river changes…

Good Morning Barbara & Riverphiles,

open river mouth changes river life…

The rapid river mouth changes in the last week have been astounding. In my last report you read how the river was seeping into the San Lorenzo Blvd.Then the river mouth opened around mid-night from the 30th to the 31st. The 4’ high tide created a new look for a couple of days until the river mouth closed again. It is fascinating to see how these various waterscapes appeal to different bird species. The PELICANS cherish the short lived lagoon islands, which have been populated by 30 to 70 PELICANS. If endless grooming time allows, they waddle around, doze as picturesque statues until they take off in unison and fly a wide circle. Most of them land back on the resort island and a few decide on an ocean visit and are replaced by new comers. The ELEGANT and CASPIAN TERNS screech with fish-hunting joy when the river is lagoon-ing. They bomb-dive for fish, barely avoiding collision with each other and drive the fish stealing gulls berserk, who are in a frenzy, trying to decide which TERN to rob of their prey. The CORMORANTS and TERNS benefit from each others fishing styles: the CORMORANTS flush the swimmers upward, the diving TERNS flush the fish downward. Does anybody know if fish are deaf? The loud TERN screeches should warn the fish that quilled hunters are on the loose and dash instantly for the deeper cliff channels instead of staying in the middle of the lagoon, presenting easy targets. The Shorebirds such as prefer the open river mouth. In the early morning they carefully ‘graze‘ the waterline, make their way slowly past the river towards the Seabright beach, where early human risers and dogs cut their visit short. They fly off and don’t return until an other day.

Western Sandpipers ‘grazing’ at the river mouth…

It’s the time in the breeding season when the feathered parents have reached the limits of patiently responding to the incessant begging call of their brood. Now the brood’s ‘feed me’ call tends to get either a sporadic response or is totally ignored. Sunday morning a gull parent tried to escape the pesky offspring, who was obviously unwilling to grow up. This proved to be a quite difficult case of ‘kicking the young out of the nest’. The youngster followed the parent in the air, landed almost on top of its sire in the water, raced in the sand after the potential food source while screeching non stop. Finally the parent fled to the open sea and of course the peeved teenager followed. Plainly the young gull was no match for the progenitor’s speed: swiftly the gap between them widened. As you see, family issues are not species specific.

Pelicans enjoying new river island…

A couple of weeks ago I saw the Soquel bridge light installation in the evening. The different colored lights streamed back and forth in the dark. The art piece appeared for the EBB & FLOW festival and I thought it would stop once the event was over. The impact of the construction work for the installation had me already concerned for the SWALLOW nests underneath the bridge ledge. And now I am staring my concerns for the nocturnal, diurnal wildlife hunters in the eye. How are the moving lights effecting their nightly, twilight feeding? I know there are Owls, Hawks, Black-crowned Night Herons and Shorebirds along the river. They use the night, twilight for find food for their survival. In addition the San Lorenzo River is in the Pacific flyway of migratory birds, many of whom fly at night. Looks like it’s time to honor my wildlife concerns with some( whom am I kidding?always ‘much’) research and outreach work, which includes you all. Thanks for sharing your information how light across a waterbody effects nocturnal, diurnal hunters. The birds and I appreciate that!

light installation across the river…

Here is a little update for you: The COMMON GOLDENEYE and the RED-throated LOON are still residing on river between Laurel St bridge and river mouth. The amount of ELEGANT, CASPIAN TERNS, CORMORANTS and juv. HEERMANN’s gulls has been staggering at the river mouth/Trestle. The SPOTTED SANDPIPER is back between Trestle and Riverside Ave. bridge, where only a dozen or so CLIFF SWALLOWS remain. On Sat. 8/18th we’ll be working on our ongoing Restoration Project and we love to have you join us.
Sending you all sparkly river greetings, jane

Whimbrels by the river mouth…

Alone or Together, Trying to Survive

Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Travelers,

As I write this article, it is August 6th, Hiroshima Day.  I light a candle, take out my Buddhist prayer bead made from the wooden propeller of a Japanese airplane, and sing a Japanese song against nuclear war.  I do a little ritual on this day almost every year,  sometimes with others, sometimes by myself.  This year for the first time my small prayer for peace includes all living species. I wonder why it has taken me so long to add other species to my thoughts on Hiroshima Day.

