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.
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!
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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. )
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!
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.
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. .
It’s that time of year when the bird parents are getting sick and tired of their food begging offspring. The bird teenagers can’t believe that their feathered parents are heartlessly ignoring their incessant, high screech calls for food supply. It must be a rude awaking for the juvenile birds to face this transition from being pampered to the ‘Get a hold of yourself and grow up!’ message. Gull youngsters are really successful in driving their parents out of their minds with their begging pursuit. Their piercing cries and crowding in on the parent, force the crazed progenitor to distant themselves by walking away from that annoying behavior. Of course the ‘kid’ throws all restraints to the wind, lowers its body, extends its neck and races after the escaping parent with high frequency, fast succession screams. The hoped for result disappears into the air: the parent flies off, leaving a silent, stunned feathered minor grounded, having to face bird reality…
A few weeks ago this odd gull episode happened by the Riverside Ave. bridge: a group of adult WESTERN gulls let the world know that their lives were in disarray. These calls get activated when a Hawk is circling too close to a gull nest, which was not the case since they were crowded on a sandbank. The reason they were beside themselves was the presence of a juvenile HEERMANN’S gull, who was trying to figure out how to calm the outraged WESTERN group. It tried to slither away, which resulted in the adults converging on the youngster, so it stopped and lowered submissively its head. This greatly satisfied the grown-ups, shut them up and they walked away. Feeling safe, the adolescent stepped into the water. That clearly was the wrong move: the supposedly mature gulls gathering around the flustered HEERMANN’S gull and exploded into an other racket. The young gull carefully kept inching away to a safe distance, where it was ignored and able to forage.
The migratory birds haven’t yet arrived in full force at the river. Each season birders are scanning the sky, waters and land to see what species are coming back when, because that is how we keep track of the bird population. BTW: Randy Wardle’s monthly list is a wonderful resource for which bird species you can expect in our area. Birders have noticed the decline of numbers and species over the years as reported in the latest study, revealing the loss of over 3 billion birds since 1970 in Northern America. The good news is that we can personally invite them into our bird friendly gardensand lend our voices for their legal protection. My own suggestion: plant succulents sparsely, because I have observed that they have no blossoms, seeds, fruit nor shelter for birds.
I heard the call, but I couldn’t remember right away the owner’s name. Then the call owner smoothly glided in: the OSPREY, who produces diverse, exotic sounds that tend to throw me. The glorious bird didn’t land in the Trestle trees but continued out to the ocean. A little later I met up with my river compadre and he told me that he just had seen the female OSPREY in the Trestle trees and an other one was circling high above. Clearly raptors mating choices are in full swing! It’s so wonderful to have these compadres connections, because we each add a detail to fill out a fuller river wildlife picture.
The BLACK-Crowned NIGHT-HERON is down here on its yearly visit during the upstream Flood Control work. I was so happy to read your positive experience with everything and everybody. You certainly did amazing work for the improvement and awareness of the Flood Control protocol!! From what you describe, it sounds like the procedure is following the Streambed Alteration Agreement revisions of the Calif. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife that were initiated by the Sierra Club. So all these efforts will have a beneficial outcome for our river critters: HALLELUJAH!! from jane
Starting this Friday, September 20th, we are all invited to join in a week-long series of hopefully historic Climate Strike events culminating a week later, on Friday, September 27th, in citywide student walk-outs. On that last day, students at colleges,
high schools and middle schools across Santa Cruz will leave their schools in early afternoon, march downtown, converge at Wells Fargo bank on River and Front St. at 2:15 p.m., then march to the future downtown Green Commons at the Farmers Market parking lot for speeches and activities, starting at 4 p.m. Click here to go to the Climate Strike website for information on lists of all the activities, sponsoring organizations, free films, community art projects and more! You can participate in any or all of these, during the week-long build-up to the big day – and on the big day itself.
I personally plan to start out the week as a rabbit, walking down Pacific Garden Mall to my probable doom at the hands of some sinister climate change forces that I’m told will be waiting for us hapless animals somewhere around New Leaf Market. For that fun event you can join me and others at the Town Clock about noon on Monday, the 23rd.
