Bird Roll Call: February 20, 2018

  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1
  • Black-capped chickadee1
  • Blue jay1
  • Canada goose (overhead)1,2
  • Cooper’s / sharp-shinned hawk2
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • European starling1
  • Great blue heron2
  • Gull sp. (overhead)1
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2
  • Mourning dove1
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker (heard)1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (male and female)1
  • White-throated sparrow1

It was cold and sleeting. Winter weather, through and through. A European starling bathed in the birdbath. A squirrel slept on a branch with his tail wrapped over his head like a turned-up collar. The dark-eyed juncos’ tails were frozen in all manner of configurations: open fans, half-open fans, broken fans. The Carolina wren flew over to visit with me as I was filling the wreath feeder with peanuts.

Later, my partner and I went for a walk at a local creek and came upon a heronry. It was an exciting discovery.

Location — in my backyard and at a local creek.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen a local creek

Bird Roll Call: February 17, 2018

  • American crow3
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1
  • Blue jay1
  • Canada goose (overhead)3
  • Dark-eyed junco1
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • European starling1
  • Great horned owl (heard)1
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker (male and female)1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (male and female)1
  • Red-tailed hawk2,3
  • White-throated sparrow1

Sleet covered the ground. It was dark and thirty-five degrees. In the distance, the birds were shadows moving among branches. A dozen European starlings flew to the east, blotting the sky. Blue jays followed. American goldfinches scattered like flecks of gold tossed from someone’s hand. A drenched squirrel sifted through wet sunflower seeds littering the ground. A house finch, a dark-eyed junco, and a white-throated sparrow sat in the lilac at the back of the property as if its bare branches could provide protection from the rain.

Birds funneled back slowly, starting with the juncos. Six white-throated sparrows scratched at the cold soil. A northern flicker and downy woodpecker landed in one of the sweetgum trees at the same time. A house finch sang from his perch on the sunflower seed feeder. The sky grew lighter.

Location — in my backyard, at Meadowbrook Park, and while driving.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen at Meadowbrook Park
3. Seen while driving

Bird Roll Call: February 15, 2018

  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,2
  • Belted kingfisher2
  • Blue jay1
  • Canada goose (overhead)1,2
  • Dark-eyed junco (heard at MP)1,2
  • Downy woodpecker (heard at MP)1,2
  • Eastern bluebird2
  • European starling1,2
  • Gull sp. (overhead)1
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1,2
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (heard at MP)1,2
  • Red-tailed hawk2
  • White-breasted nuthatch1
  • White-throated sparrow1

A blue jay imitated a starling today, repeating a mechanical two-note vocalization as it scanned the yard looking for peanuts. At 8:30 a.m., I opened the window and listened to the church bells. In the early afternoon, I heard a dark-eyed junco singing and chipping in a way I’d not hear before. A male northern flicker drummed loudly throughout the day on various surfaces. Some of them sounded more like metal than wood.

At sunset, my partner and I took our dog out for a walk at the park across the street. We saw a red-tailed hawk who was probably still a light morph but who had darker markings than the ones who visit our house. Its eyes were dark, too, like smokey quartz, which is indicative of an older bird. We kept walking and ran into a pair of eastern bluebirds who were exploring an old woodpecker nest as a potential nesting site. I hope they find it suitable.

Near one of the park’s interconnected lakes, we came across a female belted kingfisher sitting on a stone wall. She’s probably the same one we saw in that location back in December. As we walked away, we heard her rattling from one side of the lake to the other while male mallards pumped their heads and performing a move called “head up, tail up” to impress females. Several bluebirds darted from another lake to a nearby tree. A train whistled in the distance.

Location — in my backyard and at Meadowbrook Park.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen at Meadowbrook Park

Bird Roll Call: February 10, 2018

  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1
  • Belted kingfisher2
  • Black-capped chickadee1
  • Blue jay1
  • Canada goose3
  • Dark-eyed junco1
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • Eastern bluebird1
  • European starling1,3
  • Gull sp.1,3
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker (two males)1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (male and female)1
  • Red-tailed hawk1
  • White-throated sparrow1

I woke late. Several house finches were already piled into the dogwood for a mid-morning nap. The male red-bellied woodpecker was filling a rotted-out sweetgum branch with food. Squirrels were purging old material from their nest in the other sweetgum tree. The detritus fell to the ground and scared the dark-eyed juncos.

