Good Morning Barbara and fellow Nature Compadres,
I love all my contemplations that get triggered during the levee walks. It turns my river visits into adventurous explorations. All too often there is just one more sighting that seduces me to stay a little longer than planned. Frankly I don’t have much willpower to resist the call of Nature, which means that the dishes pile up in my sink since there are just so many hours in the day…

male Bufflehead…now?

What is the male BUFFLEHEAD doing on the river? The BUFFLEHEADS males migrated over 2 weeks ago and since then I haven’t seen feather or beak of a male. But there he was: paired up with a female. Did they arrive together or did he choose one of the 2 left behind spinsters? The last remaining COMMON GOLDENEYE kept her eyes on the couple from a safe distance.

lush survivors…

Well, I am once again on my crusade to save the survivors from the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan planting. As I mentioned before, these feisty natives are determined to buck repeated radical mowing and claim their right to live. Right now they are lush, green and spreading with vim and vigor. So keep your fingers crossed that my flag markers don’t keep disappearing, that my weeding circles around them help, that alerting maintenance staff to their location will save-guard their growth future.
The two RED-throated LOONs are still on the river, obviously avoiding the long trip up north. The red ‘getting-ready-to-mate’ marking on one of the birds is getting brighter and more distinct each day. So far that exterior signal hasn’t sparked the interior flame to migrate to the breeding grounds. Instead the RED-throated Loon lallygags on the water, takes a rest on the shore by the Riverside Ave. bridge, hangs out with other LOON, forages a little, evidently soaking up the pleasant Estuary life.

RED-throated LOON ignores red neck message

What great fun that was to introduce over 80 Mission Hill High Middle school students to the San Lorenzo River birds! Kathleen Crocetti’s art class students will be doing a mosaic bird mural along the river path across from Trader Joe’s. In preparation for the project she asked me to give a presentation to 3 classes about the river birds to be topped off with levee field trips. None of the students had ever birded before and two other birders joined me to open the students’ eyes to river’s bird cornucopia. It was really special to watch how a bird would leave one student cold while an other one was thrilled to high heaven by the bird.

PEREGRINE rendezvous…

This Sunday morning two regular levee visitors told me that they had heard Peregrine calls in the Trestle trees as an other one flew in, briefly perched and then 3 PEREGRINES flew out of the tree. One looked like a juvenile, who just might be the result of an earlier PEREGRINE rendezvous. PEREGRINES nest on cliff and building ledges. That made us wonder if the offspring had fledged somewhere nearby on the cliffs.


The next time you drive by the T-intersection of Ocean St. & San Lorenzo River Blvd. be sure to check out the progress we made along the rock wall thanks to the 6 Downtown Street Team(DST). They joined the Estuary Project last Saturday to clear the weeds around previous year’s natives planting. The members worked hard and did a mighty fine job as you can see.

looking good...
looking good…

So when you see the yellow shirted DST group on the levee, be sure to thank them for helping change the river image.

DST crew making a change…

Thank you so much for your kind words for my 2018 Volunteer Award that came my way unexpectedly. To-day I just might get teary-eyed when I receive that honor…
Sending you spring river chirps, jane


Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.”  Our feathery friends on the river are singing their hearts out with hope these days – hope for the continuation of their species.   They cheer me on enormously in these crazy times when we sometimes have to wonder about the continuation of our species!

song sparrow
Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River, watching the flood waters,  2016, photo by B. Riverwoman

I especially love listening to all the SONG SPARROWS at this time of year. Each bird seems to have its own distinct variation on what is usually a three-part song – twee-twee/buzz/chip-chip – or twee-twee-twee/trill/whistled cascade.    As I walk down the river I hear seemingly infinite variations.  I think if I were starting over again I would become a biologist and study the songs of the Song Sparrow.

Well – here is the mystery bird for the month of April.   Don’t peek at the answer (at the end of this blog) until you’ve given it a try.

April Fool's
Mystery Bird, between Water St. Bridge and Highway 1, April 13, Photo by B. Riverwoman


I am always intrigued to see a bird where I’ve never seen one before.

Nesting Merganser? – Version 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. ,April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

This COMMON MERGANSER, perched on a fallen willow tree in the middle of the river, definitely caught my attention. I wondered if she could possibly be scoping out this tree

Merganswer 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

as a suitable spot for a nest. Mergansers usually use cavities in the trunks of dead trees,  so it would seem unlikely. But I’m keeping an eye on the area just in case. Desperate birds do desperate things. And I would guess that nesting territory is at a premium.



