Not a Small Surprise

Stephen and I found our way to the “right” Briones Park this weekend, which was just as I remembered it—minus all the mountain bikers. Far west of where we landed last week, this section of the park offers meandering trails and multiple topographies, from gentle, lushly green hills to live-oak forests, and sinuous creeks.

Not far from the entrance, we stopped to listen to the knock, knock, knock of woodpeckers, and I soon spotted two pileated males, their brilliant red headdresses held aloft as they hammered. Woodpeckers are among my favorite birds, all varieties, with their haute couture feather patterns, and their habit of swooping from tree to tree. When I lived in Iowa, I once spent several hours watching two travel in great arcs back and forth between two barns across a country road from one another. Understand when I say woodpeckers seem to suffer a bit from OCD, which often triggers my empathy. It’s hard to imagine that all that non-stop pecking doesn’t give them headaches.

Stephen and I began our hike in the sun, on a gravel path leading up and down the hills. Gentle, green hills have the same affect on me that the ocean has on some people. Instead of rapture of the deep, I sense the magnetism of the surface, and feel an intense pull to run to the top, then roll all the way down. So far, I do this only in my imagination.

Rather quickly, Stephen grew tired of the bikers. Though they were all masked and full of good cheer, they did interrupt the mood and pace of our hike. And they tended to arrive in groups of at least four. There’s something about hiking that makes you yearn for privacy. An occasional person or two can be quickly forgotten, but not a gaggle of cyclists.

“Let’s walk closer to the creek. The paths are narrower there, and we’ll lose the bikers,” Stephen suggested. So we turned onto a much more narrow trail and began following the creek bed, where we lost the sun and its warmth, but gained some quiet.

We walked along in silence for several minutes, concentrating on not tripping over roots and rocks, then came to an opening in the trees, where we were greeted by a loud and active flock of accorn woodpeckers. Oh my, I have sighted woodpeckers only singly or in pairs. I didn’t know they flocked. But this was most definitely a flock, of females and males, the males with a patch of bright red on their head, and they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, flying from tree to tree, screeching their waka waka waka’s, settling several to a limb, then taking off again.

I was thrilled. Stephen mesmerized. I don’t know how long we stood there watching and listening, transported far from the bikers and other hikers, far from Briones and the Bay Area, far from Northern California. Nothing else existed for that stretch of time but the woodpeckers and the two of us. Not Stephen’s father, who needs more and more care. Not the twins about to be born to Stephen’s daughter. Not the quarrels about the reopening of Oakland schools. Not the workshop I was scheduled to teach the next week. And certainly not Covid.

In Briones Park

2 thoughts on “Not a Small Surprise”

  • Acorn woodpeckers see do much fun! They actually live in family groups, where the juveniles often stay behind to help their parents raise theirs younger siblings. They are do much fun to watch – so raucous and flashy!

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