I almost always return from my walk along the degraded River with such a strange sense of peace.  Maybe it is precisely because it is so degraded that the life it protects offers such a message of hope.  So much wildness has survived so much human violence.

On my walks this week, I was struck by how some birds spend most of their time together, while other species spend most of their time alone.  They have all figured out different strategies on how  to give life a chance., give peace a chance.  But how different their lives must be depending on what has worked to keep them alive and flourishing.   Today’s blog is dedicated to all the birds who have learned to live in flocks and also those who spend most of their time alone.  Many different evolutionary strategies have helped them make it this far!

9 Canada Geese, swimming near Benchlands, August 1, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

As I walked along the River I saw 9 CANADA GEESE swimming along in an almost straight line, reminding me always of what a closely knit group of social beings they are.  I saw 18 DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS fishing and taking a rambunctious early morning bath together, then swimming off purposefully in formation to continue their fishing downstream.  I hailed 85 ROCK PIGEONS in three separate flocks, one large flock creating a magic circle in the air while another flock spaced itself evenly along a stretch of telephone wire.   I was delighted to see 15 beautiful COMMON MERGANSERS  on the river bank just south of the Chinatown Bridge, preening and resting together.

9 Double-crested Cormorants (among a flock of 18) fishing together south of Soquel Bridge, August 1, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman
9 Common Mergansers (among a flock of 15) hauling up below Laurel St.Bridge to rest and preen, August 1, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
29 Rock Pigeons, August 1, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Interspersed among these gregarious groupies were the loners –

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret, August 1, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

the spectral SNOWY EGRET, dignified and graceful,  foraging  in the muddy banks and shallow waters for crunchy crustaceans, elusive fish and buried insects; the busy SPOTTED SANDPIPER plunging his pointed beak again and again into the sand bar between Laurel and Riverside, a spot he has pretty much claimed for his own year after year;  the Belted Kingfisher  perching briefly on a branch before rattling on down the river in search of a better vantage point; the unusual and mysterious RED-THROATED LOON, whose rare lingering on the River for two summers is a mystery we will probably never understand, and of course my very special little PIED-BILLED GREBE, who almost certainly has a mate not too far away, but almost always fishes alone.

Spotted Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper, August 1,  2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
P1040752 copy
Belted Kingfisher, October 23, 2015, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Pied-billed Grebe on the move, August 1, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman


Here is my eBird checklist with the names of all 20 species, blessed survivors, that I saw on my river outing this week.  Click here.

The SWALLOWS seem mostly gone.  I saw a few remnant CLIFF SWALLOWS still whirling about near the Laurel St. Bridge, but they will presumably be flying a little straighter once they head  south.

May all human beings figure out a way to survive peacefully, together or alone, with their own kind and with all living creatures.










Good Morning Barbara and Fellow Nature Lovers,

San Lorenzo River’s high water level

Early Friday morning I just had to take a look at the river mouth from the cliff ‘Point’, because the river water gage was just below the 7’ level, causing water to seep into the street, the Boardwalk parking lot and is flooding the Riverside St. underpass. The Main Beach sight must make the Seaside Co. and the various river agencies mighty nervous, because the river is steadily swallowing up the Boardwalk Beach. A visitor and I scanned the impressive water body for birds while commenting on the small sand islands in the middle of the river that once were a gigantic sandpile. We both caught sight of the preening MERGANSERS on the one small island, when the visitor said:” Is that young MERGANSER? It looks so small and is much lighter.” I didn’t see what he was talking about until I inched closer to him and sure enough: hidden behind one of the MERGANSERS was a smaller, lighter bird. The other 3 birds obstructed a clear view, but we decided that it wasn’t a MERGANSERLING(as Robin calls them). Finally our mystery bird collaborated, stood up, walked away from its friends and we both clearly saw the white eye marking, characteristic for our feathered river visitor: the LONG-tailed DUCK. As we parted, we agreed that it was interesting that the quilled visitor and locals were so comfortable hanging out together…walking away I thought that our plumed remark applied to the two of us as well…

