Babies Everywhere

Hi Jane,

I loved your rollicking tales about avian feminism! Good for the mama mallard who finally got fed up with the aggressive male mallards and fought back. I also applaud the long-suffering Red-tailed Hawk who chased off the pesky crows for a change. Great stories! Just for the record, though – I still admire crows.

The river is all about babies these days, isn’t it.  Have you noticed that the AMERICAN COOTS have just gone ‘poof’ – after having dominated the river all winter? I walked the length of the river last week and not a single one is left. Where do they go? I checked Sibley’s range map and it appears they are year-round residents throughout California. But not on our River. Then I decided to check eBird reports to see if they might have set up camp in another spot in our area. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw these photos taken by Steve Gerow just one day earlier at Upper Struve Slough in Watsonville.

Coot parent with babies,  Upper Struve Slough, Watsonville.  Photo by Steve Gerow

Not only are there coots in the Santa Cruz area, but they are now out swimming with their colorful new offspring. Having never even seen a photo of a coot baby, I was unprepared for this treat. Thanks, Steve! Even though these babies weren’t born on our River, I like to imagine that the coots who spent the winter with us on the river are now sending photos home of their babies. If so, the babies got started on our river!

We didn’t have that many Pied-billed Grebes this winter, and now they seem to have almost completely disappeared. I did see one a couple of weeks ago swimming alone upstream behind the Tannery. Was he/she possibly looking for a nesting site? Is the river downstream just too low for the grebes, whose specialty is diving for fish in deep water? You pointed out the problem of the sediment buildup. I think that may affect the nesting possibilities for the grebes who depend on reeds in deep water to build their floating nests. I wish I knew for sure why they don’t seem to be nesting here this year. Maybe there will be a late nest like last year. I think that nest was the only successful one of the year. But Pied-billed Grebe families have been reported recently at Schwan Lake in Santa Cruz, as well as Struve Slough, Moran Lake and Watsonville Slough in Watsonville.   I think I will have to go looking for these babies. I miss them. Check out this eBird link to see the photos of a family that Steve Gerow reported on last week in Upper Struve Slough.

Isn’t it fun! The river is just buzzing with baby MALLARDS. During my walks last week, from the Highway 1 bridge to the Riverside Bridge, I saw at least four different broods – at all different stages of growth – large, medium and small! And there is always a new story to tell. Unlike your story of males and females fighting each other, I saw a furious battle between two females, with lots of flapping, screeching, and aggressive lurches at each other. I was shocked when the battle culminated in one female chasing away the other female, who never reappeared.  I was drawn into this drama before I realized that there were 18 (!) baby mallards nearby, all happily feeding together on a lush patch of aquatic plants!

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Eighteen (18) baby Mallards near Laurel St. Bridge, May 10, 2016

Looking more closely at the babies, I saw that they were of two different ages, about 7 of them still at the downy stage and the other 11 a little bigger. I assumed that they were the offspring of the two battling females/mothers. Why couldn’t they tend the mixed group of babies together. What was the fight about, do you think? Was one female being kind, insisting that the other mother take a break and get some rest while she babysat the two broods? Or, as you proposed, perhaps one female was a frustrated mother with no brood of her own but with a strong maternal instinct still needing expression. Or one mother wanted all 18 babies? ‘Mysteries’ was a good choice for the title of our blog.


Another curious behavior that grabbed my attention was five slightly older mallard juveniles actively diving as if they were grebes!

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Five baby mallards diving near Riverside Bridge, May 15, 2016

They barely surfaced and then disappeared again, all five of them performing this un-mallardly feat over and over. Were they just having fun?   I laughed out loud! Here’s a photo of the five young ones, splashing and disappearing – mostly disappearing. I needed a video to convey this story.

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Five baby mallards diving, all underwater, May 15, 2016

I wrote about my excitement in finding a WOOD DUCK family in my last blog. Since then, I hadn’t seen any sign of them, nor had anyone else posted a sighting. But last week I was thrilled to  see at least one female Wood Duck hugging the bank just upstream from where I saw the family near the Stadium. I looked and looked, but no babies were visible. Were they hidden near the bank, somewhere behind the female? I hope so. I find Wood Duck mothers, with their large eyes, so beautiful – especially when they have flowers adorning their beaks and foreheads.

