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.

Twitter: Midfield

Midfield, / attached to nothing, / the skylark singing. — Basho

First snow, first junco tracks.

A spot of clean ground. This is where the rabbit laid while snow fell.

Sapphire sky beneath a sheet of vellum.

The winter sky has netted a colony of ring-billed gulls.

The chill carried a pine siskin to my yard.

Christmas morning. The Carolina wren sings.

At the top of the sweetgum tree, a tail flicks.

Winter: The dogwood blooms with finches.

House finch: Your crown is dried blood.

Northern flicker: You carry the sun under your wings.

All day I saw the Carolina wren. Still, I felt such loneliness.

We’ve been apart for so long that I can finally think of you fondly.

A little boy rides his new toy up and down the street.

One of the juncos drags its long toenails through the snow.

There and then not there: the chickadee.

The blue jays have me surrounded.

Now the blue jays are gone. They’re off mobbing a hawk.

No shadow like a hawk’s shadow.

When I’m with birds, it doesn’t matter that I’m not with people.

The songbirds exit stage right. The Cooper’s hawk enters stage left.

Winter: A great blue heron slips on a frozen marsh.

Today, a man touched me on the arm. I did not know him.

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:

               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.

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