The Familiar and the Strange

Dear Jane and Nature Lovers All,

Male bufflehead, November 11, 2019, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I happily accepted your invitation, Jane, to visit our newly arrived and elegant friends, the BUFFLEHEADS and GOLDENEYES,  at your end of the river.   I never fail to be amazed that they find their way back each year from their breeding grounds in Canada.  I have to admit that it has taken me too many years to figure out that many waterbirds assume their breeding plumage in the fall while songbirds and shorebirds wait until spring to dress up in their courting finery.  I don’t know why. After all, they all give birth in the spring. Here is the handsome male Bufflehead I saw yesterday with his glamorous iridescent neck and forehead.   It took me at least thirty shots to catch this elusive guy above water.  They barely catch their breath before diving in search of another fish..

Mixed flock of gulls, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Like you I also saw the poor Buffleheads pushed out of their area, this time by a flock of about 200 gulls, all splashing and squawking.  They are an unruly bunch, these gulls, especially when they spot a cousin who has found an especially desirable treat.  I saw this peaceful scene near the Riverside Bridge  suddenly erupt into a  a wild and noisy chase with the whole family demanding a share of the treat.  A small group of five Buffleheads, busily fishing nearby, were forced to beat a quick retreat once the  uproar began. They huddled  about 30 yards from the good fishing spot they had thought was theirs – losing precious fishing time until things settled down again.

I was also glad, Jane, that you pointed out that the male Goldeneye lingers behind while the female arrives here first. There was no male visible on yesterday’s walk either, although I saw 12 females (and perhaps juveniles) with their distinctive pointy heads and bright golden eyes.

Female Goldeneye, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Eared Grebes, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, near trestle, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was happy to   catch sight of maybe the first two fall arrivals of  EARED GREBES on the river.  These  little brown waterbirds seem quite nondescript compared to Buffleheads and Golden-eyes – until one gets a close-up look at their fluffy crinolines peeking out from behind, quite enticing don’t you think!   As you know, I am quite partial to grebes.

Eared Grebe from four years ago,  San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, 2015, Photo by B. Riverwoman










Double-crested Cormorant on Eucalyptus branch near trestle, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And like you, Jane, I am always pleased to see the  now familiar OSPREY and DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS hanging out on those tenacious eucalyptus trees,   In spite of the bad rap these non-native trees get, there is no denying that they provide great habitat for our  fishing friends like the ospreys and cormorants.  .

Double-crested Cormorant, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I had seen a Double-crested Cormorant a little earlier in my walk,  drying her wings after a fishing expedition.  This spot was  upstream from the trestle on a fallen snag, another favorite place for her.   I never tire of watching cormorants do this.

And now in the opposite category of creatures occupying unusual spots.  I was a little surprised to see this lordly GREAT BLUE HERON high in a tree, instead of on the more usual river bank or open field.

Great Blue Heron, Oct. 26, 2019, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

In the same vein, I was quite amused to see the little peon GROUND SQUIRREL  below,  also perched somewhat perilously, and unusually high up,  in a shrub.  I imagined that the little fellow was a bit surprised to find himself so high, maybe contemplating how to get down. I wonder if something chased him up there?   I have rarely seen a ground squirrel sit still for so long in such a visible place.


Ground Squirrel, November 11, 2019, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Click here to see  my eBird list of the 22 bird species I saw yesterday.

Quote of the Day.

“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”

Henry David Thoreau

May we all enjoy some close up looks at the natural wonders around us, even in the middle of a City.

