ERNIE COWAN Union-Tribune Outdoors
WOODPECKER LEADS TO ANOTHER ‘SIT AND SEE’ SESSION
It all began with a snake in the grass and ended with a bird in hand.
I had not planned on spending any time observing nature. In fact, I was returning from a trip to the desert when I spotted a relatively rare Lewis’s woodpecker dancing between trees near Lake Henshaw.
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so I grabbed my camera and slipped under the barbed wire fence. I didn’t want to walk the quarter mile to the gate and back, fearing Mr. Woodpecker would be gone.
I was well aware that the tall, spring grass is a rattlesnake haven. Conditions were perfect. Grass to my knees, temperatures in the high 70s and soft afternoon light. My mind was convinced that somewhere in this field of grass there was a buzztail lurking and just waiting to terrorize me.
I left footprints in the grass as I moved closer to the cluster of oak and sycamore trees with high hopes of getting a good photo of the woodpecker. Of course, he was nowhere in sight when I reached the trees.
That’s when my dream of getting a quick bird photo turned into another one of my “sit and see” adventures where I spend at least an hour quietly observing the natural world around me.
I knew the woodpecker was moving from tree to tree, so I picked a likely spot to sit and wait for him to show up.
There was a small downed tree limb that would have made a good seat, but it was crawling with ants, so I decided a nearby rock would be better. No ants, but it was covered with an artist’s palette of lichen and moss, crafted in shades of yellow, brown, gray and green. Have you ever paid much attention to this colorful mosaic that seems to randomly cover the rocks?
I hadn’t, but with a little study I discovered that lichens are an extremely complex life form that exists because of a partnership between a fungus and an algae. I was sharing space with another complex life form.
I’m sure my ample behind was far less comfortable on this bumpy, hard granite throne than my lichen companion, however.
As I waited for the Lewis’s woodpecker to return, my senses kicked in and I settled into my sit-and-see mode.
Smiling up at me and almost unnoticed in the tall, green grass were tiny little lavender gilia-type flowers. Identifying this delicate beauty seemed far less important than simply enjoying it.
There’s a smell to wild spring grass that’s hard to describe. It’s fresh,relaxing and therapeutic. I might pay the price later with stuffy sinuses,
but for now, it was an invigorating elixir, akin to drinking from a magical fountain of youth.
Combined with the fresh mountain air, deep blue sky filled with puffy white clouds, a nearly imperceptible breeze, the chirping of bouncing chickadees and the solitude, the moment was pure magic. But running in the back of my mind like a processing hard drive was my concern for rattlesnakes. Anticipation is never good, especially when it comes to worrying about things that can ruin your day. Anticipation can also magnify your perception.
How do you describe that moment when nervous anticipation collides, head-on, with slithering reality?
I suppose we all react differently, butat the first sight of a rather larger snake slithering through the grass next to my right foot I was paralyzed. My heart seemed to drop into my stomach. My mind was yelling, “you are going to die.”
The first reaction is to run, but the grass is thick and might there be more danger? Closing my eyes didn’t help. I already knew death was at my right toe.
I looked again, and my anticipated death-by-deadly injection reptile turned out to be a large, but harmless gopher snake. Until you see the head or tail, they have markings that are amazingly similar to those of a rattlesnake.
I started breathing again, and waited for my heart rate to return to a more normal, running-a-marathon level.
My attention returned to the pointing limb of the large sycamore tree as the Lewis’s woodpecker landed at the tip. He quickly vanished on the backside, but I had my camera up and ready when he hopped onto a smaller branch and paused long enough for me to get several good shots.
I had my bird in hand ... well in camera, so it was time to make the short hike through the tall grass back to my truck. I was glad to slip under the fence and leave the rattlesnakes behind.
I know they’re out there.