Where Have All the Young Birds Gone?

Feeling tired and a little sick lately, I haven’t taken my usual walks from Water to Laurel and back again.  Instead, this week, I took a fold-up chair and settled myself in a sunny spot next to the river behind the Tannery, staying for two hours, dozing off at least half the time.  That’s birding when you get to be eighty.   Of course, the great birder, Jon Young (What the Robin Knows), says that choosing a regular ‘sit spot’ makes for the best birding.

Even at 11 o’clock in the morning there were birds all around me, singing their hearts out.

Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River between Felker and Water Bridges, April 17, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Most insistent were the quick staccato songs of the JUNCOS, and the complex and irrepressible warbling of many SONG SPARROWS.
After a while I heard the distinctive buzz of a SPOTTED TOWHEE in the nearby underbrush, the squawk of a STELLAR’S JAY from a tall eucalyptus and the hammering of a WOODPECKER from a distance.  But I felt far too lazy to set out in search of  any of them.  Their songs, the light-filled river and the shadowy complexities of the storied canopy graced me with more than enough magic.

Emma McCrary Trail
Spotted Towhee, San Lorenzo River, April 5,  2017, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was awake long enough to see a COMMON MERGANSER shoot by on the surface of the swiftly flowing river, its triple-jointed rubbery body stretched out flat to what seemed twice its length, intent on its hunting.  But, again,  I was far too slowed down to even attempt a photo.

Finally, I heard something stir below me, turned just slightly  and caught a short glimpse of the  intense metallic blue and deep russet colors given off by the feathers of the GREEN HERON in just the right light.  (In some lights the cap and wing feathers have a mossygreen heron green appearance, and in other lights the feathers appear to be all slate gray). Almost immediately the Green Heron took flight, no doubt disturbed by my slight motion.  I thought of you, Jane, and made my apologies. I find myself so drawn to that lovely patch of urban woods behind the Tannery.  Maybe I’m trying to dream into being a similarly rich environment on the Benchlands.

When I got home, I decided to take a little walk down memory lane.  I was wondering what we had seen in earlier years during this month.  (It’s great that, without any effort on our part, Word Press keeps our more than four years worth of blogs neatly categorized according to months.)

It made me a little sad to see this WOOD DUCK family from April 15, 2016. I haven’t seen even one Wood Duck on the river this spring, much less a whole family.

Wood duck
Wood Duck Family, near Laurel St. Bridge, San Lorenzo River, April 20, 2016, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was impressed once again at this amazing photo you took, Jane, of a HORNED GREBE  (below) in full breeding plumage in April 2017 , a rarity since they usually leave for their breeding grounds before they reach this stage of glory.   As far as I know, we didn’t get to see even one of the drabber versions of this  species  this winter. much less this bird in full regalia.

HOrned Grebe Jane Mio
Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage, March 11, 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by Jane Mio

As I was poring my way through these old blogs, I came across this April 2016 photo of the Mallard mama who stayed with her nest in the Benchlands even after City mowers cut

Faith exposed
Mallard on exposed nest in Benchlands after City  mowing, April 11, 2016, photo by B. Riverwoman

down her high grass hide-away in preparation for Earth Day. Yes, very ironic! For Earth Day!  As some of you readers may remember, I had a little dust up with one of the city employees as I tried my best to let her know that it was breeding season and there could well be ground nesters, especially mallards, in those ‘ugly’ weeds.   But this doughty and determined weeder was very resistant to turning off her weed whipper. I immediately called the City but they simply ordered the employee to continue. Several days later my friend Batya told me about the exposed nest and the faithful mom- and I took this photo. The two eggs never hatched. Of course, I spilled out the whole story in my blog that week.

Of course, running across this photo also reminded me that  Earth Day was less than a week away.  I hastily sent the photo, as well as a link to the blog, to Tony Eliot, the new director  of Parks and Rec, asking him to please not mow the area this year.  But I was too late.

I’m grateful that he or someone  forwarded my e-mail to Gary Kittleson, the biologist and amazing birder with whom the city contracts to do all kinds of ecological work.  Gary immediately let me know that the City had actually sent him out to survey the area before the mowing this year.  That was good news.  He had found no visible nests, and the mowing was already done.  That was the bad news. Gary expressed surprise that he didn’t find anything, especially considering the fact that the Benchlands have been fenced off since early winter, eliminating almost all human traffic and making it a theoretically safer nesting place.  We are left to wonder where all the female mallards that we’ve been seeing over the last months have gone.  I’ve seen drakes hanging out in large numbers in recent weeks  but practically no females. Let’s hope we begin seeing families soon.  In previous years they have already been out and about by this time.