Well – the major flood control work on the levee is now into its second week, and this female HOUSE FINCH seems to epitomize the story. She was clearly relishing
the sweet fruits of the season, her stained beak testimony to many indulgent days of gourmet delights. She was in the same spot not only before the cutting, but a week after the chainsaws entered the picture! I sent this photo to the City Council members and council member Cynthia Mathews wrote me back saying this reminded her that she also liked to go out gathering wild berries at this time of year and that she still hoped to make some blackberry pies this season. I was pleased to get that note.
The crew this year is taking pains to protect the blackberry thickets, the coyote brush, the coastal live oak and a few other natives. And I have to say that the levee banks look more park-like this year, getting closer to achieving that sweet point between protecting non-threatening habitat and still complying with the Army Corps flood control prescriptions. A big shout-out to Public Works staff , who are definitely on board this year in terms of compliance with the City’s governing documents and also more interested in protecting some of the understory native plants that don’t pose a threat in terms of flood control. I sympathize with their situation. It’s a heavy burden to be responsible for protecting a City against a potentially devastating flood, especially in this time of increasing consciousness about sea-level rising.
I was particularly thrilled to see the crew chief, Randy Clayton, on Monday, the 9th, the first day of the mowing. There he was, loping down the Riverwalk towards us in his wide-brimmed leather cowboy hat, hailing me with a “Hi, Grandma!” and giving me a big hug. It was a far cry from two or three years ago when he was so peeved at me for my constant complaints and interference that he threatened to ‘throw me in the chipper’. I knew he’d been really sick last year and in the hospital with major heart surgery. I thought he might have died. Instead, there he was, totally resurrected, with his new heart and broad grin, ready to take on the grueling job of vegetation removal once again. He’s gotten this city contract for years, going back to when he used to drive a team of draft horses to power the mower!
Over the years, Randy has come to know the names and nesting places of some of the birds, as well as the names of many of the native trees and shrubs. And he knows by heart the Army Corps and City specifications as to which trees can be cut and which ones must be spared. I’m so glad the City continues to contract with him. (I can name at least one contractor the City sometimes uses who couldn’t care less about protecting a blackberry patch or an innocent young willow with a narrow trunk.) The Public Works folks, the mowing contactors, and I have been squabbling for so many years that this year it almost felt like a love-fest by comparison.
Randy also seems to have assembled a sensitive crew. I had a sweet conversation just yesterday morning with Randy’s foreman. I commented to him that I really appreciated how much protected flora had been left this year and how much better this was for the wildlife as well as the humans. . He grinned and said “I tried to trim up the trees so they looked nice. That’s what I do at my house and it makes things look like a park.” I had to agree. The crew has also created little groves of willows along the bank, as prescribed in the governing document, making it possible to catch occasional glimpses of the sparkling water shining through the Arroyo willows. I didn’t go down to the river this year with my 15-foot measuring pole, but I feel more confident than I did in the past that we’re all on the same page. I think we’re all doing the best we can with an ever-changing and complex river habitat.
Next year I’m hoping to recruit some California Native Plant Society folks to help me collect a little more data about some of the understory natives like the grasses and
small plants that have established themselves on the levee bank and that provide habitat for butterflies, bees and other creatures tinier than birds, creatures I’m slowly becoming more aware of myself, thanks to some of your posts, Jane.
After that, I hope to talk to Public Works about jointly coming up with a plan to save more of these plants that pose no threat to flood control objectives. It might require extra funds to carry out this kind of more labor-intensive selective plant removal. But maybe some of the money could come from Parks and Rec. I have to say I was disappointed that Public Works did not invite the contracting biologist or the city arborist to mark the natives this year. But it appears that Randy pretty much handled much of it on his own. Each year gets a little better. And I’m getting a little more patient.
For the first time this year I learned about the scary Yellow Jacket drama – scary for the yellow jackets, and scary for the humans. Just yesterday, as I was about to leave the levee, I saw a big white truck pull up on the Riverwalk with Santa Cruz County Mosquito and Vector Control written on it. I went over and introduced myself to Steve, gave him my card with the Pied-billed Grebe on it, and asked him what was going on. He was very friendly and took enough time to briefly explain that the mowers had found twelve large nests of yellow jackets in the short stretch along the westside of the levee banks between Water St. and Highway 1, and that several of the guys cutting willows had been stung.
