sharing river experiences with you…

Good Morning Barbara and Fellow River Aficionados,
Last Saturday we were heading downtown along the river levee when a big white dog and a woman in the Mike Fox fruit orchard send me into high alarm mode. I whipped the car into an illegal parking spot, exploded out of the car, stopped traffic crossing the street, took a deep breath and told the woman and her five friends that the KILLDEER had returned to the orchard for an other ground nesting attempt. I explained that the mother would try to distract them from the nest by leaving it and faking a broken wing. The woman welcomed the explanation, because it shed light on her baffling encounter with the KILLDEER, who was now standing on the roof across the street, watching us intently. I emphasized that it was important for people and dogs to stay clear of the nest and that bird predators made nesting success hard enough as it was. After showering the group with more KILLDEER nesting habits, the group pledged to stay away from the nest, furthermore protect it from the CROWS and the RED-shouldered HAWK. We parted, exchanging Thank Yous, because now our common goal was the safety of the KILLDEER nest.

let’s protect the KILLDEER nest…

Many of you have gathered rich river tales and observations and to-day I am sharing two reader responses to my river walk discoveries… I enjoyed how their input added new layer to the post. I thank the musical Michael Levy and Mac for permission to quote them.
Here is Michael and Batya’s encounter with a Mallard family:
‘Batya and I found a mom mallard with 12 ducklings (the same family?) in a very urban place on Saturday afternoon: At the meeting of Pacific Ave. and Front St. South of Laurel. They were at the base of the old stone steps that used to lead up to a Victorian manor on Beach Hill (gated off now). She was trying to lead them up the steps but they couldn’t make the leap. We were terrified that she would lead them out into the street, which seemed dangerous even though there was a crosswalk right there. With a minimum of shepherding from us, she eventually opted to lead them on the sidewalk up Front Street toward the arena and Laurel St. I almost died from the cute factor, but was pretty worried about them too. Before reaching the arena, she veered into the property of the mental health facility with the ducklings in tow, and I am not sure if they could get access to the river that way. I sure hope so. We headed for dinner downtown and I hope they got dinner at Cafe San Lorenzo, because I am not sure how long duckling energy supplies last away from water and its yummy edibles.’

ducklings eating yummies…

Mac wrote that he had seen ‘a couple of times masked Weasels near the River Walk section that is near Pet Smart and Ross’s, which is to say between Hwy 1 and Water Street. They seem to like when the embankment has a lot of rocks that they can use for cover.’ To my great relief he also mentioned that Weasels primarily feed on rodents. He suggested to google the Long-tailed Weasel( Mustela frenata) for more info.

googled masked Weasel

The other morning a SNOWY EGRET was having a hell of a time eating its breakfast by the Riverside Ave. bridge. It had scored a good sized fish, that refused to go down the feared tunnel beak. Every time the white eye candy stretched the neck upward the fish slipped out. The SNOWY EGRET stared thoughtfully at it in the shallow water, picked it up again, tried to line it up for the big swallow, just ending up with same result. The fish drama took its final beak curtain when the wader managed to open its beak extremely wide and finally swallowed the slippery breakfast. After that stunning feat, it kept opening and closing its beak as the fish lump was sliding down the neck, which shows that eating well doesn’t mean it’s easy. Cheers to you all, jane

SNOWY EGRET w/breakfast challenge…
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Mergansers Steal the Show

3 Merganser babies
Red-breasted Merganser, San Lorenzo River, between Laurel and Broadway, May 15,2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Dear Jane and All Bird Lovers,

RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS have been stealing the show these last two weeks, partly because their babies are so darn cute and partly because they aren’t even supposed to be breeding here. Their normal breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, and even northern and Eastern Canada at that.  Red-breasted are a separate species from the COMMON MERGANSERS, the Mergansers that are our normal year-round resident and the ones that usually produce some families during breeding season.   Red-breasteds are a surprise as local breeders!   When I posted my citing to e-Bird, I got an automatic message pointing out that this is a rare sighting and that I needed to give more details.  Fortunately, two leading birders in our area, Kumaran Arul and Alexander Gaguine had also  reported them earlier this week, so I think I’m not going out too far on a limb.  The Red-breasteds can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the COMMON MERGANSERS – but the female Red-breasteds can display a wildly shaggy crest that the Commons can’t equal. I hope these mops are shaggy enough for e-Bird!   I was just done oohing and aahing about the little family of four when not much later along came another family of 7 fledglings.  I could hardly believe my eyes.  Two families within minutes of each other on one stretch of the river!  The babies are so little but they must have powerful legs. When they pick up speed to keep up with their mother,  they lift right up out of the water and seem to be flying rather than swimming.. Watching 7 tiny babies flying over the surface of the water has got to be one of life’s finest experiences.