For about two weeks now I have been seeing NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SPARROWS disappearing into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge where I finally learned last year that they nest.

Resting Northern-winged
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, April 13, 2018, perched near Water St. Bridge where it is nesting.  Photo by B.Riverwoman

Then, just today, I was happy to see my first CLIFF SPARROWS exploring their old mud nests under the Water St. Bridge. I am wondering if they will reclaim these nests this year. They decided not to last year. I think it was because those pesky

house sparrow copy
Squatting House Sparrow, 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

HOUSE SPARROWS occupied most of their old mud nests before the Cliff Swallows had returned from down south. A willow clump right next to the bridge has been a major headquarters for the aggressive House Sparrows for the four years I’ve been watching birds on the river. I suspect they may have settled there for exactly this purpose. Location, location, location.



There have been a few VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS around for a while, but not the usual high numbers. I’ve never seen a Violet-green Swallow nest. BNA says they like to nest in cavities in trees or cliffs and will also use human-made boxes.

Violet-green Swallow perched near her nesting cavity hollowed out by another bird like a woodpecker.  Google image.

If any readers see such a nest, especially one near the river, I’d love to know. You can always e-mail me at river@cruzio.com about this or any other interesting things you see on the river. Here’s a cool fact about the Violet-green Swallows. They have been recorded flying at 28 miles per hour— pretty fast when you consider that the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird of prey, averages about 25–35 miles per hour in traveling flight.  A good online resource that I just discovered is nestwatch.org. They have lots of useful information including how to build nest boxes for common birds in our area, especially ones in decline like the Kestrel and Mourning Dove.


I caught a glimpse this week of one of my favorite  sights – two ravens circling together very, very high up in the sky. I tried to get photos, but was not up to the challenge – so fell back on a Google image.  But the photo is exactly what I saw.  BNA says there is no solid evidence that paired soaring behavior has any relationship to breeding.

ravens soaring
Two Common Ravens, circling at a high altitude.  Google image.

But it is a beautiful and heart-stopping performance, no matter what their intentions. Such form, such freedom. Two years ago the ravens built a nest on the roof of the courthouse – but not last year and no sign yet of activity this year.  Mating pairs usually stay together throughout the year.


In the singing category, the HOUSE FINCHES

5 finches
Five House Finches stirring things up at the El Rio Mobile Home Park garden facing on the river.  April 13, 2018.

continue to outdo themselves at this time of year – warbling irrepressibly up and down and all over the map.   There is also lots of chasing behavior – as there is with so many of the species – as the birds sort out who belongs to whom. I often count three birds in these chasing scenes, suggesting that one of the birds is being chased away rather than pursued.


The WHITE-CROWNED AND GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS, on the other hand, are pretty silent, although I have heard  a few Golden-crowned singing their plaintive descending three-note song lately. I am guessing that this call is for the purpose of gathering the tribe to start the long trip back to their breeding grounds in Canada. It is the same song, as far as I can tell, that they sing when they arrive in the fall and are establishing their territory. Both the White-crowned and Golden-crowned are in full-breeding plumage, the Golden-crowned especially handsome these days compared to their winter drabness. I keep saying good-bye to these backyard birds (I’m right on the river), but some of them still hang around. Or have our winter residents already left and others are passing through from further south? I wonder how we would know this.   Here is the White-crowned Sparrow just coming in for a landing.  Next stop British Columbia?

WC Landing
White-crowned Sparrow, April 13, 2018, El Rio Riverside Garden, Photo by B.Riverwoman

And in the fish department, I recently joined a riverside workshop led by Ben Wasserman, a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department up at UCSC.

