Wild City // An eye toward the sky

Editor’s note: This is the debut of Wild City — an occasional column by Mary Jean Port exploring the city’s natural world.

I live one block from Minnehaha Creek, and eight from Lake Harriet. Yesterday, I am in our backyard hammock, and I see a bald eagle fly over our house, a first.

Though we live just a short freeway hop from downtown, many wild creatures thrive here. I work at home, and spend part of my spring and summer days in the yard daydreaming and gardening, so I catch glimpses. I call my sister up north to brag.

We grew up in the country outside Cloquet, and she has moved back there.

It is hard to top her best “guess what I saw” story: an American bittern settled last year in a tiny pond she and her husband constructed in their rural backyard. But I do pretty well for a city slicker. In early April I reported to her my loon sightings on Lake Harriet, and teased that they were headed her way.

I moved to Southwest in 1996 to be with my husband and stepdaughter, but even before that, whenever I was anywhere nearby, I would pop into the Linden Hills Co-op, a regular haunt for me now. I was feeling my way forward, doing what my husband calls “following your nose.”

My relatives up north can’t imagine why I choose to live in the city, what with the crowds, the crime, the traffic, the noise. And it is too snooty for them. A friend of ours from Duluth refers to the Highway 494/694 loop as “The Ring of Knowledge.” He thinks people inside The Ring believe people outside it are stupid.

I’m not troubled by people’s attitudes here, but maybe that means I am one of the snooty ones. I personally don’t mind close neighbors, or the sounds of cars going by out front. I like interesting food, plays and concerts.

But when I was growing up, our family was large and our house small, so I spent a lot of time outdoors. My eye and ear became tuned to the natural. It is the way I make my way through life. I am especially aware of birds. We have seen quite a few in our neighborhood: cardinals, house finches, house sparrows, robins, goldfinches, chickadees, crows, downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers, kingfishers, great blue herons, hummingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, redstarts.

Recently, while out front gardening, on a day when I was feeling out of sync with my husband, I heard the familiar whistle, what the Peterson Field Guide Birds of Eastern and Central North America describes as “a high-pitched shrill, two-parted downward pweeeeee.” Then I saw the local mated pair of broad-winged hawks, one soaring high and one flapping low, seemingly fussing at each other. Their presence here lifts something in me I cannot name.

It would be easy to miss their shrill call. And the Buteo platypterus is crow-sized, so easy to mistake it for that other nest robber. Broad-wings are brown, but in silhouette, or from far below, black and brown look about the same. The hawks are light underneath, and have broad stripes of white and brown on their fanned tail.

The Peterson Guide says they eat rodents and small birds. There was a puff of grey fur next to a nest of orphaned baby rabbits in our yard the day after Easter.

Twice I have seen a broad-winged dine on a small bird. The first time, we ourselves were eating at our kitchen table.

My stepdaughter saw the hawk low in our neighbor’s tree, tearing at bubblegum pink entrails.

She and my husband looked, said “Ewww,” and walked away. I got the binoculars and watched the hawk tear bits of flesh off the kill and eat them.

Another time, I was walking on a street nearby, where the stately houses are much fancier than any in Cloquet. Two residents were out front talking, unaware, while a broad-winged sat on a limb above them, looking out over their carefully pruned shrubs and manicured lawns, eviscerating a songbird. One by one, soft under-feathers, plucked and discarded, sifted down.

I have wondered if I am the only one here to see such things. If I admitted that up north, they would knock me down a peg. My father once said of his brother, who, late in life, became enthusiastic about birds: “He thinks he is the God damned world expert.”

I am no expert. I am a woman in midlife, a writer, a teacher, an amateur naturalist, and a person prone to stop and look at things. These columns will be my attempt to make note of the wildness just outside our door in Southwest, as well as the wildness within.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center. Her book of poems, “The Truth About Water,” was published last year.