Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Good Neighbor City

"Civility and good manners are not about which fork to choose for the salad. They're about how we treat one another in everyday life. And how we treat one another determines the strength of our society."

~ Pier Massimo Forni

Using a binocular in public – even at an urbanized natural area – almost always attracts attention from non-birders, but not necessarily in positive ways. I believe many of Middleton's citizens are aware that people go birdwatching during spring and fall at the 500-acre conservancy that runs through the city, especially along the popular creek corridor. Some might even be aware that Middleton earned Wisconsin Bird City recognition in 2011. For some, though, seeing anyone donning a binocular in public raises suspicion and perhaps will imagine the worst possible scenario. This happened to me the other day, but more on that in a moment.

So far this September the birding has been great, but time on the trail has been sort of weird. Let me premise what follows by saying that the majority the interactions I have with non-birders at Pheasant Branch Conservancy have been pleasant ones. Most people I encounter while birding are curious about what I'm looking at and are eager to let me know if they've recently seen a hawk or owl. If they ask, I'll tell them what birds I've seen. That being said, lately I've been feeling a sense of civility erode between trail users.

As long as I can remember Middleton's motto has been The Good Neighbor City, but it's feeling a little less neighborly at the conservancy lately. And it isn't only a matter between birdwatchers and all other trail users; I've heard disparaging comments from all factions and there have been complaints made to the city about discourteous behavior. Just last month new signs were placed at all trail entrances requesting cyclists give an audible signal when passing someone on foot. This is common cyclist etiquette and something I do when biking the trail, but a lot of joggers listen to music on their iPods. It isn't always easy to get their attention and let them know you're about to pass.

As a birder, I felt the reduced civility first-hand when I overheard one member of a trio of cyclists utter a derogatory comment about birdwatchers as they passed. On another occasion a cyclist commanded "Don't stop on the trail!" as he sped by me. This would make watching birds with binoculars supremely challenging. As someone who also bikes the trail, I can sort of understand why some might be getting frustrated by birdwatchers meandering or stopping along on the trail. When birders do find an exciting bird, it isn't always easy keeping a group on one side of the trail. As a field trip leader, I try to be mindful at all times, but I'm sure I've upset a few cyclists given how much time I spend there. It isn't a bike trail per se, but a multi-use trail and everyone has a right to use it provided they abide by the posted rules and city ordinances.

Perhaps the most bizarre incident this fall was a guy shoulder-checking me. This happened last week at the first creek crossing going east from Park Street. If you've never been to Pheasant Branch, trail users have the option to use a bridge at all of the creek crossings if they're uncomfortable negotiating the stepping stones. I usually take the stones because there are often interesting birds along the creek bank. Just after crossing the stones I saw a man coming toward me. He had the option of taking the bridge or the stones. When he opted for the gravel path leading down to the creek, I realized I would need to move across the trail in order to be out of his way. Once I hopped off the last stepping stone, I went to the opposite side of the trail to clear his way. Oddly, the man kept coming directly for me. I didn't think he would actually hit me and would still move out of the way to get to the other side of the trail to be in line with the stones. Wham! He slammed his shoulder into mine and kept right on walking.

There is something called trail etiquette. Some pet owners still allow their dogs to run off leash at the conservancy, and others are not cleaning up after their pet leaves poo on the trail. A few weeks ago a man pretended to shoot the bird I was looking at by holding an imaginary gun up to the tree where it was perched. Anyway, this brings me to what happened yesterday morning. Apparently, a concerned parent called the police on me because I was observed using binoculars near the trail entrance to Pheasant Branch Conservancy. You see, there's a middle school just down the street from where birders park to access the creek corridor trail, and I was outside my car waiting for my friends to arrive. Naturally, I don't wait inside my car ... I bird! Birders have been using the Park Lawn spot to park their cars for, what, nearly a dozen years now? The officer was nice about it and even seemed a little embarrassed. Was it a paranoid parent or merely erring on the side of caution?

Another time while I was birding someone thought I was a terrorist and called the police.

See? It's just weird stuff. But then again ... people are weird.

© 2012 Mike McDowell

1 comment:

  1. yes, things have changed (understandably) so much since 9/11; suspiciousness of strangers is sort of the norm now.
    For those of us who grew up in a more innocent, freer (and less polarized) time the terrorists have won some small victory having altered our society. :-(