Rainy season always vividly demonstrates the different behavior of land birds versus waterfowl. My rain approach mimics the land bird precipitation attitude: it’s best to avoid get soaked. I see them huddle together in the protective bushes. Their feathers fluffed up to keep warm as they wait for a rain break. I can tell a break is coming up when the ground-feeders start coming out to feed on seeds. The insect flyers are not so willing to come out for their insect chase while drops are still falling. As soon as the rain eases up, the bush, tree insect eaters start scurrying through the foliage. These distinct actions illustrate the diverse food sources of the various bird species. When there is a vegetation balance then there is a varied assortment of food available and in turn the birds keep the insects in check.
The longer I work on the Estuary Restoration Project the more I notice which bird species is lacking food sources on the levee and we plant natives accordingly. Presently I am on a mission to replenish the lost toyon bush trees, because I noticed that the beautiful Cedar-waxed Wings flock had finished off the few berries in no time. It’s interesting to see them fly to the areas where there used to be toyon berries waiting for them in the winter and fall. After observing one too many times the flock head for their old food source patches, make a brief dip and fly on, I am determined to make a positive change for them. You might like to join us making this change at our next Estuary Project day on Sat. 19th from 9-11am at the Riverside Ave. bridge. Click for more info.
The river birds are not perturbed by the rain. They pursue their diving, foraging, meanderinglife as the wetness from the sky showers on them. Then again they are used to having their lower body wet all the time…
Monday morning the river point welcomed me with a fierce, gusty wind, which gave me instantly teary blurred vision through which I peeked at the whipped up ocean and a few flying birds. It was eerie to see the gull bare river shore. One gull flew in, briefly touched down and took of again. The flying birds, who braved the wind, did a lot of sideway drifting, obviously unable to keep their wished for course. I didn’t see one bird on the turbulent ocean surface.
Land and water birds lay low during heavy winds for obvious reasons. Many ocean birds seek shelter on the river during storms and some show wing injuries, which often heal, spending time in the river.
The Trestle path is now fenced off. The only construction related activity I have seen has been the big equipment vehicle trying to maneuver the sharp turn up the Boardwalk ramp. It looked like that attempt failed. Meanwhile I am trying to adjust to missing my familiar Trestle path observations spots, not meeting my cherished levee compadres, not visiting with my feathered friends at our customary time and place. Right now I am a drifter, exploring new river routes, so I can still ‘bath’ in Nature, which is like the old Japanese tradition of ‘forest bathing’. This practice promotes balancing out the social, urban living with its crushing impacts and ‘forest bathing’ is considered a form of medicine. I can see the specific benefits of this tradition and I also know that any ‘bathing’ in any of Nature’s territory has a healing effect on many people. How can we not feel refreshed watching a SPOTTED SANDPIPER taking a rigorous bath?Exploration greetings to all you Nature bathers, jane
Heavy rains last Saturday and Sunday shook up the world of the river’s water fowl, challenging them to take cover, find new fishing grounds, or in the case of at least one of the species, simply jump on the swiftly flowing waters for what looked to me like a a joy ride! I even caught my first glimpse of a Harbor Seal on the river, just south of the Water St. Bridge!
The river crested sometime on Sunday at 13.5 feet, just 2.5 feet short of flooding. When I ventured out on Monday morning, the river was a grande dame, pridefully and powerfully flowing to her watery mansion in the great ocean. Although by Monday morning the velocity had slowed from Sunday’s peak of 4000 cubic feet per second to only 1200 cubic feet per second, I suspected it would still present a challenge to the water birds. And, indeed, things were a bit topsy-turvy.
I found one female COMMON MERGANSER who had clearly taken refuge in the glassy quiet of the Duck Pond, an unusual spot to find a find a Merganser. Was the river water too fast for successful fishing? Or was it too murky?
Later I saw a pair of the Mergansers taking advantage of the high velocity current to take a swift ride to the mouth. This is one of their favorite strategies in calm weather – fly upstream, then jump on the free river bus to carry them effortlessly back downstream, fishing and resting as they go. On Monday I didn’t see them fishing at all.