our river visitor, the LONG-tailed DUCK…

You won’t believe this: the PEREGRINE finally fulfilled my wish to see its hunt plunge that same morning. As usual I scanned the Trestle trees for the Falcon, who I hadn’t seen for a while and I was disappointed to not see the familiar shape high in the tree. Resigned I headed up stream when I saw the well known shape head for the trees, land on the highest branch, shake its feathers and commence to survey the scene: the fleeing pigeons, the disturbed chattering of the CORMORANTS sitting on the branches, the silenced songbirds and the unperturbed GREAT BLUE HERON staring in the water for its fish breakfast. Satisfied to see its return, I continued my walk when suddenly a dark shape blitzed 4’ away from me into a flying pigeon. That hit made an eerie, loud thud sound, sent the pigeons feathers snowing down on the water, left the PEREGRINE empty taloned, because within a split second the pigeons veered sharp left and escaped death. The Falcon re-perched itself and I suspected that my ‘plunge’ observation had arrived, because the PEREGRINE was in hunting mode. And sure enough after a short wait, the predator literally fell off the branch, dropped like a stone towards the water, wings tucked tightly to the body, inches above the water surface the wings moved ever so slightly as it blasted towards a pigeon on a boulder. Once again fate favored a potential victim, because right in front of the hunter a CORMORANT burst out the water, barely avoiding a collision the predator sharply pulled up, missing out on its meal. The saved victim flew off, thanking its lucky stars (I am sure), the CORMORANT swam in circles, looking stunned, the Falcon shook itself and flew back to the trees. I am still flabbergasted that I got to witness the unbelievable spectacle!!

re-perching PEREGRINE

As you know I was celebrating the great Park & Rec. Staff mowing job, which saved the survivor plants and I was devastated when I discovered that somebody has mowed down many off them. I got worried about my other survivor plants, expecting the worst, I raced to check on them.

surviving Calif. Fuchsia spreading…

Thank heaven, they were untouched and doing amazingly well. It was unbelievable to see how far the Calif. Fuchsia, Coyote bushes, Dogwood, low manzanita bush had spread since we had freed them of weeds, dead wood and gave them new soil. A Swallowtail, several Monarchs enjoyed the revival of the survivor plants with me.
Relishing the ‘unbelievable’, jane

Tiger Swallowtail resting on a ‘survivor’…

Two Small Grebes Against the Might of the Boardwalk and Public Works

Dear Jane and Grebe Lovers,

It’s been a challenging week on the River! For the last week or so, I have been watching anxiously as two small Pied-billed Grebes have tried their best to resist the powerful force of human encroachment onto the river. I have named these two feisty little creatures Podilymbus and Podiceps, based on their full Latin name Podilymbus Podiceps.   I call them both Podi for short.

July 15, 2018. Two Pied-billed Grebes, Podilymbus and Podiceps,  just north of Water St. Bridge and not far from their first nest in a tule thicket (not pictured).  Photo by B. Riverwoman

The story starts when I  I heard on July 13 that the City was planning to begin its annual flood control work on the river levee on Monday, July 16! I was shocked!  This is the earliest it has ever begun, at least in my memory. You and I, Jane, innocent of their plans, had both written the Public Works Department several weeks earlier, asking them to move the start date from early August to September 1, so as to avoid any interference with the breeding season. Instead,  they moved it even earlier than we could have imagined! And neither of us has yet been told why, even though we have both inquired as to the reason. I personally think it has to do with finances. What a disappointment!

Cottonwood downed
Tractor cutting down native Cottonwood, 2016, Photo by B. Riverwoman. Coyote Bush and several other natives were allowed to remain in this area for the first time this year, thanks to Jane Mio’s intervention.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

When I heard about the earlier-than-usual start date, my adrenalin started flowing again as it does each year. Flood control means chainsaws, tractors, mowers and lots of racket. It means massive destruction of habitat for not only birds but hundreds of other creatures – mammals, rodents, turtles, snakes, insects. Yes, it may help protect our City from a 100-year flood. Indeed, I myself live in that flood plain. But at least let’s admit up front that we shouldn’t have settled on the flood plain in the first place.  And I think we owe it  to those wild creatures, who lived and raised families long before we took it over, to do what we can to ease their situation.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk, an historic amusement park that is a main tourist attraction in Santa Cruz.  It built basements to store equipment, etc. , basements that now flood when the lagoon is high.  The Boardwalk is probably the most influential force in pressuring the City to artificially breach the sand bar each year.  Could they store their equipment somewhere else?  Google photo

Pied-billed Grebes are the most vulnerable nesting population right now, at least among the waterfowl. The Mergansers and Wood Ducks nest north of Highway 1, in more thickly-wooded riparian habitat, out of the reach of the flood control operation. I believe all their young have already fledged. The Mallards still have some tiny babies on the River, but I’m hoping that at least their very vulnerable nests on the levee banks have now been vacated. But I worry about the Grebes.