Happy birding to all,

















San Lorenzo River welcomes BUFFLEHEADS & GOLDENEYES…

Good Morning Barbara and all you Nature Enjoyers,

male BUFFLEHEAD & his harem…

As you know, I my vigilant eyes have roamed the river water surface in the hope to see the appearance of migratory waterfowl, especially the adorable BUFFLEHEADS. On October 29 my wait was rewarded with the sight of 1 male BUFFLEHEAD and his harem of 4 females in tow. They had the skittish behavior of newcomers, which meant that any perceived threat sent them under the water surface. This disappearance mania eases off as they get familiar with their winter neighborhood. The goosing PIED-billed GREBE obviously didn’t approve of the new crew: it circle the small flock, dive down and stay out of sight. All of the sudden the male BUFFLEHEAD would burst into a dash away from the females, but wouldn’t dive. I couldn’t make head or tail of these perplexing speed zooms until I noticed that the PIED-billed GREBE would pop up close to the male. After 4 repeats of this scenario, the male BUFFLEHEAD cleared the water decks, because he was fed up with the sneaky gooser and his devoted harem trailed behind him upriver. Do you think the PIED-billed GREBE knew he save himself some time by chasing off the male because the 4 females would follow him?

2 female GOLDENEYES joined the BUFFLEHEAD flock…

For the last 6 years I noticed that the female GOLDENEYES don’t subscribe to the BUFFLEHEAD harem concept, because they arrive before the males, who meander in approx. a week later, decorated in their stunning plumage. I watched the 2 female GOLDENEYES checking out the growing flock of 18 BUFFLEHEADS. After swimming back and forth on the other side of the river, they decided that it was okay to join their migratory cousins. Slowly they approached. The BUFFLEHEADS were agreeable to their company and the GOLDENEYES melted smoothly into the flock.

City is opening the river mouth…

The City opened the river mouth on October 28 and drained the water below 5’5″. It used to be that the City was careful to not let the water level go below 5’5″, because that height was established as beneficial for the fish. In the past I have seen Biologists with nets, pulling out fish at the opened river mouth, but not this time.

female OSPREY on her favorite branch…

There is something gentle and reassuring to see the same river birds in their familiar places. It creates a sense of affinity with these critters as I walk the levee. There is the tiny Anna’s Hummingbird that always buzzes me as a walk by the plum tree. Sometimes it comes so close that it seems to get ready to land on me. In the beginning I was worried that I was close too its nest, but I noticed that no other people were getting buzzed like me. The TOWHEE couple by the Boardwalk parking lot forage along the path. When a person approaches, they sound alarm and both flit into their hiding spot in their favorite elderberry bush. I see them peeking down at the people, waiting for them to pass, so that they can resume their food rummaging. The royal OSPREY in the Trestle trees peers down at me as I stare mesmerized up at her. I consider my ‘feathered regulars’ a part of my extended family and I am always happy to see them.
Be sure to come to the river and welcome our migratory winter guests, jane

3 Billion Birds Lost

Dear Jane and Other Heartsick Lovers of our Vanishing Birds,

Did you see the  just released cover of the 2019 autumn edition of Living Bird?  It was shocking. Instead of the usual gorgeous photo of a gorgeous bird, the cover was almost solid black, with one lone feather way down in the right hand corner,  and the words “3 Billion Birds Lost” in the other  corner.

Living Bird Cover, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Autumn 2019, Vol. 38, Issue 4
Living Bird Cover, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Autumn 2019, Vol. 38, Issue 4

The lead story, based on a study  from the top scientific journal Science, reported that in just the past 50 years, more than 1 in 4 birds has disappeared across North America.  That is catastrophic!  According to the lead author of the Report,

These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife, and that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.

Many of the bird families that have lost the most ground, according to the study,  are the common ones.   The hardest hit are the blackbird family, finch family, lark family, sparrow family and warbler family.  Some of our common birds on the river were singled out as suffering the biggest losses.

Song Sparrow in flood waters, January 22, 2017, Riverine Reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

According to the study, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS have lost 30% of their populations, SONG SPARROWS  (this is the one that choked me up) have lost 20% of their populations,  and DARK-EYED JUNCOS have lost a third of their population.  I know that from now on,  every time I hear the whistle-buzz-trill  of the song sparrow singing its heart out every spring,  it will be like a tiny dagger in my heart. I have come to love these plain little songsters.

