Bird Roll Call: February 6, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • Bald eagle (overhead)**
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Brown creeper**
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Carolina wren
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern bluebird
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Pine siskin
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • White-throated sparrow

A brown creeper visited the yard for the first time today, moments before the first bald eagle I’ve seen in our neighborhood flew overhead. The eastern bluebirds visited again. That makes three days in a row. They are spoiling me.

A male northern flicker landed on the utility line early in the day, followed by another male. The two flew off together. As the morning wore on, birds fluttered all over the yard. Dark-eyed juncos zipped around the neighbor’s crabapple like stunt planes. The Carolina wren ate from the upside-down suet feeder. A junco tried to imitate the wren but wasn’t able to navigate the upside-down perching maneuver. Later, when he was done eating, the wren dropped to the ground to scoop snow into his bill.

The birdbath breathed mist into the air. Dark against the light sky, a blue jay flew above the trees with a peanut in its mouth.

Location — in my backyard. A double asterisk indicates first sighting in my yard.

Bird Roll Call: February 5, 2018

  • American crow (overhead)
  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Carolina wren
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern bluebird
  • European starling
  • Gull sp. (overhead)
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Pine siskin
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • White-throated sparrow

I woke to rabbit tracks crisscrossing the yard, along with areas where the snow had been nosed away so the rabbit could graze on the grass beneath it.

The male and female bluebirds returned. Our birdbath must be one of the only sources of water in the area. I saw them three times throughout the day. Each time, I clapped with joy.

At least one dozen mourning doves took off suddenly and flew over the house. The Cooper’s hawk was perched high in my neighbor’s silver maple. When a Cooper’s hawk arrives, the term birdwatching becomes literal: You are suddenly watching just one bird, the one who has scared off all the others.

After about an hour, the littles started making their way back. They didn’t realize the hawk was still standing sentinel in the tree. Dark-eyed juncos, house finches, northern cardinals, and white-throated sparrows hopped along the fence railing and kicked at the ground. Both chickadees visited the feeders. I was happy to see that they made it through the frigid night. (I saw the Carolina wren later as well, another species that’s especially fragile in extremely cold weather.) One of the chickadees saw the hawk and mounted an attack. It was mob behavior without the mob. Though there wasn’t another bird in sight fighting off the hawk, the chickadee wasn’t deterred.

Birds shot through the sky, veering off course as soon as they saw the hawk. Blue jays arrived and sounded their alarms in unison. The hawk flew off to the east.

A blue jay landed in the sweetgum and found the red-bellied woodpecker’s stash of food in the jagged remains of a branch. I knew that spot wouldn’t remain concealed for long. I suppose the jay earned a reward for protecting the other birds and getting the hawk to move on.

I started taking pictures of the birds. Alarm calls rose and fell throughout the morning and into the afternoon, leaving the yard bereft of birds for swaths of time. But overall, the yard was bustling. By the end of the day, twenty-one species had either come for a visit or flown by overhead. It was a good day.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 28, 2018

  • Accipiter sp.2
  • American crow2
  • American goldfinch1
  • American kestrel2
  • American robin1,2,3
  • American tree sparrow2
  • Black-capped chickadee1,2
  • Blue jay1,2
  • Canada goose1,3
  • Carolina wren (heard)1
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2
  • Downy woodpecker1,2
  • Eastern bluebird2
  • European starling1
  • Fox sparrow2
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1,2,3
  • Northern cardinal1,2
  • Pine siskin2
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,2
  • Red-tailed hawk2,3
  • Rock pigeon3
  • Song sparrow2
  • Thrush sp.2
  • Tufted titmouse2
  • White-throated sparrow1
  • Yellow-rumped warbler2

A blue jay sat in one of the sweetgums while I carried shell peanuts out to the wreath feeder. It swooped down as soon as I turned around. I wasn’t even back to the house when it dislodged a shell and flew off.