RBM with 7 babies
A second family of Red-breasted Mergansers,same area on the river, May 15,2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Coming in a close second this week for drama are the rambunctious CLIFF SWALLOWS.  Today I counted about 75, dipping and darting with wild abandon around the Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  I also counted about 120 old mud nests in various states of repair on just these two bridges.  The swallows have their work cut out for them, for sure!  Quite a few of of the nests at the Laurel Bridge had one Swallow seeming to hold down the fort while another went out gathering mud and catching insects. The Cliff Swallows have been here now for quite a few weeks, but according to BNA, the males tend to arrive first, and only begin pair formation and nest building when the females arrive.  Did you know that the famous swallows of Capistrano are Cliff Swallows!  I had to wait 80 years to learn that.

swallows in nests 4
Cliff Swallows holding down the fort as partners forage and gather mud to repair these old nests.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

People that I meet on the River are always interested that we have not just one but two species of white egrets on the River – the larger and less commonly seen GREAT EGRET (37” long) and the smaller SNOWY EGRET (27” long).  And of course that doesn’t count the other member of the family, our iconic GREAT BLUE HERON (46” long).  What treasures our river holds.  ( I caught this photo of the Great and Snowy next to each other for comparison. ) These are all colony-nesting birds, usually high up in trees.  I would love to know where our birds are nesting these days.

Great and Snowys
Great Egret and two Snowy Egrets out in the middle of the river. The water is so shallow that they appear to be walking on the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Two lovely KILLDEERS were hanging out on the sandbars between Laurel and Riverside this week, a very probable habitat for their nests.  I felt horrible when I saw a young woman throwing a ball for her dog right where the the birds might be nesting.  We have got to get the City to put up signs letting people know that it is illegal to be anywhere on the levee banks or next to the river.

Killdeer drinking
Killdeer taking a drink from the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwomannter a caption

My strangest sight this week was a GREEN HERON squawking loudly while dive-bombing a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK.  What do you think that was about??  I hope not nest robbing. The heron quickly flew off and this elegant fiend settled down on a pole above my head, pretending that nothing had happened.

P1060961
“Who, me??”  Red-shouldered Hawk  after being chased by Green Heron.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

So far this summer I’ve seen only one MALLARD family with babies, and not a single WOOD DUCK or PIED-BILLED GREBE family.  I don’t know whether the one grebe I’ve seen on the river is a bachelor or is one of a pair. Grebes tend not to hang out with each other, and they look almost exactly the same. I’m hoping our grebe has a partner tucked away somewhere on a well-concealed floating nest, incubating some eggs and waiting his or her turn to leave the nest and catch some delectable crawfish.  I saw two male Mallards chasing a female Mallard this week, so maybe some second families are in the making.

P1070166
One of the few Mallard couples still on the river, perhaps planning a second family.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

I got a fund-raising letter from the UCSC Arboretum this week pointing out that anxiety will be the leading health problem by 2020, replaceing diabetes.  The point being made was that nature is one of our great resources to provide respite from an over-stimulating and too often distressing society.  I feel so grateful that there are so many people in our community dedicated to protecting the nature we already have and trying to create even more places where people can benefit from the healing effects of a tree or a flower or a river.

P1070254
Flowers between Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  May 15, 2018 photo by B. Riverwoman

The riverside flowers these days may not be natives – but they delight my eyes.   I like to believe that Wordsworth was right when he suggested that nature and birds and trees all experience joy – and that this joy is contagious.   It is certainly true that I always feel more joyful after walking along the river.

“Through primrose tufts in that green bower

The periwinkle trails its wreathes,

And t’is my faith that every flower,

Enjoys the air it breathes”.

William Wordsworth

May we all  breathe in some anxiety-reducing joy from the birds and flowers and trees.

Barbara

river walk discoveries…

Good Morning Barbara & Fellow Nature Fans,

CORMORANTS & LOONS at the river mouth

For the last two weeks the large amount of CORMORANTS has been truly stunning. They gathered outside the river mouth, where they line up in the hundreds in long lines or cluster in groups. The various migratory LOONS swam amongst the black crowd, unperturbed by the coming and going of the CORMORANTS. It’s the first time that I have seen so many of these 2 species congregate in one area.

Weasel (googled)

You won’t believe who I saw down by the river. A WEASEL! At first I thought the sun was playing tricks with a ground-squirrel’s coloring in the tule, but then the body shape and tail didn’t seem quite right for a ground-squirrel. In the hope of getting a better look at the critter, I stared intensely at the spot where it had disappeared. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some movement further down and there was the weasel, just walking around on the sandbank. So the rumors about river weasels are true. I admit that on one hand I was thrilled to know that the river habitat housed a weasel. On the other hand I was worried about the eggs of the nesting birds. Let’s hope the weasel’s diet needs are met in other ways.

