Treasure in the Tules

Leaving the nest to fish near the tules
Leaving the nest to fish near the tules.  Photo by Barbara Riverwoman August 27,  2015

September 4, 2015

Dear Jane,

So many stories in your last two posts that sang out, especially the mysterious Guard Goose calmly supervising the breach of the sand bar! Magical realism of the San Lorenzo River.

Sorry I have fallen behind in posting. As you know, on August 9 I took a sunset walk along the River, discovered a nest of PIED-BILLED GREBES, and my heart got left in the tules for four weeks. It’s still there.

It all really started on August 7th as you and I were having a cup of tea in my backyard at the El Rio Mobile Home Park, conveniently backed up against the River. You suddenly cocked your head like a startled bird, looking alarmed. “Are those chain saws?”  I had been too busy talking to hear the threat.  You insisted we go up immediately and find out what was happening. We abandoned our tea and went through the back gate. And there they were,

August 12 Vegetation Removal
August 12 Vegetation Removal

the city crew that strips the slopes of the levee each year in the name of flood control –  busily carrying out their grim task. Neither of us could talk.  As you wrote in your last post, it felt like a ‘stab in the heart’.

Two days later on Sunday, August 9th , I forced myself to go back up on the river to look at the damage. I didn’t want to. It would be a painful sight. I chose to go out in the evening, maybe feeling that the effect would be softened in the dusk, maybe more consonant with my melancholy mood. What led me to the east side of the river when I usually walk on the west side? How did I see the nest in the dusk? How could I possibly have found something so well concealed in the thick stand of tules (bulrushes) from 75 feet away? There must have been some slight movement that caught my eye. I can’t remember. I focused my binoculars as well as I could. It was dim, but I guessed I was seeing a Pied-billed Grebe, seeming to rest on a patch of reeds. Could it be a nest at this late date? Where exactly did Pied-billed Grebes nest? Was the universe leading a worried person to where she belonged.

I was anxious to get out early the next morning to explore what I had seen, and to get photos. This was Monday, the 10th, and I knew that if there were really a viable nest, I would need to notify the Public Works Department immediately and try to stop the vegetation removal crew from cutting in that area. The site was between Soquel and Laurel.  The cutting crew was moving downstream in that direction.

Yes! There she was, just as I remembered her from the evening before, sitting quietly on what indeed appeared to be a nest, in some kind of deep grebe meditation.

August 10, Pied-billed Grebe on Nest
August 10, Pied-billed Grebe on Nest                                                Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

After I had watched her for about a half hour, she got off her perch to nibble briefly at some nearby water plants – and there they were. Four shining white eggs!

August 10, Pied-billed Grebe Eggs
August 10, Pied-billed Grebe Eggs

This was a late nest, something the city calendar did not take into account.  I found out that Pied-billed Grebes often have two broods, especially if the first one failed. I was grateful for my new camera which I’d received only a month earlier,  with its optical zoom of 60 X magnification.  I could document the nest from 75 feet away on top of the levee, without scaring the little family.

Thank goodness our good City has withstood  pressure from the Army Corps of Engineers who would prefer to  completely denude the riverbanks. The ACOE would never have left that thick stand of tules along the river’s edge.  But thankfully, in 2002,  our City, under an environmentally concerned city council,  commissioned a study that recommended that we leave a 5-foot wide strip of  willows, tules and cattails along the edge of the river to provide habitat for birds and fish. The Council approved this, and it has been policy since then. Unfortunately, that was our last truly environmental council.  But that earlier Council left its legacy.  This nest existed due to their foresight.   But would it survive the ACOE inspired chainsaws?

I didn’t want to leave the nest, but I knew I had to alert the Public Works Department which is in charge of flood control. Fortunately, I immediately got through to the head of the section. Public Works is committed to protecting birds during the breeding season and trains its workers on what to do if a nest is found. But breeding season is considered to last only through August 1.  The grebes weren’t observing this schedule.   The woman I talked to at Public Works was helpful.  She said she would immediately contact the city biologist to confirm the sighting, and would also contact the head of the company contracting to do the vegetation removal. As soon as I got off the phone, I sent my photos to Public Works, the city biologist and the head of Parks and Recreations. I wanted to make it as real for them as it was for me.   I can tell you, Jane, that I was in quite a state of agitation.

I was still worried that the crew on the ground might not get the message soon enough. I needed to talk with them directly.  I hurried back to the river and followed the sound of the chainsaws. Fortunately they were still behind my house. between Highway 1 and the Water St. Bridge.   The owner’s son was just hauling out a lovely Black Cottonwood tree that had grown to more than the 6” diameter allowed by ACOE. Aaaaah! That was one of the trees that I had hoped could be spared. Too late. Native Black Cottonwood downed

Jonathan, the son of the owner, stopped his tractor when he saw me. We had met the previous year when I was racing around rather frantically trying to figure out what was happening.  He told me he also felt terrible about taking the tree out. He had even phoned in an appeal, but was told that the flood control policy required removal. We commiserated together. (I brought a leaf home and it is still on my table, all dried up.)

