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 27, 2018

  • American crow (overhead)1,2,4
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,3
  • Black-capped chickadee2
  • Blue jay1,2
  • Brown creeper2
  • Canada goose1,3
  • Carolina wren2
  • Cooper’s hawk1
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2
  • Downy woodpecker1,2
  • Eastern bluebird2
  • European starling1,3,4
  • Gull sp. (overhead)1
  • Hairy woodpecker2
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mourning dove1,2,3
  • Northern cardinal1,2
  • Northern flicker1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Purple finch (female)2
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,2
  • Red-shouldered hawk2
  • Red-tailed hawk4
  • Rock pigeon4
  • Tufted titmouse2
  • White-breasted nuthatch2,3
  • White-throated sparrow1,2
  • Yellow-rumped warbler2

A downy woodpecker’s call woke me at 7 a.m. I cleaned the birdbath with a bleach solution last night, so I had to take it back outside this morning and fill it with fresh water. It’s important to keep all feeders and birdbaths clean so birds don’t transmit diseases to one another. I’ve decided to wash everything weekly so I don’t expose any of the birds who visit my yard to unsanitary conditions. Trudging outside in the cold first thing in the morning wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but it had to be done, so I did it.

Crows cawed overhead. A few dozen starlings passed over. Gulls flew by. Their mottled underparts resembled quail eggs. I believe they were juvenile ring-billed gulls. The crows came into view just above the treeline, smudges of wet black paint.

Blue jays began snapping up the shell peanuts I placed in the wreath feeder. I saw that at least one was caching the nuts under leaves strewn about the yard. I knew blue jays buried acorns. For this reason, they are considered the architects of our country’s great oak forests. A single blue jay can hide between three thousand and five thousand nuts each season. Of these, many go uncollected. The oak forests would not have spread as quickly as they did after the last glacial period without the essential contributions of blue jays. But this isn’t an oak forest. It’s just my yard. I had no idea a blue jay would hide shell peanuts in a suburban environment.

The squirrel who couldn’t figure out how to carry twigs up the sweetgum made several more unsuccessful attempts to do so this morning. While I was watching that tragicomedy play out, the Cooper’s hawk landed in the other sweetgum, where a second squirrel body-slammed her in an attempt to oust her from the area. Above, in their matching collard robes, a choir of blue jays sat atop my neighbor’s pin oak wailing at the hawk. Eventually, she flew away. Between the rumbling squirrel and the cacophonous blue jays, hanging around wasn’t worth the effort.

I got out my flute and played Vivaldi while I watched the birds. All those rollicking notes made me feel a bit like a bird and less like a human.

My partner and I met a friend at the Overland Park Arboretum where, to my dismay, I failed to locate the nesting pileated woodpeckers. I tried to traverse a washed-out section of the trail with nearly disastrous results before walking alongside white-tailed deer for a while when I thought I was lost but wasn’t.

On the drive home, we saw a coyote roving in a field. Two red-tailed hawks sat like knots on a tree’s bare limbs. The sky turned the color of a male house finch’s breast. Then it was dark.

Locations — in my backyard, at the Overland Park Arboretum, at South Lake Park, and while driving to and from these locations.

1. Seen at my home
2. Seen at the Overland Park Arboretum
3. Seen at South Lake Park
4. Seen while driving

Bird Roll Call: January 17, 2018

  • American crow (overhead)
  • American goldfinch
  • 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 (two!)
  • Ring-billed gull
  • White-throated sparrow

I woke to a red-tailed hawk perched on the utility lines at the back of my property. The bird flew into a neighbor’s tree, where it was harassed by crows before moving on. A few minutes later, I heard the alarm call of several blue jays. I assumed the red-tailed hawk was back. It wasn’t. Instead, the Cooper’s hawk was perched on my back fence with her back toward me. In the early afternoon, I saw a hawk fly over the house, but I wasn’t able to identify it. Then, while watching a downy woodpecker eat from my suet feeder, I thought I saw a white blob in a tree two doors down. I got out my binoculars. The blob was a red-tailed hawk. As I watched it, a second red-tailed hawk flew into the same tree. The first hawk hopped away from the second then took off. The second followed.

More than two dozen American goldfinches stopped by throughout the morning.

I heard, and then saw, the Carolina wren. I’m relieved that he made it through the worst of the cold weather.

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

Twitter: Erratics

I love the maple more because of the cardinal, and I love the cardinal more because of the maple.

Black cattle rise from the ground like basalt erratics in a limestone world.

You do feel alive. You just don’t like how that feels.

What is an extra hour in sky-time?

It’s as if the entire red maple has become the female cardinal, a form of reverse camouflage.

Dropping conditioning is, in itself, a form of conditioning.

Shhh. The squirrels are napping.

Water that reflects the sky is full of sky.

The juncos are wonderful company this time of year.

My love of birds started years ago when I released a starling from my father’s trap.

I came home to a Cooper’s hawk perched on my fence.

