Red is a very emotional color. I say this in my own defense, since even the most ardent bird lovers are seldom moved to tears by woodpeckers. I can imagine the crustiest of field biologists blubbering like a baby at spotting an Ivorybill, and who wouldn’t feel at least a tingle when a Pileated swoops in to scatter lesser birds from a feeder? But woodpeckers of modest size, average shape, and non-endangered status don’t usually inspire spontaneous outpourings of emotion.
Getting to Ecuador was a long, grueling process, so Pam, Tom, and I didn’t emerge from our cozy rooms at San Jorge Quito that first morning until it was well light. Mist shrouded the lush, green landscape as we ambled along the trails, stopping every few steps to give our lungs a chance to strain oxygen from the thin Andean air.
Ahead an incandescent blur blazed across the trail. “RED!” was all I could manage as I fumbled for my binoculars. The blur stopped abruptly at the base of a small tree, bringing its true form into focus. From studying the field guide, I recognized it instantly.
Tom and Pam got on the bird with their binoculars as I whipped the tripod into position and swung the scope toward our prize. We each looked in turn, and again, and again as she probed unconcernedly at the bark and grass in search of breakfast.
My breath was coming in gasps only partly attributable to the thin air, and my eyes began to burn. As Pam and Tom continued to take turns at the scope, I turned away to try to regain my composure. I failed. Tears flowed.
After over 30 years of birding with me, Tom would understand. Pam, on the other hand, barely knew us and might be wondering what she’d gotten herself into. “I’m sorry,” I gushed, my cheeks an anemic reflection of the bird’s glorious plumage, “I don’t usually get this emotional, but she’s just so beautiful.”
An improbably red woodpecker, among the first of many life birds, and a stunning beginning to our equatorial adventure.