The first successful sighting of a bird on my target list was almost too easy. I’d stepped not a half pace onto the damp field behind Cedar Ridge Community Church when a loose group of small birds dropped in and scattered across the puddle-strewn grass ahead of me, subtly attired in warm beige and brown and gently peeping as they came. Pipits!
The buff-bellied pipit (Anthus rubescens, known here as an American pipit) strikes me as combining features of several of the pipits I’m used to back home. Their dark legs and relatively dark plumage call to mind the predominately coastal-dwelling rock pipit (indeed, the two were once considered so closely related they were lumped together, with water pipit, as a single species), but the American species’ affinity for grassland most resembles the habitat preference of meadow pipits. And, like meadow pipits, these are charming, active little birds, an underrated plus of winter birding in the lowlands.
As I watched 25 or so of these birds picking around patches of snowmelt for tasty tidbits, it occurred to me that I rarely see pipits flock this way. In fact, the only time I’ve seen numbers anywhere like this obviously flying together was at a winter roost of meadow pipits just a few weeks ago. Yet here in North America flocks of pipits are the rule in winter, so far as I understand. I wonder why? I come across similar small, unexpected differences in avian ecology between the new and old worlds all the time. Perhaps there’s a book in all this, waiting to be written…
Dreaming of publishing success, I left the flock to their foraging and struck out down the hill towards an expanse of woodland that covers the northern part of the church property. At the far end of the path, a white-tailed deer paused and looked up towards me, startled. After a half-minute staring competition the deer turned and ran, showing me the fluffy white underside of her tail as she went, and I moved forward cautiously, listening for birds in the brush and scrub to my right.
I didn’t hear much. As soon as I was out of earshot of the pipits’ gentle contact calls, all seemed to fall silent. Besides somebody operating a chainsaw, that is, which may have explained the lack of bird activity. Seeking to escape the noise I entered the wood proper, a tightly ranked army of slender, upright, dark-barked trees (my tree ID skills in the USA are not what they ought to be!) lined up over a carpet of damp leaves, icy slush, and a fair amount of fresh snow.
Still nothing stirred. This is so often my experience of birding on this continent: long periods of stillness, as though all non-plant life within half a mile at least has fled, interspersed with frenetic periods of activity, bird following bird following bird of all species and every feeding niche. I reached the bottom of the slope, which ran down into a small, debris-lined creak. Still birdless and at last out of earshot of machinery and any road noise, I enjoyed the absorbing quiet of the wood for a moment before the whip-crack of a breaking stick alerted me to the presence of a second deer – or perhaps the same one again – un-stealthily picking between the trees off to my left. Lucky for it that mountain lions and wolves have long since vacated the fragmented forests of the east, and that I carried no sporting weapon more dangerous than a pair of 8×42 binoculars.
Another sound of breaking wood fractured the peace, this time a steady, deliberate rapping. My first clue that the wood was not empty of birds, but hid at least one foraging woodpecker; with any luck a pileated woodpecker, which was my guess by the volume and apparent force of the woodwork that was in progress. It ranks as one of my all-time top birds – near crow sized with a black and white striped head and exuberant flame-red crest – so spectacular that I can easily appreciate why the even bigger ivory-billed woodpecker was held in such high regard.
To my delight a brief burst of high-pitched calls rang out – “chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk!” – the resounding laughter of a pileated woodpecker. Still the bird managed to remain out of sight for a further five minutes, displaying impressive powers of camouflage for a creature of considerable size and distinctly unsubtle colouration. Eventually a second bout of calls gave away its location, and I looked in the right direction for long enough to see the tip of a red crest disappear around one of the broader tree trunks back up the slope of the wood.
I waited again for a few seconds whilst the woodpecker hammered on out of sight. After a few blows it shimmied around again to the near side of the trunk, and at last I had it in clear view. It appeared to pick the spot for each series of incisions carefully, hopping deftly back and forth along the smooth wood of the tree and casting a jerky eye over it for signs of food. Its head twisted back and forth like a puppet in frame-by-frame cartoonish motion, and flew at the tree with an action so violent, so sudden, it didn’t even blur.
The entity we call Dryocopus pileatus appears to move in somewhat different dimensions of time and space to us, which may explain how after a few short minutes mine melted back between the trees as quickly as it arrived. I departed too, in my own clumsier, hominid fashion, back out into the open, past the still busy pipits, and off to seek out tea, warmth, and as the birds so enjoy doing, the company of my own kind.
Photos from top: Here’s a shot of a buff-bellied pipit I took last December, though ironically this individual is not in America but on the shores of a reservoir in Berkshire. And some American woods with snow, but not the same woods you’ve just read about. I should remember to take pictures at the right moments!