Ben Wasserman holding fully-grown Three-spined Stickleback taken from river underneath Water St. Bridge. April 14, 2018  Photo by B. Riverwoman

He was introducing about 25 of us, adults and children, to the fascinating THREE-SPINED STICKLEBACK, a fish that he called the ‘lab rat’ of fish biologists around the world. According to Wasserman, the Sticklebacks are not only abundant  in inland coastal waters everywhere on the planet, but they are also easily caught (and released) for research studies. According to Wasserman, this abundance and easy accessibility, added to the fact that they are highly adaptive to changing environmental conditions, make them a workhorse of evolutionary studies

stickleback closeup
Ben Wasserman holding Stickleback, Photo by B. Riverwoman

around the world.  UCSC is doing its part, and Wasserman is part of that, focusing his graduate studies on the Stickleback’s evolution through natural selection. Like coho salmon and steelhead trout, the sticklebacks are ‘anadramous’, meaning they breed in freshwater but can survive in the ocean. But unlike the salmon and steelhead, the stickleback don’t always return to the ocean. This wide range of environmental influences results in an equally broad range of adaptations – giving Wasserman lots to study.    I wonder if  the research surrounding the tiny and obscure stickleback could one day become more important to human survival than all the recreational attention given to the iconic salmon and steelhead.


Congratulations, Jane, on being chosen by the City of Santa Cruz as a ‘2018 Outstanding Volunteer’!! You certainly deserve the recognition. I hope some of our readers will be at City Hall on April 24th at 2 pm to help celebrate with you. I know I will be there. I wish I knew how to get all the birds there to express their gratitude for all your advocacy and organizational work on the environment.

Click here to see my latest eBird checklist.

And the mystery bird is…….April Fool’s! What you see is only a clump of leaves left by a high river! There is rarely a bird trip I make when I don’t eagerly lift my binoculars to examine an enticing scrap of white plastic, a suggestive root projection, a falling leaf or some other beguiling and ultimately deceptive phenomenon.

Laughing with the birds,











river nesting scenarios…

Good Morning Barbara and Nature friends,

spring fever ignites HOUSE SPARROWS

So… how are you all holding up as you witness the wild roller-coast ride of the breeding, nesting season? Let me tell you about a few nesting scenarios that have unfolded along the river:

OSPREY attempting a high voltage nest

On a wet, cold December morning the OSPREY was calmly surveying the scenery from the power pole by Trestle bridge. The mighty bird took off and returned shortly afterwards clutching a huge branch. It circled the power pole, obviously trying to figure out how to land with its load. Finally the risk-taker worked out how to touch down and not loose the building material. Placing the branch turned out to be tricky: the high voltage box was in the way. The beak & talons got busy maneuvering the obstacle to its allocated location. The builder examined the work, flew off and came back with a medium sized branch. Having gained confidence in its construction ability, the OSPREY landed right on top of the newly arranged branch. Unfortunately that was not a good decision: the branch started tipping and the contractor hopped over to the side, dropping the new bough. The beak and talons went back to work to situate the foundation branch better, which required some rest after the hard labor. The architect took off, brought back more building supply, landed this time on the pole, stretched down to place the addition on top of the branch. Alas, that didn’t work out at all: both branches fell to the ground. With calm regret the OSPREY looked at the branches on the ground, raised its head, took a river survey, flew off and didn’t return. For the next month I would see various branch evidence that the OSPREY hadn’t abandoned the nest building goal and after that the pole was bare. Obviously the universe was eager to prevent a potential high voltage disaster and tempted the OSPREY with an upstream tree to build a safe nest successfully.

safe OSPREY nest photographed by Gary Kittleson

I am happy: The CLIFF SWALLOWS are back! They were swooping around the old nests by Riverside Ave. bridge, cleaning out the accumulated mess since last year’s breeding season, getting ready for their upcoming broods.

CLIFF SWALLOWS busy w/nest re-modeling

The NORTHERN ROUGH-winged SWALLOWS perch on the wires and in the dead river trees, resting, preening and resting some more. They don’t subscribe to the incessant aviation habit that their cousins display such as the zippy CLIFF, VIOLET-green, TREE SWALLOWS. The 2 BANK SWALLOWS have disappeared and I wonder if they decide to check out other cavity nesting locations thus avoiding the many off leash dogs on the wide sandbanks.

NORTHERN Roughed-winged Swallow preening…

The current sediment buildup is impressive. There are sections in the lower river where it becomes a narrow strip, tempting people to walk along the shoreline while their dogs enjoy some bird and ground squirrel chasing, unaware that the KILLDEER, BLACK PHOEBE, female MALLARD are scurrying around in a high alarm state. Less sediment used to prevent access to the bank’s nesting areas, but the new condition exposes them to the peril of panicked parent-birds. And that brings me to an other changed river condition: I don’t believe anymore that the old river mouth will break open, in spite what the fishermen and surfers say. The river mouth continues its meandering flow along the Main Beach, giving seals, CORMORANTS and SNOWY EGRETS the golden opportunity to catch the helpless fish in the shallow water.

river reduced to narrow strip

The male BUFFLEHEAD and COMMON GOLDENEYE migrated and left eight female BUFFLEHEADS and COMMON GOLDENEYE behind. They enjoy each others company for short intervals, separate for a bit and come together again. This year the river hosted more males of each species. Did the males take off with their beak picked harem and left 8 spinsters behind? For a few days a male NORTHERN SHOVELER tried to befriend them and some MALLARD females, but that concept didn’t catch on and so he left.


