I was looking for loons and grebes. That’s why I found myself at Picnic Point, the narrow peninsula that juts into Madison’s Lake Mendota. At eleven or so, after a meeting I had in town, I drove over to the Lakeshore Preserve with my binoculars and camera. It was warm compared to the last few days, and sunny as the most brilliant dream. I set out from the parking lot to find some water birds.
Mostly I found coots and bufflehead on the water, along with a few mallards and Canada geese. Robins and goldfinches in their large autumn flocks were in the trees. A few juncos hid in the bushes. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the point that I found the star of the show. I was bending over to take an Instagram picture of a habitat restoration sign when a loud call made me swivel my head. What I saw seemed very out of place. It was not a bird I expected to see in a small stand of trees surrounded on three sides by water. On an exposed tree was the largest woodpecker in North America.
I tried to snap a picture of a pileated woodpecker, but it flew off toward a denser stand of trees. Not knowing where it was in the forest, I turned my eyes elsewhere. On the north side of the peninsula, where I hadn’t looked before, I found my only loon of the day. It was a small shape diving in the distance, as loons often are. This time of the year their famous markings are replaced with a two-tone gray pallet. They are still beautiful. They are still magic. I watched it surface and dive a few times. It eventually moved farther out on the lake and I walked back into the heavily wooded interior of the peninsula.
That’s where I saw it again- the woodpecker. I was determined to get a picture of more than just the back of its head. To be specific, I should say the back of his head. The stripe extended from his bill was red, as opposed to the black of the female. Pileated woodpeckers are roughly the size of an American crow, but that’s misleading. They are of a similar length, but the pileated has a smaller wingspan and has a more slender build, and seems to have more neck length on account of the shape difference. Still, they’re impressive in size, and shy enough that I get excited to see them.
I came for the water birds, but stayed for a woodland one. I lingered along the path as it worked on a tree. I got my pictures, even if there were branches in the way. At least I was able to get a clear shot of his head this time. After a few minutes he flew off and I heard him a few times on my walk back to the car, once from the large trees in the marsh and another time in a dense stand of trees between paths. I didn’t see him again but I knew he was there.