Monticello Park, a stream valley with steep, wooded slopes, sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the heart of Alexandria. It is tiny, not much of a park, really. Oak, tulip poplar, ash, and maple predominate, but many of these trees are unhealthy and succumb with increasing frequency to drought, stress and, in some cases, the weight of ivy ascending their trunks. As they fall to earth, they often damage or destroy smaller, younger trees, which are losses the park can not afford.
Overrun with exotic, invasive plant species of many varieties, English ivy is the worst. It has escaped from adjoining backyards and blankets the forest floor on the park’s west slope. The stream is choked with pieces of scrap concrete, thrown in years ago by less-than-enlighted city engineers to slow the speed of the water during storms, but it only resulted in an acceleration of bank erosion. Urban runoff, flowing through a conduit pipe, regularly includes sudsy foam floating on the water’s surface, undoubtedly from the washing of cars nearby.
Yet, this park is, to the many of us who get it, a treasured place. We’re able to see much natural beauty still there. Perhaps the park’s struggle to cope with modern, urban life mirrors our own?
Many wildflowers still rise through the bed of ivy in the spring. Wild azalea and mountain laurel hang on as understory on the eastern ridge. This is our piece of wilderness, close to home, where we can make a connection to what is real and timeless.
We birders come here to see untamed life, wild birds in migration, and we’re faithful to these creatures who care not a whit about us. Migrant birds have an agenda, set for them eons ago. It is life or death for them every day. Our fascination with their beauty and their survival strategies never diminishes.
We are in their thrall, these tiny creatures, most weighing less than an ounce, yet capable of flying on their own power all the way to the tropics at night over vast expanses of land and water. They return to us in the spring and fall, nonchalant, or so it seems, as if this mind-boggling feat was nothing at all. They appear none the worse for the wear, always beautiful. We’re awestruck anew.
So, once again, we begin our speculation about the weather patterns that facilitated their journey, we try to fathom their habits in the park, their time schedules for visiting the stream to drink and bathe, how much they move about within the park, where they are when absent, how long they stay with us, what causes them to move on. But these are only human diversions, ways to pass the time as we scour the trees for a flash of vibrant color. The birds keep their secrets and our devotion.
Fall migration ended a few weeks ago, although the hardcore faithful kept a vigil until Nov. 14. A Winter Wren or two and a few White-throated Sparrows have populated he last pages of the books on fall migration, 2008.