Heeding the Call

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

That old enchantress, the River, always has a new trick up her sleeve!    This week I went to the exact spot where I found the wonderful little Wood Duck family  two weeks ago, hoping to see them again.  But the sloe-eyed mama and her babes were nowhere to be seen, maybe off shopping for all the vegan delights that the River offers a duck and her ducklings.

This time the flowing spinner of dreams had something else in store for me  – an avian concert the likes of which I haven’t heard for quite a while.  The woods along the river behind the Tannery was alive with the sound of music!  First I would hear a modest solo, then a different lilting voice would form a duet,  then many players would join in, sometimes building to a gloriously intricate and intriguing tangle of sounds.

I remember years ago taking a bird trip with David Suddjian, the famous local  birder and then president of the Bird club.  The walk was titled ‘Birding by Ear’.  I remember being absolutely astounded by what he could identify without seeing a single bird.  I had no idea this was possible. Now I have taken a few steps into that world, thanks to all the birders like David and Steve Gerow, who have patiently helped many of us along on this long path into a language that they didn’t teach at my high school.

Anyway, sitting by the river this week, I  ultimately identified the songs of six star performers – which, thanks to YouTube, I am now able to share with all of you (see below).   I haven’t tried playing these all at the same time.  That might give you a better sense of my experience!

I was especially excited to  identify my first SWAINSON’S THRUSH by sound.  The song starts out as a high, somewhat reedy warble, spirals upwards a couple of times, then finishes with only the spectral hint of a thin, fluty sound –  seeming to disappear into the clouds. Maybe the oboe/flute in the orchestra..  Click here.

The solid violin section of the avian symphony is provided by  the male HOUSE FINCH,  a slightly raspy warble that flits up and down the scale  in seemingly random musical acrobatics –before finishing on a high note.   Click here.

The migrant BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS held center stage for this morning’s performance,  Although the Grosbeak’s song is often shorter and a little more jerky than that of the House Finch, his warble is deliciously rich and liquid.  One or two of them sang constantly for the entire half hour I sat by the river, appearing in full view only once when three of them appeared to have a little dust-up in what I imagined to be the cello section of that morning’s orchestra.  Click here.

I wonder if it is the same modest little SONG SPARROW who appears in almost the same spot on the same tree – every time I sit in my chosen spot.  He is a most dependable singer and I was glad to hear his cheery and familiar  voice.  This video clip captures the most basic song – two initial cheeps, then a trill, then a final signature flourish.  Individual Song Sparrows dream up many variations on this basic structure, some quite a bit more complex, but this is the bare bones. Click here.

The PACIFIC SLOPE FLYCATCHER, also a migratory bird, plays a simple rustic flute – the same note over and over again .  The note  is a thin, ascendant whistle, that is quite easy to identify when the woods are quiet.   This shy, elusive bird whistles once, then pauses, then whistles again – easy to hear and identify but hard to find.  Click here

And, finally, in the percussion section, was the loud, resounding and repeated yelp of the PIED-BILLED GREBE, a sound that would seem to come from some mythical creature – certainly  not from the  little brown waterfowl whose modest appearance seems at odds with its deep feelings.  Click here.

For so many years, I missed all this music.  And what I know now  only makes me more aware of the vast world of animal feelings and language about which I know nothing at all.  May we all slowly develop the capacity to hear and sense and understand the mysterious voices of  the natural world – which is so close to us and so far away.

On a more political note – I called Beth Tobey of the Economic Development Department of the City regarding your concerns, Jane,  about the art installation over the Cliff Swallows nest.  I asked her if you and I  could meet with her to talk about the Ebb and Flow Event next year.   She indicated that she was interested in such a meeting but she hasn’t yet answered my e-mail about when this might happen.