I finally heard the Carolina wren today after several days’ absence. He was singing a three-note song, a variation on his usual two-note offering. I believe the notes were B-flat descending to G-flat then up to A-flat. He repeated this series three times, with an additional B-flat, G-flat, and rest at the end. Rhythmically, the song was structured like this:

| — — — | — — — | — — — | — — } |
.
.
Key: …..| = bar …..— = note …..} = rest

After I heard the wren, I saw him at one of my feeders. He flew to the ground, into my neighbor’s woodpile, onto my fence, up to the top of the utility pole at the back of the property, and into one of the sweetgums before flying away. He sang his two-note song while flitting about (B-flat descending to G-flat). A little while later, I saw him on my neighbor’s roof, where he scaled the satellite dish and surveyed his territory. It looked like he was standing at a pulpit, ready to deliver a sermon.

The squirrel who has been attempting to carry twigs up one of my trees took that activity up again this morning. I’ve decided that there is no utility in what he is doing. He seems to be acting compulsively. He’s also destroying the tree by breaking off twigs day after day. I wondered how long I would have to watch his pitiful display.

The sun came out and turned the yard into a sepia-toned photograph like the ones my partner used to take in the ’90s. American goldfinches floated in like soap bubbles and took my attention off the squirrel. A slate-colored dark-eyed junco landed on the window sill a few inches from me. Up close, I could see how much brown was mixed in with the bird’s gray plumage. These are the kinds of details you can’t observe from a distance.

The first to bathe today was a male American robin. When he was finished, the adult and first-winter white-throated sparrows flew down for a drink. They are so delightful, especially the juvenile with its skinny legs and sprightly attitude.

After watching the birds in the yard, my partner and I headed out to Kill Creek Park. Almost all the birds I saw there were concentrated in one spot just off a parking lot near a stand of cattails next to the lake. When blue jays saw a hawk and sounded the alarm, the birds flushed from their spots and scudded past me toward the water. A sparrow almost hit me in the face. Hardly any people were there, which was lovely, just a sprinkling of men fishing or walking their dogs.

Locations — in my backyard, at Kill Creek Park, and while driving to and from these locations.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen at Kill Creek Park
3. Seen while driving

Twitter: Light-Catchers

A staircase of shelf fungus scales the side of a hawthorn tree.

All around me, the ground undulates. Robins shovel leaves in search of food. “Do what you want to do” floats into my mind as clear as birdsong.

A Carolina wren sings a medley that includes the song my wren at home sings. B-flat followed by G-flat, repeated five times.

A female hooded merganser sleeps on a sheet of ice, her mate nowhere in sight. Upstream, a great blue heron squats low in the water, drenching its chest.

I like talking with the old men who don’t seem to have anyone.

Hawthorn tree: Your fungus is soft, your spikes hard. This is life.

At home, I get out my piccolo and play along with the birds.

A child screams like a hawk — or maybe a hawk screams like a child.

Frozen water droplets hang from the branches like thousands of crystal balls. Light-catchers, these drops tell our future.

Trees shred the wind. My dog sleeps.

I feel like the dark-eyed junco in my yard who has the excreta of another bird stuck to its tail.

Language is in my fingers these days, not my mouth.

I am ill and screaming like a starling.

Even the noisy house sparrow calls me back to the present.

My thoughts yellow like old paper.

Winter: Snow remains in the shadow my house casts.

Life: looking down to see the remains of a dead bird at your feet.

Bare tree limbs speak to each other in Morse code.

Starlings pull up the garland of the sky and hang it on trees. — Jeff Schwaner

Life is better since I started pointing my camera away from me. By camera, I mean mind.