Around March 15th Mama KILLDEER returned to the Fruit Orchard by the Riverside Ave. bridge, where last year 4 little feather-balls had fledged. She sat on the ground in various spots, checking out nesting potentials. Finally a week later she settled on a site. That is when I roped off the area, gave heads up to City Staff and the Fruit Orchard people that we were once again on the mission to protect the upcoming birthing. People rejoiced hearing about the KILLDEER nest and were touched to catch a glimpse of her snuggled on her nest.

Mama KILLDEER trying out nesting spots

So you can imagine my distress on Monday when I didn’t find her tending her future brood. After looking around, waiting for a while, coming back a few hours later, I had to face that something bad had happened that caused her absence and my grieving heart ached for her.
Sad jane greetings…
PS: Come and join “Let’s Spruce Up the San Lorenzo River Levee”

Shakespeare on the River

Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Lovers,

I was totally entranced by your description last week of the Romeo and Juliet drama unfolding beween the COOT and the courageous (or confused) female BUFFLEHEAD. It seemed just short of miraculous that  the star-crossed lovers stuck so closely to the Shakespearean script, with the outraged Bufflehead family rushing in to pull the tragic couple apart. What a tale! Coots are such odd creatures! They seem to have unlimited curiosity and very permeable boundaries.  I’m so glad that you captured a photo of the Coot imitating the Bufflehead’s  water-pecking courtship behavior.

Speaking of curiosity, I am very curious about our winter waterfowl who actually build their nests and raise their young elsewhere, but are in full breeding plumage all winter long on our river. Now I learn from your last posting that they even begin their courtship behavior while still here! Do they actually copulate while they’re here or do they leave that step until after they arrive in western Canada and Alaska? How does that work?  I would imagine the timing could get a little tricky.

I have been asked by the Breeding Bird Atlas folks to  pay special attention  to four species on our urban stretch of the river, species who  may either have stopped breeding on the river, or may be beginning to breed here.They are the AMERICAN KESTREL, the RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, the YELLOW WARBLER and the CANADA GOOSE.

In the category of species who may be moving into Santa Cruz County to breed is the CANADA GOOSE. Last week I heard a lot of very loud honking on the river, just south of the Pedestrian Bridge. I hustled there as fast as my 80–year-old legs could carry me.  Although things had settled down somewhat by the time I arrived, I found a pair of Canada Geese on the water, still exhibiting some agitated behavior, and some odd neck elongations.   As soon as I got home, I check my BNA which told me that  ‘copulation generally occurs on water at spring staging areas, or on breeding grounds, before and after nest-site selection. Copulation is preceded by pre-copulatory Head-Dipping, after which both birds stretch necks and lift chins and call; displays serve as sexual releasers that function to bring about synchronization of sexual activities in members of the pair.” I seem to have made it at least in time to see the neck stretching part.

Canada Geese mating2
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 12
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 13
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory,  wing-flapping behavior, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 1
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, calmly swimming, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

According to the range map of the BNA, Canada Geese do not breed south of the Oregon/California border.   But in 2014, Gerow reported a few that bred in the area nearby the urban river. And last summer we had a sweet family of five young ones and two very solicitous parents.  The parents bond for life. This spring there have been two pairs of Canada Geese hanging out in the grassy mounds near the Duck Pond and on the nearby river. Obviously, the BNA hasn’t quite caught up with what is happening here on the ground in Santa Cruz County.  But it’s true that we do not yet have a confirmed nesting on the urban river itself.

Where should we look for a nest? According to the BNA, this species typically nests on drier, slightly elevated sites near water, more frequently on islands with good visibility. They can nest near ponds (Duck Pond?), near taller willows, even in trees and on human-made structures. Let’s all keep our eyes open.