There are only 11 more days to write the City’s Parks and Recreation Department about their planned recruitment of a new director.   I hope everyone who reads this blog will send an e-mail to Carol Scurich, acting director, at parksandrec@cityofsantacruz.com.  Please emphasize the importance of choosing someone who has experience and training in environmental protection; who will work to achieve a balance between recreational event planning  and environmental protection work;  and who will work collaboratively with environmental organizations in the community, i.e. the Sierra Club, the Bird Club, Friends of the Pogonip, Friends of the San Lorenzo River, Friends of Arana Gulch, Friends of Jessie St. Marsh, etc.  All our Open Spaces are under the jurisdiction of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.  The Department has a solemn responsibility to be good stewards of our natural treasures.

May we all learn to listen  to the birds and to each other!

Happy birding to all.

















Pied-billed grebes https://youtu.be/IIdb1vY-Q44

Swainson’s Thrush https://youtu.be/eEVeGx7Gzuo

black headed grosbeak  https://youtu.be/h-6mBM4lw38

Song sparrow. https://youtu.be/gnWG3Xv7hag

pacific slope flycatcher https://youtu.be/sqi0xyzFSxI

House finch https://youtu.be/hisjOh6_-cs


Sent from my iPad


let’s connect to avoid disconnect…

Good Morning Barbara and Nature Lovers,

dreamy early morning…

Sometimes the river mornings are truly exquisite. The momentum is dreamy, peaceful and soothing. The birds are slowly waking up, a few are still sleeping, some are getting ready forage and others are sitting in their favorite spots, surveying serenely their territory. Even the CROWS are quietly walking on the shore next to the sleeping MALLARD while the SPOTTED SANDPIPER is slowly wading through the water and the RED-throated LOONS is drifting in the current. Other mornings the wildlife activity is in full swing. The head down, tail in the air MALLARDS are eating their early morning meal, the RED-shouldered HAWK is gliding over the banks, triggering the alarm calls amongst the river wildlife residents as they rush for cover. The GREEN HERON is following the CORMORANT in the hope that its quick breakfast beak will spear a fleeing fish along the shoreline.

active early morning …

Last week I got a call from a river lover, who was really concerned and upset about the EBB and FLOW light installation on the Soquel Ave. bridge. I wasn’t aware of the 12 metal poles on each bridge side holding the light cables. Of course my first thought landed on the active CLIFF SWALLOW nests underneath the bridge ledges. Since I wanted to see for myself what the caller had talked about, I found myself standing on the levee path by the bridge, watching the installer put the final touches on the installation. There were about a dozen CLIFF SWALLOWS circling above the bridge and none entered a nest in the 50 min. I spend at the site. I couldn’t help but think that the construction had/was impacting their breeding/nesting activity. It was hard to know if intact nests were active or not. Naturally I wondered about the broken nests: were they destroyed by drilling vibration to mount the 6 bolts into each pole base? Were they old nests? Unfortunately my CLIFF SWALLOW nest outreach to other birders and river lovers didn’t turn up any factual details.

the puzzling CLIFF SWALLOW nests….

So I am left with the questions: Why celebrate the river with a light installation that effects the protected migratory birds and other wildlife? How and where did that disconnect happen? Don’t get me wrong! I love art, I love people celebrating nature. I just happen to think that nature has to have a voice at the planning table to avoid these kind of disconnects.

12 light show poles…

I relish meeting up with one of my river enjoyers on the levee walk. It’s the perfect setting to exchange our latest ‘ feather news’. The other day I saw Robin on the levee while I was trying to decipher why 2 gulls were having this insane interaction. One gull had the other by the neck, trying to push it under water, both their wings flapping wildly. The neck biter succeeded to keep the other submerged and I was sure the poor thing was drowning, because its wing action was becoming slower and weaker. It gathered all its force, resurfaced and attempted to return the vicious favor to its opponent. As we watched the disturbing scene, we contemplated several scenarios: ‘ it’s a territorial issue’, ‘it’s a mating ritual’, ‘it’s a food fight’, ‘have no idea what’s going on…’.