Bird Roll Call: January 19, 2018

  • American crow1,2
  • American goldfinch1,2
  • American robin1,2
  • Black-capped chickadee2,3
  • Blue jay1,2
  • Canada goose (overhead)2
  • Carolina wren2
  • Common goldeneye2
  • Cooper’s / sharp-shinned hawk4
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2,3
  • Downy woodpecker1,2
  • European starling1,2
  • Golden-crowned kinglet*2
  • Great blue heron2
  • Hairy woodpecker (two, both male)*2
  • Hooded merganser2
  • House finch1,2
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2
  • Mourning dove1,3
  • Northern cardinal1,2,3
  • Northern flicker1,3
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,2,3
  • Red-tailed hawk2
  • Ring-billed gull (overhead)1,3
  • Ring-necked duck2
  • Swainson’s thrush*2
  • Tufted titmouse2
  • White-breasted nuthatch2,3
  • White-throated sparrow (including first-winter birds)2,3
  • Wood duck2
  • Yellow-rumpted warbler2

After watching the birds at my house in the morning, I drove to Leawood City Park. I wanted to take advantage of the warmer weather by staying out for the better part of the day.

I crossed over the first bridge at the park and headed toward a viewing area overlooking the creek. I saw a great blue heron surrounded by several species of ducks. The heron looked like a chess piece. The ducks looked like fancy marbles. I looked up and saw a red-bellied woodpecker hollowing out a nest cavity in a nearby tree, his rump and tail protruding from the trunk. A few feet down the path and to my right, I saw my first-ever golden-crowned kinglet. At first, I assumed it was a black-capped chickadee, but it was smaller and the markings were all wrong. I was delighted when the bird lowered its head and revealed its gleaming crest. “Hello,” I said, because I talk to birds now.

I continued down the path to the bridge that crosses the stream. This is a popular bathing spot for birds. Unfortunately, frigid temperatures over the past week had left the creek’s shallow edges frozen down this way. The water was flowing in the middle, but the birds aren’t able to bathe there because the water is too deep. I saw a couple of robins in this area, what I believe was another golden-crowned kinglet, and a handful of house finches.

On my way back, I heard two large animals. I thought they were dogs. When I turned, I saw two white-tailed deer coming toward me then veering to the right. They disappeared into the trees as quickly as they appeared, like someone had opened a life-sized pop-up book, then suddenly snapped it closed. Once they were gone, it didn’t seem like they’d ever been there. A blue jay began sounding its alarm call in the area where I’d seen the ducks. When I went to find out what was going on, I saw that the jay was taking a bath near a tangle of roots from a tree that had fallen into the creek. Perhaps this was the equivalent of humans singing in the shower, only louder and steeped in greater discontent. Two mallards, a male and a female, crunched through leaves as they made their way up the creek’s steep bank. A second female started to follow but quickly returned to the water. The climb seemed to be too arduous for her.

I walked off the main path and onto a dirt trail. Along the way, several Carolina wrens entertained me with their chatter and animated body language. I saw one with spots on its back, a marking I haven’t seen before. My presence flushed a red-tailed hawk from its resting spot. It flew over the creek and into a tree, where it watched a group of dawdling mallards and hooded mergansers. I worried about a male hooded merganser who seemed especially vulnerable to a potential attack. I looked back up at the hawk. It was gone. Deer tracks spilled over the cut bank and picked up again near the water’s edge. Bare branches scratched against one another in a kind of Morse code meant only for the trees. Thin roots snaked across the ground. A thought scratched inside my mind: “Can I like things just as they are?” I kept walking. On the water, the reflection of a plastic bag snagged on a branch bore a striking resemblance to the great blue heron I had just seen.

I crossed back over the first bridge and headed to the right. I saw Carolina wrens, black-capped chickadees, and white-throated sparrows. A cherubic red squirrel dozed on a teeny-tiny branch. I found several wood ducks perching in one of their favorite spots. A male downy woodpecker flitted to my left. To my right, high in a tree, I saw two male hairy woodpeckers. I watched them for a long time to make sure I was identifying them correctly. This was my first hairy woodpecker sighting. On the ground, I saw the remains of an American robin — tufts of downy orange-tipped breast feathers strewn about and a headless body with a gray tail and wings. The bird had just been killed, perhaps by the red-tailed hawk I’d seen. I had walked right into the carnage without realizing it.