He told me that the male worker wasps get especially aggressive at this time of year, just before they all die off for the winter. He told me that only the fattened up and inseminated queens survive the winter months, often going into complete hibernation until they start new tribes in the spring. I asked him what chemicals the County used and he showed me the bottle of Drione that he said they inject into the hole in the ground where the nests are. I later did a little google investigating and hope to find out more about possible side effects of this chemical on other wildlife. The yellow jackets are native insects, and according to Wikipedia, “ are important predators of pest insects”.
Steve apologized for having to get back to work, then donned a full white bodysuit with protective headgear and descended the levee bank with a crew member who showed him the location of a remaining willow thicket on the levee toe. The crew hadn’t been able to cut it down because of an especially aggressive wasp attack the day before. Several hours later I got a phone call from Steve, apologizing again for not being able to take more time to answer my questions and asking if there was anything else I needed to know. Wow! That is really government accountability in action. Sadly, he told me that while he was removing the wasps, the unprotected crew member, had been badly stung.
Checking the levee both before and after the mowing, I have been struck this year by how many of the water fowl continue to hang around. They may have no choice, other territories being taken. Not only before, but almost immediately after the mowing I have seen a GREAT BLUE HERON, a SNOWY EGRET, a BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON, a GREEN HERON, COMMON MERGANSERS, PIED BILLED GREBES, and a BELTED KINGFISHER. I also saw three first-of-season AMERICAN COOTS under the Water St. Bridge, waterfowl who who are ubiquitous during the winter months but breed elsewhere in the area during the summer. This Great Blue Heron, particularly unflappable, was calmly foraging in the disturbed soil while the chainsaws whined loudly from the other side of the river.
I haven’t really come to any hard and fast conclusions about the long term effects on the songbirds, who depend on the willows and other riparian trees for cover, food and rest. (At least we haven’t had to worry about late nesters this year since the mowing started more than a month later than usual.) I went out three times the week before the cutting (Sept. 1,2,8) and found 22, 19 and 19 species, respectively, on the pre-cutting days. On my first trip out after the cutting I saw a total of 15 species, including songbirds. I saw some Wilson’s Warblers before the mowing and a pair of chasing YELLOW WARBLERS after the mowing. Both of these species could be migrants or year-round residents. The CALIFORNIA TOWHEES, like the Great Blue Herons, appreciate the disturbed soil so are doing fine. And of course the BLACK PHOEBE keeps on singing and chasing airborne insects through it all. I haven’t seen any SONG SPARROWS this week but there weren’t that many in the week before the mowing. Best of all was my first-of-season sighting of two WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS on September 14th,
one an adult and one a first winter, busily exploring the east bank after their long flight south from Alaska. Readers can go to eBird and study my five pre- and post-cutting lists for other conclusions.
My neighbor, Bob, who has lived at El Rio for three decades, told me he saw a beautiful juvenile Pacific Gopher Snake last week, the first one he said he has seen for years. Mostly we see garter snakes here, but rarely. Was the gopher snake a refugee from the river cutting? Or is new attention to river wildlife helping more creatures survive?
But, let’s face it, if we don’t slow down Climate Change, our small efforts are for naught! So let’s devote next week, if we can, to addressing the big picture.
Warm greetings to the wild life and not-so-wild life, including humans.
Good Morning to you Nature Embracers and welcome back to Barbara,
You certainly hit the ground running after your time off: diving right into the annual Flood Control Work and its various issues. I can’t wait to read your observations on that topic and it’s good to have you back.
I am sure you all shudder looking at the above picture of the San Lorenzo River! Often people say that the present river is just a draining ditch. Personally I vehemently disagree and the old picture proves my point. Aren’t we all grateful that the river was liberated of its concrete ‘chains’ by dedicated people, who worked hard to find the best possible solutions? Can any of you imagine our life without this view?
The other day 2 Raptors were sitting side by side in the cypress tree close to the Kaiser Stadium. It was such a peaceful visual as they preened themselves, then taking in the scenery together. They were too far away for identification. Watching them I wonder if they had paired up to embark on their parenthood experience, because Raptors’ meet-ups and mating start around this time of year. It would be elating to have raptors nest by the river, wouldn’t it?
I was standing at the river point, scanning the trestle trees and my heart skipped a beat when I saw that beloved silhouette way up on the bare branch. I raced over to the trestle and the coveted sight was gone. Disappointed I made my way to the bridge, where I noticed small feathers raining down. Scanning the area I spotted my hoped for treasure: the PEREGRINE was back, eagerly devouring its meal on high voltage power pole. I was so happy to see the Falcon again after such a long time and felt sorry for the bird, to whom I offered my gratitude for sustaining the PEREGRINE’s life.