According to Steve Gerow,  red-winged blackbirds used to breed along the riverine reach of the urban river. But I don’t think I’ve  even seen a red-winged blackbird since I took this photo in 2015, much less seen any sign of breeding.

Red-winged Blackbird, March 9, 2015, Riverine Reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

A consolation is that I know that there were breeding song sparrows and breeding juncos this year during breeding season.  This little junco was hopping around with brothers and sisters in San Lorenzo Park this summer, not the safest habitat, but they seemed to be surviving.

Junco juvenile 3 (best)
Juvenile Dark-eyed Junco, Summer 2019, San Lorenzo Park, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The author reminds us of the extinction  of passenger pigeons, the complete loss of which no one would have have believed possible. But they are gone forever.

The article in Living Bird didn’t mention our common WESTERN SCRUB-JAY , but it did cite the STELLAR JAY  as one of the most heavily affected species, losing 29% of its population.  I’ll do more research on the scrub jay and let you know what I find out.

Srub Jay
Western Scrub-jay, October 26, 2019, Riverine Reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman


Stellar Jay
Stellar’s Jay , May 19, 2017, behind Tannery, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The authors of the study are quick to point out that all is not lost – wood duck populations are up 50%, raptors up 200%.  We have both on our river. Their numbers are up because they were identified in the past as threatened and conservation efforts were successful.  The other co-author of the study, Adam Smith, offers this  message of hope:

“The successes of the past are the candles in the dark that will guide us towards solutions in the future.”   

And speaking of bringing hope, I just read in the paper that Desiree Quintero, who I wrote about in my May 1 post this last summer, was killed by a falling tree in a small camp in the Pogonip.  She was a strong and compassionate leader at Ross Camp, bringing hope to many other women in the camp.   If you missed that blog, you can read about her here.  May this brave woman rest in peace.

Let’s make every effort to protect our avian and  human species, especially the most threatened.  

You can  click here for my eBird list of  October 12 (22 species) , and here  for my October 26th list (26 species) . 

In the category of comic relief, I had to laugh out loud as I watched a mischievous AMERICAN CROW teasing a Ground Squirrel by sneaking up behind it and pecking at its tail!  I could hardly believe my eyes.  And once wasn’t enough.  The crow returned again and again, repeating his sneak attack, causing the  hapless squirrel to jump in surprise  and then run off.  But it couldn’t have been too painful since the squirrel also kept coming back for more.  It didn’t look that different from kids playing some kind of tag game on the playground.

Planning Mischief
American Crow pestering ground squirrel, October 22, 2019, riverine reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Good birding to all,










steelhead bonaza, levee leak, new life…

Good Morning Barbara & fellow Nature Enjoyers,

Biologists checking their catch…

The City biologists finished seining for this year. As of the end of last month their boats and nets are no longer roving in the river. The 12 month seining cycle ended in September. Now the biologists are writing their reports and we have to wait until next July 1st to read their findings. It’s darn hard to wait that long and so I kibitz as much as I can while they seine. Since I was in fishing around for any information, I welcomed Zeke’s note that on 9/ 23 Coastal Watershed Council was hosting a seining talk of the City of Santa Cruz Water Department’s Watershed Section and Hagar Environmental Science. Chris Berry, the Watershed Compliance Manager, impressed us all with his engaging presentation.We couldn’t believe our ears when he told us that at their last seining at the Trestle bridge they counted over 10000 steelheads, which was the biggest haul in a long time. The good news was that these steelheads were predominately wild, who have a better ocean survival rate than the hatchery ones. It turns out that hatchery life doesn’t steel them for the ocean. The biologists are not certain why the count was so high this year. They expect that the late rain created a higher, steady river flow and had a positive effect on the spawning and rearing. Chris mentioned this interesting observation: the biologist had tagged some juveniles down river on their way to the ocean. Later in the season they found these juveniles again up the river, which indicates they did an atypical backtrack.
Finding the Pink Salmon in the San Lorenzo caused quiet the excitement, because it was the first time since 1914. Biologists are re-evaluating their lagoon perception: a closed river mouth was thought to be necessary for the steelhead to adjust to the ocean salt water, but the river mouth stayed open for most of the year, resulting in a very high steelhead count. It will be interesting to hear if fish behavior is being trolled by Climate Change.

