Hunting Flickers

I awoke before dawn this morning to the sound of the neighborhood birds waking up. It’s still warm enough to leave the windows open at night, but cool enough that we’ve started adding blankets to ward off the 5 a.m. chill. This morning there was a bird sound unusual enough to get my attention.

They say that skilled birders identify more by sound than by sight, but I’m only beginning to acquire the listening skills, so they feel clumsy and confusing. I tried to lie quietly and listen.

After a bowl of oatmeal and some stark newsreading, I took my coffee, binoculars and bird book out in the backyard to see if I could see what was making that intriguing sound. It was in the 60s F (maybe 17C), cool enough that I was glad I had my sweatshirt but not unhappy to be able to still go out barefoot in the morning.

There were the usual house finches and a couple of house sparrows – fewer than I have on summer mornings, but enough to entertain. The finches hop around in the high branches of the neighbors’ giant elm, and particularly love the very topmost branch of a tree a couple of houses away, front-lit against the blue morning sky to the west. In the distance to the west, I could see an occasional flight of pigeons. They never come to my house, but I often see them flying a few blocks away, some sort of commuting corridor between trash bins perhaps.

Sadie came out with me, as she does when I go out in the morning to watch the birds. While I sit and sip coffee, she has a patrol routine. This morning there was something particularly interesting in the pile of concrete blocks on the north side of the yard that required a great deal of sniffing attention. I imagined some small cowering rodent hiding in the fortress of spaces created by the voids in the pile, a giant dog nose poking perilously close to its pocket of safety. No rodent ever spotted, Sadie eventually lost interest and extended the range of her patrol.

Eventually, I heard what the Cornell people describe as a “peah” followed by the loud “”wik-wik-wik” – the sounds I had heard as I lay in bed. I had flickers on my mind, because Lissa and I had caught a glimpse of one down by the river yesterday, zooming from one cottonwood to the next. We have them here year round, but the number of sightings goes way up this time of year.

They were in the big elm somewhere, but the tree is mostly hiding place, not visible perch, and I didn’t get a glimpse until something relatively large (larger certainly than my little finches) took flight, with a dark tail and the barest glimpse of rust color as it streaked over my head and out of sight. I keep straining my ears to hear it again, hoping for a better look.

Eventually, I realized the last quarter of my coffee had gone cold.