Later that morning I was talking with my neighbor at the bridge when Jon, a river compadre, walked up. Right away he told me that he had finally seen the PEREGRINE again. My poor neighbor tried to make sense of our Falcon exchange since our words flew giddily back and forth, fueled by our excitement that the river PEREGRINE had returned. It didn’t help that we used short cut references to our previous conversations, which left my neighbor in the dark. We slowed down and explained why we were so enthusiastic. She was thrilled to learn that we had such a wonderful bird at the river since we told her more than she ever expected know about a PEREGRINE. The 3 of us parted with Falcon joy in our good-bye smiles.
That same morning I returned from watering the Estuary Project plants, where the butterfly was feeding on a blossom.
Jon saw me, waved and pointed up to the trestle trees. Instantly I stopped the car and found out that he had just spotted the OSPREY on its favorite branch. I knew Jon understood why I took off like lightening: I was on a mission to find ‘our’ OSPREY.
When my eyes found him, my whole being filled with happy relief: the beauty had reappeared after 10 months of absence. It was a special treat to watch him for a long time!! Going back to the car, I couldn’t find my keys…after searching around, it dawned on me that I had dashed off, leaving them in the ignition at a busy street…the bird spirits had watched over me: the car was waiting for me with the keys ready to go! What a wonderful, magically morning Nature had gifted me: the sightings of the elusive PEREGRINE and OSPREY, a great exchange with Jon and my neighbor and an un-stolen car.
Sending you all magic river greetings, jane
Dear Jane and all Friends of the Flora and Fauna of the San Lorenzo River,
One of my favorite Buddhist sayings is “The life of a sage is one mistake after another.” This phrase consoles me as I stumble forward in my life. Today I am going to write about some possible blunders I may have quite innocently been making in regards to the river. I’ll be interested in the opinions of you readers.
But first let me say that it feels really good to be back writing about the river after two months on vacation. A thousand thanks to you, Jane, for holding up more than your half of heaven with a faithful contribution every two weeks. As usual, your posts have been full of delightful observations and insights. I can’t imagine there are many others in the City who have such a keen eye for the unique vagaries of both birds and people on the river, and who can write about the fish and the flora, the insects and the mammals, with more liveliness.
In this blog piece I am going to focus mostly on plant life –not so much on the names and photos of actual plants but on the much-dreaded annual flood control work that is required by both our local and federal (Army Corps of Engineers) governments and which is about to begin in the next weeks. Of course, none of us want our city to be flooded. We can be grateful that our Public Works Department takes very seriously their mission to prevent such a catastrophe. And it is indeed sobering that the El Rio Mobile Home Park where I live, right next to the levee, is the officially designated spillway or ‘levee breakout section’ in case of a levee breach.
Yet it is also not to be forgotten that our City has a proud history of not allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to call all the shots, to exaggerate the dangers. Every year the challenge for us wildlife advocates is to continue this honorable tradition, finding the wiggle room within flood control requirements that will protect as much flora and fauna on the river as is possible within the constraints of local and federal law.
A little history might help here. In cities like Los Angeles, flood control work by the Army Corps of Engineers imprisoned many beautiful rivers inside straight concrete ditches, creating blight rather than beauty, horrors rather than habitat. We can get a small, first-hand taste of that distasteful reality if we look at the concrete ditch hemming in Branciforte Creek that drains into the River just below Soquel Bridge. Los Angeles has only recently begun to dig itself slowly and painfully out of its former mistake.
Here in Santa Cruz, we escaped such a fate only through the combined efforts of a progressive City Council led by Chris Krohn, environmentally committed staff persons like Joe Hall, and many community activists like Bruce Van Allen and, yes, you Jane. In 2003, you and Bruce and many others agreed to serve on a River Task Force that finally succeeded in delivering a win/win agreement where a stubborn ACE and an equally stubborn City came to an agreement that was designed to protect as much riparian wildlife habitat as possible – within the constraints of adequate flood control. The resulting 79–page document, titled the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan (or SLURP), plus its 127-page Appendix A titled the Lower San Lorenzo River and Lagoon Management Plan, was adopted in 2003 and has been the official governing document regarding river management for the last 16 years. (Readers can find online links to both these documents on the ‘Links’ page of this blog. Scroll down to “Important City Documents”.). In my opinion, it is Appendix A (or what I call the Swanson Report), much more than the main document, that is by far the most interesting document from an environmental point of view. It includes a tremendous amount of information about existing native and non-native plants at the time it was adopted in 2002; recommended thinning prescriptions on each of the three reaches; plus sections on flood control constraints, lists of fish and bird species, hydrology and geology, many photos and charts, and much more. It is a treasure trove and would take years to truly digest.It also happens to include Table 8 titled Species List for Revegetation in the Riverine Reach which happens to be the chart that, right this moment, is perplexing me immensely! See the chart and discussion later in this article.
