On the lookout for woodpeckers

Among all the birds that visit the yard, the unusual visitors always stand out.

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    UNEXPECTED VISITOR: Male pileated woodpeckers, such as this one, above, peck at trees to find insects to eat.
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I glanced out of the kitchen window, and there it was – on the other side of the garden – skittering up and down the trunk of the aspen, doing what woodpeckers do.

"That," I said, "is a first."

I am not much more than an armchair bird-watcher (although standing on this occasion) and binoculars baffle me.

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I once went on an organized birding walk in New York State. It was led by an intense young woman who took the whole business with all due seriousness. She dramatically stopped at one point during the walk, and while we all froze, in a stage whisper that would have graced Off-Off-Broadway, she announced, "Juvenile yellow-bellied sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius, female, quarter of 11, 25 feet up, hemlock." Or something along those lines.

Try as I might, I could not spot this bird. I don't remember our eager leader discovering in me any signs of a promising career with the Audubon Society.

But these days, in Scotland, I do get a lot of pleasure from watching the birds that consider our bird table and feeders as worthy of their attention. I have even gained a certain knowledge of the habits of sparrows, coal tits, blue tits, robins, blackbirds, and, especially, pigeons.

All of them apparently want to live up to their name as "garden species" by using our willing wilderness as their habitat. At least they are very frequent visitors – I am realistic about the possibility that they are gorging themselves quite as much on our neighbors' suet and sunflower seeds as they do on ours. Loyalty and wildness do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Nevertheless, the pigeons perch on the corner of the conservatory or on the slate roof that shelters the bird table and wait. Their beady eyes stare, with a touch of indignation, at the kitchen window. The message is clear: "Where is our breakfast?" I don't like to keep them in suspense for too long.

So these garden characters are fascinating but also mostly quite familiar. Our local wren (I think he lives in our ivy) is not so apparent, and when I catch sight of this pert but secretive little bird flitting under the honeysuckle, I tend to be rather proud of myself for spotting it at all.

It is the unusual visitors that stick in the mind. I remember years ago that a small flock of redstarts came, fed, and left. I learned later that they can be quite brave if there is a winter food shortage.

The owl that perched on the bird table roof was more puzzling. Or at least he seemed puzzled, as only an owl can. He blinked as if he was asking for some sort of explanation. I have not seen an owl only a few feet from the house since.

The heron standing on the apex of the greenhouse one morning, like a peculiar steel sculpture from the 1950s, had probably strayed from the nearby park, where herons stand around the large woodland pond. Our own small pond had no fish in it, and probably not even a frog or a newt, so after a while this guest lifted slowly into the air like a pterodactyl and flopped away, realizing that this was not good fishing ground.

Then, the other day I saw the scarlet-headed, black and white woodpecker. Our bird book says woodpeckers feed off insects on rotting dead wood. Well, our aspen is flourishing, and yet this brilliant arrival was pecking the trunk with obvious relish – to feed, not to make a nesting hole.

I watched it for a couple of minutes. And then it whisked itself over the conifer hedge into the neighbor's garden and disappeared.

Had it visited before when I wasn't looking? Has it returned since, and I've missed it? Now, I never look out the kitchen window without hoping to see it again. But I have a theory that it likes to be admired for its rarity and so, on principle, it will not return. Or else it finds the insects on our neighbors' tree trunks tastier than ours.

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