A Life Bird. In the US. In July.

Adirondacks view

What could possibly make a fine weekend with friends even better? The title of this entry says it all.

Not only did we get to spend time with Sally and Frank at their beautiful and comfortable Adirondacks camp, not only did we get to meet several others of their delightful friends, not only did Gellert form an instant and lasting bond with two new canine buddies, but Sunday’s birding led to a lifer for both Alison and me.

Sally, Alison, Merlin in Adirondacks

Saturday evening’s dinner conversation ranged widely and well, with birds prominent but never dominant; all the same, I made sure to listen hard to Pat and John’s excellent advice for our search. Early the next morning found us on a lovely bog road near Saranac Lake, with magnolia and black-throated green warblers and blue-headed vireos singing all around. We walked and listened, listened and walked, and drove a little farther.

Adirondacks landscape

And then Sally’s keen ears heard it. The first bird my binoculars found was a yellow-bellied sapsucker — and the second as well, two of those elegant woodpeckers together in a dead, nearly barkless snag. Immediately beneath them, though, another woodpecker. The woodpecker.

Black-backed woodpecker

A couple of patient minutes later, and this black-backed woodpecker was right on the roadside, not far above eye level and just one thin layer of trees in from where we watched, rapt and almost unbelieving. He — it took a while for the little round forehead patch to be visible even at such close range — drummed repeatedly, a “tight” series of a dozen or more beats coming too close and too fast together to distinguish and to count. A minute or more passed between drums, when the bird slipped to the back side of his perch and vanished, a sobering reminder of how fortunate we were to be standing on the road when he called the first time.

After several minutes of this, he flew back across the road, where he took a high perch in the open, more distant but photographable even for me. Again, he drummed continually, this time less frequently, the intervals filled with short bouts of preening and that golden crown glinting in the morning sun.

Black-backed woodpecker

We left the bird enjoying the sunshine, but he wasn’t alone. Just as he’d been attended by two sapsuckers when we first saw him, it took a scant few seconds for a sapsucker — one of the original two, or a third bird? — to join him in his preening tree, where the sapsucker maintained a respectful three or four feet of distance.

What all that was about isn’t at all clear. Though the smaller birds kept their distance, there was no obvious aggression on the part of the bigger black-back, and no clear signs of anxiety on the part of either species. All three of the perches taken by the black-back were in decidedly dead wood, making it seem very unlikely that the sapsuckers were guarding sap wells.

A mystery — and one that surely makes it worth seeing this species again. And again and again.