I have been out on the river looking for Grebes almost every day since I heard that the start date would be so early, getting out much earlier and later than usual. That’s been a plus, being on the river in very early morning and again at sundown! It’s beautiful at that time.

On July 14 I heard Podi and Podi calling, then found them hovering around a tule clump just north of the Water St. Bridge, only about 20 feet from where the flood control work was to begin.  I immediately posted to eBird that I had seen two Pied-billed Grebes together in a ‘suitable breeding habitat’. Then I wrote Public Works and the contracting biologist about the existence of the pair and the suitable habitat. On July 15,

Pied-billed grebe
Pied-billed Grebe parent, taken in 2015 near successful nest between Laurel and Soquel Bridges.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

I decided to go out at sundown to see if I could catch Podi and Podi entering the clump for the night. It was a good guess. I did see them go in, and although I waited at least 20 minutes, I didn’t see either of them re-emerge. (Unlike Mallards, the Grebes are almost always seen alone, except occasionally during breeding season, and even then they fish alone and then take turns incubating the eggs.)

The next morning, the day the big chainsaw extravaganza was to begin, I stood on the Water St. Bridge watching Podi and Podi, both swimming nearby. Then, to my delight, I saw Podilymbus, or was it Podiceps, carrying a long trailing green stalk in her mouth, swimming towards the tule clump. My guess was right! They were almost surely building a nest. I strained my eyes through my binoculars, but just couldn’t see anything definitive.

Just about then, Gary Kittleson came along. He is the biologist who contracts with the City every year to do a wildlife survey of the river before the mowing onslaught begins (the survey is required by California State Fish and Wildlife.)   I told him about the Grebes and showed him the tule clump where I had just seen at least one of the Podi’s enter. He raised his binoculars and almost immediately saw what I hadn’t been able to see – Podiceps (or was it Podilymbus) actually weaving the tules together to build the nest.  He helped me catch a glimpse as well!  Gary had just returned from Alaska where he was documenting some breeding Grizzlies, pretty exciting stuff. But even he got very interested when he saw one of the Podi’s actually weaving the floating nest together and securing it to the anchored tules surrounding the nest. The thicket was too dense to get a photo, but here is a photo of the Grebe nest I found in 2015 near Mimi de Marta Park.

PBG on nest 2015
Pied-billed Grebe on nest in 2015, with young fledgling barely perceptible at left.  Between Soquel and Laurel Bridges, east side. Photo by B. Riverwoman

We then walked back to the staging ground of the day’s operation, where Gary reviewed with the clearing crew what vegetation they were required to cut and what they were required to leave. You can imagine how happy I was when I heard him tell them about the Pied-billed Grebe nest!  They were very receptive.  Some of them really care about the birds.

Sadly, this nest was not destined to survive, although not primarily through the fault of the flood control work. Coincidentally, I think, on July 18, the City decided to artifically breach the sand bar that blocks the river mouth. The sand bar allows the lagoon to form each year, pushing water back up the river channel, as far as Highway 1 and beyond. Podi and Podi’s nest was floating on that water! All the noise of the mowers and chainsaws, only 20 or so feet from the nest, may have contributed to the almost immediate abandonment of the nest. But the nest wouldn’t have survived anyway. By nighttime on the 18th, the water level had dropped about 2 feet or more. I couldn’t see it, but it was not hard to imagine that the painstakingly woven nest would have been left dangling from an anchored tule, and then probably dumped or tipped sideways into the water, undoing all the hard work of Podilymbus and Podiceps.  Gary Kittleson was able to wade in several days later and confirm the nest, but found the  no eggs.

Most Pied-billed Grebes nest on quiet bays, in marshes, or on lakes. In their wilder or more desperate moments, a grebe may choose a sluggish river. Our intrepid pair had chosen a relatively quiet, backed up river. But they unknowingly had also chosen a river where the interests of commerce, residents, city government and the Army Corps of Engineers  take precedence over protection of wildlife.

