Oh, Jane! I have had such an amazing week watching all the activity related to bringing new generations of birds into being. I love birding on the River this time of year. My story unfortunately includes a slightly sad story at the end of my piece.
As I was settling down to write this blog last Friday, and thinking happily about all the birds I had seen on the River this week ( 49 species!) I also began to worry about what I hadn’t seen. Where were the GREEN HERONS I fell in love with last year? Where were the WOOD DUCKS? There had been at least one family of Wood Ducks last summer. I was worried.
Then, synchronistically, the phone rang, It was my friend Batya Kagan. She was excited. “Michael and I just saw a WOOD DUCK mother with five really tiny babies on the River,” she said. “I knew you would want to know.” “I can’t believe it, I said, “I was just writing my blog and thinking sadly that I hadn’t seen any Wood Ducks this spring. Where are you?!” “Behind the basketball arena.” I ran! Luckily, I got there in time to get a good look and take some photos.
The five babies were darting around like little firecrackers while the mother glided calmly in a circle, watching intently with her dramatically outlined eye, an avian Marcel Marceau! I couldn’t help thinking that the other species hanging around were also very interested in this drama. Three AMERICAN COOTS seemed to be swimming in and out among the babies very intentionally, for all the world like doting aunties. The mother seemingly utterly unperturbed by this bustling attention from another species. Perhaps she was even grateful, especially since the father was nowhere in sight. Sometimes a baby wandered a little too far away, then turned suddenly as if sensing danger. With just a few kicks of her feet, the baby seemed to absolutely lift off the water and and fly to her mom. She would snuggle up to her for just a few moments, then venture off again into the big world. A beautiful male COMMON MERGANSER seemed glued to all the fuss, hanging back more politely that the Coots, but watching the scene intently.
When I arrived, the family was swimming back and forth around a large log that jutted out into the river levee behind the Arena. I e-mailed Santa Cruz’ famous birder, Steve Gerow, and asked him where he thought they might have nested? He said that his best guess was that they nested upstream of Highway 1 where there are the older trees with cavities that they need for nesting, cavities caused by broken limbs, rot, large woodpeckers, etc. Unfortunately, the Parks and Recreation Department removes all such logs as a flood control measure. Maybe we could start a campaign to put hollow logs back on the river, but high enough so they won’t cause log jams.
Just as exciting for me this week was the hustle and bustle of close to 100 cliff swallows . First I saw them swarming the sky near the north side of the Soquel Bridge. I got dizzy just watching them. Suddenly, I saw about 20 or 30 of them take a collective plunge to the shore of the river and begin to very busily scoop up mud with their beaks. Then, just as suddenly, they took off together, heading to the nearby bridge and their crumbling nests from last year. I couldn’t tell if they were claiming nests or beginning to repair them, or both. At first there was a frenzy of birds squabbling over nests, then it seemed to quiet down. I’ve never seen this before and was mesmerized. These avian dramas unfold just steps away from the shoppers at Trader Joe’s and CVS, who live like I did until recently – in total ignorance of these heart-catching dramas unfolding under our noses. The people who do most often remark to me on these events are the homeless folks who sit for hours watching the river. This week I met one regular river camper who told me about an owl who hunts regularly between Water St. and Laurel, and can best be appreciated when the moon is full . Another commented cheerfully that ‘the swallows are back’ as he passed me on the footbridge. Another, reeking of alcohol, told me excitedly about the seal pups that are carried in with the tide in the lower river, the ones you talked about in your last blog. I feel a kinship with these people.
Every year about this time, Santa Cruz is graced by a very elegant migrant from Mexico, the HOODED ORIOLE, who travels all the way to Santa Cruz to raise its babies. I am always on the lookout for them but haven’t been too successful. Last week, I was birding at the southern end of the Benchlands and saw a flash of orange/yellow in a Bottlebrush Tree. The blur of color seemed too big to be one of the several bright yellow warblers that hang out this time of year along the river, and warblers don’t usually hang out in Bottlebrush trees as far as I know. Then I saw two very tall Mexican palms behind the Bottlebrush and knew there was a good chance that I had found a Hooded Oriole. These orioles love to nest in palms, which provide them with the thin filaments they need to weave together their pendulous nests. I had to wait almost 15 minutes until the bird darted to a nearby eucalyptus, and then after another wait, it
flew to the top of a nearby Redwood tree where I got a photo. I think it knew I was watching and was trying to distract me. I studied the palms for quite a while but so far haven’t seen a nest. Birding gets harder when you begin to realize that you may sometimes be disturbing the very creatures you love and want to protect. If it is nesting in the top of the Mexican Palm Tree, it should be quite safe. We sure don’t want to discourage these beautiful birds from visiting us in the future. Unlike the Chamber of Commerce, these are the out-of-town visitors that I get excited about!
On the other hand, it is still amazing to me how close some wild creatures are willing to get to humans. Why, for instance, does a COMMON RAVEN choose to build its nest on top of our County Building. Wondering about this, I checked my Bible, the BNA. It turns out that ravens like to build their nests on sea cliffs and rock quarries, so feel right at home on the cement ledges of the Courthouse. Might they actually prefer hanging out close to humans?
And finally, the sadder tale, though we don’t know the final outcome yet. On the same day that I saw the raven constructing it’s nest, April 11th, I ran into a crew of Parks and Rec folks weed whacking an area between the same County Building and the Duck Pond.
I asked the head of the crew why they were doing this at the peak of nesting season. She said they were beautifying the area for Earth Day! I pointed out to her that high grasses were habitat for ducks and other birds. The worker, apparently threatened by my questions, called her boss at Parks and Rec who told her that it was standard procedure, and that this was not habitat. I asked to talk to him directly but he declined, although he did call me the next day. I walked home very frustrated at all the unnecessary destruction of habitat in our world. Imagine my emotions six days later when my same friend Batya again brought me news that confirmed my fears. She told me she had seen a mallard mother in a completely exposed nest near the Duck Pond. Batya had also seen two eggs. I exclaimed, “That is the very area where they were weed whacking!” I immediately ran down there to see for myself. Sure enough, there was the mama mallard, completely exposed! Her hideaway in the tall grasses had been almost completely destroyed. But the determined mother was faithfully staying with her eggs. Some kind soul had put up a sign saying ‘Stay Away, Duck Nesting’. And there was a bowl of water next to the nest.
The next day I sent a letter with photos to the Department of Parks and Rec as well as to the City Manager and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Parks and Rec contacted me soon after to let me know that they had discovered the bird soon after I had left on April 11th. I also learned later that it was the Parks and Rec worker who was irritated at me who had put up the sign on that day and had taken a bowl of water to the bird. Later, I learned from some Park Rangers that they had seen the duck rebuilding its nest during the week. I am now in close contact with the staff at Parks and Rec and we are all anxiously watching to see what will become of a mother that has probably been traumatized and eggs that may have been left for too long to be viable. Let’s hope this story turns out well.
With deep bows to the River,