The other three species I was asked to look for are KESTRELS, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS AND YELLOW WARBLERS. Kestrels were reported (2014) by the late Steve Gerow as breeding near the river up through 2012 or 13. Since then there have been no reported nests. RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS breed in weeds, marsh and willows in the river channel and, according to Gerow, may be increasing. They would be especially vulnerable to any human or animal activity on the levee banks.  I was also told to keep an eye out for possible YELLOW WARBLER nesting activity.

Male Yellow Warbler, Google image

According to Gerow’s 2014 report, this migrant species “is declining as a breeder in Central California; probably the closest current nesting is in the Felton area. ” Gerow adds, “these birds could breed in the lower river area if there were somewhat more natural habitat conditions.” I was told that we might be more likely to see them nesting just upstream from the Highway 1 Bridge , behind the Tannery, where there is no levee and a more natural riparian habitat. Unfortunately, a lot of the displaced Benchland campers seem to have moved upstream to the cemetary side of the river, making that riparian habitat much less attractive for nesting birds. Anyway, please let me know if any of you see any nesting behavior of this possible river breeder. I would so like to see the Benchlands behind the Courthouse returned to its original habitat and then see my first nesting Yellow Warbler lured there by the perfect tree.   Is this another ‘impossible dream’.


Last week I was watching the typical behavior of four crows bedeviling a perched RED-TAILED HAWK. After some especially close swipes by the persistent crows, the long-suffering hawk was practically toppled from his perch in a very graceless take off.   Red-tailed hawks are major predators of crow nests, and crows don’t easily forget a grudge. I wouldn’t either if a hawk got my baby, no matter how majestic the hawk.

crow harrassing
Perched Red-tailed Hawk assailed by American Crow, one of four, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Red-tailed Hawk in Eucalyptus
Red-tailed Hawk, disturbed take-off, San Lorenzo River, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here’s my list of other species that I posted on eBird this last week. https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S43966158

Happy trails to all.













San Lorenzo River harbors Estuary splendor…

Good Morning Barbara and Nature Cherishers,

A. COOT water pecking…

Last week 3 AMERICAN COOTS and a female BUFFLEHEAD were determined to confuse me with their behavior. Three COOTS were escorting a female BUFFLEHEAD as they all 4 water pecked, a typical mating behavior for the BUFFLEHEAD and COMMON GOLDENEYE. The female was quite flattered by their attention. She swam closer to one COOT, who was encouraged to show his pleasure with an out off control water pecking action. She watched and suddenly moved away from the water splashing fiend. I wondered if she woke up from her Shakespearian love dream when a dignified male BUFFLEHEAD approached the lusty gathering, placed himself between the disappointed suitor and female. He wasted no time to court her, but she wasn’t impressed with him, instead she headed for her impossible dream: the sidelined COOT. The male BUFFLEHEAD stopped in his water tracks and 2 female BUFFLEHEADS arrived. They flanked the feathered wayward Mademoiselle and guided her back to the safe flock fold. What really throws me is that since then I have seen the COOTS show the same behavior with other female COMMON GOLDENEYE and BUFFLEHEAD. Have any of you river observers seen the same pattern?

female BUFFLEHEAD ignores suitor…

This sign at the San Lorenzo River point pretty much sums up my sentiment about Nature. The river definitely has a ‘hold on me’ ! It weaves itself through my everyday life: driving along the river my head whips in its direction, attempting to catch a fleeting glimpse of its activity. I tick off drivers as I miss the traffic light change, because I am watching the HAWK soar across the river levee. Nature infiltrates my conversations, flustering people as I pepper our talk with a quick:” there is a HAWK calling”, “look there is a native grass”, “that bird over there migrates soon”. That same Nature, River sentiment threaded itself in bright colors through your report about protecting breeding/nesting birds. Congratulations for turning that situation around for the benefit of future feathered parents.

