Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Your vicarious retreat to the Maine woods

A lady here at the Center of Gravity confides that a pileated woodpecker comes to her window to make her happy, and I said that this news makes me happy, too. I suspect she has been victimized by a redheaded woodpecker, or some other minor woodpecker with red markings. This happens.

The pileated woodpecker is the size of a crow, and like Yankee Doodle on his white horse looks as big as all outdoors and thinks he looks much larger. He's a forest bird, and does little looking in windows. He is known in Maine as the cock o' the woods. I shall dwell on the pileated woodpecker in depth, for I realize that a great many citizens are not likely to meet one personally. Not too many will get to Scott Brook, either.

About these ads

Scott Brook is beyond the chains of the timberland logging roads. It rises in a long stretch of swamp and bog, known as Scott Brook Deadwater, and then flows into Loon Lake Stream and the Caucomagomac watershed, all a part of the west branch of the long Penobscot River, which meets the ocean at Popham Beach. There, the first English settlement in the New World was attempted in 1607.

All right. So a few miles east of Scott Brook Deadwater, Scott Brook becomes a considerable brook and it turns to flow under a bridge of a logging road, aforesaid. From under the road, the stream widens over a flat ledge, and then regroups for a slight cascade into one of the finest trout pools I know. Bill and I, on a grandfathers' retreat some years ago, lunched by that pool in an ecstasy of content, and watched a pileated woodpecker tear apart a maple tree of maybe four feet dbh (diameter at breast height, by the International Logging Scale).

In our explorations in the area we had noticed this pool in passing on the road, and agreed we should lunch there someday and make arrangements for a trout breakfast on the glorious tomorrow. So here we were, and we had invited six Salvelinus fontinalis for breakfast and finished (in that order) our delectable noon-time repast of mushroom soup, blueberry crepes, potato salad, tenderloin nuggets au jus, hot biscuits, creamed carrots, sundries, and apple pie with cheddar cheese. We also had our radio, a small bouquet of brookside blooms, a folding table with cooperating chairs, a bird book, and two fluffy pillows.

So, we were in digestive ease, in the shade on a lovely day, and Bill asked me, "How do you account for these chips all over the place?"

I said it was the borings from a cock o' the woods. When Bill said he guessed that cleared everything up, I explained that a pileated woodpecker had been working in yonder maple, and I pointed at the tree with one side already torn from substantial limb. I said I'd call for the bird to come and demonstrate. Bill said thanks.

It was maybe three minutes before the woodpecker arrived and resumed his pecking. Then more chips began to fall, like a fluffy snow shower, and the noise was not unlike the Indianapolis 500. Bill was entranced by the rapidity of the bird's pecking and whispered, "It's hard to believe!"

My guess is that a lightning strike had connected with that maple some years ago. The wounded part had come up punky and a host for some sort of beetle. The beetle attracted the woodpecker. Now and then our woodpecker would find one, consume it, and sit quietly a moment in content and pride. Then he would go back to work like a crew of Canadians cutting pulp on The Big Sag with Partner "shine-saws." All of this was less than 20 feet from Bill and me, and the show lasted nearly two hours.

About these ads

When we picked up to leave, our woodpecker flew and no longer figures in our journal. Fact is, we never revisited that picnic spot and we never saw our cock o' the woods again.

WE SAW some vireos, and a few warblers. There were plenty of "fool hens," which are the spruce grouse, called pa'tridges by Mainers. They, too, are wilderness birds and not familiar to down-staters. They are called "foolish" because of their failure to fly when hunters appear. They are a beautiful bird, kin to the ruffed grouse, but the ruffed grouse will take off for safety in an explosion of wingbeats if you step on a twig a mile away. We often saw evening grosbeaks nesting, and red-tailed hawks aplenty. And then, the gorbies.

The gorby is a Canada jay, a cousin of the blue jay. But while the blue jay is a pest at back-home bird feeders, the Canada jay stays in the woods. The Algonquin Indians called him a whiskyjack (no distillery derivation). I think it means "shadow bird," and the Indians were superstitious about the gorby. They thought he was the spirit of a departed warrior, and by flitting ahead would lead a lost brave home. The gorby is not afraid of humans and frequented lumber camps where cooks tossed out leavings for them. Bluish-gray, a gorby comes out of a snowstorm ready to lead you home.

On our first grandfathers' retreat, Bill met his first gorby. I had seen one behind our camp and I knew what would happen. I gave Bill a saltine cracker and told him to hold it out at arm's length and pose like Audubon. Within seconds, the gorby had lighted on his wrist, nodded his gratitude, and had flown into the forest, cracker and all. As I say, it isn't everybody that can retreat into the big woods, so I've told what it's like birdwise.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.