April 2, 2021
By Rick Wright
It was a beautiful midsummer day in southeast Arizona, and we had fled the sizzle of Tucson to explore the coolness of higher elevations in the Santa Rita Mountains. We walked slowly up the road in Madera Canyon, tallying familiar delights as we passed from mesquites to cottonwoods to oaks. Just before we moved into the pines, a quick glimpse of a brown blur led us to one of our all-time favorite southwestern specialties, an Arizona Woodpecker. We ooh’d and aah’d as we always do, then remembered that we had greeted another birder, on her own, just a little ways down the road; we hadn’t recognized her, and if she was indeed “not from here,” she might well be interested in seeing the bird. So I trotted back down to ask the friendly young woman if she’d like to join us a bit higher on the path, where Alison was keeping a sharp eye on the brown-backed beauty. She was grateful, and we walked back uphill fast to find the bird still in view, fluttering and foraging at eye level, apparently unafraid of the big bipeds gazing so intently through their big glass eyes.
Smiles all around when we finally put down our binoculars, and the stranger thanked us effusively. “It’s my first!” We’d thought it might be, I explained; after all, the Arizona is likely the rarest woodpecker north of Mexico, sparsely distributed in the Sky Islands of the southwest and often shy, or at least unobtrusive. Unless one happens to be visiting a feeder regularly, this is not a bird you can count on seeing every time you visit the canyons.
She looked at us, puzzled. “Oh, no,” she said. “That’s not what I meant. This was my first woodpecker!”
Everybody has to start somewhere, and it’s a fine thing as a freshly minted birder to have encountered one of the most sought-after picids in the country. And it’s a finer thing still to know that there is so much ahead of you. Even as we laughed, we envied that woman what still lay in store for her: before her day afield was done, I’m sure she had run across a flicker or a Gila Woodpecker, an Acorn Woodpecker or a Hairy; and I’m just as sure she reacted to each of those with the same joy her first Arizona—her first woodpecker—inspired.
There was a time early on in my own birding life when I worried that experience and a swelling “life list” might make me jaded. How, I wondered, could the same couple of hundred species excite me year in, year out? This was long before I learned that it was even possible to travel to bird, back when the only future I could see played itself out in the same places, with the very same birds, I had grown up among.
My worries didn’t last long. I quickly discovered that the object of our hobby is not the bird but the birding, that pulse-quickening moment when a bit of feathered life appears where nothing had been a split second before. When we are lucky, the pleasure of mystery is followed by the satisfaction of an accurate identification; sometimes luck is on the bird’s side, and we’re left holding a tantalizing bag of possibilities. In either case, whether we “get” the bird or not, whether it’s a greatly desired rarity or the most abundant species in the neighborhood, we feel that first shiver of suspense no nonbirder can ever understand. Pinning a name to the bird, when it happens, is a wonderful bonus—but it isn’t essential. The birder afield is always at the beginning, always preparing for an experience invariably new and irreplicable. As in so many things in life, it’s all in the anticipation.
For the birder, travel simply widens the range of that anticipation; it broadens our horizon of expectation and deepens the satisfaction of resolution. More possibilities open themselves, heightening our suspense and giving us more chances than ever to feel like beginners again—with every single bird. But even at home, as so many of us have been reminded this past year, we can feel like that too. The glimpse of a long brown tail beneath the shrubbery or the shadow of a raptor crossing our window view makes us sit up and take notice, and whatever the bird turns out to be, even if it’s “just” a Song Sparrow or “only” a Red-tailed Hawk, for a moment we’re back at the start of it all once again, experiencing the same spark lit by our long-ago first sparrow, our first hawk.
I like feeling like a beginner. After all, I suppose, the alternative is to be an ender—and I’m not ready for that quite yet. I still have more woodpeckers to see, after all.
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