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Families at Risk

Dear Jane,

Oh, I am so upset. Up until recently I hadn’t really taken time to study the much- discussed Audubon Report on Climate Change that came out last September. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I did.  It was shocking. 314 birds in North America will be faced with severe habitat destruction due to climate change. And 61 of those bird species live right here on our River. Reading that report was like reading a list of friends and relatives condemned to death.

I hate to tell you who is on that list from our own San Lorenzo River. Among them is this dear little family of our year-round residents, the COMMON MERGANSERS. I saw these diving ducks on a Bird Club walk just a couple of weeks ago – just after I read the Report. They were swimming peacefully near the San Lorenzo Park footbridge, unaware of the Damocles Sword that hung over their heads. (Jeff Bleam, a wonderful local bird photographer, took the photo.)

The lead writer of the Audubon Report talked about his reaction when the results of the research came in. I felt the same way.

“That was just a punch in the gut. When you realize that only nine bird species have gone extinct in continental North America in modern times, and then you see that we’re looking at 314 North American bird species at risk by the end of this century—it just takes your breath away.”

The Report talks about each of the 314 birds on the climate endangered or threatened list. It predicts that Common Mergansers will lose 72 percent of their current summer breeding range. The Report’s climate models show that the narrow California coastal strip that our mergansers now occupy will continue to be habitable in the summer. Our birds will probably stay here to breed.

But according to the map, Common Mergansers just slightly inland will suffer major losses to their breeding grounds. Will they be pushed way up into the Arctic Tundra like many other North American mergansers are predicted to do?  If they go into the tundra will they find the tree cavities they usually use to build their nests? Can they adapt to the stress, the long trip, the lack of appropriate nesting sites?

Who knows?  But when I look at the maps, and if I were a Common Merganser in Central California, I would head for Santa Cruz.   Will we protect the habitat for these possible new arrivals? Will there be enough space and food for everybody to thrive? These maps challenge us to think not only about the present but about the future. Here is the link to the section on the Common Merganser if you want to read more. The research is awesome, the data horrifying.

Is our community thinking about the future of our wildlife?  Watching the current controversy about kayaking on the River makes one wonder.   Remember last summer when you suggested that I go out on the River and help document the effect of kayaking on the birds? I was shocked at what I saw with my own eyes, and what I heard others report.  I watched a family of one mother and three juveniles as they struggled to avoid one paddler after another, a struggle that went on for three hours. It was very sad. They had to face 26 paddlers coming down the river in groups of two or three. The birds would be forced to swim upstream trying their best to avoid the paddlers as the paddlers bore down on them. The mergansers barely avoided one group when another group would descend. This happened again and again. It robbed the birds of three hours of fishing time.  I can imagine that if I were a juvenile Common Merganser, I would not only be hungry but I’d be pretty exhausted and stressed at the end of the day. But at least they had a month to rest up between Pilot Projects that were scheduled only once a month for three hours. Imagine the effect on birds if the City allows there to  be boating on a daily basis, sunrise to sunset, as some boaters are pushing for.

As the Audubon Report makes clear, the birds have nowhere else to go. The folks with the canoes, paddle boards, kayaks and inflatables can go out on the ocean or down to Elkhorn Slough. For those folks it is about having fun. For the birds it is about survival.   I hope our City Council will decide to keep the ordinance against boating on the River.  There is no compelling reason not to and a very compelling reason to keep it.

I feel so grateful to you for raising my awareness about this struggle.


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