Four GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS were still feeding at my feeder this morning, but the numbers have been diminishing dramatically.  I am slowly saying my sad good-byes as they fill their tummies in preparation for the long trip to Alaska and the demands of breeding.  It has been such fun watching the dull stripes on the crowns of many of them gradually become intensely gold, outlined on each side by thick black eyebrows.  Here is a

golden crown splotchy
Golden-crowned Sparrow in early molt, March 22, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

photo of one of my Goldens from three weeks ago with splotchy eyebrows and a less regal  gold cap, followed by a photo of  a later stage molt from a couple of days ago.  One of the sparrows got to know me so well that it started peering in through my glass doors and emitting its plaintive two-note whistle if I was late in putting out their expected breakfast of black sunflower seeds.  I’ve gotten more dependable over the years and they have gotten more friendly and relaxed around me.


Golden-crowned in full head plumage 1
Golden-crowned Sparrow, late molt, April 13, 2019, Barbara’s feeder, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I hope you all know about the new Netflix series called Our Planet, narrated by none other than David Attenborough.  It stands out among nature programs by making the powerful climate change connection. The nature footage is the best I’ve ever seen.  It’s both heartbreaking and thrilling.  Don’t miss it.

Best to you all from an anxious granny waiting for babies to appear,




tasks are useful…

Good Morning Barbara and Nature Lovers,

CLIFF SWALLOW working on the nest…

I arrived early for our river walk rendezvous so that I could spread some wood chips around the newly planted native vegetation before my German friend arrived. The chip circles suppress weeds and also give the maintenance crew ‘native plant’ head’s up as they weed whack. Of course I got sidetracked watching the SWALLOWS acrobat-ing, careening above me. Then I had to stand stock-still to find out if the 2 BUSHTITS were building a nest in the bush next to me, because they kept flying in and out of that shrub. We are in the February 1st through August 15th nesting season I am on constant look out for nests since I don’t want to alarm the young parents with my presence close to their nests. It’s a waste on their energy resources to focus on ‘is she or isn’t she a threat?’. Clearly they have to attend to more important season tasks. So when my friend got there I had not completed my task, which we did finish together thanks to his kind help. As you can imagine, I basked in telling him in German about my endless river observations. During our walk we bonded with the river as we celebrated one observation after the other. Without a question the OSPREY was the highlight that made us giddy with its beauty. It was on the tippy tip of the Redwood tree that grows at the foot of the bank next to the elevated path. This combo allowed us to watch the OSPREY fairly close up, whose priority was pulling one wing feather at a time through its beak. When we left after a long time the OSPREY still wasn’t done with its feather beak combing task, necessary to achieve its superb flight. Saying our good-bye my friend and I agreed that the river had gifted us with many wonderful sights and that we were glad we took the time for this walk.

our OSPREY….

This situation was hell for birds: A young man was sitting peacefully on the river bank and sharing his breakfast with the MALLARDS, who were overjoyed by this unexpected food supply. They stood around him, waiting patiently for an other morsel coming in their way. The RED-throated LOON swam close to the shore, clearly interested in the MALLARD scene. An other young man showed up with his dog. He unleashed the look-alike wolf, who couldn’t believe its luck: MALLARDS nearby on the shore. The dog took off lightning fast, aiming for the breakfast eaters, who couldn’t believe their eyes while they were gauging if this was really true: a dog on the loose, racing straight at them. They decided that a peaceful meal had turned into hell and exploded into the air to land on the water.

creator of bird hell…

The breakfast benefactor yelled at the dog owner, whose dog was chasing the MALLARDS in the water. The RED-throated LOON dove down and re-surfaced at a safe distance. It became obvious that the dog was on fire with hunting fever, ignoring the helpless master’s calls, chasing after every bird in sight until land and water were feather empty. It took a while for the owner to get hold of his dog and as they left the previously peaceful man tasked the other man to become a responsible dog owner with some peppery comments.

welcome back, little KILLDEER…

Driving downtown, I did my usual river scan and saw a group of CANADA GEESE on the sandbank. Needlessly to say: I had to pull over to check them out. There were 10 of them, feeding in the low water, preening themselves and a few were starring off into space. It seemed that the river was a stop-over on their way up north. Watching them I heard the welcome sound of the KILLDEER above my head. That call got a response from the shore. Moments later both of them were walking close to each other on the shore. I was so happy to see them, hoping they decide to nest again by the Riverside Ave. bridge. Never before have I seen so many RED-throated LOONS in the river, also there are still some BUFFLEHEADS and COMMON GOLDENEYES present. Did they decide to spend the summer on the river?                                        Sending you river joy greetings, jane

COMMON GOLDENEYES still on the river…

Bird Conflicts, Human Conflicts and World War II

Dear Jane and Other Bird Lovers,

I just can’t help smiling at the predictable flare-ups between the stolid RED-TAILED HAWKS
and the feisty and vociferous AMERICAN CROWS.

