Nature blog: The birds of ‘heaven’s hillside’

A version of this entry was originally posted at Nature Writing  on January 29, 2012.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and will be moving away from this place soon, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”


Male northern cardinal, 1/29/12

On my way out the door around 12:30 p.m. to sit on what I’ve now dubbed “Heaven’s Hillside” because of all the trees of heaven in the backyard of my North Side house, I realized I’d forgotten my camera. As I ran back upstairs to get it, I froze in the kitchen when I saw a flash of red outside the window. A male northern cardinal pecked about the carpet of decaying leaves, searching for his preferred lunch of seeds. Two little song sparrows hopped after him, presumably looking for anything he might have missed.

Up close, I could see that the cardinal wasn’t all red. I’d seen his black face mask before, but now I noticed the black highlights in his wing and tail feathers and he hopped around. His crest stood up and he moved his head around, showing off his bright orange beak.

When he flew out of sight of the kitchen window, I went upstairs and found him outside my office window, still searching for seeds by the fence on the right-hand side of my yard. I cracked the window and snapped a quick photo before he continued his journey into the yard of the vacant house next to mine.

Since Mr. Cardinal was more or less out of range of my camera lens, I went outside and climbed the stairs to my yard. An echoing “hello” gave me pause, and I looked around, trying to find the source. It came again, and I saw my neighbor J., from two houses down to the right.

“What are you doing up there?” she yelled at me from her back patio.

“I’m doing a nature blog, so I’m taking some pictures!” I held up my camera.

“Do you live up there?” She pointed to the row of houses on the street above us. She obviously didn’t recognize me in my bomber hat and puffy coat.

“No, I live right there.” I pointed to my house. Once J. realized who I was, she relaxed and went back inside. Ever suspicious of neighborhood kids breaking things, getting into things, ruining things, or going anywhere near her house or our street, she had thought I was one of them.

Tree of Heaven, 1/29/12

When I turned back around, I caught sight of the cardinal, perched in a bush, watching me. My shouting match with J. hadn’t disturbed him, and he seemed to be waiting for me to leave so he could continue rummaging for food. I laughed to myself and stared back at him.

After several minutes I took a few exploratory steps further into the yard. The warm sun had dried the top layer of leaf carpet and tree of heaven twigs, so my feet crunched before compacting the springy, wet under-layer of composting tree and plant cast-off. At that distance, the cardinal looked almost exactly like a red leaf in the bush. He didn’t move, so I walked the four or so yards to the copse of trees of heaven I like to lean against. When I looked back, he was gone, but an actual red leaf blowing in the wind kept tricking my eyes into thinking he still sat there.

This is the third day in a row I’ve seen the cardinal around noon. Yesterday my husband and I saw both Mr. and Mrs. around 11:30 a.m. at the bottom of the yard. Mrs. Cardinal is mostly brown, but has hints of red on her wings and tail, though not her crest. Friday was the first day I’ve seen a male this year, but I believe I spotted the female last weekend by the retaining wall at the top of the yard. On Friday I saw the male sitting by the retaining wall, looking around, before he flew to the other side of the yard and disappeared behind a privacy fence. I’ve seen cardinals out back the past two winters we’ve lived here, too.

The sun felt good against my face, even if the breeze felt chilly. Wind chimes sang over the constant hum of cars speeding past on I-279, located about half a block down the street. I settled in, and soft bird song emerged beneath the louder chimes and cars.

My attempt to sketch a hairy woodpecker.

Since reading Marcia Bonta’s Appalachian Winter, the cardinals aren’t the only birds I’ve noticed. Monday, from my office window, I saw a black and white bird with a red patch on the back of his head drumming at the tree closest to me. Based on his actions, I guessed woodpecker. I watched as he banged at the tree, paused, banged some more, moved, banged, paused, moved, banged, flew to another tree and repeated his motions. He hit almost every tree in my yard before flying out of sight.

I don’t agree with everything Marcia Bonta thinks, but she makes a good point when she says: If we remove all the invasive species, where will the birds live, and what will they eat?

I checked the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Bird Guide and pegged the bird as a downy woodpecker. But later, when I spoke with my mom, she informed me that downy and hairy woodpeckers look exactly alike, but hairy woodpeckers are larger, about 7 inches long with beaks about the same size as their heads, whereas downies are only about 5 1/2 inches long with smaller beak-to-head ratios.

I went back to the Bird Guide and changed my identification to hairy woodpecker. I realized that I know absolutely nothing about birding, but decided to start a bird list like the ones Katie Fallon included in Cerulean Blues anyway, even if it has mistakes or is incomplete:

Bird List: January 23-29, 2012

  • Song sparrows
  • Male northern cardinal
  • Female northern cardinal
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Unidentified sparrow- or finch- sized grey, red and white birds

What do you think?

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