After a rainy weekend, it feels good to walk umbrella-free again. Today at Keene State, I had time for only a short lunch-hour spin around campus, but the natural Powers-That-Be packed a lot of sightings into that short time span.

Milkweed pods

After crossing the Ashuelot River and skirting the soccer field next to the tennis courts, I saw a pileated woodpecker flap across the overcast sky. Although this isn’t the first time I’ve seen pileateds zooming out of the woods along the Ashuelot, their sudden appearance always startles me. Pileateds are the size of crows, but their flight is flappier, their wings showing big white patches and their crested heads making their necks look scrawny and under-sized, like a bad drawing of a bird. No matter how many times I see pileated woodpeckers fly, they never look the way I’d remembered them: they always look shocking and unimaginable, a prototype of a bird still under design.

After seeing an unplanned pileated, I could have returned, satisfied, to my office and my afternoon classes, but the natural Powers-That-Be weren’t done with me yet. Walking the rail-trail that borders campus, I heard a hidden downy woodpecker calling from a tree, and then a distant pileated: the one I’d just seen? Pausing to look for a chipmunk I’d heard chirping from the underbrush, I startled a big brownish bird from a low branch. Wood duck? Grouse? My brain flipped through memorized mug shots of the Usual Subjects: what kind of big brownish bird would flush from a low branch in a scrubby patch of woods?

Railtrail bridge

It was, I discovered, a Cooper’s hawk I’d flushed from hunting some low-lying prey: it perched on someone’s backyard branch just long enough for me to identify it, naked-eyed, before it zoomed off to some other prey. My Tuesdays are packed with teaching and other tasks, so it’s a welcome relief to have a lunch-hour walk punctuated by woodpeckers and hawks, creatures whose to-do’s are refreshingly different from my own.