For a couple of days, the grebes hung around the abandoned nest, then apparently gave up on it.  They have now moved  downriver towards the Benchlands area and are now hovering near and entering a stand of tules near the south end of a small channel between the Chinatown Bridge and the Soquel Bridge, on the West Bank.   Sadly, that is just where the tractors and chainsaws are moving next, probably this week.  I saw two of them enter there just this morning around 7:30 a.m.  Will they try to build a new nest? It is late in the season. The biologist Gary Kittleson is also monitoring the situation and will continue notify the City.

Pied-billed Grebe
Possible new tule thicket  area for Podilymbus and Podiceps, in narrow mid-river channel with s, looking south from Chinatown Bridge. July 23, 2018. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I just want to add that the sand bar itself is not an entirely natural phenomenon but one that is also affected by human activity. As I understand it, the annual buildup of sand at the San Lorenzo river mouth is caused by a phenomenon called littoral drift, in which sand is transported along the length of an ocean shore because of wave action. This natural flow of sediment along our coast is partially blocked by the jetties built out from the Santa Cruz Harbor. This exerts backward pressure, increasing the amount of sand that collects at the San Lorenzo River Mouth, thus exacerbating the annual sand bar problem. Our problem occurs when the water rises. Podilymbus and Podiceps suffer when the water is suddenly and unpredictably pulled out from underneath them.

I know you have felt discouraged, Jane, by the annual actions of Public Works. But, to tell the truth, in spite of everything terrible that happens each year, I have actually felt this season that we are making progress. Here is a list of the things that have changed for the better during the four years we have been working  together with the Department:

  1. On the upper reach, north of the Water St. Bridge, the Department now protects 15 feet of vegetation along the riverbank, as required by City Documents, rather than the 5 feet originally protected.
  2. A biologist now instructs the mowing crew on the specifications of what to cut and what not to cut, rather than leaving it to the foreman of the crew.
  3. For the first time this year, the 15 feet is flagged by someone from the Public Works Department, rather than the foreman of the crew.
  4. For the first time this year, some native shrubbery and perennials – in areas normally scalped to the ground – were flagged for protection
  5. So far we have been able to protect Riverbend Park – where large cottonwoods and alders were originally slated for removal.

So let’s stay hopeful and work hard next year to (1) get a later start date, (2) require removal of invasives like the pampas grass we have seen, and (3) flag more natives for protection.

On a positive note, I saw my first kestrel on the river two days ago – thanks to Michael

kestrel in redwood el rio
Adult male kestrel in redwood tree near river, July 21, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Levy who recognized the call and pointed the adult male out to me as it landed in a nearby redwood tree. This was one of the birds that Alex Rinkert of the Breeding Bird Atlas project asked us to especially look out for on the River. These birds formerly nested along the San Lorenzo River but haven’t been observed or reported for several years. Could it have a nest nearby?

One day later I found this mosaic of a kestrel by the amazingly prolific and bird-conscious artist Kathleen Crocetti.  It wasn’t far from where I saw the real bird, on the wall separating Front St. from the river, across from Trader Joe’s.  The permanent exhibit includes  80 (!) bird mosaics, mostly by Kathleen’s students,  as well as lots more of  fish and insects.  It must have been fun to break all those plates!

kestrel mosaic
kathleen crocetti one of 80

Let us all keep our eyes open for anything and everything .  There’s way more to see on our River than people dream of.











river puzzling…

Good Morning Barbara and fellow Naturaphiles,

LONG-tailed DUCK getting ready for tail attack…

Remember my last post about the dive crazed, shy Long-tailed DUCK? Well, that very same little, compact DUCK adjusted nicely to the feathered river life rhythm. It floated relaxed on the water, curiously eyeing the birders, who flocked to the levee to see its rare appearance. My birder friend wanted to see it. So we headed to the spot, where I had seen the DUCK for the last few days, sunbathing on a rock close to the shore. And sure enough: there was the LONG-tailed DUCK, snoozing the morning away. As we admired it, one eye opened, took us in and closed again. A young MERGANSER was circling the coveted sun spot, obviously hoping for a friendly rock sharing experience. The feathered teenager came slowly closer, casually hung out next to the enticing rock then ever so gingerly climbed up, clinging to the rock’s edge. A few seconds later the MERGANSER sought a more cozy position, which entailed turning its back towards the rock owner, who gave it a thorough examination, decided that sight was not appropriate and delivered a well aimed, feisty peak to that derrière. The MERGANSER wagged the tail and didn’t take the hint to move it. So the attacks were repeated until the intruder got the message and slid off the boulder. Satisfied the LONG-tailed DUCK watched the rude guest swim off to smaller lounging place, never ever getting up from its resting repose.

