Busy. Even from a distance I could see this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) was busy excavating a nest.
The tree perched on the water’s edge and the bird focused the day’s work on the side facing the lake, so I approached along the shore where I could see the goings on.
Only when she pulled her head out of the cavity did I see this was a female.
Yet my realization came with a secondary insight: I was by no means sneaking up on the scene, and the only reason she paused was so she could watch me. And watch me she did, her gaze resting on me solidly and without fail.
I took a few more steps, slowly and carefully, and I made every effort not to look at her directly. (A direct look is a predator’s look, hence animals react to that with immediacy; indirect looks give them ease and often delay their flight responses, so I always try to appear as though I’m not looking at them at all.)
The trouble came when I aimed the camera to take another photo. I can’t very well look away in the midst of snapping a picture, so I was forced to face her.
And that started the game of hide-and-seek.
She skirted around to the opposite side of the tree. At first I thought she had escaped without me seeing her. So many birds filled the air, and at least a handful perched in the branches above her nest. It would have been easy to miss her flight.
Then I realized she hadn’t moved far at all. With only her head visible so she could watch me, she clung to the shadowed bark perhaps a quarter of the way around the trunk.
We stood regarding each other for a moment or two, her undoubtedly sizing up what kind of threat I posed, and I on the other hand trying to decide how much of a disturbance I was willing to cause by being there.
I glanced down to watch where I stepped and I moved forward one pace. When I looked back at the tree, I was startled to find she had moved back in front of the hole.
Movement high up in the branches caught my attention, and that’s when I realized she had actually taken refuge amongst the leaves.
But then who was at the entrance to the nest?
I had to look back and forth several times at the two of them before I realized I was in fact dealing with two birds, one female and one male. Her mate had taken up guard in front of the fresh home they worked on even as she continued playing hide-and-seek from the safety of higher ground.
I focused my attention on the male and lost track of the female. By then, however, he had noticed me and taken great offense with my position so close to their hope for future generations.
He puffed up and raised his crest feathers as he inched his way around the tree—and away from me. Unlike his bride, though, he didn’t play games and he didn’t peek at me from shadowy places and verdant cover.
Instead, he yelled at me a few times before moving up to a branch where he could keep a very clear watch on me.
She had moved back down the tree and was sneaking a quick glance from just behind the nest entrance.
Although I remained some distance from the tree—at least fifteen paces, I felt bad for causing them any stress at a time when they should be focused on the business at hand: planning for the children of tomorrow. I backed away slowly, then I turned and walked away.