Well, here I am – settling happily back into blogging after three weeks with family on the East Coast.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading your two blogs while I was away. I felt almost as giddy as the swallows you were describing with such glee! So good to have a human being (you!) walking this earth who thrills to the resilience, determination and strength of birds like the swallows! And I chuckled at your description of the fierce behavior of the Black Phoebes protecting their claimed territories. I have also noticed that these birds spread themselves out along the River about every 50 feet or so – and are always alone. Funny how bird behavior reflects some human behavior. Property rights and extreme individualism. Sounds familiar. Makes it so tempting to anthropomorphize. But, after all, we do share a common ancestry.
I carried my binoculars all the way east and back but was so engrossed with my newborn grandson that I never went to visit all the urban wildlife restoration areas I had so carefully researched. Anyway, I had the binos in my backpack as I got off the bus at Ocean and Water, wondering who would be on the River to welcome me back home. And lo and behold, there was a GREAT BLUE HERON to greet me. I don’t like royalty, but if there had to be a queen of the river, surely the heron would be the most qualified – so stately and dignified in her motionless grandeur. I actually think of her as more like a Taoist sage, sunk in deep meditation, holding the world together. I felt quite honored that she was the bird who first caught my eye.
I was just taking in the heron (with tears in my eyes, I admit) when I saw a SNOWY EGRET, closer than I have ever been to one, so close I could see it snapping up tiny fish at a ferocious rate ( every 10 seconds or so I counted at one point). I could see the hapless victims wriggling horizontally in her black beak, then disappearing down her throat as she deftly turned the fish lengthwise to swallow. I also observed something that I’ve never noticed before. After feeding for about fifteen minutes, the egret picked her dainty way on her bright yellow feet (clearly visible under the shallow water) up onto a projecting islet, where she immediately ejected a respectable amount of white poop. Then she walked back into another little pool of water on the other side of the small islet, where she immediately continued to snap up small fish. Did she deliberately avoid relieving herself in the water where she was fishing? I would like to think so. Of course, if we didn’t squeeze bird habitats so severely, it wouldn’t be a problem for any of us. ( My son sat on my camera on Easter Day so I must rely for a short while on Google images to illustrate what I saw. The fish my egret was catching were much smaller than the one pictured here. Also, just to let you know, I am deliberately giving up using the impersonal pronoun ‘it’ for birds. I wouldn’t call my grandchild ‘it’ and I don’t want to insult the birds with that term either. We are all too connected. When I don’t know the gender, or when the genders are indistinguishable -as in the case of Snowy Egrets – I will arbitrarily choose a gender!)
I then saw something else I had never seen – more surprises than I could have hoped for in the first five minutes of my return to the River! For the first time I saw the deep red color on the frontal shield of an AMERICAN COOT. I kept blinking and adjusting my binoculars, thinking at first that I was seeing one of the coot’s red eyes, but, no, the two red eyes were there in addition to the red on the frontal shield. Have you ever seen that? I thought the shield was always solid white. According to Birdipedia (another great source of info in addition to BNA) a frontal shield is made of up a‘hard or fleshy plate of specialized skin extending from the base of the upper bill over the forehead. The size, shape and color may exhibit testosterone-dependent variation in either sex during the year. Functionality appears to relate to protection of the face while feeding in dense vegetation, as well as to courtship display and territorial defense.
Since it is spring and the River is alive with mating and nest building, I have to assume the claret-red color has some relationship with these activities. (When I think of my new baby grandson, I think my forehead might just be glowing as well – kind of like acquiring a third eye where babies are concerned!) Here are two photos from Google Images that illustrate the difference. The shield in the first photo looks less red than I observed, but maybe it was the sun that gave it the glowing red appearance that I saw. It is so utterly mysterious how birds change their colors. We humans have nothing to compare to it, do we. Instead, we fill our closets with multi-hued clothing – following the same impulse, I suppose.
Yesterday, I took a lovely guided wildflower walk in the redwood forest at UCSC – sponsored by a group called the Santa Cruz Forest Keepers. The walk leader seemed to have such a deep sense of the ecology of the forest, how everything is connected in an intricate web of mutuality. I have a lot to learn from this group and hope to join more of their walks. I’d love to learn more about the native plant life of the River and what we can do to restore what has been lost. I aspire to be a River Keeper! The schedule of walks through June can be found at http://saveuppercampus.org/forestwalks.html
Happily Home on the River,