disturbing gull scene…

And then John walked up and told us he had just seen Mama MERGANSER and her 11 ‘merganserlings’ (as Robin calls them), which send us into a swoon festival about this adorable family. Separately each one of us had kept an eye on them for the last three weeks and whenever we meet up, we rejoice that the Mama has managed to keep ‘our’ merganserlings safe, inline and healthy. We have observed them resting on the log, torpedo-ing for food through the water, checking out the tule larder and cheered their rapid growth. Obviously they have charmed us. The other day 2 ‘merganserlings’ surfaced, hanging on to the same fish: one had hold of the head, the other was clamping down on the tail. The lively fish tugging stopped the other siblings in their tracks, viewing the spectacle from a safe distance. The winner got so occupied with its meal that it missed the family departure. Realizing that everyone was downstream, the little one raced after them, looking like it was running on the water surface.
Celebrating connecting…jane

portray of ‘our’ MERGANSER family…

Magical Mothering

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Gazers,

Wood Duck Mom
Mother Wood Duck on a fallen tree in the San Lorenzo River behind the Tannery – with 5 ducklings in water below below her , May 28, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Late Monday afternoon while  the nation was barbecuing, I decided to go in search of WOOD DUCKS.  They have been on my mind lately.  At least one family has been  breeding on the river for quite a few years, but they are still rare here, most local Wood Ducks preferring to raise their young in  Neary Lagoon.   I hadn’t even seen a report of an adult on the River, much less a family.  I was worried.   I headed towards that short stretch of river behind the Tannery,   a stretch, as you well know, that is the closest spot to downtown  where something like a natural riparian habitat still exists.  That is where Wood Ducks can find the hollow cavities in old or fallen trees that they need to make a successful nest.

I very quietly approached the  spot where I had seen these beautiful ducks in previous years – and  – lo and behold – there was a mother Wood Duck with five very new little fuzzballs.  Oh, those soulful, teardrop eyes!  I love it when this sort of thing happens- as if the proud mother was calling to me, saying, “I’m ready for visitors, come and see my lovely brood.”  Well, it didn’t turn out exactly that way. They actually saw me first, in spite of my stealthy approach, and by the time I actually reached the riverside the babies were already skittering away fast, disappearing almost immediately into the dense  vegetation along the edge of the river, followed closely by the mother.

Wood Duck 5 babies
5 ducklings playing on the same fallen tree. 

I set up my little birding chair, determined to not move a muscle until they returned.   I didn’t even raise my binoculars to look at other birds.  And,  sure enough,  in about 20 minutes they re-appeared from upstream, this time fooled into a false sense of security by my immobility.   The mother climbed up on a fallen tree just across the river form me, preening and resting, while the babies first hung out in the water nearby (if you look carefully, you will see them in the water near the log).  Then copying their mother, then clambered up  on the fallen tree,  scrambling and tumbling around each other just like baby kittens.  I stared and stared, grateful from the bottom of my heart.  I am wondering if this fallen tree is where their nest cavity is.  They don’t make their own holes, but search for ones already made by woodpeckers, or rot.  A dead tree is ideal.

According to BNA, the population of Wood ducks was robust through the nineteenth century but then began to decline due to deforestation and loss of wetland habitats.  Ornithologists thought they were probably doomed as a species.  But thanks in large part to the wonderful Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, this species was protected from hunters through1941 – and it made a great comeback.  But this year, on the eve of the centennial of this landmark conservation act, the Trump administration gutted the law.  It freed private interests – most notably energy companies – from criminal prosecutions and fines for the deaths of migratory birds killed by industrial practices.  When will the energy companies and their friends (and our City government) come to realize that our real power is in our connection with the earth and all the natural wonders that it holds.   (See below for something you can do about our local situation.)

The Wood Duck sighting followed a wonderful couple of hours birding with my friend Batya the day before in a much more urban environment – the Duck Pond!

Proud goose parents
Canada Geese with goslings, San Lorenzo Park, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

She was the one that first spotted the CANADA GOOSE goslings, hanging out on the grassy areas, their favorite spots to forage.    Unlike the Mallard and the Wood Duck parents, where the male disappears after the eggs are layed, Canada Geese are the helicopter parents of the avian world, neither parent  letting the young ones out of their sight for a minute.  Don’t they look proud!!!

