Sunday, November 17, 2013

Counting Red-headed Woodpeckers

I spent yesterday morning standing near the edge of a bog, counting red-headed woodpeckers.

Until a few weeks ago, I’d seen exactly one red-headed woodpecker in my life, and that was a fleeting glimpse, from a sidewalk near the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary.

photo by George Tallman, 2013
They’re endangered in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, victims of habitat loss and competition from invasive European starlings.

A month or so ago, George Tallman, longtime leader of the Thursday Exton Park bird walk, started talking about red-headed woodpeckers he was seeing at Crows Nest Preserve, a Natural Lands Trust property in the far north-west corner of our county.

Birding there, he thought he’d seen eight.

Then more: Twenty? Thirty? Thirty-five?

It’s rare, in the mid-Atlantic states, to see more than one red-headed woodpecker at a time.

An occasional lucky birder will see two. Maybe three.

There’s one spot near near Gettysburg National Park with a record of 19. Once. That seems to be the recent record for the state.

So George was asking friends to come help him document what he was seeing, and I agreed to meet him there one Friday morning.

The prearranged morning I woke to heavy rain and wind. No thunder or lightening – but not a nice morning for wandering in the woods.

I tried to call to cancel, but George was already on his way, back in the hills where cell phones don’t work, so I gathered my coffee, binoculars and rain gear, and headed off over the winding roads, skirting downed limbs and hoping I’d see at least one red-head or two.

By the time I pulled into the gravel parking lot, the rain had cleared, and blue jays were calling their warning from the tops of the tree line.

Down a mown path, out onto an aging boardwalk through a swampy lowland, and there, yes, a red-headed woodpecker, swooping from pin oak to dead snag, caching acorns for the winter. Back and forth it went, busy at its work.

And then another. A dark-headed immature. Gathering from a different tree. Depositing on a different snag.

Calls from more birds, back in the woods. We walked on, counting.

Through the edge of a field, to a break in the tree line.

“It’s like a door,” George said. He’d marked the entrance to his magic bird kingdom with a ribbon of orange construction tape, and in we went, feet sucking in the muck, to the birdiest bogland I’ve ever seen.

Red headed woodpeckers swooped low overhead; red-bellied woodpeckers called from trees above us. Downy and hairy woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches. A brown creeper worked its way up a nearby tree trunk. Far above, the blue jays insisted on their right to everything in sight. Somewhere nearby, white-throated sparrows sang their sweet, clear song.

We counted, watching, listening. Two right there, two more over there. Eight different birds, maybe more.

Then walked on, deeper into the muck, to a small clearing marked with the same construction tape. More snags, more birds, swooping, calling, hard at work driving tiny acorns behind bits of bark, sometimes flying up to chase competitors away. Ten red-headed woodpeckers, at least, and a half-dozen red-bellied, plus the others: downies, hairies, nuthatches, blue jays.

photo by George Tallman, 2013
“So, I’m not crazy?”

“Not crazy. No.”

I could only marvel.

And keep counting. By the end of the morning I had counted thirty-two different birds, and was sure there were more.

Which brought us to yesterday.

Documenting unusual bird sightings is tricky business, especially bird counts far beyond expected numbers.

So George recruited a dozen area birders to come and count, in different parts of the preserve, at precisely the same times.

Which is how I found myself standing along the mucky edge of French Creek on a Saturday morning, counting birds.

We had written instructions, showing exactly where to stand, exactly when to count, exactly what to record. Every ten minutes, for exactly three minutes, we were to count how many birds we saw, note whether they were adult or immature, then listen to see if there were more we couldn’t see.

My partner and I spent our time with exactly three birds: one mature, with brilliant red head, one immature, with muddy brown head, one elusive adult in a range just beyond our sight lines, calling almost continuously, only rarely in view.

Later, we converged on St. Peter’s Bakery, in scenic St. Peter’s Village, for coffee, cider, sandwiches and soup, on a sunny deck overlooking the boulder field where French Creek gathers strength and spills its way toward the Schuykill River. We waited for George to finish his careful tally, shared stories of our recent birding exploits, watched two black vultures soaring overhead.

Basking in the sun, sipping my cider, I marveled at the rich mix of people George had drawn together: a high school senior, hoping to study environmental biology, conservation, something to do with birds. A middle school science teacher, recently appointed “bird compiler” for Delaware County, exclaiming he’d rather crunch bird numbers than sports scores any day. Our designated photographer, a cheerful executive who uses an amusing pseudonym so his business associates don’t find out that he cares far more about birds than the work he’s paid to do. Two with careers in localized bird surveys. Several with careers in environmental education. Several, like me, with little background in science, but a growing love for birds, and bogs.

Our total: 35 documented birds. We were all sure there were more, in parts of the preserve where no one
was stationed.

That number will be reported somewhere, and maybe mid-winter we’ll go back to count again. And again in the spring, when breeding season comes. And then in the summer, to see how many birds linger.

Sitting on my couch this morning, watching my own birds competing for the seeds in my feeder, I find myself thinking about bogs.

We’ve spent the last hundred years trying to level things. Draining swamps, leveling swales, filling fens, oblivious to all that’s lost and all that’s harmed in our fervent desire to make things smooth.

The master plan for Exton Park, the place where I met most of my bird friends, called for ball fields, tennis courts, parking lots, in swales and seeps that are wet for months of every year.
photo by Arthur Steinberger, 2013

Multiply that across time, across continents: those natural sponges no longer soak up water, slow floods, offer habitat to creatures dependent on wetland trees and half-rotted tree trunks.

There’s been progress on protection of wetlands and endangered habitat, but it seems that progress is always in danger of being undermined. My bird-count partner, Debbie Beer, board member of Friends of Heinz Refuge, reminded us over lunch that two bills under discussion in the Pennsylvania legislature would make it harder to protect species like the red-headed woodpecker or waterways like French Creek.

“Write your legislators!” she urged us. Yes, write your legislatures.

But beyond that – I find myself thinking about how the push toward standardization in every area has flattened our lives, devalued those who don’t fit the standard, pushed us all toward a smooth, convenient, superficial vision that denigrates the complexity, richness, and sometimes hard-to-discern necessity of things like bogs, muck, human frailty, weird vegetables, red-headed woodpeckers.

This world is a system, delicately balanced in ways that elude our attempts to squeeze all things into our master plan.

We can try to fill the low spots, shave off the high, fill in wetlands, mine mountain tops, ignore depression, worship sameness, but always at great risk to our ecosystem, and our own humanity.

And sometimes, health bubbles up again, in carefully stewarded places (like Crows Nest), or in unexpected settings, like the sunny deck of St. Peter’s Bakery.

Twice now, I’ve filled my pockets with pin oak acorns from the trails in Crows Nest Preserve, to drop in other wetland areas where invasive phragmites are strangling native habitat.

Will they grow? And if they do, will they form a habitat rich enough to invite more red-headed woodpeckers?

Will a call to my legislators turn the tide on the plan to hobble habitat protection?

What I’ve learned is this: my own health, emotional, physical, spiritual, depends on my investment in the health of the world around me. And that health is reflected in things like bogs, red-headed woodpeckers, and people willing to care for things not easily counted in GDPs, Consumer Price Indexes, or any human's master plan.
photo by Arthur Steinberger, 2013