Bird Roll Call: March 24, 2018

  • American crow1,3
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,3
  • Bald eagle3
  • Blue jay1
  • Brown creeper (two)1
  • Bufflehead (three pairs)2
  • Canada goose3
  • Carolina wren (heard)1
  • Common grackle1,3
  • Dark-eyed junco1
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • European starling1,3
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2,3
  • Mourning dove1,3
  • Northern cardinal1,2
  • Northern flicker (male and female)1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1
  • Red-tailed hawk (two flying together)3
  • Red-winged blackbird3
  • White-breasted nuthatch1
  • White-throated sparrow1

There were birds all over the yard today. It was wonderful. I put a new suet feeder out, one that’s starling-proof. The downy woodpeckers and northern flickers checked it out, but they aren’t sure how to get at the suet.

The male and female northern flickers perched in one of the sweetgum trees for a long time. The wind mussed their feathers. They looked like they weren’t sure what to do next. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows hopped around on the lawn like robotic toys. American goldfinches and pine siskins amiably shared the two nyjer feeders. Common grackles, house finches, house sparrows, mourning doves, and northern cardinals occupied the pole feeder all day. In the evening, a male white-breasted nuthatch bustled up and down one of the sweetgums. A bit later, two brown creepers scaled the shaggy bark of the silver maple. As the sun set, I heard a Carolina wren singing day into night. He must have had a good meal to sing like that.

I saw several birds while my partner and I ran errands in the morning. The most notable was a bald eagle flying over 103rd Street just east of Antioch with a squirrel in its talons. I believe I also saw several juvenile bald eagles in the sky in Shawnee, Kansas.

Locations — in my backyard, at Meadowbrook Park, and while driving across town.


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

Bird Roll Call: March 23, 2018

  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1
  • Blue jay1
  • Black-capped chickadee (heard)1
  • Common grackle1
  • Dark-eyed junco1
  • Downy woodpecker1
  • European starling1
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2
  • Mourning dove1
  • Northern cardinal1
  • Northern flicker1
  • Pine siskin1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1
  • White-throated sparrow1

I had to take one of the suet feeders down because the starlings were mobbing it. As soon as it was gone, the downy woodpeckers started spending more time at the nearby upside-down suet feeder. I didn’t realize how much the starlings’ presence was bothering them. The blue jays have no use for my peanut feeder now that it’s warmed up and there’s other food available. They fly away now when I come out to fill it. I miss seeing four of five of them flying to the feeder at once.

Tonight, my lawn was littered with juncos, white-throated sparrows, and mourning doves. Cardinals, finches, and sparrows crowded the feeders. I never feel alone when birds are near.

Locations — in my backyard and while driving across town.


1. Seen at home
2. 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 21, 2018

  • American crow2
  • American kestrel2
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,2
  • American tree sparrow2
  • Bald eagle (overhead)2
  • Black-capped chickadee1,2
  • Blue jay1,2,3
  • Canada goose1,2,3
  • Carolina wren 2
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2
  • Downy woodpecker1,2
  • Eastern bluebird (male and female)2
  • European starling1,2,3
  • Gull sp. (overhead)1
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2
  • Mourning dove1,2,3
  • Northern cardinal1,2
  • Northern flicker1
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,2
  • Red-tailed hawk 1,2,3
  • Rock pigeon3
  • Tufted titmouse2
  • White-breasted nuthatch2
  • White-throated sparrow (including first-winter birds)1
  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker2
  • Yellow-rumped warbler2

It was so nice this morning that I decided to clean up around the feeders. Then I sat outside until the birds stopped noticing me. It’s lovely to observe them without any boundary and to hear their songs and calls. I watched blue jays eat the peanuts I left out for them. I watched American robins alight on various branches. (We’ve had American robins in the yard again for the past few days, but only one or two at a time. I was delighted to hear their calls echoing all over the neighborhood this morning.) I watched northern cardinals feed from a tube feeder and forage on the ground. The littles came in a few at a time — dark-eyed juncos, house finches, and house sparrows. Canada geese flew over. Below, overcome with delight, a blue jay belted out its most melodic call while taking a bath. (Melodic is a relative term when applied to blue jay vocalizations. This particular call is almost euphonic.) At one point, the blue jay attempted to sing while its bill was submerged. The result was muffled, distorted, and just plain silly. I laughed.