spreading the net for seining…

It’s a good thing that Chris is familiar with my enthusiastic bird preoccupation, because he took it in good stride that his speech was interrupted by my excited outburst: “Look there are 2 HAWKS sitting in the Trestle trees!” The HAWKS stayed for the entire talk and provided me with the perfect visual background while I listened to Chris.

2 HAWKS listening to Chris…

I don’t have any current pictures for you, because my camera is sick in the lens, leaving me photo blink-less. There are so many times, when I miss not being able to capture an image, then again there is a simple pleasure in just staying with the unfolding moment: the hunt for that perfect photo is replaced by letting Nature unfurl. Since I do enjoy sharing river images with you, would you cross your fingers that my lens can be healed?
I am getting fidgety, because my beloved BUFFLEHEADS haven’t shown up yet. Every time I go to the river, I scan the water for their presence. You all be the first to know when I see them.
The Public Works Dept. seems to have a headache on their hands: the levee has a leak. Public Work staff and Company workers are taking measurements, discussing and walking back and forth on the levee across from Jessie St. Marsh. At this point they are in the process of figuring out how to deal with it. I am happy to report that so far the native plants haven’t been stepped on.

Monarch caterpillar feasting on native Milkweed…

That was pretty thrilling to see the plump Monarch Butterfly caterpillar devastate the leaves of the native Milkweed. A few days later it was gone, hopefully turning itself into a beautiful Monarch and testifying that our Estuary Project efforts are creating enriching wildlife habitat.

Milkweed seed pod: future life…

Sending you all river greetings, jane

Silence, then Shrilling, then Silence

Dear Jane and All Nature Lovers,

Twenty-two species graced the River yesterday as I ambled, stopped, peered up into the trees, then down into the river,  slowly feeling myself enter that peaceful state that this river almost always confers on me.   With the dark shadow of local politics weighing heavily on me these days, I am especially grateful to this eternal flowing presence, restoring some level of sanity to my life.

I had noticed that you, Jane, had posted on eBird a sighting of an EARED GREBE on the 9th, and someone named  George Cook posted a Greater Scaup on October 4th – two first-of-season arrivals on the river. I decided to venture into your salty end of the river this week and, if lucky, offer my personal welcome back greeting  to these two winter migrants, the first a regular on the winter river, and the second something of a rarity.

I didn’t find the migratory grebe, but I did find the GREATER SCAUP (pronounced sk-awe-p).   I almost missed this best bird of the day because some fellow river enthusiast saw my binoculars and, as often happens,  stopped to chat about birds.  (Carrying binoculars is almost like pushing a stroller or walking a dog. ) I was just telling him the name of the ‘white bird’ (Snowy Egret) when I fortunately glanced  back at the river and realized that I was looking at my Scaup – sailing upstream with two MALLARDS. I abruptly ended my conversation.


GREATER SCAUP, San Lorenzo River near Riverside Bridge, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

For you readers who haven’t met this bird yet, she is more likely to be seen at this time of year migrating south in flocks of as many as a thousand, usually seen on the open ocean during migration season, or resting inland on shallow wetlands. Skaups are one of only a very few duck species that are ‘circumpolar’ in their breeding, raising their young around the globe in places like Siberia and Alaska.  As a loyal Minnesota girl, I am especially partial to these birds who favor the norther regions.    I started wondering how long she had been on the road from her breeding grounds in Alaska,  and whether she would be staying here for the winter,  or pressing on further south.