Mama heads for the rocks…

The other day I heard the ducklings “Mama” peeps. And sure enough there they were, paddling at high speed down the river and no Mama in sight. This scene is the telltale sign that the mother was separated from her brood. She usually flees from a male Mallard, who can’t believe she doesn’t desire him. Last year I observed a similar scenario. So here I am again, watching the tiny feather balls panicked search for their Mama. Scanning the river I see no beak nor feather of her. Now I am getting panicky too, because this unprotected little brood is extremely vulnerable to predators. I hear quaking above me, followed by a landing splash. The ducklings race over to her and so does a male Mallard. She protests and leads her offspring up the bank rocks. The male has second thoughts about rock climb and hesitates. She grabs his pause by the feathers and hides her treasures between the rocks. Just then I see a dark shape plunge down 8’ from me. It’s the RED-shouldered HAWK, flying off with a rat in its talons. I confess that I was very relieved that the HAWK didn’t chose little ducklings for breakfast. I did feel sorry for the rat though…

CLIFF SWALLOWS collecting mud…

The CLIFF SWALLOWS are in high gear at the river bridge to get their nests ready for the eggs. They are gathering mud in very specific spots along the shore lines, obviously selecting the best quality of mud for successful nest building. Have you ever seen them hover over the ground, touch down quickly, peck up some mud, fly off to their nests, deposit that little mud piece and repeat the whole process for about 20 min.? Then they abruptly stop and perform their insect zig-zag hunt again. I used to think that they finished collecting mud, because their nests were completed. That is not the case since nest construction takes 1-2 weeks to apply the 1000-1400 mud pellets. Maybe they stop, because the mud changes consistency after they removed the top layer?

LAZULI BUNTING (googled)

My river walks are so filled with new discoveries, visits with familiar human and feathered friends. There is the glittering ANNA’s HUMMINGBIRD, siting on top of one of its two favorite trees. The other day I surprised myself when my “Hi, little fellow” greeting floated up to the well known beauty. The RED-shouldered HAWK has taught me to enjoy its majestic presence without taking photos. Now the relaxed rapture perches on the path signs when I pass by and disappear down the levee. A migratory LAZULI BUNTING teased me with its blue feathers when foraging through thick foliage. It had mercy on my questioning eyes and landed on a bare branch, allowing me to see its full beauty. As you know, I love connecting with other river lovers, so I like to introduce you to Palika Benton. She also writes about her San Lorenzo River experiences and I think you enjoy her tender river encounters.
Love to see you down by the river and just maybe you like to join us on Sat. 19th for the Estuary Project, jane

little MERGANSER catching a ride…

Fertile Dreams

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

As far as I know, the first baby waterfowl of the season appeared this last week on the urban stretch of our river.  On April 27,  standing on the Felker St. Bridge, I spied four teensy MALLARD chicks, busily foraging for themselves in a quiet backwater just north of the bridge.

Mallard BAbies FOS
Four Mallard fledglings, April 27, 2018, North of Highway 1 Bridge, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I guess that means the eggs were laid sometime towards the end of March  (a 28 day incubation period).  I originally saw four babies,  and then, sadly, only three babies remained a day later.  I’m pretty sure there were more eggs in the original clutch. According to BNA there is usually an average of 10 eggs per Mallard nest in an early season nest.  Raccoons, rats, crows, hawks, coyotes?  Lots of hungry critters out there with their own babies, all struggling to stay alive.

 

According to a friend, CHICKADEE babies have been heard begging from this box attached to a tree on the city side of the west levee near Water St. Bridge.

Chickadee Box
Chickadee nestbox near Water St. Bridge, April 27, 2018. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I saw parents flying back and forth but so far I haven’t seen or heard the babies.  If readers are interested in building nestboxes, you can go to to NestWatch (click here) and get detailed specifications from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology for boxes specifically designed for more than 50 different species.  Is anyone with carpentry skills interested in helping me build a Tree Swallow box?  I have also seen a Kestrel box along the river, but so far no Kestrels.

 

While birding on the river this week I ran into Phil Brown, a keen-eyed local birder, who is working hard during this season trying to keep track of breeding birds in the area.  He is officially in charge of monitoring not only the San Lorenzo River but Neary Lagoon, Schwann Lake, Arana Gulch and a few more key breeding areas in Santa Cruz County.  It’s a big responsibility that he generously performs before and after his paying job.