I think it was a sharp-shinned hawk. And I think a blue jay imitated the alarm cry of a Cooper’s hawk when the sharp-shinned hawk arrived. (Update: This accipiter was later identified as a very young female Cooper’s hawk, so the blue jay used the right call after all.)

Two great horned owls appear to be competing for territory in our neighborhood.

These days with birds are magical.

I woke to ice in the birdbath and a mantle of apricot leaves in the still-green lawn.

I topped the birdbath off with water that wasn’t frozen. Within minutes, dozens of birds came to get a drink or take a bath.

I live between two flyways, so there is a lot of interesting stuff going on here birdwise.

I just saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker in our backyard. A downy woodpecker and a red-bellied woodpecker were back there, too.

I’m ready for my arms to serve as branches.

My neighbor is walking down the street with a large shamanic drum.

Every night, the sky turns into a stigmatic, bleeding from sudden wounds.

The birds have entered my dreams, pale and wandering.

Essays: Wings and Air

Leaves from our red oak appliqué the lawn. The fall-blooming plants have lost their flowers, save for two azaleas. Butterflies and moths have been visiting the azaleas since the butterfly bushes started dying back. Above, I see woodpeckers from time to time. They dance up and down the trunks of our sweet gums. I’ve seen a slate-colored junco on two occasions. Both times, he was sneaking over the fence to take a dip in one of our birdbaths.

We have three birdbaths. Before we moved to this house, I never paid attention to birds, at least not close attention. The birdbaths came with the home, a gift of sorts from the previous owner. The birds who visit our yard regularly were also a gift. Shortly after moving here, I decided it was time to do something about my long-held desire to identify the birds I saw. I got my wish when I was given a set of bird flashcards and a pair of binoculars. The View-Master effect of the binoculars made the whole world pop to life. I couldn’t believe such wonder existed right outside my door. I’ve spent countless hours not only watching birds but also examining trees, the sky, squirrels, the texture of all manner of surfaces, the shrubs at the back of the property that lean into each other like old friends, and so on.

One of my favorite birds is the junco. I remember them from when we lived here years ago, before we moved away (and subsequently moved back). They frequented the yard at our first house. I remember that time fondly. My trauma was about half what it is now, though those earlier traumas were closer to me, more deeply imprinted, less smoothed by time, effort and consideration. Now, the most recent traumas are the jagged ones. They jar me from sleep at night and intrude on my waking hours.

I’ve been fighting for a long time, for myself and for others. For the most part, I feel unheard and unseen. I am frustrated by the lack of literacy around trauma, oppression, discrimination, and other issues that profoundly affect people’s health and well-being. I am frustrated that neurotypicality is imposed on all levels and that social constructs are mistaken for truths.

The birds help. Immensely. They don’t give me answers, and that’s the whole point of paying attention to them. They allow me to stay on a little island called here and now, unaffected by what’s happened in my past and unburdened by the extremely difficult work of being heard above the din of prevailing beliefs and values.

In these small slices of time, there is nothing wrong, nothing at all. The world is wings and air, and I am part of it.

Twitter: Ordinary Birds

I am fascinated by ordinary birds.

All afternoon, two downy woodpeckers danced up and down the sweet gum tree.

Sprinklers have dressed the trees in dark skirts.

Jealousy: when the red-bellied woodpecker is in my neighbor’s yard, not mine.

Killdeers alight between two partially constructed mansions. For now, this land is still theirs.

Like the blind raccoon, I am afraid of wind, high grass, birds, and snow.

As I turned toward it, the light seemed to be a solid.

A squirrel and I startle one another.

I’ll watch the birds you ignore.

An American kestrel sits alone on a power line. It begins to rain.

Symmetry: six mourning doves evenly spaced on a neighbor’s cable line.

Dirt is my personal stylist.

Grebes float on the man-made lake as the sky drifts into night.

We all have to love something. Why not the cecropia moth?

Overhead, birds break like pool balls.

Poor vision turns fall leaves into cardinals.

Above, the turkey vulture looks like a scalloped black slip.

Twitter: Sewage Creek

I came home to a downy woodpecker, a chipmunk, and a baby bunny. They were all in the yard together.

Walking leaf, you don’t look like the trees in these parts.

Praying mantis, I see you’ve come to my window again tonight.

I was offered a gondola ride on sewage creek. I said no.

Weeds teach me about the wind.

Daylily, how many fragile ribs guard your seeds?

Fall: Leaves flutter in our sentences.

Rain has turned the sweetgum bark tobacco brown.

My friend is standing in a field painting animals.

That perfect time in the garden when everything is dying but nothing is dead.

Lawn moths are the angels of this abandoned prayer labyrinth.

At the old golf course, two kestrels hunt for grasshoppers.

October: The old crabapple’s leaves are dipped in red wine.

Little blue heron, the lake has made a shimmering replica of you.

Night: We move toads off the road so they won’t get run over.

Beneath the harvest moon, the syncopated call of a great horned owl.

In their appliquéd ballgowns, late-blooming azaleas wait for suitors who never arrive.