On wood warblers
Between Milton and Victoria streets a mixed stand of volunteer trees and shrubs spills down the northern slope of the former Wilder Foundation campus. Providing about a hundred yards of green buffer, this provisional woodland abuts the south side of Minnehaha Avenue directly across from the Wilder Square Inc. Housing Cooperative. To the west, at Milton, just opposite the Tobasi Stop convenience store, this narrow strip of trees, conforming to the fall of the land, wends away from Minnehaha towards to the southwest, skirting an expanse of weedy turf. If funding is secured, this entire area will be part of the proposed thirteen-acre Frogtown Farm. Here, as with most undeveloped sites in the urban landscape, the brush and weeds and garbage spread across the ground layer forming an ersatz seine of windblown trash. As the final pockets of snow disappear and the ground layer is once again visible, the amount of garbage revealed is prodigious.
It’s a warm spring morning and I’m walking west on Minnehaha, somewhat preoccupied as I negotiate my way through the debris on the side walk. In terms of frequency and distribution, an informal survey reveals, or at the very least suggests, a pattern of consumption: chicken bones, cigarette butts, junk food packaging and empty pint bottles – Minnehaha Liquors is just past the Tobasi Stop. As the the trash eventually thins out and the route becomes more easily navigable, I look up and notice that the understory of buckthorn and honeysuckle is teeming with small, brightly colored birds. They are migratory warblers, pausing on their journey north. I stop and am soon able to call in a group of Yellow-Rumps, a couple of Nashvilles, and a rather bold American Redstart. As the birds flit closer and closer, I notice, out of the corner of my eye a nondescript, middle-aged man cutting across Minnehaha. His actions are not the least bit unusual, other than the fact that he’s heading directly towards me. I anticipate the usual request for a cigarette. Or maybe bus fare – the 67 stops just up the street. He crosses, turns abruptly, and heads west on Minnehaha. All without saying a word. Somewhat relieved, I don’t give him a second thought and return to calling in the birds. The Redstart is persistent. He flies in close, lands, calls as he splays his tail, and retreats to a branch a few yards away. We keep this up for several minutes, gradually working our way along the sidewalk. It’s not anywhere near a perfect moment, à la Spalding Gray, but it is somewhat redemptive as my mind has drifted from the trash-strewn landscape and the prospect of yet another forced, and at this point, scripted exchange.
After a few minutes most of the birds have satisfied their curiosity and have left me to return to whatever business I had interrupted. But not the Redstart. The two of us make our way slowly down the street, repeating the pattern of call and and response. I’m intently following the flash of color as the bird quickly moves from branch to branch, when I finally notice, several yards up the slope, the man from a few moments earlier. He is standing in a relatively secluded spot. Standing, though, is not quite accurate. It’s too neutral; too passive. It lacks intent. He has clearly stationed himself there. I pause momentarily, processing the situation. His gaze mirrors the flight of the redstart, a pattern of approach and retreat. My mind shifts abruptly from bird watching to the realization that for the last several minutes I have been the one being watched. Somewhat odd, disconcerting maybe, but again, not entirely out of the ordinary. Then I notice he is unbuttoning his pants.
a. American Redstart, Setophaga ruticilla -Mod. L. ruticilla (> L. rutilus red; Mod. L.cilla tail).
b. “start” is from the Anglo-Saxon steort, a tail. On this point the articles “Stark-naked” and Start” in Prof. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary may be usefully consulted…
c. The Redstart breeds throughout the treed areas of the province but is most common in the boreal forest and northern parkland.
d. …and at once takes up its abode in gardens, orchards, and about old buildings, when [sic] its curious habit of flirting at nearly every change of position…
*from A dictionary of birds, Volumes 3-4 and The Federation of Alberta Naturalists Field Guide to Alberta Birds: