Last week I saw my first new life bird of the year, a Pileated Woodpecker, in the woods on the north side of town. They’re urban woods; stands of old growth trees, but with buildings visible at every point within. They line the creek that divides the north side of town from the University Campus, and were easily explored this time of year. I imagine that ivy, multiflora, and general temperate jungle shrub will make most of the area impassable later in the year.
As with most of the life birds I’ve sighted around town, seeing the woodpecker was pure luck. I had decided to go through the woods rather than up to the pond in the hope of spotting some owl-sized roosting cavities in the trees. We’d heard rumors of owls in town, but had yet to spot any. Not setting the alarm for 2am in order to prowl the streets probably had something to do with that. At any rate, I investigated sheets of bark raining down from a mostly-dead tree and discovered a ginormous woodpecker. To be fair to my burgeoning birding skills, a few minutes before I’d noticed the smattering of round tree holes and said to myself, ‘This would be a good place to come look for Pileated Woodpeckers during the spring migration.’ Which, you know, makes me glad I didn’t say something like, ‘Gee, I hope that rotten limb doesn’t come crashing down onto my head.’
The other fun aspect of the woods was the discovery of a variety of animal tracks along the sandy creek bed. We were able to identify the usual suspects—raccoon, possum—as well as a few mystery tracks. At the opening of what can only be a decent sized den in the creek bank, we discovered a print that could be badger, woodchuck, or striped skunk. We’ve see gray foxes in town, but the print had a distinct fifth toe, so it seems likely that it was something else. Dog-like prints at a few points in the creek bed led to speculation of the presence of coyotes, although it’s (of course) more likely that they’re just someone’s dog. I made the (compelling, no doubt!) case that domestic dogs off-leash usually run up and down creek beds like maniacs so the few prints crossing over were more likely to be a wild animal than not. And, the prints did differ from standard dog prints, but there is so much variation that I wouldn’t bet my own money absent spotting an actual animal. Nonetheless, a walk in the woods is always more fun when imagining being stalked by invisible beasts than not.
I had hoped to return to the woods this week, but the weather has turned from global-warming-mild to positively wintry, and I’ve hunkered down inside like the tender Southern grub that I’m becoming. Wiping out on the sheet of ice that was the entrance to the Metro and bashing the @#$% out of my knee and rear yesterday also didn’t do much for my desire to go tromping around outdoors. Although it did momentarily restore my faith in area youth, as two young men who witnessed the crash very solicitously inquired after my well-being. Of course, the further dozen young men that gathered in the area during the time I was in the store to loudly guffaw at others sharing my earlier plight somewhat dampened my good opinion, or rather restored my general opinion of the moral compasses of teenage boys.