A red-tailed hawk made a brief appearance, and the birds only acted half scared. This hawk looked much younger than the last one who visited. Its eyes were barely pigmented enough to be called citrine, and its feathers were in pristine condition. The hawk didn’t stay long. After it left, the songbirds returned to their business which, on a frigid day like this, amounted to eating as much as possible to provide the calories needed for the long, cold night ahead. I read that birds can lose up to ten percent of their body weight on winter nights. Foods like suet, peanut butter, and sunflower seeds provide the fats that are essential this time of year.

Two male northern flickers arrived in the yard at about the same time. They seemed to size each other up. I don’t know if these are the same two males who were vying for the female’s attention a little while back or if the area is overrun with these fellows. The two sat on the fence together for a little bit then separated and did their own thing, one staying on the fence and the other foraging in the garden despite the mild protestations of mourning doves.

Eastern bluebirds arrived in the afternoon. I put peanut butter bits out for them, but they haven’t found them yet. They primarily visit for the water, which is in short supply when everything freezes.

My partner and I went out looking for a suitable branch to append to the main feeder pole. We ended up behind a lawn and garden store in an area that overlooks part of Indian Creek. I stepped to the edge of the cut bank just as a belted kingfisher flew across the water with a fish in its mouth. We rounded out the day with a few Canada geese before returning home with a branch that had broken off a flowering tree in a Walmart parking lot. It wasn’t easy to cram the branch into the car, but it was worth the effort. The birds are going to love their new perch.

Locations — in my backyard, at Indian Creek near 103rd and Roe, and at Indian Creek near 103rd and Metcalf.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen at Indian Creek near 103rd and Nall
3. Seen at Indian Creek near 103rd and Metcalf

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: February 4, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Blue jay
  • 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
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • White-throated sparrow

Today, I looked up at one of the sweetgum trees and thought squirrels had built a nest on a low branch. The nest was actually the red-tailed hawk. I got out my new camera and took dozens of photos. The images allowed me to see much more detail than I could have otherwise. The luminous amber eye. The back feathers frayed into the shape of throwing stars. The look on the hawk’s face when blue jays were diving at its head — not irritated but something closer to hurt or disappointment.

The songbirds didn’t scatter at the hawk’s presence. They maintained a respectful (and safe) distance in the bushes and trees lining the fence. Once the blue jays succeeded in driving the hawk away, the birds emerged.

It started to snow, teasingly at first and then with conviction. The red-tailed hawk came back and sat like an urn in the neighbor’s silver maple. None of the songbirds were bothered by the raptor’s presence. Perhaps the weather was bad enough for everyone to agree to share the same space.

Dark-eyed juncos hopped through the new snow like children. I took photos of the juncos, the male northern flicker, the red-bellied woodpecker, half a downy woodpecker (she was moving too fast for me to catch her in the frame), and several house finches, including the one who is missing several wing feathers.

Looking at the photos later, I saw that the northern flicker’s breast and belly have the appearance of hearts instead of spots — dozens of tiny valentines saying to the female who passed him over, “Pick me, pick me.” Maybe that’s what his plaintive cry means. “Kyeer, kyeer. Kyeer, kyeer.” Pick me. Pick me.

I am so in love with these birds. Their lives are beautiful, complicated, and heartbreaking. I can’t wait to see them again tomorrow.

I almost forgot to mention that two eastern bluebirds visited the yard today. Such a wonderful surprise!

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 29, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Carolina wren (heard)
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Pine siskin
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • White-throated sparrow

Every morning, I scan the yard to see which species are present and to watch their antics. This morning, I looked first at the ground and the feeders. I saw eight species merrily going about their business. I looked up to see who might be in the shrubs and trees. To my surprise, the red-tailed hawk I’d seen a few days ago was relaxing on a low branch in my neighbor’s silver maple, its big white stomach shining like a piece of porcelain. None of the birds were at all concerned about the hawk’s presence, not even the blue jays. Everyone was acting like the hawk wasn’t there. Northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, and house finches even perched nonchalantly in the nearby magnolia. Several more species visited while the hawk was present. They ate. They drank water. They flew this way and that. It’s like they’d all come to an agreement: the hawk would visit the area each morning to rest and nothing more, and the birds would allow it because the hawk had agreed to hunt elsewhere.