I was sad to read in  Birds of North America that the  Greater Scaup are listed as a “Common Bird in Steep Decline,” which means that they have seen at least a 50% loss of their population in the last 40 years. According to this source, “several factors may be contributing to the Greater Scaup’s decline, including warmer water in Alaska, contaminants, disturbance, habitat degradation, and hunting…. from 2012–2016 hunters took on average 69,366 Greater Scaup per year.”  Maybe it is time to forbid hunting birds that are in ‘steep decline’.  If not now, when?  I dream of reaching the point in our evolutionary history when our deeply engrained predatory instincts yield naturally to  choices more in line with conservation goals.  But first we have to lose the taste for duck, which I used to love.  No more!

Osprey bathing ex
Osprey bathing in the river , San Lorenzo River near skateboard park, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

One of the treats of birding at your end of the river, Jane,  is the chance of seeing an OSPREY.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  This shaggy, almost mythical creature, with its astonishingly hooked beak that makes a sharp 90 degree turn downward,  came roaring out of nowhere, swooping way too close to 9 small KILLDEERS skittering along a sandbank on the edge of the river and shrilling loudly in alarm.

Killdeers 4 best
Four of seven killdeer, San Lorenzo River, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Even though the book says that 99% of an Osprey’s food comes from live fish, I couldn’t stop worrying about that 1% that includes birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats, and salamanders.  Maybe the Osprey was just showing off as it skimmed the sandbank next to the killdeers. In any case, it spurned the killdeer as prey and returned to the sky, grandly circling overhead for a few turns, then returning to take a bath in the river, not too far from the killdeers but far enough so that the small songbirds calmed down and continued bobbing along on their own less dramatic but still predatory journeys .

Happily, Ospreys are a conservation success, their populations growing by 2.5% per year from 1966 to 2015!  Killdeer populations declined overall by about 47% between 1966 and 2014, with steeper declines in Canada and the West, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.  But they are a common species and not yet on the list of birds of concern.  Still….

crow with red cany best
Crow hammering mysterious orange edible, San Lorenzo River, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And in the controversial AMERICAN CROW department, I was impressed at the kitchen tool discovered by this clever crow.  The crevice in the rock seemed the perfect device for safely securing whatever this tough orange delicacy was that the crow hammered away at for quite some time.  Any guesses as to what the goodie might have been?

And don’t you all love the way that cormorants lift their heads so proudly as they swim along, like  this DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT  perhaps showing off her beautiful butterscotch-colored pouch.

Double-crested Cormorant, San Lorenzo River between Riverside and Trestle, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Check out my eBird list from yesterday – click here – if you want to see what else I saw on my healing walk downriver.

Quote of the Day: “In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
Robert Lynd, Irish poet and nationalist

May you all spend some time this week in a silent space.
























river offerings…

Good Morning Barbara and Fellow River Lovers,

CROWS stuck ashore…

I could hear the CROWS complaining from far away as I was walking to the River Point. Stepping up to the railing I saw aprox. 25 CROWS lining the shoreline, wailing their protest to high heaven. Only after scanning the scene more closely did I discover the reason for their revolt: the OSPREY was in the water cleaning its talons on the sand in the water. The CROWS were beside themselves, because the OSPREY was beyond their attack reach since they don’t go in the water beyond their ‘ankles’ and flying low over the water isn’t part of their attack repertoire. When the cleaning was completed the OSPREY flew to the top of a roof and the CROWS were ecstatic: finally they were able to bomb-dive their perceived threat, who could have cared less about their hysteric behavior. The CROWS came to their senses, landed next to the unperturbed OSPREY and they all quietly surveyed the view.