In warmer weather, the birds don’t have to feverishly devour all the calories they can get in order to survive the harsh conditions overnight. Today, they had the luxury of taking things at a more leisurely pace. The activity in the yard didn’t reach its peak until just before noon when swaths of the dormant lawn undulated with one type of bird or another and the birdbath was transformed into a whir of twisting, flapping feathers. “Joy, joy, joy,” the whole yard seemed to exclaim.

That’s how I left the birds today when my partner and I headed out for Heritage Park. They were perfect. They were happy. They were free.

On our way out, we heard a red-tailed hawk screaming high above. The sound drifted to the east and was gone.

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


1. Seen at my home
2. Seen at Heritage Park
3. Seen while driving

Essays: Midfield

I want to tell you about the birds, the ones I’ve been watching for months now, as closely as I’ve ever watched anything. There is a stillness when I watch them — their presence demands mine. But there is everything else, too. What stirs in them stirs in me, emotions that fall beyond the reach of language.

It started with desire. For years, I’d wanted to know the names of birds, to be able to identify them. To know things, we must start with learning their names. Only then can we unlearn the names and understand the thing being experienced, as well as the thing doing the experiencing — that thing we call the self.

A pair of binoculars arrived in the mail this fall, along with a set of bird identification flashcards. Both were gifts from my partner. I spliced memorizing the cards with staring out my window through the binoculars. My days were woven in this way: memorize, stare, memorize, stare. I ran my fingers over the birds’ printed forms while saying their names. Fox sparrow. House sparrow.1 Lark sparrow. White-throated sparrow. I had no idea there were so many sparrows. At first, my yard only offered up house sparrows. Eventually, a pair of white-throated sparrows arrived and dazzled me with their black-and-white helmets. Thrilled that I could identify them, I screamed their name in the style of a blue jay’s alarm call: “White-throated sparrow! White-throated sparrow!” The soundwaves my voice created hit the glass in front of me. The pane indifferently refracted the vibrations.

My world swelled after I realized there was more than one type of sparrow. How crude was my perception that I had lumped so many species into one? I widened my search from my backyard to area parks, meadows, tallgrass prairies, wetlands, and wildlife refuges waiting for the quiet to be parted by a sound akin to a flutist trilling while playing wind tones on her instrument. No note, just the airy pairing of consonants amplified by the flute’s long silver body. “Trrrrrr, trrrrrr.” The trills lasted a few seconds, long enough for a sparrow to move from the meadow to a nearby tree, or from a blade of grass to the water, or simply to move away from me. “Trrrrrr, trrrrrr.” A scramble of wings. Most of the time, I saw no more than a smear of color, like someone swiping oil paints with his thumb. Then nothing. Silence returned. It was a companion, this silence. I came to feel as if both of us were waiting for another bird to stir — to relieve my disquiet and to relieve silence of the burden of being silence.

Not every sparrow was a smear. I saw my first savannah sparrows at Heritage Park, where they foraged in patchy grass near an old brick silo. Like an accent color used sparingly, yellow patches above their eyes elevated their otherwise drab appearance. I first saw Harris’s sparrows at the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve. They scurried into a group of shrubs as my partner and I drove past. They seemed to pose as I trained my binoculars on them. One had the darkest face and crown of any Harris’s sparrow I’ve seen so far, features that would ensure a high rank among his quarrel. The wheat-colored spots on either side of his head made him look like he was wearing earmuffs.

I saw white-crowned sparrows for the first time at the preserve where I saw the Harris’s sparrows. They were part of a flutter mobbing the feeder outside the educational center. My first fox sparrow surprised me at Longview Lake. I hadn’t heard its trill as it left the meadow, but suddenly it poked its head out of an evergreen just above me. “This is the red sparrow,” I thought. “Red, red, red. Red like the fox.” That was the same day we saw a rangy coyote on the side of the highway. How slow the animal seemed, how sapless, a stark contrast to the birds in the meadow.

Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Preserve gave me my first song sparrows. My first chipping sparrows hugged the water at the KCP&L Wetlands, a visit that was also notable because of the racist and anti-Semitic graffiti someone had carved into the bird blind at the wetland’s entrance.

