Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone – Three Toes in the Muck

Ankle deep and slowly sinking into the watery moss, I probe the underlying muck with my tripod, searching for stable footing. Finding none, I walk the length of a submerged log barely wider than my boot, to slightly higher ground where the roots of two mostly, and one entirely dead spruce provide some semblance of terra firma.

This is one of my favorite spots in the beaver woods. I am far enough from the trail that nobody sees me. It is a perfect spot for being alone, and being alone in the woods is one of my favorite things.DSC_1449.jpgA pair of red-breasted sapsuckers call and chase at the far end of the pond, near the upper dam. The red head, nape, and upper breast of these birds are as conspicuous as their calls and noisy knocking. You cannot walk through a spring sapsucker forest and not be aware of them.

But I am not here looking for these flying flames. I will visit their tree later. The birds I am hoping to see this morning seem to value the same qualities I do in the forest. They are quiet, unassuming, and remain undetected by most who pass under them. Only those who know what to look for, see their mark. I am standing in the middle of it.

All around me spruce bark scales litter the moss and float in the still pond—evidence of American three-toed woodpeckers who chip away the bark on dead or dying trees in pursuit of beetle larvae.

I adjust tripod legs until the camera is level enough, focus my lens on a perfectly round, inch-and-a-half diameter hole about fifteen feet up a nearby snag, and wait, alone in the middle of the beaver pond.

Soon, with no fanfare, a little black and white woodpecker slips in and lands just below the hole. She is quiet. Were I not looking, I would know she was there until she started her work of chiseling at the wood inside the opening, and even that is quite muted compared to other woodpeckers.DSC_2105.jpgMales, identifiable by a bright yellow patch on the forehead, split the labor of excavating the cavity, and raising the young. I hope to photograph male and female this morning, but for now I am thrilled to have the less colorful female here.

The cavity is deep enough for most of her body to disappear inside when she works. Only feet, rump and tail are visible as she chips out the beginnings of her brood chamber. With every unseen woodpeck, her tail bobs in sync with her work.

Eventually, they will line the bottom of the cavity with wood chips on which she will lay a half-dozen or so whitish eggs with barely visible speckles.

She works for four or five minutes, then refuels overhead for an equal amount of time, occasionally dropping bark chips around me, adding to the mounting pile of evidence. After her meal, she returns to the work at hand. Over a forty-five minute span, she continues this back and forth routine, never flying more than seventy-five feet from her worksite.

Though my tripod legs are firmly on roots, I am standing on the bark-strewn moss under which the terra is less firma than I had hoped, and once again I am slowly sinking into the beaver pond. I could watch this scene all day, but after an hour it is time to pull out before my leather boots begin to seep. I will return tomorrow with rubber footwear.

I traverse the log and slip unseen back to the trail. I try to keep my presence here as unknown as possible, not that many passersby would want to venture into the muck anyway, but the solitude is a big part of what makes this place special for me. That, and the woodpeckers.

The sapsucker tree is not far away, and in five minutes I am turning into a blueberry thicket and weaving my way to a small mound, increasing my altitude a few feet to provide a slightly better view of the cavity.

This entrance is easily three times higher than the three-toed hole, maybe four—not an ideal spot for observing, but that is where sapsuckers like to be, and at least I have a clear view.

The last time I was here, both birds were on the tree at once, and seemed to be taking turns at homemaking, but this morning the tree is silent. They are still at the other pond—avians amorous in the air, noisily flirting in the treetops. I can hear them from here.DSC_1596.jpgUnlike their quiet cousins, when sapsuckers hunt, they noisily hammer at living trees, creating a series of shallow holes which fill in with sap and attract adult insects that get stuck in the sticky resin. When the sapsuckers return, they find easy-to-catch protein with a fat side of sugar.

I enjoy seeing these bright, boisterous birds, but I prefer spending time with the three-toed couple who does not hide per se, but does choose a quiet spot off the beaten path—a destination tree, you might call it, one you are unlikely to stumble upon. I like that these birds call no attention to themselves, yet are unbothered by my watchful presence as they silently go about their business. They are almost the opposite of the attention-grabbing sapsuckers who flee if I get too close, but whose motto seems to be, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth making a lot of noise doing it.”

These two species fill similar niches in the forest, creating cavities in dead or dying trees, hunting insects, one moving mostly unheard and unseen, staying close to home, the other loudly proclaiming its presence to all within earshot as it ranges far and wide.

It is an interesting study, watching these two species, especially during the period when walking alone is mandated.

Were there an avian lockdown, I trust the three-toed woodpeckers would be fine, but I wonder how the sapsuckers would fare. I have gregarious friends who are struggling mightily in this time of hunkering and being alone. Their need to be surrounded by people, feed off the energy of the bustle, is not being filled. I, on the other hand, don’t think I have ever been happier than I am right now. The freedom to move slowly and silently through the marsh, walking alone with the woodpeckers and my thoughts, having no concern for the time clock, or the next gig, is a gift I treasure.

Last week, I pulled up to a trailhead to find two friends, waiting in their car for another couple to arrive for a hike. We chatted from an appropriate distance until the others arrived, then the five of us started down the trail “together.” It felt odd to me, walking with other people, talking in the woods, even if I did stay twenty feet behind them.

I was very happy to see them. These are people I love, people I miss. But after a month of daily walks alone in what has become a sacred space, talking and visiting here—even with people I love—had me feeling disconnected from the place.

A short ways into the woods, the trail bifurcated. They turned left. I said my goodbyes and stayed straight.

Later, one of them called me to tell of an adventure following the call of an owl after we split up. He wondered if I had heard it. I had not. I ended up walking a mile into the woods, and sitting on a log beneath a woodpecker cavity. Based on its size and height, I think it was a three-toed hole, but my suspicion was never confirmed. There were no fresh wood chips beneath the tree. It was probably old and abandoned.

I am glad those friends have each other for their jaunts, and I am glad to call all of them my friends. I want them in my life, need them. I hope all the other people out there who find energy In a crowd, are finding what they need right now, too. I know this forced aloneness is hard for some of them.

But for me, I am happy standing in the moss and the muck, sinking into the beaver pond, alone with an unassuming, quiet little woodpecker, or just sitting on a log, waiting and wondering.

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Wonderful. I really enjoyed this. My little Downy woodpeckers still enjoy the hummingbird feeder as I enjoy them.

What do you think?