Locations — in my backyard, at Leawood City Park, at Roe Park, and while driving to and from these locations. A single asterisk indicates first sighting.


1. Seen at my home
2. Seen at Leawood City Park
3. Seen at Roe Park
4. Seen while driving

Bird Roll Call: January 18, 2018

  • American crow (flying one block over)
  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Carolina wren
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Ring-billed gull
  • White-throated sparrow

I woke to see that the northern flicker had learned how to stand on my feeder’s raccoon baffle and flick his long tongue into the ports to retrieve seeds. Once he grew bored of that activity and moved on, I turned my attention to the ground, where several types of birds were eating the seed the flicker had spilled. I was able to identify a first-winter white-throated sparrow mingling with the group. I am learning how to see and interpret important markings on birds that help with identification. In the case of this particular bird, these markings include slightly streaked flanks and a smudged central breast spot, as compared with the clean gray breast of the adult. (It helped that there was an adult present for comparison.)

The Carolina wren appeared for a breakfast of plain suet. I was hoping he’d sing after he ate. He didn’t disappoint. At the front of the house, he launched into a three-note tune that I haven’t yet documented. The first note was an A-flat, and the final was a G-natural. The middle note fell between the half step. He repeated the notes three or four times for the most part before pausing and then beginning a new set. When he first started singing, I thought I detected an additional element between sets — a refrain of two buzzed notes with the same pitch. As he went on, the buzzing disappeared and he stuck with the main song. I was running to the front of the house at the time in order to hear him better, so I wasn’t able to document the pitch of the buzzed notes.

All morning, the sky was streaked with European starlings flying west. By 10 a.m., the ground rippled with the shadows of Canada geese. A little later, gulls flew over in the opposite direction. I thought of clouds passing by on warm summer days, but this was not that. This was winter, through and through.

Late morning, the Cooper’s hawk flew into my neighbor’s yard in pursuit of something it saw from the sky. She missed whatever she was after and flew to a nearby tree before flying up and over my house.

I saw a red-tailed hawk fly over the house twice today, or perhaps I saw two red-tailed hawks fly over once each. As of yesterday, I know I have two in the immediate area.

Watching these birds is like flipping through an old illustrated book, one that’s yellowed with time and holds great mystery.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 16, 2018

  • American crow (overhead)
  • American goldfinch
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Ring-billed gull
  • White-throated sparrow

The wind chill last night was 23 degrees below zero, which is much colder than usual for our area. All the regulars visited today, except for the Carolina wrens. (I used to have two, though I haven’t seen them together for a few weeks, so I might only have a single male now.) I hope to see a wren tomorrow or at least hear the male singing. I’ll admit I’m a little worried. Larger birds fare better in the cold than smaller ones.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 10, 2018

  • American crow2
  • American goldfinch1,2
  • American robin1,2
  • Black-capped chickadee1,2
  • Brown creeper2
  • Blue jay1
  • Canada goose (overhead)1,2
  • Carolina wren1,2
  • Cooper’s hawk2
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2
  • Downy woodpecker1,2
  • Eastern bluebird (flying away)2
  • European starling1,2
  • Gadwall2
  • Great blue heron2
  • Hooded merganser2
  • House finch1,2
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2
  • Mourning dove1,2
  • Northern cardinal1,2
  • Northern flicker1,2
  • Northern mockingbird2
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,2
  • Ring-billed gull (overhead)2
  • Song sparrow2
  • White-throated sparrow1,2
  • Yellow-rumped warbler2
  • White-breasted nuthatch1
  • Wood duck2

I came downstairs this morning to the alarm calls of three blue jays. Whatever they saw or heard scared them enough that they took cover rather than continuing to signal the threat’s whereabouts. The birds sat motionless for a long time, two in my neighbor’s crabapple tree and one in an adjacent shrub. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can only imagine what they witnessed or directly experienced. My guess is one of their own was attacked or barely escaped an attack — by a hawk, of course. The northern cardinals and even the house sparrows ventured out from their hiding spots before the blue jays finally emerged.