Red=tailed under harrassment
Red-tailed Hawk, San Lorenzo Park, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I used to worry a little about the hawks who seemed to be the constant target of the crows indignation.  Then, as I’ve written before, I learned that Red-tails are regular predators on crow eggs, and that the intelligent crows never forgive and forget, supposedly carrying their bitter feuds even into the next generation of hawks.  So this week when I saw a Red-tailed Hawk fly into the large pine tree above, and then saw it almost immediately attacked by a single crow, I settled back to watch the natural unfolding of this conflict of interests.

Crows drive out hawk
15 American Crows stand in solidarity, protecting  territory after driving off Red-tailed Hawk.  March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And true to form, the stolid hawk maintained its dignity for a few minutes, pretending to ignore the smaller but vehement crow, who squawked and dive-bombed again and again.  As usual, the hawk quickly got fed up with the pesky crow and flew off, pursued by the original crow and one more. I continued on my walk, crossed a bridge, and looked back to see whether the hawk had returned or not. Instead, what greeted my eyes were now 15 crows, all sitting in the very area where the hawk had been.  Talk about tribal solidarity!  I hadn’t seen quite this strong a show of support before.  I wonder if this time there is a nest involved? I’m definitely going to keep watch over that tree.

I caught a glimpse of another annual nesting drama playing out under the Water St. Bridge where a HOUSE SPARROW

House Sparrow in Cliff Sparrow nest
House Sparrow occupying last year’s Cliff Swallow nest.  Water St. Bridge, San Lorenzo River, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

was peering out from inside an old CLIFF SWALLOW nest.   But in this case, there were no Cliff Swallows present to defend their rights.  I had to walk downriver a bit, to the Laurel St. Bridge, to see 15 newly arrived Cliff Swallows flying in and out of their old nests from last year, probably assessing their durability for this year’s batch of young swallows. Welcome back cliff swallows!

Cliff swallow - 1
Cliff Swallow, occupying old nest under Laurel St. Bridge, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Thanks, Jane, for your careful monitoring of the river and your capturing of the photo of the well-known local man, and his friend, smiling and paddling on the river in open defiance of our City’s law on that subject.   I kind of lost it when I saw that photo and then received a letter from the man, confirming his intention of defying the law.  It is especially galling during breeding season when river birds like the Pied-billed Grebes are searching for nesting spots among the downstream tules. The man has read our blog, and still seems unpersuaded that he has no legal or ethical right to use that space. I’ve felt angry all week, uable to compose a civil letter to him.

I do not think this should become a public issue. The City Council is already burdened by social problems of far greater gravity than one pesky pleasure seeker on the river, even during breeding season.  But my constant fear is that actions like this could open the door to hundreds of pleasure-seeking boaters on the river.  This fear was strengthened by the public comment of a staff person from County Parks during last week’s Symposium on the State of the San Lorenzo River.  He said that he hoped access to the Riverwalk and San Lorenzo Park could be extended to the river itself.  This has always been the desire of the commercial and recreational interests in Santa Cruz City.   I’m afraid it has not gone away.

Let’s hope that environmental awareness grows enough in future years so that this controversial issue will not have to divide the City again.  If it does, I hope we can mount another campaign as successful as our small victory in 2015, and as successful as the determined campaign of the crows to protect their nests from certain raptors.   I would like to ask readers to e-mail me at river@cruzio.com if you see any recreational boating on the river.  We need to document it.  Also, please check out the ‘Links’ page on this blog and read the documentation by Jane, myself and others (fourth article down) on the effect of the pilot paddling project in 2014 on our river birds.  It is a sad story but needs to be re-told and re-read regularly.

Have any of you ever noticed the large number of cork oaks that line the area just outside the lawn bowling area and the children’s playground in San Lorenzo Park?

