First, the bird was in the middle of the road near the ski resort's lodge entrance, happily pecking away at some unknown source of interest on the icy surface. Later, it - and its partner - flitted among trees to forage, and occasionally dropped down to visit the suet feeder I was observing with a group of other birders brave enough to venture into the mountains' bitter cold.
Through my research, I knew of the similarities between downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, and how challenging it can be to tell the two similar species apart. Having now seen them both in the field, I can say it may not be as hard as believed, once you have the honor of seeing both yourself. The hairy woodpecker is noticeably larger, and the long bill stands out as a formidable tool, whereas the downy woodpecker's bill is little more than a pointed nub among its nasal bristles. While both species have black and white plumage, the hairy woodpecker is much darker overall, with less white mottling on the wings. The behavior of the two birds is also markedly different: while the downy woodpecker is more active and flighty, I found the hairy woodpecker to be very deliberate. It's a bird that knows what it wants.
And to that end, I know what I want: the opportunity to see even more lifers and observe their fascinating behavior as it should be - in the wild, doing what wild birds do. There is no comparison with books, field guides or secondhand sightings. Let's get birding.