Woodpeckers and Strangers

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More often than not when I am at Stony Brook Park, I hear the red- bellied woodpecker calling. He is a common woodpecker in these parts, but that was not always the case. As kids, we never laid eyes on one. But over the past few decades, they have expanded their range from the South to include New England, and I am glad of it. He is a handsome bird who confuses folks because he has more red on his head than his belly. The male has a red crown, and the female has a more abbreviated version of her mate’s headpiece. They have beautiful zebra striped backs and cling to trees, often making a staccato call. The red- bellied eat insects, nuts and berries and have a tongue with a barbed tip for extracting food. They also have sticky saliva (the best kind, in my humble opinion) which helps when they are catching insects. Like most woodpeckers, they fly in an undulating way from tree to tree in the woods. They also are happy to visit your feeders throughout the winter.

Photo by Joan Heffernan
Notice the subtle red belly markings that give the female and male, red-bellied woodpeckers their name. Because of the red on their heads, they are often mis-identified as a red-headed woodpecker (bottom).

A while back I had parked at Stony Brook Park looking for some solitude in the woods with my Labrador sidekick, Rita. I was also hoping to catch a glimpse of the red- bellied woodpecker as he frequents the park and is not shy about making himself known. So, I turned off the car and was attaching Rita’s leash, oblivious to anything happening in the world besides woodpeckers. I find that is an excellent strategy for me these days. However, I was brought back to reality when I heard a man’s voice call from a truck on the other side of the parking lot, “Wanna treat?” I immediately put aside anything my parents had ever told me about strangers lurking in vehicles with offers of puppies or kittens or chocolate cake. I made a bee-line to the truck and, it turns out abduction was the furthest thing from his mind, and yes, people are mostly good. The driver rummaged in his glove box and unearthed a very nice dog bone for Rita. She happily accepted it, and I chewed the driver’s ear off about woodpeckers until his eyelids grew heavy, and we went our separate ways. My dog and I meandered around the trails, and this time our reward was a good view of a pair of red- bellied on one of the trees, calling to each other and stopping to hammer away on the tree trunks.

This was not to be our last treat of the morning. We followed the woodpeckers as they flew towards the brook. Lo and behold, there we put our solitude on hold when we caught a glimpse of a man and his spaniel on the other side of the brook. We inched closer as spaniels are Rita’s favorite kind of dog and, like the woodpecker, the man and I started to converse. By some miracle the man had come down the trail with the assistance of an off-road walker. I cupped my hands behind my ears because I am half deaf, and the dogs were splashing in the brook. There, on the banks of the brook, we exchanged our life stories, our love for our dogs and places in the woods. Eventually, the dogs tired, the stranger on the bank of the brook’s eyes got heavy, too, and I dragged myself away. We headed back on the trail.

But since that day, every time I round that bend, I think that sometimes what we look for and what we see are not the same thing. And often there are unexpected gifts along the way. Most of the time I find the gifts in the form of a lone warbler, a salamander, or a piece of lichen clinging to a tree. But on this sunny day, two people warmed my heart, and the woodpecker was just the icing on the cake.

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