Hawks and Herons – Not!

Dear Jane,

You certainly have a gift for observing, and fondly appreciating,  the individual quirks of these feathered friends of yours.  It was a pleasure to get to know Ms. Petite through your eyes.

Well, this morning surprises were abundant! My plan was to just take a peek at the River, then get on with the day.  But once down there I got drawn deeper into the land of mysteries, returning two hours later.mud nest

The first mystery was wondering who was peeking out of a supposedly unoccupied mud nest under the Water St. Bridge. I suspected it might be a HOUSE SPARROW although I couldn’t see clearly. I remembered last year feeling indignant when I saw them taking over the nests that the cliff swallows had worked so hard to build.   Have these sparrows been holed up there all winter without my knowing? By the time I had clambered down from the levee walk, hoping to take a photo of the little squatter, the bird had either withdrawn deeper into its occupied hollow, or flown off. There were lots of house sparrows perched in the nearby willows, singing their ironic ‘cheer up’ song, so I don’t think my suspicions were far off.

Moving closer to the River, my heart leapt when I saw a large figure perched on a low branch, close down by  the river. It was acting like a heron but it looked like a hawk to me.

Laughing Night-heronP1070186
But what was a hawk doing perched down so low? I missed seeing that its beak was tucked behind its breast. Still I should have known. Hawks don’t have green feet for one thing. Finally, when it woke up, I saw its beak and decided it was not a hawk, but a green heron. I have been wanting all winter to see a green heron on the river, and ‘lo’, a green heron materialized under the power of my wishfulness. It was only when I got home and looked up my “green heron” in Sibley that I realized it was a BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON, not in its stylish and more familiar black and white coat,  but in its mottled juvenile plumage. One more lesson for me in the humbling game of bird identification.  I share a photo that makes the heron look like he is having a big laugh at my expense.

As I was staring at the hawk/heron/night-heron, I heard a noise behind me and was  startled to see a lanky man emerge from the willow thickets, carrying a large black plastic bag. I glanced at him quickly, but he didn’t seem friendly, so I mumbled a quick ‘hello’ and went back to my bird watching. I wondered if I should leave, but I was in plain view of the levee and I felt safe. I craned my neck back and forth, watching both the bird and the man.

StuartA storm was moving in, and the man was busy breaking down his site, piling a bicycle, skateboard and duffel bag close to where I was standing. I thought I’d try again. I told him I’d noticed that he was cleaning up his campsite really well and asked him if he would be willing to let me take a photo of his pile of possessions as well as his neat-as-a-pin campsite. I told him that I thought people would be interested in this image that contradicted a popular stereotype. He seemed happy to comply, even letting me take his photo. clean siteAfter that, we talked for about a half an hour. He talked a lot about the Ohlones, the movie Little Big Man, the Spanish explorer Cabrillo (whose arrival he said signaled the beginning of the end of the Ohlones), Take Back Santa Cruz and how he would survive the upcoming storm. He said he cleans up after others, and considers himself a steward of the land. I didn’t ask his name but will call him Stuart. He knew the heron well and showed me where it usually perches when it is actively fishing, down closer to the water and the bridge.  I told him about my blog and asked him if I could write about him. He agreed. I asked him to keep a watch on the night-heron for me.

2 thoughts on “Hawks and Herons – Not!

  1. Such a beautiful and moving account of a few hours by the river. Told with insight and a deft narrative that brings the fruits of bird watching to those of us who are unobservant. And then coupled with an empathetic connection with a human river dweller, whose story and value are so seldom recognized.

  2. What a beautiful and moving narrative of a few hours by the river. It opens up the world to those of us who are not bird watchers with deft description of the quiet goings-on, bird and human. And an empathetic sketch of a human river dweller whom few of us encounter with such warmth of understanding. I felt as if I was there.

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