Things quickly took a turn for the better when waves of American goldfinches arrived over the course of the next hour. They came in sets of twelve, by my count, though it’s not easy to count goldfinches, so that’s more of a rough estimate than a formal assessment. The yard was jovial. I had my own Cirque du Soleil troop in the sweetgums, aerialists clinging to the trees’ seeds and darting back and forth to the birdbath and nyjer feeders. The male goldfinches wore circles of light-orange rouge on their cheeks and still had hints of bright yellow on their faces. The females were more understated in their olive overcoats with black detailing.

All the birds were swept up in the merriment. The downy woodpeckers flitted from tree to tree. The northern flicker shared a branch with a red-bellied woodpecker for a few moments before growing fussy. The house finches made their usual ruckus as they flew from the far feeder at the back of the property to the finch feeders closer to my house. The Carolina wren came out and investigated the cavity in the tree that the squirrels moved into this week. I heard a “chu, chu, chu” as a squirrel protested the intrusion. Unfazed, the wren flew to the ground and started in on a three-note song. The notes that comprised this song were an ascending E, F-sharp, and G. The rhythm was triplets, which were repeated anywhere from one to four times before the wren paused and then went at it again. After a bit, he flew to the front yard. Moments later, the song started up on that side of the property. I read that wrens sing relentlessly to defend their territories. This land is his, not anyone else’s — not even mine. His song makes it so.

I saw the male northern flicker foraging on the ground for the first time today. That’s how I always saw them feeding when we lived in the Pacific Northwest, but here the flicker has mostly stuck to the trees and a gnarly wooden utility pole at the back of the property. (That pole is nearly worn all the way through from decades of woodpecker activity.) When a constellation of starlings flew over, the flicker tilted his head so one eye faced the sky. Realizing the birds didn’t pose a threat, he went back to foraging as the red-bellied woodpecker trilled from the pole.

During the mid-morning lull, a white-throated sparrow waded into the birdbath. He was timid at first and quickly returned to the side of the bowl. A few moments later, he went in with gusto and sent water in all directions. Bird and baths. What a combination.

The wind took on a strange quality later in the morning, lulling the plants it touched into a trance-like state. The branches of the hydrangeas began to move in stiff wingbeats, their dried blooms bobbing like evangelists at a revival meeting. The highest branches on the sweetgums twisted in the wind, as if they had entered a hula hoop contest and were hell-bent on winning.

My trip to Leawood City Park in the afternoon brought me closer to peace than I’ve been in a long time.

Locations — in my backyard and at Leawood City Park.


1. Seen at my home
2. Seen at Leawood City Park

Bird Roll Call: January 9, 2018

  • American crow
  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Carolina wren
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mallard (overhead)
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • White-throated sparrow

It was a fine day in the yard. The American goldfinches returned, which was a relief. I’ve read that they can disappear without notice. My sweetgum trees and nyjer feeders may not be enough to keep them interested in the long run.

It was warmer today, so I sat outside until the birds no longer took notice of me. I watched a Carolina wren sing a two-note song from the top of my fence. He was singing a B-flat and G-flat combination, which he repeated five times in a row. Later in the afternoon, fueled by a healthy serving of suet at my suet feeder, he sang a series of songs and calls from beneath my kitchen window. It’s the first time I’ve heard him do a more elaborate performance. The songs were similar to the ones I heard a Carolina wren belting out two days ago at Leawood City Park. He put his individual spin on the tunes. Birdsong is nothing if not improvisational.

The red-bellied woodpecker snatched a glob of peanut butter bark from the lower part of one of my sweetgums and smashed it into the jagged remains of a dead limb high up on the tree. The squirrels will most likely steal that stored delicacy before the red-bellied woodpecker comes back for it. That’s OK. There will be more for everyone tomorrow.

The northern flicker returned today, despite having been ousted from his home yesterday.

Location — in my backyard.

