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Oregon Trip And Seeing the White-headed Woodpecker

Sorry Folks,

I’m out of town and won’t be answering a bird question this week. Where am I, you ask? (At least I hope you ask.) As usual, my schoolteacher wife wanted to go away during April vacation. Swell. That means all the schools will be out and all the hotels will be booked and all the airports will be jammed…grrr. She suggested that we go Spain. Spain? Why would I want to go to Spain? I don’t speak Spanish and I despise bullfighting. But, with that said, I usually find it easier to agree with her ideas (and by “usually” I mean always.) so we were going to Spain. Then I read something that changed my mind and my wife wasn’t going to be happy.

Back in 1983, when I was opening our little bird store, I met Greg and Jean, who were also opening a new business. It was a T-shirt company called Wind Screens. While I was talking to Greg about designing our first ever T-shirt (a puffin), he told me about his trip out West and how he had seen lots of cool birds, including a White-headed Woodpecker. “Hold on, Greg” I said. “What is this bird you just mentioned, a White-headed Woodpecker?” I had never even heard of it and I owned a birding store. (This wasn’t a good thing.) I grabbed my bird book and Greg was right, there really is such a bird as a White-headed Woodpecker…and it’s beautiful. Over the next three decades I have made several birding trips to the West Coast, but never once did I see this elusive woodpecker. I was starting to become obsessed. Then last month I read about Bend, a town in the high desert of Oregon. The article claimed that the area around Bend had a greater diversity of woodpeckers than anywhere in the world…in the world. This Bend place was sure to have the fabled White-headed Woodpecker, or so I thought. I called my wife and told her to put away her English to Spanish phrase book. We were headed west. When she replied, “¿Por qué,” I told her that I’d explain later. (I needed time to think of a way to make Bend, Oregon sound better than Barcelona and Madrid, which I knew I could never do, so I just booked the plane tickets and would deal with the fallout later.)

We flew to Portland, OR via Alaskan Airlines. Remember back in the old days when long flights used to be unbelievably boring? Then the airlines installed little TVs in the back of the seats and the trips became bearable. Well, Alaskan Airlines wants us to remember the good old days because they decided not to spring for the little TVs. The only thing to look at on my six-hour flight was the airsick bag. Even the beloved SkyMall catalog was gone. Fortunately, Portland made up for Alaskan Air’s boringness. What a weird and whacky city Portland is (and that’s coming from someone who lives a half hour from Provincetown). The first thing I did was grab a vegetarian lunch from a food truck (Portland has over 600 different food trucks) and then we had dessert at the famed Voodoo Donuts. Yum! Not only does Voodoo have a crazy assortment of tasty donuts (including “Memphis Mafia” and “Dirty Snowballs”) but they are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Although they are closed on Groundhog Day. Yes, Ground Hogday. Can you believe a retail shop would have peculiar hours? What’s up with that?

The next morning, after sleeping off our donut hangover, we hopped into our rental and headed to Bend, via the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, which was indeed spectacular. We paused long enough to snap a few pictures of the area’s famous waterfalls and then continued on to Bend. Bend is an outdoor lover’s dream. There is lots of sunshine, plenty of trails for hiking or mountain biking, and of course, horseback riding. Bend also has lots of wilderness areas where folks can rent rustic cabins, which we totally didn’t do. Oh, we stayed in a cabin all right, but our cabin had two bedrooms, two baths, a totally tricked-out kitchen, as well as a hot tub and a flat screen TV. It was like camping in Osterville. The upscale digs were my concession for backing out of the Spain trip. Plus, after spending all that time trapped on Alaskan Air, I was actually glad to see a TV.

As soon as I finished investigating the posh accommodations, I got busy planning my woodpecker search. A few years ago, just outside of the nearby town of Sisters, there was a major forest fire. Most wild creatures aren’t really keen on fires, but some woodpeckers actually like them. Insects ravage the dead and dying trees, which draws the woodpeckers. I decided to try this burned out area first. I set my alarm for early, programmed my GPS for Sisters and fell asleep dreaming of woodpeckers. (At my age, that’s as exciting as my dreams get.)

I had hoped to get to Sisters early, but much to my surprise, the trees around my trophy cabin were filled with birds. Without even leaving my back porch I spotted Mountain Bluebirds, California Quail, Golden-crown Sparrows and a ghostly-white Ferruginous Hawk. Even after we started down the road, I had to stop and check out every bird we saw along the way, so the thirty-minute drive to Sisters took an hour and a half. But once we arrived it didn’t take me long to find the perfect spot. Five miles west out of town is the U.S. National Forest’s Cold Springs Campground. We jumped out of the car and listened…everything was dead quiet. This place didn’t look too promising, but I had a long list of other places to try. We would just move on. Then I heard, “tap, tap, tap.” I sprinted down the trail. Oops, out of room. Continued next week…