At the end of April, these early mornings are dark and still cold. Motionless in my camouflage attire, I wait for the morning light and hope for a glimpse of a small black and white bird with a scarlet head. Imperceptibly, a ray of diffuse light begins to softly shine through the leaves making uncertain shapes the dusky light. In the distance, several birds begin to sing coaxing the trees out of their dreams.
Dawn breaks, and the first rays of sunlight settle on the highest branches. It's the same story everywhere. From the grass to the treetops, the entire woods vibrate with life. Nature welcomes me into her private chamber and as I savor the rare privilege of these precious moments, suddenly my patience is rewarded ! Somewhere not far above my head, he's there... a red-bellied woodpecker is calling out for a mate.
The day before I had noticed a few holes in this tree trunk where he's perched, and for several days thereafter, I observe his constant ritual. First, he sits near the hole he's dug out of the trunk or on a neighboring branch from which he relentlessly calls out for a mate. From time to time he dives into the hole only to stick his head out and call again. Between each cry, he surveys the surrounding area for a female. When he gets hungry, he'll disappear for a while In search of food but always return to the tree he's chosen. This pattern can go on for days until he succeeds in attracting a mate.
The male woodpecker burrows out the nest, most often in the trunk of a dead tree. He works carefully to empty it of the wood chips, and finally one day the female approaches. First she inspects the surrounding area and if the location suits her, she inspects the nest. If she approves, a couple is formed. If not, she flies away and leaves the male to continue calling for a mate.
When the female has been won over, she helps complete the preparation of the nest. They take turns flying away to find food while one of them stays to guard their new home.
I come back every day to observe them, and one morning I realize that there's a noticeable change in their behavior. Their comings and goings are more frequent and now they return home carrying food. The baby birds have hatched!
From that day on, their busy ballet never stops. When the male brings food back, he perches on the trunk until he's certain no predators are watching. The female sticks her head out of the hole, verifies that it is indeed her husband who has returned before taking off herself to find food. Then the male enters the nest with caution. When the female returns, it's the same choreography in reverse. From sunrise to sunset, their comings and goings continue unremittingly. Their devotion to caring for the babies is whole-hearted and demands their full attention at every instant.
And then.... one day a tiny head peeks out of the nest. The baby bird has grown enough that his parents sometimes leave him all alone for a few minutes.
From his lookout post, the baby observes the woods where he'll soon fly freely. Constantly curious, not a sound escapes his attention and the slightest movement catches his eye. From time to time, he disappears to rest deep in the nest. Then he reappears to scrutinize the mysterious universe that surrounds him. Once in a while he emits little cries from the edge of the nest out into the world as if he expects an answer, but gets none. Is he afraid because his parents have been gone too long? Or is he simply calling to them because he's hungry?
At last his father is there and all you can see of the baby is his wide open beak, anxious to gobble his meal.
I could watch this fascinating and moving spectacle for days on end.
Alas, I must be on my way back to France without getting to see the baby tike flight. He'll soon leave the nest, and by the time Spring rolls around, the miracle of nature will begin anew.
* All photos were taken in the United States in Cleveland Ohio and New York City