I once saw a pileated woodpecker while I was walking on the Eagle Trail at Peninsula State Park. Despite the fact that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website claims pileated wood peckers are “fairly common” all across the northern and southeastern parts of North America, I have found that spotting them is a challenge but also a tremendous delight. They are large birds: their wings and long tails make them larger than hawks; they have long, strong necks, and their long, stout beaks must be the longest of any woodpecker. They are crowned with a crest, like a cardinal or a jay, but larger, and bright red. They are mostly black birds, though feathers under their wings and their faces are white. Males and females have a black eye stripe; males only sport a red stripe extending from their beaks.
When I saw the pileated woodpecker at Peninsula, it was a cold day. About one degree. Apparently that kind of cold doesn’t bother them in the least. Where I saw the woodpecker, the Eagle Trail is a rocky trace at the base of mammoth limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment from which the soil has been worn away by millennia of storms off the bay. Seeping from out of that stack of stone was free-flowing water in a tiny channel meandering down to the frozen bay. A trickle of water flowing at one degree? Why? The normal temperature of Mother Earth is about 55 degrees, I think. Even with her living garment of soil torn away, trees whose roots abide in her warm flesh protect her, and she is profoundly warm. Maybe the woodpecker was well aware of the warmth radiating from the Earth.
The white-breasted hawk, alone, was watching from a misshapen, leaning tree in a scrap of woods – collateral damage from the construction of highway 172. Above the hawk’s black watchtower tree, truck tires howled at the purple twilight. The hawk, alone, hungry, hunting, was scanning the snow with eyes capable of perception at the infrared end of the light spectrum. I saw the hawk for a second while I was speeding by in a warm car on the way to a meal of my own.
In winter, hawks are apparently more solitary than in spring, when it’s time to hunt up one’s lifetime mate and enjoy their annual, acrobatic mating, when it’s time for them to repair the family nest and defend the eggs, when it’s time to take turns feeding the children and protect them on their first few flights.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a 19 million acre wilderness in northeastern Alaska. It includes several different ecosystems: coastal islands and marshes, tundra, mountains, and forest. Many animals and birds migrate to and through the refuge for food and for breeding. Arctic ecosystems are extremely fragile for lots of reasons: the soil is often poor because there are few creatures there to return dead plants and animals to the soil to nourish the soil. The poor soil and short growing season also means the kinds of plants that grow in the Arctic are small and slow to regrow in areas where they have been damaged. There are fewer species in Arctic ecosystems than in other kinds of ecosystems because of the harsh conditions, which means that each species has an extremely important role to play in maintaining the delicate balance in the ecosystem.
This is a tiny summary of what I learned in a fascinating book I read several years ago: Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. That I remember these details from a book I read so long ago indicates the impression it made upon me.