A few BUFFLEHEAD were retreating to the quieter Branciforte cement channel –more like the lakes and ponds that they generally prefer. But later I was surprised to
see a pair of Bufflehead on the open river, alternately rising up out of the water and flapping their wings. This sounds a little like a Bufflehead mating behavior described as “a head-dip, followed by a wing-flapping, then a rapid bow ending with a resounding slap of the wings against the side of the body.” I’ll have to keep my eyes open to see if I can catch the rest of the display ritual. In any case, Bufflehead hormones seem to be flowing, right along with the high water flows.
A GREAT EGRET AND SNOWY EGRET were doing their best to adapt to the high waters.
These beauties prefer mud bars and shallow water, where their long bills can easily probe the mud for the crustaceans, small fish, insects and worms that they relish. On Monday the Great Egret abandoned the River entirely, richly rewarded by the swampy pools in San Lorenzo Park. The Snowy seemed to be faring less well, still exploring her normal areas on the edge of the water, but seeming to find that her usual spots were not so productive in a flood. Perhaps this delicate creature can’t handle the chunkier morsels that are edible by the Great Egret.
This egrets’ cousin, the GREAT BLUE HERON, looked glorious in the wind, settling comfortably on a sand bar where she could probably sustain herself until things settled down a little.
A MALLARD was also wisely laying low, foraging in quiet backwaters as she also waited for things to calm down a little.
I always wonder why my stubborn little PIED-BILLED GREBES would choose to fight a fast river flow rather than find a quieter lake where this species usually prefer to hang out. On Monday, most apparently did go elsewhere. I saw only one grebe between the Water St. Bridge and the Riverside Bridge. One possible answer, an important consideration, is that maybe this particular grebe is low on the totem pole, forced to accept an inferior territory. Or maybe she is stronger than the others and can handle the fast life of a river. Maybe she likes adventure sports!
Songbirds, were of course “above it all”, simply happy to have a little sun on their feathers and unaware of the river changes that the waterfowl were contending with. A small flock of HOUSE FINCHES were busy nibbling at the spiky seed balls that form on sycamore trees during the winter, balls that will spill their seeds in the spring.
And above them all was this COOPER’S HAWK, hardly moving a muscle, quietly marshaling its energy before its next sneak attack on an unsuspecting songbird.
Here’s the eBird LINK to the 31 species I found between Water and Riverside on Monday. I never fail to be amazed at the diversity and drama of this urban river.
I talked to City Council member Chris Krohn about my concerns regarding the possible upcoming Bankfull river dredging project. He sent on a list of my questions to Public Works Director, Mark Dettle, who responded promply with some helpful information. Here’s what we know so far:
After decades of oversight, the Army Corps of Engineers, as we already know, is turning over the Levee Project to the City of Santa Cruz. A problem that has arisen in this turnover process, according to Dettle, is that actual 2017 flows “were about 1 foot higher than model predictions in the reach between Water Street and the Highway 1 Bridge.” In other words, the City will not be protected against the 100-year flood, and will then have to face serious insurance problems. Dettle wrote, “When this was brought to the CORPS’ attention, they were not interested in studying this issue and are proceeding with the project turnover.” That response places the responsibility to get FEMA certification squarely on the slight shoulders of our City. According to Dettle, it is the reason that the City is being forced to consider a Bankfull Channel Plan.
Dettle reported that the City is pursuing this plan “to increase sediment carrying capacity”. He said, “The Bankfull design is a deeper, narrower channel in the larger channel so the low stream flows still have sufficient velocity to move the sediment out of the reach.” He said that Public Works is ‘doing the environmental analysis now.” When asked about whether the channel would be straight or winding, he said it ‘does not have to be a straight channel.” I wonder if this is possible or feasible?
We also asked Dettle to comment on whether the City is working with the County to control erosion upstream, a major cause of downstream sediment buildup. Dettle said that the city has had discussions with the County and Scotts Valley on this issue, but that “since a lot of the proerty is in private ownership, it is much more difficult to control the sediment loading.” He added, “A lot of this material is a good source of beach sand.”