OSPREY and CROWS quietly sitting together…great scene justifies bad photo

It’s so interesting to read your insights about the CROWS. My observations of them have been very unpleasant and disturbing, leading me to admit that I detest them. This state of mind always surprises people, but it’s a fact: some birders have strong bird species likes and dislikes. The CROWS increasing presence along the river is fostering the decline of the rodent control, because the HAWK species are prevented from hunting due to being chased off by the CROWS. This not only impacts the adult HAWKS survival, but their fledglings as well. Plus CROWS are raiding songbirds nest and eat ducklings. I guess we represent the two sides of the CROW coin…

Santa Cruz Climate Change March…

The Santa Cruz Climate Change March carried me along its ‘river’ ebb and flow. Connecting with people, who love this planet and the environment, was exalting and easy, creating wonderful interactions that will be forever housed in my heart. One of these connections got triggered by complimenting a t-shirt message and a lively conversation ensued. It turned out that the owner of the shirt and his wife were from the small conservative town Greeley, Colorado. His wife disclosed that he owned several of the notable t-shirts, which he wore to his weekly Saturday protest on the stairs of the Court House. Bob started his protest after he fulfilled his mother wish to drive her to a place where she could watch the current President’s inauguration. After he dropped her off, he went straight to the Court House stairs to protest against the President. Now the ongoing demonstration has grown into the famed group called ‘Court House Steps’. It was splendid that Bob and Mary marched with their grandchildren in the Santa Cruz “Climate Strike”, giving me a chance to hear their unusual story.

peaceful morning foraging…

Last Sunday morning I had a much needed river moment that wiped out my ‘to-do’ tasks and my daily worries, because I was happily absorbed watching the peaceful gathering of foraging birds by the Trestle bridge rocks. The SPOTTED SANDPIPER skittered around on the slippery rocks that proved treacherous for the GOLDEN-crowned SPARROW, who almost slid into the water. 2 AMERICAN COOTS and a group of MALLARDS were nibbling on the rock algae. The GREAT BLUE HERON, SNOWY EGRET and 10 CORMORANTS were harvesting fish from the river. The BLACK PHOEBE was raking the air for flying insects. I was grateful for that bird life scene, because I had been funk-ish since that Thursday levee walk with the Planning and Economic Departments. The Front St. river elopement was addressed, which breaks my heart with its 75 feet height, which surely will impact the river habitats. The universe was clearly on my side when it sent the man, who stopped to listen to the talk and then said that the river had such a rich wildlife that would be pushed out with that development.
Wishing you exalting, diverse river moments, jane

CORMORANTS harvesting fish…

Of Crows and Owls

Dear Jane and Fellow Friends of the Wild,

Crows are getting on peoples’ nerves these days. My neighbor Alicia told me recently that she got  extremely mad at an AMERICAN CROW that she saw eating a songbird this last summer. She said emphatically that she would never like crows again, that in fact she now hated them.  I had thought that crows were only scavengers of dead animals, but according to Ehrlich’s major reference, “The Birder’s Handbook,”  book,  crows will indeed eat not only birds’ eggs but also nestlings.   Perhaps Alicia’s songbird was a nestling, prematurely fallen from a tree.  Nonetheless, crows are basically scavengers,  usually eating what we grow or toss, as evidenced by  this crow having his morning croissant dipped in river water.

Crow dipping his croissant, San Lorenzo River, May 14, 2017, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Cooper’s Hawk, Jan. 1, 2019 San Lorenzo River, riverine reach, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Is it possible the crows are getting even pushier these days? Recently I saw three  AMERICAN CROWS harassing  a COOPER’S HAWK who was perched on a telephone line over the river minding his own business.  The crows took turns diving at the   raptor who, for the moment, was the hapless target of crows rather than the predator of hapless songbirds.  The hawk finally flew off,  probably deciding

Attacked Cooper’s Hawk with 3 other crows. Preening afterwards. September. 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

that life was too short to take on this particular group of well-organized  ruffians.  One of the crows promptly plopped himself down on the spot where the hawk had been and started happily preening, no doubt relishing his recent triumph.



