see it has a deep red head and a body of solid black and white. I had forgotten this is a southern bird, only rarely sighted in the north, usually a juvenile and usually in winter. MH must’ve shot over 100 pictures of this adult bird from various angles while I took my own pictures, including this one. We later found others.

In the meantime, we had found a pileated woodpecker, flickers, redbelly, several yellow-bellied sapsuckers and a downy. So that’s a six-woodpecker day, something I hadn’t had since last December.

But it got better. Something caught my eye and I looked to my right and there, climbing a tree, was a little black and white woodpecker with a bright white cheek.

Somehow I managed to get MH’s attention without startling the bird. I think I just called out its name. MH came running and we started snapping pictures, one of which is this one.

A seven-woodpecker day. Our 335th new bird. By the time we’d finished the loop trail we’d seen four or five more of these woodpeckers.

Most people travel to refresh themselves. If they are smart they keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut and learn something about the area where they are traveling instead of trying to recreate or impose on it the culture of where they’ve come from. If you’re a birder, you also go to different areas where you can see new (to you) birds.

On this trip MH and I saw a lot that was good and lot of not so good. Too many people, too many chain restaurants you can find anywhere, little respect for wildlife beyond what you could kill, not as much regional flavor (in food and behavior) as we’d hoped. But we did see a new bird in a new (to us) area.

More important, besides spending time together away from work, MH and I were able to rid ourselves of our post-Sandy paranoia. We came back to a neighborhood that was back to “normal” (with both the good and the bad that implies). While saddened that many devastated areas of coastal New Jersey continue to suffer, we were glad to be back to normal, too.

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