Essays: Baltic Amber

She tells me her name. It’s a faux portmanteau of candle and mandolin. She uses her digital SLR to show me a bufflehead, a common goldeneye, and a scaup. We don’t know one another, but we are the only two people standing on top of Clinton Dam which, at eight hundred seventy-five feet, towers over Clinton Lake. We are here to watch waterfowl. That’s as good a formula for a fast acquaintanceship as any. Bird lovers talk to one another. We’re an endogenous group with overlapping interests that include conservation, education, outdoorsmanship, and a good-hearted love of birds (with a bit of competition thrown into the mix). I’ve seen folks pull up beside one another in popular birding areas to share information on what birds are present and where they are located. “Seen anything interesting” is a common refrain. That’s exactly what the woman on the dam said to me before introducing herself.

It’s supposed to be in the forties, but it isn’t. At this height, the wind cuts right through my layers. It might as well be in the low teens. I don’t feel like a warm-blooded creature. This is how the stones on the side of the dam must feel, losing all their heat to the frigid air and thereby becoming the essence of frigidity. I jump up and down to stay warm. It’s a futile endeavor. My body heat flows into the surrounding air.

Lake Clinton was built under the Flood Control Act of 1962 by damming the Wakarusa River. Funds were allocated the year I was born, just one state to the south, where we’d had a recreational reservoir since 1944. My family adored that bloated watering hole, whose creation necessitated the flooding of four towns. Artifacts from those engorged ghost towns still sit at the bottom of the lake, including marble tombstones that emerged a few years ago during a drought. The creation of Lake Clinton required destruction as well. Ten communities were wiped out with the lake’s development, as well as rich histories, such as underground railroad sites. The Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum now operates out of an old milk shed that was once part of Bloomington, one of the towns washed away when the lake was filled. The historic house the shed belonged to was razed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1981 after agreeing to renovate it.

It’s only my third trip here. I made the most recent one yesterday with my partner. Somehow, we managed to miss the turnout on the dam, which is one of the lake’s best spots for watching birds. When I got home, I realized our mistake and decided to come back out on my own. Birding is different alone. There’s something both calming and unsettling about looking for birds without a partner. There’s a kind of intimacy in finding a bird and sharing that experience with the person you love. It’s nice to run into other bird lovers, in part because they are so enthusiastic and in part because it takes the edge off the loneliness that can accompany solo birding. But it’s not the same as being out with my partner. I have more time to think, for one thing, which is both good and bad, depending on the thought.

Off to the right, the woman and I see two American white pelicans. To the left, a great blue heron flies in and lands on the rocky shore. The heron was here yesterday, too. The woman and I talk about how surprising it is to see a heron in such cold weather. My worry is evident in my voice, which cracks from more than the cold. I’m concerned that our unusually warm weather has affected migration timing and that many birds, not just this heron, are now in danger. In a matter of days, the temperature has plunged from the forties and fifties to the single digits, with subzero temperatures on the way. The woman and I talk about how cold we are before drifting back to our respective cars and cranking the heat. She drives away. I am on my own now, again.

I make my way up and over the lake to an area called Bloomington West. It takes longer than I expect. “Alone, alone, alone.” The word pecks at the deadwood in my head. I realize this is the first time I’ve done anything on my own since I experienced a period of great trauma in 2015. After that year, I retreated into what was safe and comfortable — into myself, mostly, and away from other people. I didn’t know a pair of binoculars would send me back out into the world — alone, alone — no less. This open-ended time is terrifying on some levels but also healing. I felt like the earth is putting me back together bone by bone, like a someone preparing a bird skeleton for display at a local nature center.