I’ve read that red-tailed hawks aren’t as much of a threat to songbirds as Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks. A chart from the 1945 publication Birds of Kansas titled “What Hawks Eat” states that only 9.2 percent of a red-tailed hawk’s diet consists of small birds, compared with 55 percent and 96.4 percent for Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks respectively. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks definitely pose more of a risk to songbirds than red-tailed hawks, but still — 9.2 percent is significant. If I were a songbird, I would be uneasy about having a red-tailed hawk in my vicinity, even if it seemed to have struck a deal with birds like me. Maybe having the red-tailed hawk around is beneficial in some way. Its presence might keep the Cooper’s hawk who frequents the area from paying a visit. Having a red-tailed hawk around as opposed to a Cooper’s hawk would definitely be a move in the right direction where the songbirds are concerned. The latter is five times more likely to eat them.

A few flakes of snow teased the air. Ten mourning doves composed a simple song on the utility lines. Imagine each line as part of a musical staff and the doves as notes. They were positioned in the equivalent of the F-natural and A-natural positions. The song they created looked like this:

| — _ — — | _ — — _ | } — } } |
.
.
Key: …..| = bar …..— = A-natural ….._ = F-natural …..} = rest

At one point, a mourning dove landed on the utility line above the second dove from the left. They formed a dyad comprised of F-natural and A-natural.

The hawk flew away just under half an hour after I’d first seen it, parting the songbirds as it went.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 26, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • Gull sp. (overhead)
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • White-throated sparrow

As I sat down to watch birds, I saw the male northern flicker looking for the female again today. She was nowhere to be found. I haven’t seen her or the male she appears to have partnered with since the day they became an item.

A red-tailed hawk landed on a low branch in one of my sweetgum trees. I noted its yellow eyes, the brown stingray patterning on its breast feathers, the speckles on its belly feathers. A blue jay approached the hawk and began cheeping at it like a small songbird. I’d never seen that strategy employed before and wondered why the blue jay chose this approach over sounding an alarm call. Unfazed, the hawk settled in for a long rest, its body spreading out until it took on the shape of a Foghorn Leghorn cookie jar. A second blue jay arrived on the scene and began making a “meh, meh, meh” sound — not exactly the alarm call, but at least something a little more assertive than cheeping. This was followed by silence, then the second blue jay cycled into a different call. I believe it was the first call listed on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds page.

After a few minutes, the blue jays left the hawk in peace. It looked to the right without moving its head, its right pupil gliding toward its beak. I could see that its brown head was mottled and resembled depleted soil on the side of an asphalt road.

Only the northern cardinals remained. The hawk’s feathers blew in the wind. It leaned forward a few times but didn’t fly. Its pupil held the sun. Above, gulls looked like gashes in the sky’s sateen. Dark-eyed juncos, oblivious to the hawk’s presence, gathered at the birdbath. The blue jays returned and dove at the hawk; one hit it on the crown. The hawk scratched its head with its left foot then tucked the foot into its body, a sign that it was insistent on relaxing. A second red-tailed hawk called from above. The sound was quickly swallowed by silence. The wind picked up and spread the hawk’s feathers farther apart. It swayed side to side with the undulating branch.

The neighbor’s dog came outside and flapped his ears. The hawk paid no attention. A squirrel chattered from the cavity in the silver maple. The hawk didn’t care. What interested him was high above. Its eyes traced two lines through the sky: contrails from a jet. It cocked its head one way then the other, as if trying to put the strange white streaks into a “hawk” context. How were these lines relevant to its life? Once the jet was gone, the hawk turned its head around backward and angled it downward. I imagined it taking inventory of what was pertinent: finch, finch, dove, squirrel.

The blue jays returned again and finally sounded the alarm call, but in a half-hearted way, as if they were merely doing what was expected of them as opposed to what they felt compelled to do. A squirrel nearly fell off the utility line at the back of the property but recovered. Squirrels remind me of The Flying Wallendas when they engage in such acrobatics. A mourning dove landed on the utility line. The hawk watched with interest before turning to look my direction, head on and beak down, like a school librarian glowering over a pair of reading glasses.

The male flicker returned to the yard. He sat in a tree calling for the female who did not choose him. “Kyeer, kyeer. Kyeer, kyeer.” It was a sad call that brought to mind Basho’s famous haiku:

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Hearing the northern flicker, I missed the present moment even as I was experiencing the present moment.