The breeding range of the Canada Goose extends only as far south as central California – so we are along the edge of what’s possible.  The local Breeding Bird Atlas folks are keeping a  special eye out to see if  there is a trend towards more nesting in the Santa Cruz area.    I’ve seen more adults than I have in past years, 12 adults this last Sunday, all parading around San Lorenzo Park.  But there was only the one family.  Will there be more goslings.?  Stay tuned.  I hope they keep coming back and I hope we get more families.

Green Heron Drinking at Duck Pond
Green Heron drinking from Duck Pond, May 27, 2018, San Lorenzo Park, Photo by B. Riverwoman

To my surprise, I also spotted not only a GREAT EGRET, but a GREEN HERON, both foraging and drinking from the Duck Pond at the same time.  Quite a sight!  Last year as the Parks and Recreation Department drilled deeper and deeper into  their Master Plan for the future, they discussed getting rid of the Duck Pond.

Great Egret
Great Egret stalking fish in the Duck Pond, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

That would be a terrible shame in my opinion.  On many levels!  It is such a welcoming place for both birds and humans.  Maybe we could all agree on an even larger and more natural water feature.  Right now I think the birds and visitors are pretty safe since the city departments are all suffering major budget cuts.  But we should stay alert!

Just to add a final fillip to this urban river outing, there appeared a MALLARD family swimming in horseshoe formation just under the noisy Water St. Bridge, one of several sightings of Mallard babies so far this summer.

Mallard Family Horseshoe formation
Mallard mother with 6 ducklings in horseshoe formation, near Water St. Bridge, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

That adds up to four  separate species of waterfowl families, all plying our river at the same  time – Wood Ducks, Common Mergansers, Canada Geese, and Mallard.  Now I await my favorite – the Pied-billed Grebe – more fingernails to be chewed.  I heard one giving its inimitable roar from downstream  while I sat watching the Wood Ducks behind the Tannery.  What was it announcing so forcefully?

And speaking of COMMON MERGANSERS, I must now officially confess that I was wrong in my last post when I identified Common Mergansers as Red-breasted Mergansers.  Hats off to Michael Levy  who had the good sense to warn me before I posted that I should pay more attention to the neck markings, and less to the crest. But I stubbornly hit the publish button anyway, swayed by the scruffy head feathers and the reports of two eBird reports of experienced birders, both of whom  seemed to have made  the same mistake  about the same family.  The local bird guru, Alex Rinkert, who monitors eBird postings from this area, quickly picked up my mistake, alerted me, and I changed my post.   It turns out that the usually sleeker hairdo of the Common Mergansers can be easily ruffled by the wind, their hairdos then appearing very similar to the more permanently dishevelled Red-breasted.  Alex was kind enough to take the time to write me with the following clarification: “The key characteristics for Red-breasted Mergansers are a thinner bill, tan head, and weakly contrasting tan head and gray breast.  Common Mergansers have thicker bills, chestnut heads and sharply contrasting head/breast line.”   (My mother told me to pay more attention to the  ring around my tomboy  neck.)   Here is a photo from Google of a Red-breasted Merganser on the left  and the actual San Lorenzo River  Common Merganser (with babies)  that I posted last week on the right – next to each other for the serious birders to pore over:


Click here for my City checklist this week and here for my Tannery checklist.

As readers probably already know, Mauro Garcia, the head of Parks and Recreation, suddenly left the position last month.  The Department has invited community members to fill out a survey and submit it by June 22Please do that! Emphasize that the Department should do a nationwide search for someone with strong environmental qualifications.  Parks and Recreation is in charge of our most valuable natural areas – Pogonip, Arana Gulch, San Lorenzo Park, Moore Creek, De Laveaga, Jessie St. Marsh and others.  Here is the link to the survey.  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NKKBKXS

You can also call (831) 420-5045 for more information.  It would be great if some people could write actual letters.

Happy Birding to all.


















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…

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.

“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.

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.

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.


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?


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.