tell it like it is…

It’s always exciting to hear what others experience along the river. Robin’s feather e-mail reports fascinate me, because we walk the same levee stretch at different times of the day. He sees birds that are gone by the time I arrive and vice versa. And here is his ‘I wish I had seen that too’ sighting:                    Hi Jane, After I read that you saw a bald eagle on the San Lorenzo I went down to look. There it was, HUGE, sitting on a rock in the middle of the river, on the ocean side of the trestle bridge. Not very regal looking, actually looked like it had been sprayed with a hose, kind of waterlogged and dismal. I haven’t seen it since. However . . I did see a Pacific Loon yesterday. Not a red-throated. That’s a new find for me.   Robin

just a few of the many…

Recently the river shore has been hosting an incredible amount of SNOWY EGRETS, proving that the San Lorenzo River estuary is an important breeding habitat for these stalkers. Did you know that in 1886 their long breeding head feathers were priced twice as high gold?
One day 30 SNOWY EGRETS picturesque decorated the waterline between the Trestle and Riverside Ave. bridge. The mating fever caused many feather raising squabbles, accompanied with short airborne attacks at the competitors, who either saw the attacker’s point of view and retreated or countered loudly with raised headgear feathers. Their mating debate was favorably sustained by many little fish that were pecked out of the water at high speed.
So I invite you to visit the river and experience its rich bird splendor… maybe you catch sight of the new migratory arrival: the CASPIAN TERNS, jane

new river guest: Caspian Tern

Science First, Management Second

Dear Jane and Lovers of Nature,

I loved your BALD EAGLE sighting, Jane, and your description of the bitter feelings this evoked in the displaced Peregrine Falcon. I’m on tenterhooks to know whether Perry managed to chase off Baldy for good – or not. Imagine if we had a Bald Eagle as a regular resident at the mouth of our river!

I have been so pleased to welcome an  OSPREY as a regular visitor to those of us upsteam folks. I am wondering if our visitor is the same bird as your downstream friend –just expanding her territory? Probably. Anyway, Ozzie perches almost every day on the very tip of the twin redwoods across the river from my house, surveying the world for fish and then more fish.   For the first time in my life, I finally saw her do her spectacular foot-first plunge into the river, emerging with quite a large fish. Was it a Coho? I hope so. I ran into Jon Jankovitz, one of the local representatives of California Department of Fish and Wildlife, at the State of the San Lorenzo River Symposium this last Saturday. I asked him what was his favorite bird and he said ‘the Osprey’. He added that there are not many of them around these days. I told him about yours and mine, maybe the same one. He seemed slightly jealous. It’s pretty special to have one of these glorious and rare birds in our backyards.

Osprey, San Lorenzo River, east bank, just north of Water St. Bridge, March 19, 2018 photo by B. Riverwoman

I thought the Symposium was really good this year. Chris Berry of the Santa Cruz Water District opened the event by saying that this year’s symposium was focusing on the science of the San Lorenzo River Watershed. He said,

“We need to get good science before we try to figure out how to best manage our watershed.”

I loved hearing him say that. State Assembly member,  Mark Stone,  followed with a really solid keynote address. I especially leaned in when he said he felt that Sacramento was too focused on climate change legislation, saying that we have already passed the tipping point on climate change and now need to re-direct at least some of our money and energy into planning what to do in response to the inevitability of sea level rise and other grim results of climate change. Dark news, indeed. I don’t think he meant that we should give up on all the good anti-climate change work that people are doing.   But I thought his big picture warning constituted a pretty direct challenge to our downtown city planners who seem a bit too complacent about the spectre of sea level rise. Do we really want to build hotels, restaurants, and housing in the flood plain? Why not keep Old Town Santa Cruz as it is for as long as we can, but plan all new development further south on Soquel? I looked at some of the pro-downtown development folks in the room, trying to detect whether they were getting the same message as I was. But they remained stoic. I hope they were listening.

I am constantly wondering what our shorebirds and waterfowl are catching as they stalk and dive. So during break time at the Symposium, when I spotted local fish guru Don Alley in the room, I maneuvered my way through the crowd and sidled up to him. He seemed happy to share his vast store of fish knowledge. Here is a little of what he told me. (I know you, Jane, are far better versed on this subject than I am). There are SMELT high up in the water column in the estuary, easy for birds to catch , said Don. PACIFIC STICKLEBACK are also small, easily caught fish. There are SCULPIN at the bottom of the water column, dark fish that are hard to see and not a major food source for birds. HERRING and ANCHOVY come in from the ocean when the sand bars are open, providing a special feast for the birds.

Pacific Lamprey in early stage. Google image

He also talked a little about our strange PACIFIC LAMPREY, an eel-like fish that grows up to 31 inches in the ocean where it migrates for a couple of years towards the end of its lifetime. Most of its early life, though, about 7 years, is spent in freshwater, and most of that time as a much smaller larvae buried underneath the sand. It has a bad reputation as a parasitic fish that sucks blood from ocean creatures in its adult ocean stage. But, according to Don, it is pretty harmless in its earlier and much smaller river stage.