I told Jonathan about the nest, exactly where it was located, told him that I had notified his boss at Public Works, and told him that I was worried that his father wouldn’t get the information in time. Jonathan said he thought it would take about a week to reach the nest.  He would definitely tell his dad, he told me.  It seems I might have found the nest in the nick of time!!!!

I found out the next day that the City biologist had been promptly notified, had visited the site, confirmed the nest, and recommended that the City prohibit any flood control work 500 feet from the nest on both sides!  Within days, bright orange ribbons were hanging from the grasses to mark the spot beyond which the chainsaws and tractors were forbidden to enter. Another large orange ribbon was hung close to the nest. A loud cheer from my direction!

I felt so grateful to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife which protects breeding birds. And I felt grateful to our City for responding quickly to the state orders. But I was feeling shaken at the same time. This whole little drama shouldn’t be happening. August 1 was too early a date to start the flood control work. Birds were still nesting and raising their young.  I would work to change that for 2016.

From that day on, I visited the site every day. Then, on August 15, just six days after my discovery, I was treated to my first view of two baby Pied-billed Grebes with their amazing and comical facial markings – large eyes, bright red beaks, crisp black and white striped faces, so different from their plain brown parents.

Waiting for mom to come home
A floating nest woven of tules and secured to a few tules anchored in mud.
Two baby grebes in harlequin masks
Two baby grebes in harlequin masks

Strangely, there were still four eggs on the nest. Had the first two babies been there all along, hidden somewhere? Were they too small to detect from my position 75 feet away? Were they from a different clutch, or just hatched earlier. I didn’t know. But I fell in love with them immediately. I felt as if I were joining their two parents as a kind of fierce grandmother grebe! I felt responsible for them. But I was determined to be a grandmother who kept her distance, no matter how tempting it might have been to get closer.

Mom in lower left hand corner keeping a close watch
Mom in lower left hand corner keeping a close watch on two hatchlings.  Can you find her?

I started taking my new portable birding chair with me, sitting atop the levee for hours with my binoculars trained on one spot and my camera hanging from my wrist, ready to capture any new action. Half the time, I couldn’t really see what I was shooting. I would see a movement with my binoculars, switch to my camera, click away blindly, unable to see what I was getting. I would come home, upload the photos onto my computer, and then pore over them at length, looking for I didn’t know what. On the computer I would see things I hadn’t seen with my binoculars – a tiny striped face peeking out between two tules,

Peeking through the tules
Peeking through the tules

or the mother hiding in the water next to the nest with just her head in view. The process was very exciting. But how could I expect others to appreciate what was there if even I had trouble with all my equipment and spare time?

On August 21, I was again sitting at the top of the levee, perched on my new chair, when the clean-up crew arrived with their chainsaws, just 500 feet from where I sat. I hadn’t known this would be the day. I ran down to meet them.   I was surprised at how anxious I was, my heart beating. Was it really necessary to remove all this vegetation to protect the City from flooding? How much of this devastation was triggered by the city’s efforts to drive the homeless population off the levee banks? Was destroying so much wildlife habitat a legitimate way to respond to the problem of homelessness?

Worker observes 500 foot orange flag Cuts only downstream of flag.
Worker observes 500 foot orange flag.  Cuts only downstream of flag.

As I ruminated on these dismal thoughts, suddenly all the players in this small drama started showing up. First the head of the cutting crew lumbered up in his tractor. Then two section heads from Public Works , then the City biologist. I was meeting some of them for the first time in person. The five of us talked amicably, watching the workers and the nest for at least a half hour. I was extremely gratified that the City was responding with this much concern. Of course, they were all under orders from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. But I could tell that they were genuinely interested in the existence of the nest and committed to protecting it. The biologist and I lent the others our binoculars. I just wished members of the Coastal Watershed Council could have joined our spontaneous little gathering and seen what we were seeing.  I knew that if they had succeeded in their dream of getting paddlers on the river this fall, this little nest would surely not have survived. I was sure of it.

The cutting crew was keeping its distance from the nest, but it was still so noisy. I worried about the mother being freaked out. The two hatchlings continued  on the nest and the mother/father pretty soon returned with food. I then noticed the strangest thing. When a parent would return, the two babies would crawl onto her back, then burrow underneath her feathers! What a cozy spot. Babies on top, eggs underneath! I could see the fluttering movement under the wings.    This explained where the babies had been hiding during those first days.

Hiding Under Mom's Wings
August 22, hiding under mom’s wings, the last day I observed two hatchlings.

