By Otha Barham
Seated on a high ladder stand, I was watching for a buck to visit a nearby scrape. My view of the hardwood slope was excellent and my hopes were high. I didn’t see the buck that hunt, but I had a memorable day on the stand. So many of our days afield, whether deer hunting, fishing, hiking or whatever reason draws us outdoors, the unexpected sights and experiences often turn out to be the highlights.
On this day I was enjoying the anticipation and the silence when a pileated woodpecker flashed by and grabbed hold of a slender poplar tree that was only a dozen feet away and at eye level with me as I sat still and well camouflaged. I got set to do some eavesdropping at close range.
The colorful bird with the red “Woody Woodpecker” crest turned his head from side to side a couple of times and adjusted his position, toe nails gripping the tree’s trunk with aplomb that I will never understand. He then punched an internal button and his head became a jackhammer with deliberate, powerful strokes
As soon as his purposeful pecking stopped the woodpecker did something I have never seen a woodpecker do. He thrust his head forward, extending it sideways with his lengthy neck. His head was turned so that he placed his ear beside the spot where he had just hammered! The bird was listening for movement of any bug he might have disturbed with his drilling!
I was astonished. Before I could consider the sight, the cunning bird moved up the tree trunk a few inches and resumed his strong hammering once more, immediately following the forceful tapping with the “ear to the ground” routine. He listened patiently for several seconds for any squirming morsel beneath the bark. Hearing none he moved yet again and repeated the sequence. After detecting no creeping larvae, the resourceful fowl flew away to another tree out of my sight, I presume to continue his sledge hammer and listen procedure. I didn’t know woodpeckers did that! Do they all? I don’t know. But I got to observe at least one that does.
One day I was casting for bass in the shallow water along a shoreline at Okatibbee Reservoir. A great blue heron was standing in that typical statue-like pose near the bank, its feet a few inches deep in the water. The bird was waiting patiently for lunch to swim or crawl by at its feet, the unsuspecting victim mistaking those pencil-thin legs for weeds. Suddenly the lanky bird thrust its long beak downward so fast I didn’t actually see it. Instead the 18-inch snake was at once caught between the heron’s uppers and lowers and was wriggling its displeasure. With no sense of urgency, the tall bird held on for several minutes, until both I and the snake understood that his squirming was futile.
When the time was right, the heron flipped the snake into the air and with a flick of its beak got a grip closer to the snake’s head. A couple of more tosses and the snake found himself being swallowed head first. With a few body shakes and neck twists, the blue heron finished lunch and began searching the shallows for dessert. Though an uninvited observer, I felt both remorse for the snake and admiration for the heron.
I reflected a moment on Nature’s system of biological life and death. The heron was digesting a snake which had thrived on fish and bugs. And I was catching bass that had fattened on minnows and crawfish and insects.
The system works well. There on the water that day I got to see it work. And I paused for a moment of gratitude that I am at the top of the local food chain.