On the road, a man approaches from behind, fast. I’m going the speed limit, but he wants me to drive faster. Now I am not alone, and I want alone to return. Alone suddenly feels like an empty nest, safe and solitudinous. I worry about being out here at the lake and meandering through the rural areas that surround it. How easy it would be for someone to mess with a woman, with me. I feel old traumas speaking through my body, marks left by the men who have harmed me. Some experts call what I am experiencing the sequelae of trauma. Others call it post-traumatic stress disorder. The language I use is different. My trauma is subjective, not objective. It is visceral, not clinical. Psychologists don’t capture my experience any better than the authors of the DSM. I think about the eyes of the Cooper’s hawk who hunts behind my yard. They are the color of Baltic amber. I imagine my body is made of amber that, over time, has grown around what it has encountered, each occlusion an infraction — something forced, something taken, something threatened, something denied. The body is still there but so is what the body has been through, what it remembers. I have hardened around these memories.

I turn on a street with a funny name: E 251st Diagonal Road. The man is still behind me. I turn again, onto a road that will take me to the shore. The man keeps going straight. “Alone,” I exhale, as if the word were a mantra. I pass a newly tilled field and scare up countless meadowlarks and European starlings. They skim the field’s teased surface. I continue all the way to the lake, past a sign that reads “Road ends in water.” Perfect. A road to no-road feels existential in this moment. At the water’s edge, there’s another sign. This one says parking is not allowed at any time. I see nobody, anywhere. There aren’t even boats on the parts of the lake that haven’t frozen over. I park the car and step onto a wooden loading dock. Its yellow poles are as bright as a red-shouldered hawk’s legs and feet. The rest of the scenery is hazy, as if someone is holding a sheet of onion skin paper between me and the world. At first, I hear nothing. Then, there is noise everywhere — around me, beneath me, near, far. All at once, it sounds like singing and cracking and heavenly voices mixed with ghostly nightmare cries. My heart feels like a heron slipping on a frozen marsh until I place the sounds. It’s the water freezing, the everywhere sound of solidification. Imaging one thousand people bending saws and one hundred sticks cracking all at once. This is what the Sirens must have sounded like. Enchanted to the point of being driven mad, those poor sailors never stood a chance.

Now that I understand what I am hearing, the terror turns to strange beauty. This unsettling and unexpected improvisation has reduced my lexicon to a single word: “Wow.” I say it over and over. I look up from the ice to take in this abandoned corner of the freezing lake and see a tree full of bald eagles. I say wow again. And again. One eagle flies away. Another flies in. I see one in another tree. I see one on the ice. Wow. Part of me wishes my partner was here. Part of me wishes the woman I’d met on the dam was here. I know she would love this. But those parts are easily subverted. In truth, I want this experience all to myself, and I have it all to myself. The eagles. The lake. The haunting ice. And me.

I drive by Bloomington East, past the closed Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum, before heading out the way I came in. I stop the car in front of the field where I saw the meadowlarks and schlep into the freshly turned soil, aware that I am trespassing. I watch groups of starlings and meadowlarks skim the surface of the land, first left, then right. Through the binoculars, the birds don’t look real. The starlings are on one plane and the meadowlarks on another, like two paintings on separate sheets of glass with a space between them. I feel like I’m looking at an image in a View-Master. Not 3D, not really. Not the world the way the human eye and mind see and understand it. The binoculars create a beautiful distortion that turns the world into a piece of modern art.

I turn to walk back to the road. I think I see a party limo, but there’s a casket in the back. It’s a white hearse with a dancing neon license plate cover. A trail of cars follows. Ordinary cars. Nothing festive about them. They are the kinds of cars people in rural areas drive, ones that sit high off the ground, get around in all types of terrain and weather, and are always dirty. The occupants of the vehicles look sad and also a little irritated about passing a stranger standing where she has no business standing. Heavy with impatience and shame, I wait in the space that separates the life in the field from the death snaking beside it. The procession passes. I get in my car.

My road does not end in water, not today. I drive back the way I came. Hawks perch in the trees and on power lines along the highway. They give way to rock pigeons, then starlings. I arrive home in time to see a white-breasted nuthatch and a Carolina wren in the yard. It gets darker. Only the northern cardinals remain. Then they leave. Darker still. I see a mourning dove on the edge of the birdbath. Then nothing.