After you drew me into the anti-kayaking campaign in 2014, Jane, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in this river, especially the ‘riverine reach’ right behind my house – from the Felker St. Pedestrian Bridge to the Water St. Bridge. Like you, I became very distressed about the ‘scalping’ of the levee each fall by bulldozers and chainsaws. During 2015 and 2016, I tried to understand if there was anything constructive that I could do to protect more habitat – apart from pestering the poor chainsaw crew that I soon realized were just trying to follow what their little SLURP chart said, as best they could. Here’s the chart we were all arguing about:
The foreman of the cutting crew, Randy Clayton, carried this scrap of paper with him at all times, and so did I. I eventually came to realize that the City was cutting much more along the toe of the levee than was allowed by this document – mostly I guessed because the City wanted to remove vegetation that provided hiding places for illegal campers. I pointed this out to Public Works in 2017 and somehow managed to persuade them, after a good deal of back and forth, that if they were going to remove the 10-foot strip that was protected habitat along the toe of the levee, then they needed to make up for that habitat loss by adding it somewhere else, maybe along the required 5-foot swath immediately adjacent to the river. Otherwise, they would be out of compliance with SLURP. It worked! The City agreed to do that in 2017, and continued the practice in 2018. I was, for a brief moment, proud of this achievement.
In addition, in 2018, Public Works began marking some smaller native shrubs (mostly coyote bush) with orange ribbons to declare them off bounds for cutting. And, perhaps even more importantly, they asked the consulting biologist to train the cutting crew in what to cut and what not to cut, based on the SLURP chart modified by our informal agreement the previous year.
But my joy has been short lived. Now I am pulling my hair out about the possible significance of Table 8 , above, a list of the plant species recommended by SLURP for revegetation on the riverine reach, I realized that I may have been too hasty in suggesting the so called win/win solution of moving the 10-foot strip towards the river. I now notice that the trees that were supposedly to be planted along the levee toe were the white alder and the yellow willow, very different from the arroyo willows along the bank of the river. Why had the Native Vegetation Network that had helped write this part of SLURP been that specific about the specific trees at specific points on the levee bank. Had I sacrificed bio-diversity for mathematical equialence? I realize I just don’t know enough about these trees, what habitat they require, how they differ from the other trees in terms of water needs, wildlife value, etc. I have no easy answer today and want to post this piece before midnight. I am also wondering about the direction that red willows and box elders be planted on the upper levee slope, and that the black cottonwoods and California sycamores be planted maybe halfway down. Were these four trees meant to be subjected to the same 6″ trunk limit as the alders and yellow willows at the toe of the levee? Why didn’t the other chart say so? I am thinking we need input from some native plant specialists.
Maybe a few readers will be as obsessed as I am about this matter of trees (and shrubs and grasses) on the levee and will be willing to study these two charts to see how they relate to each other. In any case, I willingly confess to being in a state of confusion. I’m allowing myself to happily follow the path of the blundering sage, the better to learn a few new things.
The main question is how can we protect the maximum amount of wildlife habitat while still respecting the key goal of protecting the City from destructive floods. That’s the challenge. Let’s all work together.
Here are my two most recent eBird lists from earlier this week – 22 bird species on Sunday, click here and 19 bird species yesterday, click here. I’ve been seeing lots of Wilson’s warblers but have no idea if they are some year round residents or migrants on their way south from as far north as Alaska.
Yesterday, near the Water St. Bridge, I also saw this winsome rabbit looking at me very solemnly as if to question my human intentions. She had good reason. Her habitat is especially threatened by the upcoming flood control work. Cross your fingers that she makes it through with her home intact.
Thank you all for caring. And may you all enjoy your own personal and very safe habitat.