So the taxpayers of Santa Cruz may be burdened with a multi-million dollar dredging project that will be highly disruptive to wildlife because the County does not, or cannot afford to, enforce erosion control laws upstream. This seems like a perfect emblem of what is wrong with a lot of our society. The underlying causes are not addressed and the negative effects are felt ‘downstream’.
John Muir quote of the week:
“How little I know of all the vast show (of Nature), and how eagerly, tremulously hopeful of some day knowing more, learning the meaning of the divine symbols crowded together on this wondrous page.”
I’m glad we chose the word San Lorenzo River Mysteries for the name of our Blog.
On Saturday I was checking on our newly homed plants by Laurel St. bridge. I was happy to see that they were doing quite well. Of course I wasn’t so happy to see a man and his dog take a short cut through our restoration area, obviously unaware of the baby plants…lesson learned: mark the planting zone more clearly!!
Walking to the next plant section, I watched 4 fishermen unsuccessfully fly-fishing. The empty lines weren’t surprising since the steelhead count is down this year. Earlier I had seen the OSPREY flying low over the fishermen, heading downstream. She was in hunting mode: turning her head side to side, scanning the water for fish. I wondered if she would be able to catch anything with the fishermen blocking her usual hunting grounds. As it turned out, she scored! She returned with a fine catch in her talons, circled twice over the fishermen, who never looked up and missed the testimony of her fine hunting skills. She decided that she was done with the oblivious fellow hunters, flew over to the high Boardwalk ride and devoured her big meal.
The little episode amused me, because so much life happens around us and we only witness a fraction of it. This humbling experience accompanies us birder on every outing and we grin and bear it. We know that we might miss a rare bird sighting as we stare at movement in the dense foliage, which turns out to be a wind rustled leaf.
Then again, I enjoy my fragments: I was watching the WESTERN SANDPIPERS by the trestle cliff rocks, negotiating their foraging path through the unyielding AMERICAN COOTS flock, when suddenly they all exploded into every directions. Had I kept an eye on the Trestle trees, where I had seen the perched PEREGRINE earlier, then I would have caught sight of its plunge for a meal. Instead I watched it return empty taloned to its branch while the agitated A. COOTS were treading water in the middle of the river and the WESTERN SANDPIPERS had disappeared in search of safer shores. Across the river the small BONAPARTE’s gull had only briefly raised its head during the entire turmoil and busily resumed its foraging. A CROW watched the drama quietly from the phone pole without bursting into its usual bombing fit.
It was sitting right above City sign, announcing the start of the Trestle path construction, which makes me misty, raises and ruffles my bird protection feathers. Yes, I am concerned that the raptors, falcon, CORMORANTS hunting perches/grounds are going to be impacted for at least 5 months, which will interfere with their feeding, life cycles. The river is their home and the trestle trees are the only high perches along the river edge, which these birds require for their hunting flights and roosting times. If these species feel displaced then they will try new territory, where they will intrude on other birds habitats and decrease food sources and life cycles for all. I know that the birds well being plays second fiddle in the construction scheme and therefore I feel misty for the COOPER, RED-tailed, RED-shouldered HAWKS, the OSPREYS, the PEREGRINES and the CORMORANTS…
As I was puzzling over the BONAPARTE and CROW behavior, worried about the Trestle tree birds I almost tripped over the brazen YELLOW-rumped WARBLER on the path. It was watching my approach, clearly pleased by my common sense to stop advancing and continued pecking on the ground. My good birding behavior was rewarded with a view of the bright yellow patch on top of its head.
A cyclist interrupted our tête-à-tête and a tiny, quick moving bird caught my attention, dashing around in a levee bush next to the path. Its olive-brown body blended right into the vegetation and I had a hard time id-ing it. Then the sun ignited the ruby head spot and I knew it was a RUBY-crowned KINGLET. Both species are migratory birds, whose wintering area stretches all the way down to Mexico.
Thanks to the Sierra Club members, who sent in their ballots. If you haven’t yet then you can still mail it before the extended 1/12/19 deadline.