Cork close up
Mediterranean cork oak tree, historically used in the building of WWII bomber planes, San Lorenzo Children’s Park, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman 

Over the years, I’ve taken quite a few photos of these unusual Mediterranean trees since the bark is so exotic and beautiful.  But I had no idea of their historical significance until my sister in Baltimore mentioned that she was going to hear a lecture on cork oaks and their relationship to the miliary effort during World War II.  I googled it and discovered that 5 million Mediterranean cork oak acorns were planted across the country by children nationwide during the war, only a few of which still survive, most of which are in California!  If you are interested  in the story, you can read about it here.  It would be nice if Parks and Recreation could create a plaque with this interesting story.

Please help protect our river from recreational paddling.  We love the safety and peacefulness of our human homes, especially when we have young children at home.  Let’s offer the same respect to our wild and breeding friends on the river.

Happy springtime to all,













river offers wondering…observing…searching

Good Morning Barbara and Fellow River Lovers,

1st winter HEERMANN's GULL
1st winter HEERMANN’s GULL

I am getting that creepy suspicion that the gulls will rob me of my birding confidence. You have heard me whine about their changing looks, which occur over a 3 year cycle. So here I was looking at a dark brown(almost black) gull with dark legs, wondering who it was, when Alex Rinkert saved me from wandering down the ‘???’ path: it was a 1st winter HEERMANN’s GULL, obviously ignored the spring season. Alex is one of the best birders we have in our community and I was elated when he confirmed my ‘is it a CASPIAN TERN or not?’ dilemma. I had hesitated to id the TERN, because it was partially hidden by a gull crowd, but for Alex the questioned bird moved right out into the open.


It’s really rare that GREBES and LOONS drag themselves ashore, because their legs are useless for walking, which makes them highly vulnerable on land. Their bodies evolved to be highly efficient at diving and swimming, requiring their legs to be positioned far to the back of their body. If any of you have seen a GREBE or LOON labor ashore, I bet you instantly thought the bird is injured, because accessing the shore is definitely a chore for these species. So both Alex and I were taken back to see a WESTERN GREBE on the river shore, preening itself thoroughly. As I walked upstream I watched a RED-throated LOON slog itself onto the sandbar, where it collapsed to rest from that ordeal. Two close by WESTERN GULLS were bored and starring off into space, snapped into ‘who is that?’ mode: with their heads raised, they slowly approached the resting bird. The trusting RED-throated LOON started to preen its feathers, but got suspicious when 1 of the gulls inched straight forward and the other one pretended to walk by and then suddenly turned towards the LOON. The long, sharp bill targeted the nervy gull with a quick jab, that send a clear ’back off’ message, which caused the gull to re-think its pestering strategy. Meanwhile the 1st gull was near the LOON with a stretched out neck as if it was trying to sniff the leg less dweller, who turned to strike the intrusive head, barely missing its target. While the 2 gulls were contemplating their invasion tactics, the RED-throated LOON had enough of its land excursion and trudged back to the safe water. It performed a long dive and swam across the river…never looking back.

RED-Throated LOON on sandbank…

On Saturday I was checking on the newly planted natives and when I looked up, I saw a small flock of 7 NORTHERN ROUGH-winged SWALLOWS zooming over the levee banks by the Riverside Ave. bridge. I kept hoping to see CLIFF SWALLOWS, who have been rumored to have arrived, but I didn’t spot any at the Riverside Ave. bridge. BTW: the native plants are thriving!
I am also on the look-out for the other 2 little feather delights: the KILLDEER parents, who have nested for the last 2 years in the Fruit Orchard by the Mike Fox Park. This time of year that they are choosing their nest location. I find myself listening for their shrill, trilling, wailing call, which they activate at the slightest threat. So far that sound is absent from the river shore and the Fruit Orchard. Can you let me know if you see or hear the KILLDEER along the river?

COOPER HAWK(googled)

Several days ago I was standing at the river point, feeling grateful for the sight, when the COOPER HAWK was flying straight at me. Just inches before landing right in front of me on the railing, our eyes met and it realized that I was a potentially dangerous human, causing it to sharply veered off to the left and perch a few feet away on the cliff. We inventoried each others intentions and I got its point: the COOPER HAWK was on an early morning hunt. So I slowly backed away from its territory, honoring its pursuit for food. A few minutes later I saw it glide over the banks on the look out for breakfast.
I send you all rich river joy, jane

SOS:Save Our Snags

Hello Jane and All Bird Lovers,

While the attention of many Santa Cruz residents is riveted on the Homeless Camp behind Gateway Plaza, there is another drama unfolding less than a block away, a drama tucked  behind the Tannery – on the river itself, along  the branches of live trees, in cavities of old snags, and under the eaves of the housing complex.  This drama is almost invisible to members of our human species who whiz by overhead on Highway 1, speed by on bicycles or walk by chatting excitedly with friends.  Hidden from most of these community members are priceless natural treasures to be enjoyed if a person just sits or stands quietly in even a small but natural woods, with ears and eyes open and a good pair of binoculars in hand. I feel so lucky to live very near to this spot, and to have grown up with a mother who opened my mind and heart to the world of birds at a very young age.

