© Karl Meyer 2008

                                March Madness

It’s become familiar turf—part of my personal landscape history. I realized this when I left the edge of the pavement and fitted myself into a narrow, snow-slumped trail made by hikers, cross country skiers, and snowshoers in a wide swatch of woods. Something about the light, and the March snow cover, enabled me to discern the date almost exactly: it was 9 years ago that I’d first taken this path into these woods.

I remembered because I had just moved back to the Connecticut Valley after a stint living in Rhode Island, and then eastern Massachusetts where I’d worked for Mass. Audubon. I was thrilled to be back, and went out walking along the edge of this ridge with a small knot of friends. It was a sunny, mid-afternoon when we came abreast of a small hemlock grove along the dirt track. The sound caught my ear immediately; we all stopped.

It was a thin, melodious, wavering trill, coming from somewhere in the shadows of those hemlocks. Eastern screech owl. There came that sweet, spooky, arc of a trill again. We all stood, mesmerized. These were not thick hemlocks; the little grove was only fifteen feet deep, spread along sixty feet of trail. It seemed there was no way these birds could not have been aware of four people chatting as they moved through the woods.

But there was more to this, of course. The duettng screech owls had mating in mind. These were courtship calls. Both the males and females of these 8-inch, tufted-eared owls sing. We never glimpsed either of them. But neither did we disturb them. Pair bonding was occurring as this little herd of humans stood silent, taking in the cool March air. By mid-April they would be sitting on 4-5 eggs, the male and female sharing the incubation. Sometimes the two of them would squeeze into that tiny nest hole together. By May they would be feeding their young pre-digested bugs, mice, and wood frogs.

I continued my walk, reminded that this is now a familiar wild place—about equal parts park, open woods, and forest. I’m grateful to have it as part of my history. This was another cool March afternoon. There had been another recent snow, but the angle of the sun was conspiring to scour out bare ground in many south facing places. The maple sap was building in those tree roots, readying to make its spring run. You could just feel it. I little downy woodpecker hammered away at a bark-less snag.

For then next while my walk was unremarkable; contemplative. Footsteps on a softening snow path. I eventually wandered up a path that brings you alongside a little rill. With nothing in particular wedged in my mind, I can only say I was startled by a raucous “bah!, bah!, bah!!” I froze. It was a pileated woodpecker, a familiar resident here. Its fist-sized carvings are a signature of many decaying hardwood snags in this tract. I looked up to the trees, but saw nothing.

Then, a shadow, and “bah!, bah!, bah!!” again. It was below me, and to the left, smack in the middle of a ten foot pool of water–moved gently by the input of that tiny brook. Red-crest raised, wings held aside, this crow-sized king of the woodpecker family was having itself a bird bath. I didn’t move. I thought it had been yelling about my intrusion. This was something else. It fidgeted in awkward contentment in that stream for twenty seconds. When it looked aside I quickly shifted so I could see better look around the thick trunk in front of me. The woodpecker shook its wings, droplets rolled off its back. Then it took off.

I thought it would be gone, but the bird stayed. It simply pumped off wing beats enough to take it to a spindly, wrist-thick elm, and then glued itself to the bark, where it used its bill to preen from the tail forward. It was a ridiculously small tree for such a large bird. But then it shot into flight again—not away from me, but back into the puddle. “Bah!, bah!, bah!!!”, it screamed, settling into the chilly stream. Again, it bathed for a minute; then took off to a nearby tree. This one was a slightly more suitable maple, the thickness of the barrel of a baseball bat. There, it did a little more preening, perhaps dispensing with some of the mites in its feathers.

It repeated this act once more, its boisterous yells coming as it settled into the cold water. I felt like I was watching some Russian bureaucrat visiting an icy Moscow pool, then scooting back into the steam bath. Finally, after a victorious yell, it took off for a more suitable forest tract, landing about 40 feet up on the fat trunk of a hundred-foot white pine. I soon lost it in the branches—in woods that are now part of my landscape history.