the 15′ buffer zone gets marked…

On Saturday I saw the official announcement in the Sentinel for the Flood Control Work. My heart already broke on Wednesday when I found out about the early July 16th start date, which is one month sooner than last year. In 2017 the bulldozers entered the Flood Control area after August 15th and finished their work before the Oct. 15th cut-off time. The environmentalists & birders were thrilled, because the 2017 date corresponded to their repeated plea to adhere to the Federal/State Feb.1st-Aug.15th protected bird breeding season. They wrote letters of praise to the Public Work’s Staff for their welcomed schedule change and urged that this timeline should be repeated in 2018. After all it is possible to include positive environment consideration in planing the necessary work schedules as Sonoma demonstrates. So seeing on black & white that the old way had returned was hard to take!! Some people ask me why I get so upset about the untimely vegetation bulldozing in the riparian corridor, because after all the birds can just fly away. Well, actually fledglings are lousy flyers. Furthermore bird offsprings benefit greatly by going through an undisturbed growth cycle. The valuable time of proper feeding, resting, flying practice, allows them to grow into strong, healthy adults, who will have better survival chances. Birds mature quickly and so every day matters in their growth process. That’s why one extra month makes such a vital difference and because they are denied that time my heart breaks for them.

Cliff Swallow fledglings being fed…

This morning you and I were drawn to the work site like moths to light to watch the scope of work being carried out. The bird alarm sounds had accompanied my walk to the area, where the bird precaution talk had been completed, the biologist was monitoring the site, the 15’ buffer zone was being marked, the tools were active, the native plants were getting flagged and you had spotted the PIED-billed GREBE nest in the river. I am sure we’ll be back to-morrow to check out the new river look.

juvenile duckling chasing tiny ones…

Sometimes I observe unusual bird behavior, i.e. this one: on Sunday a loud, agitated MALLARD squabble echoed over the water. I saw several MALLARDS swimming back and forth, rising half way out of the water and charging at each other. It looked like male behavior during breeding season. Getting closer I was surprised to see 2 female adults, 4 almost full grown, 1 juvenile and 2 tiny ducklings. The 2 adult females were battling each other, the 4 almost full grown ones were charging at the juvenile and the 2 itty ducklings. One of the adult females flew off, leaving 2 pitiful peeping ducklings behind. As if that wasn’t enough the 4 almost adults started chasing them, assisted by the 1 juvenile. The deserter came back, called her 2 ducklings and they swam upstream. The 4 trouble makers followed them, vocalizing soft sounds continuously when suddenly they swam across the river. There they squawked loudly to high heaven while one after the other raised their bodies, flapped their wings wildly, dove under, came up and repeated this unique behavior. Once they were done with that, they returned demurely and escorted Mama and ducklings down the river while whispering soft sounds continuously…
Signing off with kind river greetings to you all, jane

Troubled Teens in the World of Swallows

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

Once again I return with a story of the wonders of one’s own backyard! I was headed out this week for a walk along the River, about to go through the back gate of my mobile home park  that borders the levee. Something made me turn around and look up.  I blinked my eyes with wonderment as my gaze took in a row of 31 swallows, perched at regular intervals along a telephone wire.

swallows lined up, evening
8 of the 31 Violet-green Swallows lined up on a telephone wire next to the San Lorenzo River, July 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Usually I find these summertime visitors swooping over the river at breakneck speeds,  rarely if ever pausing to rest or pose for a photo.. Now here they were all lined up for me to enjoy and study at my leisure. What was going on?  I lost no time – immediately snapping about 150 photos, without much idea of what I was recording!