I wish you all a very Happy New Year and may 2019 bring you fulfilling abundance, jane
I’m checking in a bit late this week, returning just yesterday from a holiday trip to Sacramento to visit family and check out some astonishingly huge flocks of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes. It was sundown when we arrived at the well-known spot where the cranes gather every evening during these winter months. I never saw anything like it – long swirling threads, high in the sky, created by thousands of birds outlined against the setting sun. As the cranes descended, they burbled and gabbled in an excited cacophony, obviously happy to be home for the night. I don’t know whether the Snow Geese were passing through or also heading home to rest.
EARED GREBE –NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING
I keep thinking about the lonely little EARED GREBE
that I wrote about a month ago. As you all probably know, I am curiously drawn to the grebe family, and have been a little worried that only one Eared Grebe has been reported on the river all this season. It seems I needn’t worry too much. It turns out that Eared Grebes congregate by the thousands in Mono Lake, which is the quiet brackish lake habitat that these shrimp-loving waterfowl prefer. I was happy to read that they are a ‘species of least concern’ in terms of their populations. I do wonder what brings a few Eared Grebes here every winter? I am glad a few brave or careless ones make the trip here, intentionally or unintentionally. And just look at how they are transformed once they return to their breeding grounds!
There are four species of grebes that are seen on the urban stretch of the San Lorenzo River, i.e PIED-BILLED GREBE, Eared Grebe, Horned Grebe and Western/Clark’s Grebe. I have seen all four of these species on the river over the last four years, although the last two are even more rarely observed on the river than the Eared Grebe. (They are all really lake birds, not river birds, although the Western Grebe likes to winter on coastal waters, occasionally venturing into the lower reaches of the river.)
Since I haven’t been out on the river these last weeks, I send some old photos on to you all as an end-of-the-year retrospective.
PIED-BILLED GREBE – NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING
HORNED GREBE – NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING
WESTERN GREBE – NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING
Perhaps two of the reasons that I am especially fond of grebes is that they all carry their babies on their backs and the Western and Clark’s Grebes do amazing mating dances. I also carried my baby on my back and I love to dance. I feel much more grebish on some days than human.
Another way I resemble the Pied-billed and Western Grebes is that the difference between my everyday clothes and dress-up clothes is very subtle. Compare that to the astonishing transformations of the Eared and Horned Grebes. .
Long live the fascinating Podicipedidae family!! (I think this is pronounced something like Po-DEE-chi PEH-dih-day.) ‘Podici’ means ‘rump’ in Latin. The fluffy tails serve exactly the same purpose as bustles did in the old days, i.e. to accentuate the rump.
As you can see: there are no photos in this post, because the apple giant crashed my iPhoto. Consequently this post is different, because I decided to tidy up loose ends and loop back to previously promised info. So wish me luck to get iPhoto back up and yes! in the meantime I’ll be biting my nails.
I want you, our readers, to know that your post comments matter a lot. Your feedback, update information add a lively dimension to our reporting. They are a wonderful way of connecting with you and let other readers share your scoop like these 2 inputs for this post:
As it turns out that I was wrong, when I wishfully wrote: “This is pretty exciting because it indicates that this fish returned to spawn upstream.” in my post ‘steelhead,snakes, migratory arrivals….’ Our fish expert reader pointed out that “ The 363mm re-captured steelhead was not an adult yet. It has been growing since it was first captured. It may have spent time in the lagoon/estuary and even in the Bay since then. Juveniles may grow quite large in the estuary/lagoon, where food is abundant. Most adult steelhead return from the ocean in late fall through spring to spawn, usually at 500 – 600 mm FL or larger. They go upstream as far as they can into their natal streams to spawn.”
Also my excitement ‘about Bayta’s rare San Francisco Garter Snake find‘ received her caution revision: “I consulted with a local naturalist, who he said it could have been a common garter snake that has a red form. Technically I guess the San Francisco garter snake is a sub-species of the common garter snake and are actually genetically identical but have some separation of territories. It’s not impossible it was a SF garter but they do not usually live south of San Mateo. The only way to tell them apart is the size of face plates … I guess the scales.”