I was so happy to get trained recently to be part of the new Santa Cruz County Breeding Bird Atlas II. I am now duly authorized to go out with my official datasheet and record any breeding behaviors I observe. We carry with us a list of 24 separate breeding behaviors that we look for and record. Before I was trained, I think I would have just reported to eBird that I saw a RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD yesterday – while enjoying the private pleasure of hearing its sweet, melodic burbling that I haven’t heard since last summer.

Red-winged BB copy 2
Red-winged Blackbird, San Lorenzo River, west bank between Hwy 1 and Water St. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Now as an authorized reporter, I will earnestly write down ‘S’ ‘for Singing Male.” And if I see a singing male for 7 or more days , I will notch that observation up 3 rungs and write down S7. What fun to be a part of this kind of citizen science project – good for tracking breeding populations across the nation and a good nudge for birders like me who will begin to pay more attention to signs of breeding behavior. I’ll try to send everyone the link to the website once it is up and running.

Another big change on the River is the return of the VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, dashing madly about overhead, swallowing as many insects as they can catch. I think I also saw

White-crowned juvenile copy
First year White-crowned Sparrow.  San Lorenzo River.  Photo by B. Riverwoman


violet green
Violet-green Swallow, google image.

Their arrival also signals the the impending departure of my dear bird feeder sparrows. The WHITE-CROWNED AND GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS that arrive each fall are spending their last days with us before they  leave for their breeding grounds in British Columbia and points north. Say your farewells before they leave!

I happened to notice this weekend that the Coastal Watershed Council was offering a willow planting event for children and parents this coming Sunday – very close to where I found the Pied-billed Grebe nest in 2015 and where I saw a PBG exploring along the same tules just a couple of weeks ago. The event was planned for about 25 children and adults and would have taken place just 5 feet from the riverbank. The kids would have been pounding in the willow cuttings with a hammer.   I was really sad to see this scheduled for breeding season – so I called CWC and the City right away on Monday morning. Turns out that the permitting process for these kinds of community-initiated projects do not have a comprehensive environmental component. This failure resulted in the permit being issued without considering that breeding season was well underway. Leslie Keedy, the City’s urban forester, intervened with CWC on our behalf, informing CWC that the area should be visited by a qualified biologist before the event took place. The good news is that just this morning I heard from Alev Bilginsoy, the river scientist at CWC, that she had walked the levee with Gary Kittleson, a certified biologist. Gary had identified a possible MALLARD’S nest in the area, as well as breeding activity of COMMON YELLOWTHROATS AND BUSHTITS.   The event was cancelled!

Common YellowthroatP1040089 copy
Common Yellowthroat, in tules between Soquel and Laurel, east side, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Back to the Symposium. I pricked up my ears when I heard Kristen Kittleson, Fishery Resource Manager at the County of Santa Cruz, talk about the importance of what she calls Stream Wood, ie. trees that fall into the river and are usually labelled ‘debris’. She prefers the term ‘Stream Wood’ because of all the positive ecological and even flood control functions these fallen trees provide when allowed to remain in the river. All these years I have been told by Public Works that fallen trees constitute a flood hazard and therefore cannot be allowed to grow past a certain trunk diameter.   It is this policy, imposed by the Army Corps of Engineers on our City government, that is responsible for the removal of all the native COTTONWOODS, ALDERS, BOX ELDERS and WILLOWS of a certain trunk diameter along the urban stretch of the river. These native riparian species are never allowed to develop their upper canopy, so critical as part of the bird habitat. Literally tons of these trees are trucked away to the landfill each fall.

I was therefore very happy when Kristen explained that fallen trees actually keep sediment from being swept down the river in a storm, preventing the sediment from being deposited along the wider and flatter riverbed downstream.  Indeed, the very significant sediment build-up between Highway 1 and Water St. (‘lowering’ the levee by 2 feet) might have been prevented if woody debris (Stream Wood) had been left in the rivers upstream. The levee ‘lowering’ between Highway 1 and Water St. that is currently of serious concern to Public Works seems to be the major reason that this Department is now asking City Council for more money to carry out some kind of a variant on dredging right around where I live near the Water St. Bridge. I wish the Coastal Watershed Council would use its institutional heft to work on the science behind vegetation removal and see if it is really justified. It would be wonderful if our City could get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to retract the Corp’s requirement for all this cutting. This, I think, would be a more effective restoration project than planting a few more willows! I’m happy to report that the two Cottonwoods and one Alder that I was lucky enough to save from the chainsaw at Riverbend Park are still there, finally getting to grow a large upper canopy.  I’m waiting for the first nest.