Colors from back
Juvenile, Male Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 7, 2018,  In spite of the telltale downiness, this juvenile must be pretty close to adulthood.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

Judging from all the fluffiness on the breasts and bellies of the birds, I figured out pretty quickly that almost all of the 31 birds were juveniles.   Only once did I glimpse a parent feeding a young one, somehow managing to capture this photo of a young one’s urgent hunger pangs.


violet green begging baby
Begging juvenile Violet-green Swallow.  El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 9, 2018.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

Most of the perched birds were approximately adult size.  And looking more closely, I realized that most of them were some complex combination of brown, white, gray and black, with little sign of the vivid green backs and iridescent violet tails of the adult male, nor the duller violet and green of the female.

creamy gape 3
Female juvenile Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, next to San Lorenzo River, July 6, 2018.  Note downy undersides, creamy white gape, marbled marking over eye, lack of much green and violet color on back and wings, shorter primary wings.    Photo by B. Riverwoman
Juvenile male 2
Juvenile Male Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, next to San Lorenzo River, July 6, 2018.  Note green back and cap, clean white over eye suggesting a male.  Still downy, no visible gape., slightly longer  primaries.

When I got home, I checked BNA for the breeding schedule of Violet-green Swallows. It reported that on the West Coast, this species normally arrives in early May, lays its eggs sometime between mid-May and mid-June, that the eggs normally take 15 days to hatch, and that the babies then stay in the nest for an average of 27 days before they fledge.   Calculating quickly, I realized that this fit exactly with what I was seeing.  Our Violet-greens did arrive in early May and so might be expected to leave the nest sometime between July 1 and August 1.   And here they were, 31 adult-sized but still downy fledglings  on July 6, right on schedule.

According to BNA, before the young have fledged and are still cozily nestled in their nests,  they feast  on a protein-rich diet of insects, actually growing heavier than their parents.  Then, during their last week as nestlings,  their weight returns to roughly the same weight as the parents.  So this is what I was looking at ––  fledglings that were already adult sized but still showing the downiness of the nestling.

As I was watching them I was struck by the incessant activity of many of them.   itching 5I was lucky to run into Kitty Stein at a Bird Club event on the weekend and told her about all the babies. She is very active in the local Breeding Bird Survey and asked to visit the scene.  She helped me solve the problem of why they were incessantly preening. They weren’t preening. She suggested that they were probably  scratching themselves in order to relieve the itchiness caused by their pin feathers (new feathers) pushing through their skin – just like a human baby’s teething woes.  In addition, I learned from BNA, that the young birds are vulnerable to surface parasites,  adding to  their pin feather discomfort.


itching 3
Juvenile female Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Another plausible explanation for their ‘preening’ behavior is that the juveniles were removing the waxy coating that sheathes their pin feathers, something that has to happen before the new feathers inside the wax can unfurl. But since the young ones had presumably managed to fly successfully to the telephone wire, we know that at least their wing feathers were already functioning pretty well. Still – there remained enough downiness on other parts of their bodies that they might have been removing wax on these breast feathers as well as scratching themselves.  So much for a teen-age swallow to deal with!

There were also some fledglings that were sitting without moving?  What about them?  BNA had an explanation for that as well.  It said that ‘sunbathing’ helps juveniles control the parasites by raising the temperature of the body to a point that seems to either drive away the parasites or kill them.  According to the BNA the juveniles can go into a trance while sunbathing and lose their balance. I saw that!  Here’s a juvenile I caught almost tipping off the wire, perhaps falling asleep and waking just in time to right herself.

Balancing Act
Juvenile Violet-green Swallow on the right regaining his (?) balance, skillfully using his growing primaries. El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River. July 6, 2018. Photo by B. Riverwoman

And below,  for comparison’s sake is a photo of an adult female Violet-green Swallow with some subtle brown marbling on its cheeks to distinguish it from the snowy-cheeked male, but with no down on its breast and belly.  Here, also,  you can see clearly the long primaries extending way past the end of the tail.

Long wings 2
Female Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman


Honestly, I’m not 100% sure about any of the above identifications.  But I thought that if I stick my neck out and make my best guess, I may get back more info from readers.  Feel completely welcome to challenge me.

Changing subjects rather drastically, –  it was nice, wasn’t it, Jane, that Mark Dettle, the head of the Public Works Department, chose to notify both of us, as well as many other stakeholders, about the Department’s upcoming plans to begin their annual flood control work all along the river.  They know how concerned we get each year!  But it wasn’t at all nice to learn that they may be planning to push the beginning date even earlier than August 1. I know that you have been in touch with Mr. Dettle about this and I plan to send a letter tomorrow. I think we both agree that in order to protect breeding birds on the River, the beginning date should be August 15 at the earliest and preferably September 1. I know Public Works worries about early  rains and the availability of contractors.   They clearly have their own set of problems and do their best to make it all work. Hopefully the schedules of the rain gods, the contractors and the breeding birds can be coordinated.

