I first became acquainted with my backyard friend when, one morning in early spring, small chips of wood started raining down on me as I sat outside on the deck reading the morning news.
I paid little attention at first, just brushing the particles from my shoulders and hair, until I noticed them floating in my coffee cup.
A huge, aging but healthy sugar maple tree grows through the center of our deck, the structure having been framed around its trunk when the deck was built many years ago.
The tree towers over the house I share with my wife and dog, its many branches forming a canopy of leaves that shades our home and back garden in the summer.
Thus began my photographic journey through the seasons with my feathered friend, who seems to have made our urban backyard oasis her home.
Every day I would come outside to find the tiny chips of wood scattered on our glass-topped patio table and the chair I sat in. My friend was not always on the branch above me. She moved around, exploring the other trees nearby, where I would capture her with my lens, but seemed to return most often to the old maple limb.
I would adjust my chair and the placement of my coffee cup if she was working above to keep from being powdered with pulp. Other times I would just observe her on the branches and trunks of trees nearby. It was easy to find her, even in the thick foliage of summer, because she preferred dead or dying branches where leaves didn't grow. The insects she sought must also have preferred the softened fiber of rotting wood.
We affectionately call our house, and the little parcel of land on which it sits, 'Gnome, New York,' because it is so magical and isolated from the rest of the neighborhood. It seems to have its own ecosystem, like a small rainforest in the summer months, full of the scents and sounds of nature.
When you take a stroll through the back garden, you often feel as though you are being watched or accompanied by the ethereal 'little people' of Celtic myth and legend. You may even find yourself wishing that you could invite them to join you on the deck for tea.
With Gnome in full spring and summer bloom, life and magic abound.
I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of years photographing this wondrous little world. My discoveries and the process of bonding with nature have been enlightening and offer a great sense of adventure. I feel as though I have seen all of the world on less than an acre of land in the Hudson Valley.
Sometimes I waited for many hours for the perfect moment. Sometimes a bird would fly out of or fail to fly into a perfect frame with perfect light. Sometimes an insect would dart at the very moment when I had the focus, camera settings, and composition just right. It became a labor of love.
I watched as she explored but never seemed to go beyond the cluster of trees in and around the garden. I would see and hear her pecking as the sunlight faded in the evenings, and she would be there, often scattering her wooden fairy dust above my head, each morning.
Over time, I watched the maple branch, the little bird's favorite, become more and more barren, stripped of its bark. The area where she worked the hardest was chipped and scarred from the assault of her powerful, probing beak.
I wondered how soon I would need to take the branch down. Even though it was marred, the naked wood was still yellow, not a rotted gray, and looked quite sturdy.
While the powerful storm was raging, I dressed warmly, put on a hat, fitted my camera with a zoom lens that adjusted from 28 to 300mm, and ventured outside. The snow was dazzling on the web of branches against the falling snow and sky, a photographer's paradise.
Then I saw my little companion, darting from tree to tree and seemingly unaffected by the storm, her black-barred feathers in stark contrast to the white background. I followed her with my lens for an exhausting stretch of time and through an unrelenting barrage of hefty snowflakes and biting wind, until she finally settled on the trunk of a tree behind the pond. There, I finally snapped a winter image of my avian friend.
In the early hours of Thanksgiving morning, the storm moved north, leaving a dense carpet of snow behind. The scattered thud of falling clumps of packed ice from rooftops and trees could be heard throughout the evening and into the following morning.
But there was one sound my wife and I failed inexplicably to be disturbed by as we slept early Thanksgiving morning, even though it must have been as raucous and ear-splitting as a thunderclap. Some time during the predawn hours, the heavy snow proved to be too much for that fragile maple branch — the woodpecker's branch. It snapped and plummeted to the deck below, leaving the patio table, where I had rested my coffee cup, in a heap of shattered glass and twisted metal. Not even our dog was roused from her sleep by the violent din of the crash.
Thankfully, everything's fine. The woodpecker wasn't perched on and I wasn't perched below the splintering maple limb.
I saw my little friend again just yesterday, still scouting the enchanted realm of Gnome, New York.
GNOME, NEW YORK PHOTO GALLERY