For some reason, Nuttall’s Woodpeckers were on my mind as I walked with my friend Rick earlier this week.  I had only seen a Nuttall’s once in my life and it was behind the Tannery.  I said to Rick, “Oh, I would really love to see a Nuttall’s Woodpecker today.”  And, lo and

Nuttall's Female in nest best
Female Nuttall’s Woodpecker inside potential nesting cavity, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 15, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

behold, within minutes not only was I looking at a beautiful male Nuttall’s Woodpecker busily foraging for insects along the trunk of a tree, but at a female Nuttall’s poking her head out of a cavity in an old snag nearby – a very likely nesting spot!  Joy!  This is exactly where our beloved mentor, Steve Gerow, would have expected to find a Nuttall’s Woodpecker. In Steve’s extremely useful list of the 122 species that regularly depend on the urban river, he comments that many riparian species like the Nuttall’s “could breed in the lower river area if there were somewhat more natural habitat conditions.” Inspired by Steve,

Nuttalls male  best
Male Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 15, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman 

I have talked for years about restoring the Benchlands (the only area along the urban river without a levee) as a fully riparian ecosystem. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to leave the County Building after some tedious or distressing county business and take a peaceful and restorative walk along a narrow path through a natural snag-inclusive riparian woodland, then wander down for a peek through the willows at at our beautiful urban river?  Wouldn’t it be nice for shoppers in Santa Cruz to take a short foray into a sun-dappled, bird-filled woodland?  Did you all see this photo from sometime in the 1920’s in a recent edition of the Sentinel?  We could restore this woodland and restore ourselves in the process. It’s doable!

“Santa Cruz is hardly recognizable in this circa 1920 view up the San Lorenzo River from Beach Hill. The river edge was heavily vegetated with willows and other trees. To the right of the white building is the Soquel Avenue Covered Bridge, demolished in 1921. The flood-control levees would not be built for almost 40 years.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, Section B2, March 17, 2019 

As if the woodpeckers weren’t treasure  enough, I went back the next day and had another once in a lifetime experience. I think you all know by now how inexplicably attached I am to Pied-billed Grebes. In fact it’s been a bit of an obsession ever since I discovered a floating nest of these intriguing creatures in 2015. I have been quite aware that I haven’t seen a single grebe on the river yet this spring, and was feeling a little bereft.

Head extended
According to BNA, this horizontal head posture is a typical courtship behavior of the Pied-billed Grebe, as well as lifting itself out of the water to display its white breast.  Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

So you can imagine how excited I was when I not only spied one in the river, but found it engaged in very unusual behavior.  It was extremely agitated, splashing around wildly, quivering its wings, then extending them, contorting its body into unusual postures, lifting itself halfway out of the water, exposing its white breast, then rising almost completely out of the water with wings again fully extended!

Rising up and splashing
Pied-billed Grebe engaged in almost regular intermittent splashing behavior, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This went on for at least  five minutes. What was going on?  There was no other grebe to be seen.  Was it a courtship display? Was the object of its intentions hidden somewhere in the dense vegetation on the river bank?  Was this grebe engaged in  territorial defense if some kind?  I snapped photo after photo, hoping to capture a few of these wild moments on my camera.

Extended wings
Pied-billed Grebe with fluffed feathers, extended wings, and a determined look!  Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

When I got home, I checked my Birds of North America bible for more information.  BNA reports that in sexual displays, as well as territorial displays and also ‘triumph ceremonies’ (after copulation or after defeat of an aggressor), the grebe will exhibit some of the same frenzied and contortionist activity I witnessed – though not all.  So it is hard to know exactly what was going on since at this time of year birds are both valiantly protecting their nesting territories and desperately trying to find mates.  I could hardly believe it when the grebe finally lifted itself fully out of the water (below), with only it’s feet underwater.  Powerful legs, powerful wings, powerful will! Let’s hope our little grebe is successful at achieving his goals.  He was sure giving it a good try!


During this same trip, A BEWICK’S WREN began singing non-stop over a spot I had chosen for sitting. When I finally decided to move to a new spot nearby, this little bird began to issue a rapid-fire alarm call.   From my new vantage point I quickly figured out what the fuss was about when I spied the wren slipping into a fairly large space behind a sizable patch of loosened bark very near where I was standing.

