White-headed Woodpecker, continued:
Last week, instead of answering a birding question, I wrote about my three-decades-long search for a White-headed Woodpecker. These unique black-bodied woodpeckers, with bright white heads, aren’t especially rare, but they are restricted to specific mountain habitats and are only found in a few western states. Also, it’s been bugging me that Greg, the local T-shirt guy, saw one of these beautiful woodpeckers years ago but I still haven’t seen one. Then I heard that the area around Bend, Oregon is known for having all sorts of woodpeckers, so my wife and I packed our bags and headed west. (She really wanted to go to Spain, but whatever.) We settled into our fancy cabin and quickly made a list of places in which to search for this elusive bird. Our first stop was the U.S. National Forest’s Cold Springs campground, near the cute town of Sisters. We searched Cold Springs for quite a while but heard absolutely no bird activity. The campground was as quiet as a mime convention. We were just about to leave when I heard “tap, tap, tap.” I ran off to investigate, and this is where the story continues. Thrilling stuff, eh?
We easily found the source of the mysterious tapping, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for. The sound was coming from a pair of nest building White-breasted Nuthatches. Under most circumstances this would have been an exciting discovery, but not this time. To make things even worse, the busy nuthatches kept fooling my wife. The two birds were so active that they seemed to be everywhere. My wife kept yelling, “What’s this bird?” and I’d reply, “It’s a nuthatch.” She’d then say, “What about this one?” and once again I’d say, “That too is a nuthatch.” After about the fifth time I started to get annoyed and thought to myself (and believe me, it was to myself), “What the heck is your problem? They are all nuthatches.”
Then she said, “but this one seems much larger.” To shut her up I trained my binoculars on the “larger” nuthatch and OMG: there it was, a stunningly handsome male White-headed Woodpecker. Wow! I thought about grabbing my camera and snapping a photo (Greg, the T-shirt guy wanted proof), but instead I just stared and enjoyed the moment. After thirty-two years of searching I had finally found the mythical bird. (Okay, my wife actually found it, but I was there.) And then to make an extraordinary moment even more special, the woodpecker’s mate flew in and the two began courting. Are you kidding me? It was now time to break out the cameras and start snapping away. We watched and photographed the birds for about thirty minutes until they got tired of our voyeuristic ways and flew off for a little privacy. We walked back to the car all smiles and then it hit me. I had planned an entire week of woodpecker hunting and now ten minutes into our first day, at our very first stop, we had reached our goal. What were we going to do now? The first thing we did was go into Sisters and treat ourselves to celebratory ice cream cones. (Truth be told, we likely would have gotten ice cream even if we hadn’t found the bird, but this legitimized it.) Then I pulled out the map. The Bend area is a loaded with great birding spots. We still had plenty of places left to explore. After the cones were finished (and I got the chocolate stain out of my shirt), we headed to Smith Rock State Park to look for nesting Golden Eagles.
Smith Rock is a very popular park and I can see why; it is totally beautiful. On this day it was filled with hikers, families and dogs (whose owners didn’t think the leash law applied to them). On our hike we saw tons of Violet-green Swallows, Black-billed Magpies, ravens and a flock of tiny Bushtits (yes, I can say that, they are real birds). We also found the Golden Eagles’ nest. Unfortunately, the giant birds weren’t home, but I didn’t really care. I had already found my best bird of the past three decades. Everything else was gravy. Plus, the next day I would see a hunting eagle in action.
Believe it or not, some of the finest birding locations are often around local water treatment plants. Birds, especially ducks and shorebirds, love sewage lagoons. I know that sounds gross, but the lagoons are basically ponds that have been filled with filtered water. There is no smell or anything floating by…except ducks. In Bend’s lagoons I found coots, Green-winged and Cinnamon teal, Buffleheads, Greater Yellowlegs and singing Western Meadowlarks. I had just focused my scope on a flock of Ruddy Ducks when something big flashed into view. It was a Bald Eagle and it wanted duck for dinner. For the next ten minutes the enormous raptor repeatedly dove at the ducks, which in turn plunged under water. Eventually, a few of the smarter ruddys took to the air (eagles are much too slow to outrace a duck), but the dumber birds kept diving, thinking they would be safer under water. Not a good idea. The eagle knew that eventually a duck would surface at the wrong time and that’s exactly what happened. As I watched from shore, I saw a ruddy pop up and in a nanosecond the eagle grabbed it, and that was that. It was all very exciting…well, not so much for the duck.
Back at the cabin, our butler was off for the evening, so we had to build our own fire in the fireplace (it was gas, so I just flipped a switch). Sitting by the fire we planned out the next day. My wife wanted to go horseback riding, so I was on my own and I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but it required getting on the road by 4:00 am. You’ll see why next week.