My dad is the reason I'm this pileated woodpecker guy today. Growing up, he'd take me for walks in the woods of central New Jersey looking for birds.

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by Mike McQuaide

Just up the trail, a dark mass flutters through the trees. The way it flies — flutter-flutter-glide, flutter-flutter-glide — its size — big as a crow, but a crow doesn’t fly like that — I know what it is: a pileated woodpecker.

I stop for pileated woodpeckers. That’d be my life’s bumper sticker.

It’s behind that fir tree. If I can just . . . Dang! There it goes. Winging it through the dark moss-hung forest . . . flutter-flutter-glide, flutter-flutter-glide. And . . . gone.

Oh well. ‘Least I saw something. I swing my leg back up, remount my bike and . . . THERE! Fifteen feet to my right, eye level, is another one. Bright red triangle Mohawk-head, cool black eye stripe. It’s so close I can see its eyes blink, hear the scritchy-scratch of its claws as it rotates around a limbless snag. Like a jackhammer it blasts away, raining down cookie-size woodchips that bounce when they hit the ground. It couldn’t care less that I’m here watching. Lucky me!

My dad is the reason I’m this pileated woodpecker guy today. Growing up, he’d take me for walks in the woods of central New Jersey looking for birds we had no chance of seeing in New Jersey. Great gray owls. Golden eagles. Pileated woodpeckers.

So these days, I know my birds. Not because I ever saw them but because on the way home from our hikes, I’d grab my dad’s Golden field guide, “Birds of North America,” and read up on what we just spent the whole day not seeing. Pileated, by the way, means capped, a reference to its distinctive triangular red crest. Woody Woodpecker was a pileated.

Twenty years ago, I moved West, and since then have had a handful of these up-close audiences with a pileated woodpecker. They always feel the same: like a curtain has been pulled back and I’ve been allowed a glimpse at the magic that underlies the natural world. I feel blessed. Lucky.

I check my watch: 12:41 p.m. I wonder: Did my dad just die? Later today, will I find out that this is the exact time he passed away back in New Jersey? Is this pileated woodpecker his spirit visiting me to say goodbye?

My dad’s in his 80s now and doesn’t do well. His legs are shot, and mentally, he’s often confused, which frustrates him. Parkinson’s, they’re pretty sure, though at one time they thought it was Lou Gehrig’s disease. Who knows?

On our hikes looking for birds, I don’t remember what we talked about or lessons imparted. Only that I loved walking in the woods, tromping through the fallen leaves, hopping rocks across creeks. Probably I always hoped that we’d connect in some father-son way. Like Opie and his dad in the opening credits of “The Andy Griffith Show.”

But he was on his way out then. My mother and her ever-stewing rages had become too much. Most of us six kids were grown, some even out of the house, so he made his escape. But at 12, I was the youngest. Sad, mad, I spent the next few years consumed with resentment. My dad never gave me anything, never passed anything on to me. That was the interior monologue of my one-man show. There was a stretch in my 20s when my dad and I went years without speaking.

This pileated reminds me of the one that swooped down onto a fallen log not five feet from where I sat in a lawn chair at San Juan County Park. Dropping from the sky practically into my lap. Gotta tell Dad, I remember thinking. It’ll give us something to talk about.

With time, and getting married and starting my own family, my bitterness toward Dad faded. He and I found our way back into a dialogue through the birds I saw out here. The 22 snowy owls on the beach at Boundary Bay just across the border in British Columbia. The white pelicans that looked like angels flying high above the interstate near Yakima. The baby gray owls I nearly ran into, literally, up on Chuckanut Mountain. The bald eagles I see everywhere. So what if we’re not together when I see them; in talking about them we are (kinda).

These days, I raise my own son and we live at the edge of a great, vast forest where eagles soar and pileated woodpeckers fall from the sky, and I write about hiking and biking and running in the woods. My dad, whom I used to whine about for not giving me enough, has given me everything.

Soon enough I realize that this pileated’s partner, the first one I saw flying through these woods, is likely itching for me to leave so it can get in on the good grub. I say goodbye to my dad, if that’s who it is, get back on my bike and take off.

Back on the trail, pedaling through the woods, tromping through the fallen leaves, rock-hopping across creeks.

Mike McQuaide is a freelance writer based in Bellingham.