Potential nest of Bewick's
Potential nesting site for Bewick’s wren underneath a large chunk of loosened bark.  The wren was observed inside this spot just before the photo was taken.  Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 19, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

She disappeared before I could get a photo of the bird inside the bark,, but here are photos of the potential nesting spot, as well as the fierce little bird just before she tucked herself into this space. These wrens usually stick fairly close to the more natural areas north of Highway 1, but sometimes disperse south, including to the suet cage in my back yard!


Bewick wren with worms?
Bewick’s Wren, with worms(?) or nesting materials (?), near potential nesting site above, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

As I sat in my first spot, I also got a brief glimpse of a HERMIT THRUSH, a shy bird rarely seen south of Highway 1.  This one crept up right behind where I was sitting motionless.  I luckily turned my head and glimpsed her pretty well concealed in a woody thicket, foraging in the large sand deposits left after the recent storms.

Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Although I once spied one of these thrushes in the area behind the Ross Store several years ago, I have never seen another one that dispersed even that short a distance from the natural riparian habitat above Highway 1.

To top off the morning, I looked up and saw five VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, all swooping around some vent holes in the roof of the Tannery, but never actually entering. Violet-greens are cavity-nesting birds, newly arrived in Santa Cruz and at this time of year looking for existing holes in trees or in buildings.

Violet Green at Tannery
Violet-green Swallow, Tannery Loft, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I didn’t learn until just recently that the ranges of the other common swallows along the river, i.e. the Northern Rough-winged, Tree and Cliff swallows, all extend across the entire United States.  Only the Violet-green Swallow is confined to the western U.S., Canada and Alaska.  They are therefore not only special, but definitely one of the most beautiful swallows, with their shimmering green and violet feathers, white scalloped faces, and snowy white breasts.  Unfortunately, they rarely sit still long enough to give us a good look.  I was lucky to catch this one pausing for a rare daytime respite, although the photo doesn’t do her justice.

Finally, returning to the subject of restoring the Benchlands, here is a 1960 photo of the San Lorenzo River taken from a great new collection of essays called Landscapes, Activism that Shaped Santa Cruz County, 1955-2005, published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in 2018.

levee 1960
San Lorenzo River, April, 1960,  between Soquel Bridge (at bottom),  Water St. Bridge (in middle),  and Highway 1 Bridge at top.    Shows nearly total clearing within the redevelopment project area (Benchlands and San Lorenzo Park) after completion of the San Lorenzo River levees and Branciforte Creek channel. See the realigned curve of Dakota St crossing over Branciforte Creek and connecting to Soquel Ave. 

In the collection is an extremely informative essay on the history of local activism that saved the San Lorenzo River from looking like this  photo,  taken just after the Army Corps of Engineers had its first go at building a very low levee following the historic flood of 1955. Early activism has brought the river a long ways from being a cement ditch.  Don’t you agree that it’s time to take the last step and fully restore the Benchlands to its original grandeur as a full riparian ecosystem?      

Happy spring birding to all, and happy activism!




sweet and wet…

Good Morning Barbara & River Fans,

ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD toeing the sign…

I kept wondering what people thought of us as they were driving past us…We had our great event on Saturday morning, which was hosted by Karlee & Lindsay, 2 interns of the Watershed Stewardship Program in partnership with AmeriCorps, serving at the NOAA SW Fisheries Science CenterNOAA. Part of their program was to host an event of 60 volunteers. Yes, that is right: 60! So what people saw were all these volunteers working in the pouring rain from the Laurel St to Riverside Ave. bridge. Personally I thought that was mind-blowing awesome, especially considering that we all maintained our high spirits. Looking around I saw the volunteers working, talking, laughing as the rain dripped off their bodies. Some of the task proved to be a patience challenge as Brian his crew found out and any of you, who ever attempted to remove Pampas Grass, will understand what they were up against.

our partial tool stash…

The other incredible event part was the co-working/organizing that took place with a variety of people. It’s hard to not get gushy and mushy as I tell you that ‘my’ Park & Rec. Staff~Leslie Keedy, Mike Godsy, Jordan, Lori~ did a laudable job of walking that extra 100miles to create a successful event plus Mike did impressive work at his station and kept a guiding eye on all of us.