Did readers see the article in the Sentinel on July 6 about the new City laws regarding sewage leakages into the San Lorenzo River? Some property owners are not going to like the required inspections and costs of fixing sewer pipes on their private property.  But the news made me happy and I think I speak as well for the birds.  There have been just too many reports of sewage leakage seriously contributing to the fecal bacteria count in the River.   We humans and the birds all drink out of the same river.  Click here to read the full story.

All happiness to birds and people!









celebrating the new…

Good Morning Barbara & fellow Nature fans,

survivors allowed to stay…

I have some wonderful news to share: the ‘survivors’ were allowed to survive the recent mowing! The City maintenance crew did a fabulous job of weaving the mower around the native plants thanks to the direction of their Field Supervisor. What is so thrilling is that he had listened to my ‘survivors’ plea and integrated it into this year’s mowing. And what a pleasant visual it created: native plants form green wildlife friendly oases along the path instead of brown, barren ground. Now the natives can spread and fill in along the path, which will cut down on mowing, consequently save time and money. The best part is that wildlife will have food sources and shelter over the summer, which had been eliminated in the past. As you can imagine: I am celebrating this very positive win-win scenario!

when survivors where not allowed to stay…

The other morning I was checking the river mouth and I heard the distinct KILLDEER alarm sound. It took me a while to locate the source down by the Seabright beach, because their bodies blend in so well with the background. The KILLDEER was sitting on a tuft of vegetation in the sand. Since they are famous for flimsy nests in unsafe locations, I wondered if she was breeding, which would be a little late for the season. All of the sudden a little KILLDEER chick popped out from underneath the mother. Chicks’ slip underneath their mothers when danger is close by and she lowers her body to hide them.

KILLDEER chick slipping underneath Mama…

The first time I saw that protection behavior the mother had 4 feather puffs hiding underneath her and not a trace of them was showing. Interestingly this mother didn’t have a co-parent and so was performing double duty. Usually one parent keeps an eye on the offspring, which is not an easy task, because the little ones are a bundle of energy, careening around like spinning tops. Meanwhile the other parent performs the never ending task of keeping the two safe. I got exhausted watching her doing all these tasks on her own!
The same morning the Fruit Orchard Killdeer parent was incredibly preoccupied protecting their one bundle-of-joy from any potential danger: the CROWS needed to get chased away, the ground-squirrels had to be kept at a safe distance, the MALLARD Mama and her ducklings were told in no uncertain terms they were not welcome to come ashore and when a third adult KILLDEER arrived it had to be set straight about that idea. The arrival of the intruder had me wondering if this was the ‘lost’ partner of the lone Seabright beach parent…

single parent on ground-squirrel duty…

An ‘odd’ duck became my ‘mystery’ bird for two weeks. The first time I saw it by Trestle bridge I thought it was a small, peculiar colored female MALLARD. That proved to be wrong, because it kept rapidly diving for extended times. The ‘mystery’ duck was hell bound to avoid any identification efforts. It would show up on the other side of the river, where I couldn’t get a clear view of its markings. The few times it was closer it teased me with rigorous diving activity with just enough time to catch some white eye marking. So I ended up with dozens of blurry diving rings pics. and non the smarter who I was looking at. Then James Maughn posted on MBB list that he had seen a female LONG-tailed DUCK on the San Lorenzo River. When I saw his photos, I knew that he had solved the mystery, because I recognized the white eye marking.

is she flirting with the photographer James Maughn?

The LONG-tailed DUCK has some ‘odd’ characteristics amongst the duck species: it spends most of its time under water, sets the record with its 200 feet dives and its vocalizations. They breed in the high Arctic, flocks pass the non-breeding season flying low over the high sea/ big lakes where the males show off their finest plumage. Their breeding grounds have rich oil and gas resources. This poses high risk to their breeding grounds and their population on the west coast is declining. That is one more reason to voice our opposition to opening the Arctic to drilling. So I do hope many of you get to visit the river and see the unusual guest, jane