On August 24, my notes expressed concern. I realized I hadn’t seen two babies since August 22nd, the day after the cutting.  Slowly, I began to sadly accept the reality that one of the hatchlings had been lost. I was surprised at how much this affected me emotionally. Was it a raccoon? A gull? Birds of North America reports an observation of a GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL plucking a 2-week old grebe off the water and flying away with it. My grand-baby grebe would have been in that age range and there were sometimes gulls on the water near the nest. Or could there have been a connection with the vegetation removal?  I would never know.

I was also slowly coming to grips with the strange reality that the number of eggs was gradually diminishing with no more hatchlings appearing. On the 24th I also wrote in my notes that one of the four eggs had been moved over to the edge of the nest, away from the others.

Sad-eyed mom bidding farewell to no longer viable egg?
Sad-eyed mom bidding farewell to no longer viable egg? Egg about to be pushed into water.

The mother was also spending up to 20 minutes away from the nest. This was very different than her earlier behavior when the nest was never left unattended for more than 2 or 3 minutes, the mother staying close to the nest, just nibbling at water plants. Now she/he was nowhere in sight near the nest and was presumably out fishing on the river. I e-mailed the city biologist about it and he responded that he thought the remaining eggs might not be viable. “Time will tell”, he wrote, “the mortality rate is often quite high.” On August 25 I counted only two eggs left on the nest. Time was indeed telling a somewhat chilling story.

August 27th was a big day for me. I wonder if the parents and remaining baby were as excited as I was. I had gotten to the river about 8 a.m. and had been watching for almost two hours. The mother had been off the nest the whole time, leaving the one remaining baby alone with the remaining two eggs. Sometimes I could see a parent fishing about 500 feet downstream, just about where the orange marker was. Most of the time I couldn’t see him/her at all, either out of sight or under the water. (Another name for this species is ‘devil diver’ and, indeed, they seem to disappear for long periods without surfacing. According to Birds of North America, they are very fast swimmers underwater, using their powerful legs, placed far back on their bodies, to zigzag in a way impossible for most waterfowl. ) I had just stood up to head home, and was taking one more look at the river when, for the first time, I saw the baby with its parent out on the river! I was thrilled.

August 27, First day out in the big world
August 27, First sight of baby out in the big world                               Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

The tiny hatchling was sticking so close to the mother that at first I thought it was just one bird. How had they slipped past my focussed attention? I thought I hadn’t taken my eyes off of them. I hadn’t seen the mother either arrive to pick up the baby, or the baby leave. They made the transition with great stealth, no doubt to keep potential predators from locating the nest. (I suspect they were aware of me.) I started snapping photos madly, leaving my chair behind as I followed the little twosome upstream until they disappeared somewhere back into the tules. I waited and waited but they didn’t reappear. Fortunately my chair was still there when I got back to my spot. When I got home and uploaded my photos, I discovered that I had snapped 433 photos! Only a few turned out, but those are precious to me.

August 27 Discussing the days plans?
August 27 Discussing the days plans?                                                    Photo by Barbara Riverwoman
I'm with you, Dad!
August 27, I’m with you, Dad!                                                                   Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

I have seen the baby out on the river with its parent almost everyday since then, for longer periods. The last egg disappeared on September 3rd. My little zebra grand baby was the sole survivor out of a possible six. I thought it was time that I write some of this down.

My gratitude to you, Jane, for introducing me to this mysterious and wonderful world. The birds and I will miss you while you are in Germany. Have a great time.


6 thoughts on “Treasure in the Tules

  1. Oh, Barbara, if you hadnt acted, if , if, if. You are a warrior, a treasure as are these birds, precious and like the flap of the wing of a butterfly, it all matters, they all matter, and you matter. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. The most joyful warrior work I’ve ever done. Old age is feeling good right now.

  2. Thank you for saving this nest, Barbara. Awesome work 🙂 Great pics too. Best,Deb From: San Lorenzo River Mysteries To: Sent: Tuesday, September 8, 2015 5:40 PM Subject: [New post] Treasure in the Tules #yiv4679769994 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4679769994 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4679769994 a.yiv4679769994primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4679769994 a.yiv4679769994primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4679769994 a.yiv4679769994primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4679769994 a.yiv4679769994primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4679769994 | Barbara Riverwoman posted: “September 4, 2015Dear Jane,So many stories in your last two posts that sang out, especially the mysterious Guard Goose calmly supervising the breach of the sand bar! Magical realism of the San Lorenzo River.Sorry I have fallen behind in po” | |

    1. Thank you for your much more difficult labors on protecting our community water supplies. (For those of you who don’t know Deb, she has done important research on the dangers of recycled water as a potable water source for Santa Cruz and has played an important role in WSAC determinations.)

  3. I loved hearing about the discovery of this late nest and all the efforts that went into protecting it. Thank you for giving me a window into this world of the river which I otherwise wouldn’t know anything about. I am moved by Barbara and Jane’s dedication and passion about the birds on the river and love reading the posts. I could vividly imagine both of you dropping your tea to run immediately to where the sound of chain saws were perhaps endangering the birds you love so much. Thank you for creating this blog and sharing with us.

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