Wild City // Who will outlast whom?

You wouldn’t think the city would be a good place to see wildlife, or that November would be a good month for wildlife sightings, but this year it has been.

At our house we always know when late summer is shading to fall because we hear a “rat-a-tat-tat-tat” on our bedroom wall, look at each other and say, “woodpecker.”

Drumming is the woodpecker equivalent of singing, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

In this case the “singer” is a handsome red-bellied (whose belly is not red). The size of a hairy woodpecker, he is what the bird book calls “zebra backed,” and has a red cap and nape. We see him flying back and forth between our place and the neighbor’s across the street, moving in that woodpecker way — flap of wings/split second pause/flap of wings — that creates a goofy, bobbing flight.

This one lingered into November. Some red-bellieds over-winter here.

Recently, while walking around Lake Harriet, we approached a knot of people next to shore just south of the bandstand. A young boy, fishing pole in hand, was following the shouted commands of his father and straining to reel in a muskie. The rod tipped, the boy gave a yank, and the fish, at least two feet long, was in the net. We all applauded, then bent over for a look. The boy and his father ignored us.

While loons are quieter in the fall, I still see them on Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet in November. They are in their demure grey and white winter plumage, but they have that distinctive profile, and they dive deep and disappear. I’ve wondered how they are doing, given the catastrophic oil spill last year in the Gulf of Mexico, where some of them spend the winter. This year I noticed that where I normally see loons, I saw loons, which was a relief, but doesn’t settle the matter.

I recently read a book about the oil spill called “The Tarball Chronicles” by David Gessner. He puts the lie to the government claim, which was that oil gushing out of the broken wellhead into the ocean last year had just evaporated. The toxic dispersants used by BP made much of the oil sink to the bottom. The sea creatures are still being affected by that oil, as, of course, are the human beings who live and make their living along the Gulf.

I know red fox have adapted to urban places. I’ve seen them at the Wood Lake Nature Center, for example. But next to Lake Harriet? This was a first. My husband and I saw a fox trotting along the median on the east side near the swimming beach late one afternoon recently.

We were in the car, and continued on, but I wondered: Where did that fox come from? Where was he headed? Why was he so near people and dogs, or, in other words, in our space? Perhaps he was ill, or very, very hungry. Maybe the drought has killed off the rodents he eats. The rabbit numbers in our neighborhood do seem to be way down.

Or maybe he was attempting to reclaim his territory. I recently read a review in the New York Times by Mike Hale. It was about a television program, “Radioactive Wolves,” that I was too chicken to watch. I didn’t want to expose myself to the images of post-meltdown Chernobyl.

The story is about the 1,100-square-mile exclusion zone in Ukraine and Belarus that has been uninhabited for twenty-five years, since the 1986 meltdown. According to this review, bones of animals there test so high for radioactivity that they are dangerous to touch.

But aside from the birth defects, which occur at twice the average rate, the animals living in this area are doing surprisingly well. I am not drawn, usually, to post-apocalyptic visions, but this one is fascinating. Tall trees surround concrete high rises there; plants grow up through schoolroom floors.

“The wolves rise up on their hind legs to peer through the windows of houses, looking for routes to the rooftops, which they use as observation posts for hunting,” according to Hale.

 “And beavers, forced out decades ago when the landscape was engineered for collective agriculture, have restored one of central Europe’s great marshlands.”

We human beings, last year, rather then change our ways in the face of global warming, released a record amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are determined to rush headlong into this trouble we are creating, which threatens our well being, if not our existence.

Of the beavers who restored the marsh in this abandoned place Hale writes: “Just think what they could do if they had the whole planet.” At this rate, it could be theirs before long.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.