Then there is Linda, my cohort for the Valley Women’s Club Estuary Project. She generously brought the Valley Women’s Club AmeriCorps Team to the event although they are working on plenty of other projects. The Valley Women’s Club Board jumped in to make food donations possible. The Conservation Committee of the Santa Cruz County Group of the Sierra Club voted to co-sponsor the event. And then there are my friends Dan and Sue, who are familiar with our Estuary work. Their presence was essential to help out in some ‘now what?’ moments. And Dan untangled me when I was twisting myself in knots with choosing locations for plants on Friday plus he brought the plants early on Saturday morning. Then there are the people from Central Coast Wilds Nursery, who so patiently put up with my time consuming plant hand picking. Jessica is my plant saint: she walks the plant aisles with me, points out plant possibilities, helps me pick out the perfect natives plus she joined us on Saturday. As you can tell: It was a magnificent crew that created a marvelous event.

some of the awesome event volunteers…

You might like to join us this Saturday ~the 16th @ 9am-11am~ for our ongoing Estuary Project day. We’ll be at E. side of the Riverside Ave. bridge. Click here for more details.                                                                                          This was so magic: I connected with Mark, a AmeriCorps member from New Jersey, because he is a birder. I told him about our river OSPREY and he said he would love to see it. Jokingly I said that maybe the Osprey would show for him. I was working at an other station and looking up I saw the Osprey circling above the river. I told the group that I was sorry that Mark wasn’t with us. Later Mark told me with shiny eyes that he had seen the Osprey. I was so happy for him and thanked the Osprey for its appearance.
Right now there is only 1 female COMMON GOLDENEYE left on the lower river. I wonder if she is the same one that stayed with us during last year’s Summer. Remember? She had an injury and couldn’t leave with the others.
The PELAGIC CORMORANT has been putzing around the Riverside Ave. bridge, looking mighty fine with his white breeding markings, which you have mentioned before. The other day he was sitting close to an other PELAGIC CORMORANT and I am hoping that they were discussing their parent future. Wouldn’t it be great to see their babies on our river?                       The PEREGRINE is only in the early morning in the Trestle trees. The Falcon isn’t taking kindly to the construction work, because it puts a kink in his meals: the PIGEONS don’t perch on the Trestle during construction work. I have seen the PEREGRINE hanging out in a tree a couple of blocks away from the river.

Sending sunny chirps to all of you, jane

Peregrine in the early morning…

We’re All Part of One Another

Hello Jane and Nature Lovers,

Powerful  natural forces have been reshaping the fast-flowing river, braiding new streams around the old channel and artistically depositing wave-like sculptures of sand along the edges.  Just up the slope from these sand dunes lies the Ross Homeless Camp, the tragic product of powerful human forces  that consign human beings  to a life of mud, fear, cold, discrimination and humiliation.

Riverbank near Felker St. Pedestrian Bridge, streamflow  800 cubit feet per second. March 4, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here are some of some random images I snapped of the Ross Camp, hopefully not too intrusive and suggestive of some of the powerful social forces roiling the camp.  I only took these four shots so as not to be obnoxious.  Here’s what these images suggested to me.  People who can’t afford to live inside houses in Santa Cruz want the privacy and the dignity that goes with having personal space, no matter how humble.   Thus the signs on the large blue and white tents say ‘Private Property’ and ‘Do Not Enter’.  Humorous, poignant.  We all need familiar, comforting objects like a large teddy bear, objects that go with having a space 24/7.  Without a permanent space, how can these objects be carried around?  We all need to feel like hiding under a blanket sometimes.  Here’s the homeless version.  People in the camp may both welcome the protection and services provided by the City and at the same time resent the intrusion of officers who drive up and start questioning the the first people they see on the walkway. That’s how I interpreted what I was seeing.   As I stood there, the old man near the porta-potties seemed eager to get away. The officer kept pressing closer. The other officer seemed to be listening respectfully, maintaining distance.  Just a superficial, uninformed peek at some human life on the river these days.

Further south along the river, I stopped to talk to a young man named Joshua who was busy weaving flowers out of palm fronds .  He and his two friends, who were sharing a guitar,  told me that they have  chosen not to participate in the Ross Camp for a variety of reasons and have instead set up a pretty comfortable looking camp under the Water St. Bridge with a folding chair and an elevated  bed.   Joshua who agreed to let me use his name and photograph him, told me he learned the art of weaving palm fronds  from a South Pacific Islander and has adopted it.  “Other people see a useless palm frond, but I see a way to get food for 2 or 3 days.”  One of Joshua’s friends told me that he had grown up in Santa Cruz, had suffered from chronic depression, had managed to hold down a job for 10 years,  had succumbed to drugs but then overcome that.   He was very disturbed by the littering associated with living without homes and told me that he tried to do a lot of cleaning up. Joshua said he was enjoying  the ‘mud hens’  (or  AMERICAN COOTS) who were swimming and foraging nearby,  birds who have also chosen  the Water St. Bridge as their home during the stormy weather.