He told me that he has seen NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS carrying nesting materials into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge, where this species has been nesting for quite a while.  He also reports seeing HOUSE FINCHES and SONG SPARROWS carrying nesting materials and HOUSE SPARROWS carrying food.  We were both keeping our eyes on the CANADA GEESE, COMMON MERGANSERS, PIED-BILLED GREBES AND KILLDEERS –hoping for signs of breeding between Water St. and the Highway 1 Bridge, or perhaps further upstream behind the Tannery for the Grebes and Mergansers.. All these species have been present in ‘suitable habitat’ – using the language of the Breeding Bird Bird Project.  Phil was interested in the Chickadee box which he didn’t know about, and also pleased to hear about the baby Mallards. It’s so nice to meet a birder on the river and share sightings. I can honestly say that in the four years that I have been birding on the San Lorenzo I have only once run into a birder that I didn’t already know through the Bird Club.  As far as pure joy goes, this has got to be one of the best kept secrets in Santa Cruz.

While we were staring at two landing Killdeer, Phil also spied a migratory TREE SWALLOW, rarely seen on the urban river.

Tree swallow
Tree Swallow, Google Image

We know that these swallows nest at Neary Lagoon where they seem well adapted to the human-made nest boxes that are available there. Would they like a box on the San Lorenzo?  Are there any readers with carpentry skills that would like to help me build a Tree Swallow nest on the San Lorenzo River?  According to BNA, Tree Swallows readily accept these artifical nests  and indeed are thought to arrive early in the season in order to find the rare tree cavities (or nest boxes) that are in high demand by other cavity nesting birds.

 

Another curious phenomena of this season is the brotherhood of male Mallards, most of them hanging out together in pairs or small groups after doing their bit by inseminating the female.  One rarely sees females at this time of year. The mother scrapes a depression in the ground by herself, pulls downy feathers from her breast to line the shallow ground nest, lays the eggs, and incubates the eggs for an average of 22 hours a day, for an average of 28 days – all by herself.  She takes time off in early morning and  late afternoon to forage and preen. No food delivery by that elegant Lothario with the shimmering green head feathers and bright orange feet.  Nor does the drake appear once the babies are born. The young are ‘precocial’, able to take care of themselves as soon as they hatch.  You can imagine how I work to suppress my feminist judgments!  Who knows – considering how aggressive Mallard drakes are, perhaps the mom is glad to have some quiet time away from the early season onslaught of ardent suitors.

two drakes
Two male Mallards.  Are they bonding with each other in absence of females?  April 27, 2018, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The levees are beautiful these days, ablaze with broad drifts of wildflowers – orange California poppies,  pink, white and purple Wild Radish, pink Scabiosa, and a new flower for me, bright lavender Salsify.

Purple needle grass
Native Purple Needle Grass, San Lorenzo River Levee, April 28, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My environmental educator friend, Batya Kagan, also helped me learn a little about all the lovely grasses that were trying to get my attention by waving to me in the breeze!  Thanks to Batya, I pulled my attention away from the birds for a moment and stopped and made the acquaintance of the delicate native Purple Needle Grass and the very similar and also purple non-native Brome. If you rub your fingers against the grain of the Brome, it catches your skin.  Purple Needle Nose doesn’t do that.  Stop, shake hands and introduce yourself to the purple grasses this week.

 

purple flowers
Salsify, San Lorenzo River, April 28, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

Watching and worrying about birds seems to have burrowed down into my unconscious.  Recently I dreamed that three Red-shouldered Hawks were circling above me as I walked along the Riverwalk close to where I live. Suddenly, one of the hawks dropped to the ground right in front of me.  It was still alive when it hit the ground but I watched it slowly close its eyes and die. The other two hawks perched nearby, staring at their dead kin.  I rushed to stop the bicycles on the Riverwalk. People stopped and one man sat down reverently in the lotus position in the middle of the pathway.  The dream ends and I wake up. I am amazed to hear a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from outside.  Does that mean that I am now able to identify a bird call in my sleep?  A little later I go out onto the levee and as soon as I get to the pathway I see a Red-shouldered Hawk circling close by over my head, right where the dream took place!  I think I may be tapping into something beyond my understanding. A new kind of mystery for this blog?

 

Red Shoulder
Red-shouldered Hawk, San Lorenzo River,May 2017, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

Speaking of bird language, enthusiastic bird advocate Jeff Caplan will be giving what looks like  a very interesting workshop on his recent studies with a nationally-known bird aficionado. The Saturday morning event will start at 9 and will include the  presentation on bird language as well as a walk along the river and a brunch at India Joze.  I will be there!  Click here to read about the workshop and sign up if you are interested.  It looks like it may sell out.

I hope everyone turns on Bruce Bratton’s radio program at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, May 8, when  Jane will be talking about her favorite subject – the San Lorenzo River.  Good luck, Jane.   That’s KZSC 88.1 fm.

Click here to see my  eBird checklist for this week.

May everyone’s dreams be filled with the magic of the natural world.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT…?

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.

before…

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.

VGSW-nest_3083-660x522
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.

stickleback
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,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

shunned male NORTHERN SHOVELER

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”