I was talking with my birding friend from FT. Bragg about our annual Santa Cruz County bird count that took place last Saturday. She told me that the BRANDT CORMORANTS parents in her area didn’t feed their fledglings. None of the offspring survived and the birders have no explanation for that occurrence. What really stunned me was that this year no BRANDT CORMORANTS have been reported in our County. Of course I wonder if these 2 incidences are related? And what a difference a year makes: 6 PINE SISKINS were spotted this year while 370 were counted last year. Where are those cute little birds?
The Santa Cruz Water Rights Project is a complex issue. It involves many local, State and Federal agencies. The City proposes an increase of year-round diversion at Felton and to include Tait Street in the Project. The concern is that this proposal can potentially reduce the crucial habitat between Felton and Santa Cruz during the summer and dry years. Furthermore the proposed maximum diversion rates at both locations could result in more fluctuation of the lagoon/ estuary levels, impacting steelhead, salmon and bird population. It is hard to assess the Project, which references to the Conservation Plan, which is 18 years late of being completed. The Environmental Committee of the Valley Women’s Clubstated in their comment letter that they have concerns about the assessment of population and housing growth on page 32. Their reason is: even if annual water extraction is not increased, the city will be able to extract more during dry and drought years. This will thus increase the available water during those years, with the potential to allowing greater population growth. This brings into question the assertion that, “The Proposed Project would not increase the City’s overall water supply to accommodate growth.” – Like I said before: This is a complex issue and I’ll keep you updated!
I wish you all a very chirpy Holiday Season and a Happy New Year with lots of wonderful river walks. Also cheers to our Sierra Club readers, who will be sending in their ballots before Jan. 12th(new deadline) for their ExCom candidates choices. jane
As I fall back on my yearly strategies to stay warm during these cold days – pea soup, more blankets, fleecy slippers – I am once again sobered by the determination of the small songbirds who have to work so much harder than me to keep warm.
I learned recently that one of the reasons that tiny Bushtits like the one pictured here are almost always seen in flocks of 6 to 30 is because they also roost together at night, huddled in tight masses to prevent heat loss. Judging from this photo, they are also very good at fluffing up their feathers to make a neat little down jacket for themselves when they aren’t huddling.
And please take a look at these pleasingly plump birds, a CALIFORNIA TOWHEE and ROCK DOVE (Feral Pigeon) with their inflatable down jackets –a better evolutionary strategy, it seems, than depending on Patagonia or, in my case, Good Will.
Of course, the most important heat protection strategy of a bird is finding enough food on which to survive. Here’s a HOUSE FINCH I saw this week exploring the vegan riches along a beautiful branch of curly willow. House finches eat almost no high-protein insects, but seem to do well on their plant-based diet. Of course, I like to hear this.
I shiver when I see songbirds taking baths in this cold weather. When I saw this GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW and House Finch staring at each other so seriously from the roof of a home near the River, I thought they might be exchanging their
unique insights on how to stay warm. Or maybe they are conversing about how titillating it is to take a cold bath on a cold day!
Click here to see my last eBird posting of the 24 species I saw in little more than an hour on the river just two days ago.
There is so much bad news on the environmental front that I was very happy to receive an article forwarded to me by Patricia Matejcek titled ‘Terrific Win for California Birds”.
It was about California’s strong message to the federal government stating its intent to continue protecting migratory birds in spite of federal legislation that would roll back the longtime legal protections of the Migratory Bird Act. As I spotted this YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER as well as the migrant RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS that are now now flitting everywhere in the trees along the urban stretch of the river, I wanted to let them know that California is on their side in spite of Trump.
Last week I saw the first concrete signs of the enormous flood control project that is slowly ratcheting up, possibly leading to what I now call the ‘dreaded dredging’ project. Employees of the engineering contractor MBK were out with their surveying instruments, recording and measuring everything from the placement of lampposts to topographical details of the levee. If their results show that the levee will not provide protection against a 100- year flood, then the City is in trouble – flood-wise, financially, and environmentally. Let’s hope these guys can find the evidence to convince FEMA that we are ready for the big flood. Or – I’ll say it again – maybe we should just start packing our bags in readiness to leave the flood plain to the floods, and to all the habitat and wildlife that this departure of ours would support.
