Twitter: Geometry

I found a heronry today near my home.

Birds froze to things last night: utility lines, branches, feeders. They left feathers behind when they flew away.

Geometry: two northern flickers — one on the utility pole, one in the sweetgum — and me, below, standing between them.

A European starling found a white feather and dropped it in the birdbath.

A blue jay used a peanut shell to bully other blue jays. He wielded it like a little sword.

Overhead, a single herring gull flew behind several ring-billed gulls.

I am as fussy as an American goldfinch.

I don’t know where the birds go at night, but I want to go there, too.

Songbirds slid off iced branches this morning.

The correct image is always a seed — it contains its own explanation, and defines itself. — Charles Wright

The ground has thawed. Squirrels play in the wet grass.

Morning: A squirrel drags a dried hydrangea blossom to his nest in the silver maple.

The grackles arrived this morning. In the near distance, hundreds of Canada geese are moving north. Only a handful of juncos remain. One sings from the back fence.

I hear tapping on a nearby tree. Two red-bellied woodpeckers jag through the air. They needle the sweetgums then disappear.

I am mildly interested in leaving the house but only to go watch birds somewhere else.

Sunny and warm. Clear skies. Two geese fly past the tornado siren tower.

I live knowing there is a Turin horse in my future, a suffering so great it will finally break me.

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.

Locations — in my backyard and at a local creek.


1. Seen at home
2. Seen at 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.

Locations — 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 11, 2018

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

It was 13 degrees out and snowy this morning. Snowflakes collected in the silver maple’s shaggy bark. American goldfinches were everywhere. The pair of bluebirds came early, just before 7 a.m. and again at about 8:30 a.m. I saw the squirrel with one eye, whom I haven’t seen for several weeks. The house finch with missing wing feathers didn’t make an appearance today. This has me worried. I don’t think he made it through the cold snap. With so many missing feathers, the odds were against him.

Location — in my backyard.

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: 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

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 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

Bird Roll Call: January 23, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • White-throated sparrow

The female northern flicker flew into the yard just after 2 p.m. She sat in one sweetgum for a long time before spreading her wings and flying to the other sweetgum. A male northern flicker saw her and flew into a branch higher on the tree. I thought he might start courting her, but in a surprise turn of events, a second male landed in the tree. It looks like she has a choice to make.

For the second day in a row, a squirrel has been unsuccessful at carrying twigs to his nest. He gets to a fork in the trunk and can’t negotiate his way beyond it. I watched him drop half a dozen twigs today. He finally gave up on the twigs and attempted to carry a mouthful of dried leaves to the nest. This, too, was a failure. I watched as the leaves drifted to the ground, one after another. It was like fall again, on a very small scale. I hope the squirrel works out his technique soon. Building a nest is important, and time is of the essence.

I noticed a newly cleared hole in one of the sweetgums. It’s a slightly jagged round opening with a dusting of fresh wood tailings snagged on the bark beneath it. I suspect a red-bellied woodpecker bored out the hole based on its size and resemblance to the ones I saw the same woodpeckers drilling at Leawood City Park last week.

Location — in my backyard.