Baker Wetlands offered up the shy Le Conte’s sparrow, whom I happened upon as I was taking a photo of the switchgrass next to a mowed path. He balanced between two blades, one foot on each, exposing his blond breast and white belly. He sang, but I don’t remember his song. I was overcome by his beauty: his soft gold face and striped crown, the patchwork of browns on his back that reminded me of the mottling on a hawk, his cocked tail. I was also overcome with how blithe he seemed, surfing in the grass, body shifting and shifting again in the air. “Alive,” I thought. “This bird is alive, through and through.” I had been reading about the Le Conte’s sparrow the day before visiting Baker, though I didn’t make the connection until later. What I read described them as being difficult to see because of their secretive nature. The phrase “secretive nature” made it sound like the Le Conte’s was a gumshoe, a spy, or worse — nothing like the glib creature I had encountered.

Lake Perry is not where I had my first or even second American tree sparrow sighting, but it is here where I had my most meaningful experience with them. I found them where the edge of the lake fed a small inlet. There, surrounded by trees, the tree sparrows (and a few song sparrows) pulsed and trundled at the water’s edge like sprites. They were bathing, and I was watching without their knowledge. I’d crept across a rough-shorn field and made my way through unkempt trees to bear witness to this ritual. All along the section of the shore, as well as in the inlet, sparrows bobbled, sending a volley of water droplets in every direction. I’d never seen anything more joyful, and that joy found its way into my body. “This little world,” I thought. “What have I been missing?” I felt like I’d been born the wrong size. The human-sized world was not nearly as enchanting as this Lilliputian one.

Not unlike the Le Conte’s sparrow, I am becoming more secretive as I watch birds. I skulk about in their world, which has no need for me. I move slowly. I crouch. I crawl. I sit motionless with my legs crossed until parts of my body go numb. I stand looking out and out, seemingly at nothing. My partner makes line drawings of the landscape as he waits for me. Or he listens to podcasts. Or he goes on walks that loop back to where he will find me, still sitting or standing in the same place.

But I am not in the same place. The stillness, the watching — and what I am watching — is changing me in ways that words can’t properly express. Basho’s come close:

               Midfield,
               attached to nothing,
               the skylark singing.

Perhaps that’s it, or at least part of it. The birds are attached to nothing. I am attached to nothing. There we are, held together by the field, singing with life.


Notes
  1. I just learned that house sparrows aren’t actually sparrows. They are weaver finches.

Twitter: Cabinet of Curiosities

My neighbor’s back porch looks like a cabinet of curiosities.

Note from an eBird user: American tree sparrow seen near artificial flowers at roadside memorial.

Church bells in the morning. Train whistle at night.

I follow a falling leaf almost all the way to the ground before realizing it’s not a bird.

The day is a glass marble being rolled toward the light.

Cardinal: You glow like a ruby in a tarnished ring.

A tree grows inside an old silo.

We just rescued a yellow-rumped warbler who was stuck in a park toilet.

American robin: You look like a stone fruit.

Spurred by a crow’s alert, more than thirty cedar waxwings shook off the Bradford pear in which they had flickered and lolled.

Meadowlarks bound through a freshly cut field as if directing a singalong.

Brown creeper: You look like a small knot on this Brobdingnagian tree.

In the quiet field, flying sparrows sound like cards being riffle-shuffled.

Western meadowlark: You’ve thrown your drab office blazer over your couture evening dress.

I look up to see the birds in my yard flying between bubbles. I look over to see a neighbor and her child playing with a soap bubble machine.

Canada goose: On takeoff, your wings sound like umbrellas opening and closing at full tilt.

Chickadee at Old Longview Lake: Your deformed foot doesn’t keep you from vaulting like an aerialist.

I saw an orange house finch today. I think this is the fellow who sings me awake each morning.

The blue jays seem to be testing shell peanuts for weight before making their selections.

Twenty-eight robins just landed in my sweetgum tree.

Two house sparrows fight over a feather.

Evening: The birds darken.

Two Carolina wrens hunt for spiders in my silver maple’s trunk flares.

This is the best thing I’ve read all day: “Carolina wrens defend their territories with constant singing.”

It’s not a ghost / which keeps you up at night / It’s certainty — Jeff Schwaner