And coming full circle back to where this blog began four years ago – i.e. resisting recreational boating on the river – I chatted with these two Water Department employees as they were out measuring water quality.
They were paddling along slowly but still managed to startle and flush out a GREAT BLUE HERON who screeched raucously and non-stop as she indignantly flew up river, finally finding respite at the top of a big pine tree. Yes, even a single boat on the river for very good purposes, can dramatically disturb the avian wildlife of the river, even the usually unflappable Great Blue!
I hope some of you get to the Council Chambers tonight when our new Council is officially seated. Just imagine! The top vote getter in the election was Justin Cummings, who has a PHD in eolutionary biology! Am I dreaming?
Muir quote of the week:
“ After witnessing the bad effect of homelessness, developed to so destructive an extent in Califonia, it would assure every lover of their race to see the hearty home-building going on here and the blessed contentment that naturally follows it.”
John Muir (1838-1914)
This encampment just behind Ross Stores near the Felker St. Bridge is not exactly what John Muir had in mind, I know. But I can’t help but think that the closeness to the river and a few trees, plus the independence, provide at least some healing to those who, like the birds, have to work harder than most of us to stay warm during this chilly time of year. The City provides porta-potties and trash pick-up and otherwise leaves the campers alone.
Stay warm, stay active, stay faithful to our feathered and non-feathered friends. Happy Holidays to all.
For the last two weeks it has been hard to get to the river and I dearly miss my river schmooze time. It’s actually curious how being so involved with the river has curtailed my meandering river sleuthing time. Then again I am really excited about all the activities that prevent my walks, because I am so convinced that they’ll benefit the river and the environment in the long run. This one project of many is really exhilarating: Donna Meyers, one of our new City Council members, and I talked about creating a Downtown Street Team(DST) Natural Resource Stewardship Pilot Program. We envisioned empowering the homeless community members with basic restoration skills to find jobs in the public and private sectors. So we drew up a plan, got the DST Director Greg Pensinger on board as well as the Park & Rec. Department and the City Manger Office.
Last week we had our first 2 days, which turned out amazing. The DST members asked really good questions and absorbed the material quickly. On the 2nd day they were able to identify various native plants, lay out a basic restoration work plan and embrace the restoration motto: bless the mess. One participant commented that restoration work required that she let go of her ‘tidy landscape is good’ approach. Donna & I envision that the DST members will be integrated into the river levee plant maintenance and that their skills/approach will benefit the vegetation and consequently the bird and wildlife habitats. For that future I gladly give up my beloved river walks plus it was a lot of fun to work with Donna for our deep mutual love: the environment and the river. Also it has been a truly great pleasure to co-work with all involved so smoothly and be so supported by the City Staff.
The other day I was trying to see if the BURROWING OWL had returned to the Seabright Beach cliff. I looked up at the Trestle bridge trees and was thrilled to see the OSPREY sitting on her branch. Her sight always gives me a sense of peace, because she signals that the river is feeding her and that all is well in her food cupboard. I wonder how she’ll react to the upcoming Trestle bridge construction, which will widen the path. As you can imagine I have been fiercely objecting to any Eucalyptus trees removal, whining continuously to Public Works that the trees HAVE TO BE PROTECTED for the various raptors, PEREGRINE FALCON, OSPREY, CORMORANTS, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS and GREAT BLUE HERONS. The start of the construction has been delayed for a month and is supposed to begin on Dec. 6th.
This will bring disruption to all of us, who frequent the river. Keep your fingers crossed that the construction goes as planned, avoiding time over-runs.
Last not least: are you a Sierra Club member? In that case I want to give you heads-up: in the beginning of December you’ll receive ballot mailer for the election of new Santa Cruz Executive Committee members. So take a look, mark your choices and send it off in time.
And to be perfectly honest: I love to get your vote… and so would Gillian Greensite, who has a long, dedicated environmental history.
Now I am off to the 3rd day of the Pilot Program and send you bright river future greetings, jane