Well – here is one event I can really get behind. My friend Jeff Caplan will be leading a Bilingual Bird Walk (Andar con los Aves) this Saturday, March 24, from 10 to 12 a.m. Meet at Beach Flats Park (corner of Leibrant and Raymond Streets in Santa Cruz) You can read more about Jeff and his fine work on behalf of birds on his website.  http://commonlanguageprogram.

I hope we all become more aware of the wonder and blessings of breeding season. What an amazing natural drama is beginning to unfold along the river right now.

Good birding-watching to all.











A pleasant Good Morning Barbara & Nature Aficionados,

BALD EAGLE in Trestle trees…

Last Sunday morning I heard the Peregrine shrieking its displeasure for all to hear as I approached the river. When I got closer I saw the Falcon popping off a new Eucalyptus tree spot, fly towards its old favorite branch, return briefly and repeat its agitated behavior. I am familiar with this ticked off action. It’s triggered by a HAWK or the OSPREY occupying the PEREGRINE’s beloved site. So I started scanning for the known transgressors and my monocular landed on a huge bird. At first I couldn’t compute who I was looking at and then I almost levitated with the realization: It’s a BALD EAGLE sitting on the PEREGRINE’s branch. Since the white head indicated that the raptor had reached the 4-5 year breeding stage, I wondered if the visitor had already found a life mate. Was the branch guest on the look out for a high tree to start building their huge nest? Of course I wanted to show every passerby this incredible sight when the PEREGRINE carried out an other one of its speedy bomb dives. The BALD EAGLE decided ‘enough was enough’ and flew off with the PEREGRINE tailing right behind in hot pursuit. This visual demonstrated their size difference: the Falcon looked like a STARLING chasing a HAWK. On one hand I was sad to see the powerful bird leave, on the other hand I was glad for our river OSPREY, because BALD EAGLES steal fish from them.
This was my first live BALD EAGLE sighting and I have to tell you: pics just can’t do justice to the breathtaking live appearance of this powerful and vibrant Accipitridae species!! You might like to know that there have been reports that a BALD EAGLE has been present at Schwann Lake, so the ‘small’ but mighty PEREGRINE succeeded with its territorial branch claim. Wait! Maybe not? Yesterday morning I heard the FALCON’S irritated call again and saw it perched high in the tree. Just as I took a pic. of PEREGRINE and CORMORANT perched neighborly to each other, a huge bird flew off the Eucalyptus tree. Again the PEREGRINE chased after it and the size difference made me wonder: Had the BALD EAGLE returned? This chase flurry was watched by the blasé OSPREY from a safe tree perch.

neighborly PEREGRINE & DBL. -crested CORMORANT

I was stepping closer to the bank to get a better look at the preening RED-throated LOON when out of the corner of my eye I caught a slight movement in the grass. It was a windless day, so I suspected a small critter caused the grass shiver. I turned into a statue in the hope of discovering the ‘who had done it’ imp. Within a few seconds the grass quiver resumed and a beautiful, healthy looking Santa Cruz Aquatic Garter Snake slithered over to the neighboring grass patch, where it vanished without a trace. The little ones amuse me with their ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ speed. Did you know that 18-28 inches long Garter Snakes go hunting in the water for frogs, their life expectancy is 10 years and that they don’t lay eggs? These snakes are viviparous, meaning that they birth live young ones, who developed inside of the parent’s body. I always consider a snake encounter a treat, because I regard them as a sign of a well balanced ecosystem and so I elatedly I continued my walk.

SANTA CRUZ GARTER SNAKE(googled:californiaherps)

Be sure to check out these 2 upcoming San Lorenzo River ventures:
1.The Estuary Project is happening on Sat. March 17th. Click here for info. details.
2. Jeff Caplan, the Director of CommonLanguageProgram.Com is leading a bilingual river bird walk on 3/24. How great is that? Click here to get more info. details. Don’t miss it: he is a fine birder with great knowledge and a good sense of humor.
Happy river greetings to all of you, jane

rainy river morning…