Crap, I think. How am I going to get to that sweet clover plant? I’m balancing on about a 55-degree slope below a chest-high vertical sandstone bench, and the plant is located on a second sandstone bench roughly eight feet above my head. It’s going to take too much time to scamper back and take the ravine cut up the ridge, I analyze. I need to find some hand holds and climb straight up. My eyes scour the brittle sandstone and find a couple of well-placed American bittersweet vines. I grab the first vine and pull myself up, bracing with my feet and careful not to brush against the nearby prickly pear cactus. As I stretch for the second vine, I hear charr-charr-charr and look up to see a black headed, red-headed woodpecker above me. A young one, I exclaim, while trying to hold my precarious position and get a better look. I manage to get a second look, and the bird’s head is now red. What?
Life is about relationships. The most meaningful are often directly proportional to the amount of effort put into them and strengthened by the passage of time. They bring richness to our lives, connect us to our humanity, tug at our emotions, and enable us to find value and meaning hidden among the mundane activities of our day-to-day lives. For us practitioners engaged in ecological restoration, we will discover our lives are rich with meaningful relationships.
Endangered ecosystems require large amounts of effort applied as quickly as possible to save them. Combine this with nature healing slowly, as measured by a human lifetime, and the result is a significant amount of devoted time over a practitioner’s life. Multiply this by all the rare wildlife species that live in these endangered ecosystems, and we find ourselves with a magnitude of meaningful relationships all requiring our time, effort, thought, care, concern and love.
Among these relationships, some stand out above the others in their ability to touch our emotions and capture our devotion and concern. I’ve found that these special relationships are often a combination of a specific species on a given property. For our property, it’s the red-headed woodpecker that best fits this role for me.
The red-headed woodpecker is a rapidly declining species, according to all of the organizations that track its conservation status. For more background on the woodpecker, see “Return of the Redhead, June 22, 2016.” The good news, however, is this woodpecker responds very well to habitat improvement efforts. Unlike some rare species whose elusive or secretive lives make it difficult to determine if they’re present on a property, you will know you have red-headed woodpeckers. When they decide to stake out breeding territory in the spring, everybody knows they’re nearby. They do, however, become quiet and evasive when raising their young.
When Debra and I began our oak savanna restoration efforts, the red-headed woodpecker was high on our list of rare species to attract. There is nothing to romanticize about the required efforts needed to restore a savanna. It’s simply hard manual labor for years on end. Removing/killing all the invasive trees and shrubs is the easy part, with respect to time. The difficult part is year after year of dealing with the flush of invasive plants that come from the seedbank accumulated in the soil. We had the good fortune of starting our efforts in our highest-quality area. We were also fortunate to have several dead standing trees already present. Both of these factors resulted, to our amazement and elation, in the return of red-headed woodpeckers after only a few years of restoration efforts.
Because of our extended efforts of muscle, time and financial resources, we’ve had red-headed woodpeckers in our lives for the past 15 years. The activities of these birds mark our seasonal calendar – the rambunctious and rowdy calls in the spring as the birds duke it out over breeding territory; the games of chase around the suet feeder as red-headed woodpeckers try to claim, from other woodpecker species, the food source as their very own. We see spectacular aerial displays as the redheads dash out from a perch and snatch a flying insect out of the air. The sound of a drumming answered by other drummings from all four corners of our property. A secret and quiet visit to the nest cavity by an adult with an insect in its beak. Another round of rambunctious and rowdy calls as the youngsters fledge. The hoarding and caching of acorns in the late summer/early fall. And, in most years, our final look at the bird’s brilliant plumage as the last bird migrates south.
The redheads arrived late last spring. I didn’t witness near as much fighting for territory as I had in the past. While it’s difficult to put a number on it, because I saw birds throughout our property, I could only verify two nesting locations this year. One of the nesting trees went down in a storm about the time the birds should have fledged. The second location appeared to have failed to produce young because I only saw adults well after the time I thought the young should have fledged. We also had tremendous problems with black flies, losing several clutches of bluebirds and tree swallows to these blood-sucking pests. We had always dreaded that the time would come, and it looked like this was the year when our property would produce no young red-headed woodpeckers.
Confused, my left leg shaking like a sewing machine, my right forearm screaming for relief, I force myself to hold on longer until I figure out what’s going on. Is this bird a fledgling, or is it an adult? I get another clear view again at the bird’s head, and it’s red. Disappointed, I surrender to the fact that the bird is an adult. The redhead calls again and I look up at it just as it flips around and faces the other direction. Wait, I think, its head is now black. The redhead scampers along the branch and again changes direction. His head is red again. Elated, that’s it, I think. This guy has fledged some time ago, and it’s already morphing into its adult plumage. One side of his head is black, and the other side is red!
It’s been many weeks now since my precarious first sighting of a fledgling red-headed woodpecker. Yes, I did manage to remove that sweet clover plant without any serious bodily damage. Debra and I have both observed many more sighting of red-headed woodpecker fledglings with various patterns of red and black on their heads. After all these years, I just don’t recall seeing this before. I had always assumed the fledgling birds morph into their adult plumage much later in the year.
The lesson of all of this is not lost on me. Regardless of the age of a meaningful relationship, we should never replace the act of observation with the act of assumption.