The hawk turned around on the branch and wagged its tail. By this point, it had been in the tree for just over one hour. Its demeanor quickly changed from relaxed to alert: head forward, feathers tight against its body, eyes scanning everything. It dipped forward and raised its tail before flying into the neighbor’s silver maple. There, it assumed the same stance as the red-tailed hawks I’ve seen along the roadways. The hawk was no longer resting. It was ready to hunt. I knew it was going to fly before it flew — first left, then right. Then it was gone. Within seconds, songbirds popped out of their hiding places: a northern cardinal here, a dark-eyed junco there. I put my binoculars down and walked away.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 25, 2018

  • American crow3
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,2,4
  • Black-capped chickadee4
  • Blue jay1,4
  • Cackling goose2
  • Canada goose1,2,4,5
  • Crolina wren (heard)1,4
  • Common goldeneye2
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2,4
  • Duck sp. (overhead)5
  • Downy woodpecker1,4
  • Eastern bluebird2
  • European starling1,3,4,5
  • Falcon sp.5
  • Gadwall2
  • Great blue heron2,3
  • Hairy woodpecker2
  • Herring gull2
  • Hooded merganser2
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2,4,5
  • Mourning dove1,3,4,5
  • Northern cardinal1,4
  • Northern flicker1,2
  • Pine siskin (juvenile, I believe)2
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,4
  • Red-headed woodpecker4
  • Red-tailed hawk2,3,4
  • Ring-billed gull1,2,4
  • Rock pigeon6
  • Tufted titmouse2,4
  • White-throated sparrow1,4
  • Wood duck4
  • Yellow-rumped warbler2

The faint “pip, pip, pip” of juncos woke me this morning. Just as I sat down to watch birds, an American robin appeared on a utility line out of nowhere. (They’re stealthy like that: not there and then there and then not there again.) Northern cardinals ate from the safflower seed feeder. A group of four dark-eyed juncos — the source of at least some of the pipping — gathered to feed on spilled nyjer seed. Gulls flew over and all the birds disappeared.

Who am I? What do I believe? What do I value? What is my worth? These are questions I wrote in the margins of my bird journal. I had things to work through as I watched the birds today. Make that every day.

Squirrels raced up and down the trees like fleas over a dog’s back. I thought about a study with crows at the University of Washington that showed fear of harmful people was passed down through generations. Participants in the study wore a specific mask while trapping and banding crows, something the crows aren’t fond of. Thereafter, the crows would scold anyone they saw wearing the same mask. Eleven years after the study, the crows on the UW campus still reacted negatively to anyone with the mask on, even though they themselves never had any direct experience with the masked individuals. (That is, they had never been trapped or banded by anyone wearing the mask.) I thought about trauma in humans and how it’s passed down from one generation to the next. Birds appear to have a region in their brains that is not unlike the human amygdala, an area of the brain that is believed to show increased activity in people who have experienced trauma.

The female northern flicker landed on one of my sweetgums. A male followed. He initiated a mating dance. She hopped away. He hopped closer. He tried the mating dance again. She did not reciprocate. They flew off together after a blue jay came crashing down near them.

Nobody’s opinions define or defile my opinions. Nobody’s beliefs nullify my beliefs. Nobody’s experiences supplant my experiences. Nobody’s approaches discredit the approaches that work for me.

The flickers came back. She wouldn’t dance with him. She preened. She preened some more, her beak plunging into her rump feathers and dragging along the entire length of her tail feathers. He watched her. She ate the peanut bark I’d spread in a knot on the sweetgum’s trunk. He flew to a lower branch to be closer to her. She continued eating while he landed on the ground and ate what had fallen from her beak, which I found at once sweet and miserable.

I value what I perceive. I value what I have learned. I value what I have overcome. I value my strength.

Squirrels mated in a branch above the flickers. European starlings mobbed the peanut bark. From the ground, the flickers watched the intruders squabble for a few minutes before flying into the silver maple. Fifteen Canada geese flew by. A blue jay sounded the alarm call. Others joined in. I couldn’t see the threat, but most of the birds in the yard cleared out. The jays quieted down, though they continued to patrol the yard. Seven more geese flew by.

Locations — in my backyard, at Lake Olathe, at Sprint Wetlands, at Leawood City Park, and driving to and from these locations.


1. Seen at my home
2. Seen at Lake Olathe
3. Seen at Sprint Wetlands
4. Seen at Leawood City Park
5. Seen at Meadowbrook Park
6. Seen while driving