Snowy Egret landing on San Lorenzo River, November 2016, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My daughter Kate, visiting from Sacramento,  went out on the river for a run this last week. Just as she was approaching the Riverside Bridge, she saw a SNOWY EGRET flying in with her feet out, grawking loudly at two crows, presumably signaling her territorial rights or intentions.  The crows were facing her and squawking back, energetically flapping their wings for added effect.  Kate said that there was much uproar for a few seconds, then the two crows flew away grumbling and the egret landed. One for the other side – and a delicate egret at that!  (The egret photo is from a few years back – with no crows. )


Crow exploring a plastic bag. November 25, 2015, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My everpresent curiosity about crows was now piqued, I returned once again to my wonderful book titled “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” by John Marzluff (Yale University Press 2005.)  Marzluff has some fascinating stuff about how crows co-evolved with humans ever since earliest history.  He goes so far as to say that our social evolution might be partly determined by the need to cooperate in order to protect ourselves from predatory and scavenging crows during the hunting and gathering era, and especially in agricultural times – thus the  agricultural term “scarecrow”!   He says that in turn, “much of the culture of today’s american crow is a direct response to our ancestors’ agrarian culture.”  He then brings it down to the present moment and, interestingly,  mentions high-rise buildings.  “The roosting culture of many corvids has also responded to the warmth, protection, and vertical structure that our cities provide.”  This makes me wonder if  we should be using this argument in our challenges to the seven-story luxury buildings being planned for downtown Santa Cruz!  Will they attract unwelcome crows as they did in Berlin where, Marzluff says, winter evenings were marked by the arrival of thousands of crows onto the glass skyscrapers to roost communally in a warm, safe location.  The main point Marzluff is making, of course,  is that we ourselves are responsible for crow behavior since our lives have always been, and still are, so closely intertwined

Yet in our indignation at crows, let’s not forget that not only hawks, falcons and owls eat other birds, but so do our beautiful river friends, the great blue herons and  black-crowned night-herons. And crows, for the most part, eat only carrion, not live animals.  No matter how we cut it, it’s a hard life for those little songbirds.  No wonder they are constantly looking over their shoulders!

Great-horned Owl, Google Image

Speaking of owls, two other neighbors, Batya and Cass, separately reported to me that about 10 p.m. on Thursday last week they saw, independently,  two owls circling overhead near the river, their underwings white and one of them at least emitting a screech that could have been the begging call of a juvenile GREAT HORNED OWL, or could have been the similar sound of a BARN OWL.  Both Batya and Cass also heard the inimitable hooo-hooo of the Great Horned Owl.  It seems kind of unlikely that both species would have been out and about at the same time, but who knows.  In any case, we know there was at least one great-horned owl and possibly two barn owls to boot. Ah – I wish I had seen that!  Maybe the appearance of both owls presaged the Climate Strike actions the next day which started in more or less the same area. That would be cosmically satisfying.   It was more likely, though, that the birds were attracted by all the newly opened-up space created by the flood control work.

On September 24th I began to fret about the GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS who I knew were due back from  their summer breeding grounds in British Columbia and Alaska. Where were they?  The white-crowned sparrows had already been back a week.

Golden-crowned Sparrow, April 16, 2019, El Rio MHP backyard near river, in full breeding plumage just before heading north to breeding grounds in Canada or Alaska. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I checked my noteook where I try to keep a list of the arrival and departure dates of migrants.   I noticed that the first GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW arrived last year on September 25. Unbelievably, the next day, I heard the plaintive descending whistle of the Golden-crowned in my back yard, returning on exactly the same date as last year!  Incredible!  I haven’t gotten a photo of a returnee yet, but here’s one from April of this year, just before this Golden-crowned left for the north in her brightest breeding plumage. The males and females of this species are indistinguishable.

May you all have a wonderful experience of wildness this week, either far away or in your backyard. .