Joshua, currently at home under the Water St. Bridge. March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This week I saw my first Western Pond Turtle this week, clinging to the bank of the Duck Pond.

Western Pond Turtle
Western Pond Turtle, edge of Duck Pond, San Lorenzo Park, March 4, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This turtle is the West Coast’s only native freshwater turtle, and is listed as a  “species of special concern” in California.  It has fared worse  in the State of Washington where it  is listed as ‘endangered, and in Oregon where it is listed as  “sensitive/critical”.   In 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list this species   under the Endangered Species Act, along with 52 other amphibians and reptiles. In 2015 the Service made an initial finding that the turtles may qualify for protection.  According to one source, these turtles do not live primarily in ponds, but in rivers and often on land.  They are one of the creatures we need to be very concerned about when Public Works is doing its vegetation removal each year.  With all the re-vegetation work that people like you, Jane, (as well as  groups like the Coastal Watershed Council) are doing on the levee, maybe the bulldozers and chain saws will gradually disappear.

In my eBird report this week, I reported seeing three species exhibiting  breeding behaviors: Two BUSHTITS chasing each among delicious catkins on a willow tree, and two CANADA GEESE settled comfortably near the Soquel Bridge, both qualifying as “P – pair in suitable habitat’;   and an AMERICAN CROW breaking a small branch off a tree and flying off with it, qualifying as “CN – Carrying Nesting Material.  (If you look carefully at the crow photo, the whole vertical branch next to her bill is the one she carried off – three times as long as the crow). I love participating even a little in the Breeding Bird Project, and encourage everyone who’s interested to get trained.  I learned a lot last year.  Trainings are Saturday, March 9,  Thursday, March 14, and Saturday, March 16.  Go to the Santa Cruz Bird Club website for details. Click Here

Bushtit in Willow
Bushtit, part of a chasing couple, in suitable nesting habitat, March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman


Canada Goose Pair
Canada Geese, in suitable nesting habitat,  near Soquel Bridge,March 3, 2019, Photo by B, Riverwoman


Crow with nesting material
American Crow, breaking off branch of Sycamore Tree, about to fly off to build nest. March 4, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I saw one BUFFLEHEAD and one COMMON GOLDENEYE on my outing this week, probably the last to leave the river for breeding grounds elsewhere?  The Bufflehead worried me a little.  It was in the same spot near the Laurel St. Bridge when I saw it two weeks ago, and it wasn’t fishing.  I first saw the  Goldeneye in the Duck Pond, and then later in the river.  I was happy to see it  diving vigorously, hardly spending a second above water.  That made it hard to catch this shot, but I finally succeeded.

And here is significant  news – I saw my first-of-season swallow – three of them.  I’m guessing this one resting on the the telephone wire near Riverside Bridge is a VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW though I’m not sure.  The wing projects past the tail which is one sign.  Hundreds of swallows have been in South County for several weeks, but I don’t think any have been reported on the urban river yet.

VG Swallow? Tree?
First of season swallow, likely Violet Green Swallow, near Riverside Bridge, March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And here’s an odd pair – A DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT AND A COMMON MALLARD, sharing refuge on a tiny island, safe from the rapid current moving at a clip of  about 1000 cfs.   The cormorant seemed to think it was odd, too, and tried to chase the mallard off their little island.  But the mallard hung on to the unusual new relationship, though accepting a more marginal status.  Were the head up, head down postures a sign of the agreed on dominance roles?  Maybe the mallard can’t find a girlfriend in spite of his brilliant colors.  Most of the mallards are all paired up by now and hanging out together.

Mallard and Cormorant, Chinatown Bridge
Mallard and Double-crested Cormorant, Chinatown Bridge, March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I’m sad to say that the wounded WESTERN GREBE that I saw two weeks ago is still hanging out by the Laurel St. Bridge. The river seems to also serve as a kind of refuge for wounded sea birds.

Here is my latest eBird checklist with  34 species.  Click Here.

Quote of the week from the March/April edition of Sierra by  Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“Of all the tools we rely on to fulfill our mission, the most indispensable is the principle that every citizen can participate in the electoral process. Any assault on our democracy is also an assault on public lands, healthy communities and a stable climate.  If we fail to defend out democracy, then nothing that we hope to protect – and nothing that we’ve already protected–will be safe.”

Click Here for full article.

Stay active, stay well, watch birds!