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Female Wood Duck near Stadium, May 10, 2016

It was fun running into you on Sunday and watching together the mad frenzy of nest restoration by 50 or 60 CLIFF SWALLOWS near the Riverside Bridge. What a scene! While you were there they seemed totally dedicated to carrying mud to the nests, but after you left I saw one swallow carrying a long strand of grass– so they may be entering stage two of their hard construction labors. Here’s an atypical photo of a Cliff Swallow sitting still for a moment. They must be the busiest birds in the world.

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Cliff Swallow, resting in abandoned nest, Riverside Bridge, May 15, 2016

Several days earlier I also saw a VIOLET GREEN SWALLOW carrying grass from the river, flying towards downtown.

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Violet-green Swallow, Google image

According to Gerow’s ‘122 Birds’, they like to nest in buildings, under eaves, then fly back to the river to gobble insects. In just the right light, I could see that the river was teeming with flying insects.  So far, I’ve never seen a Violet-Green Swallow nest but am still hoping. Maybe I should do more birding on Pacific Garden Mall!  Since swallows are almost impossible to photograph, I include Google images of the Violet-green and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.



Last year at this time, when I was beginning to figure out one swallow from another, I

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Google image

noticed that a NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW flew under the Water St. Bridge and seemed to completely disappear. I stared at the spot, incredulous, and then saw another one fly in and disappear. It turns out that there are vent holes under the bridge that they prefer for their nests. And sure enough, this week I saw one actually enter this hole. So intriguing – each species of swallow has a unique nesting preference.


HOUSE SPARROWS seem to have set up their headquarters next to the Water St. Bridge.

House Sparrow parent feeding young, May 10, 2016, near Soquel Bridge

Every time I pass this spot, I hear a loud chorus of ‘chirrups’ and then see lots of them flitting around in the willows near the river. (I never see such concentrations anywhere else along the river. ) As I mentioned last year, the House Sparrows took over some abandoned Cliff Swallow nests under the bridge. Maybe that is why the Cliff Swallows are mostly gone from the Water St. Bridge and seem to be concentrating their activities under the Soquel and Riverside bridges. House Sparrows are an ‘invasive’ species and not very popular with anyone. But I got my first view of a parent feeding a baby – very cute in spite of it’s bad reputation.


Finally, the broad, grassy area between the Highway 1 Bridge and Water St. Bridge is filled with RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS, warbling the liquid songs that I love, so familiar to me from my childhood in Minnesota.

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Red-winged Blackbird, May 9, 2016, near Highway 1 Bridge

This species, along with SONG SPARROWS and MALLARDS, all build nests in tall grasses and are therefore the most vulnerable to the ever present Parks and Recreation workers with their incessant efforts to tidy up the levee. I shudder every time I hear the sound of the mowers driving along the riverwalk.


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Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River, 2016

Last week while walking the levee near CVS, I suddenly realized I was only about 5 feet from a female mallard, who continued sitting in the grass along the Riverwalk even as I moved closer.

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Female Mallard in recently mown grass, May 10,  2016

Then I realized that she was sitting in a newly mown area where there had been tall grasses. I backed off fast, realizing that she could be protecting a nest. Or maybe just the memory of a nest?

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Same female Mallard near trash can on Riverwalk, near CVS.  May 10, 2016

I couldn’t see anything. We must talk again to Parks and Recreation about their reasons for mowing tall grass during nesting season. Is it really necessary? Fortunately, I think the Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows nest closer to the river and are not as vulnerable as Mallards. Mallards, unfortunately, have lost their fear of humans because of all the feeding. It is sad to see these confused mothers, sticking with their nests even when they are totally exposed. I checked out the nest near the Duck Pond which had also been mown by P & R and saw one broken egg shell in it.  I wonder what happened.

And some positive news that I know will gladden your heart – I saw two GREEN HERONS flying over the river last week on two successive days.  And then just this morning my friend Batya called me  to report a GREEN HERON perched on a branch over the River just down from the County Building – near the proposed pump track.  It’s now May and still no pump track.  Did the City change its mind?  Sure hope so. Anyway, I ran out to look for the Green Heron but missed it.  In the same area I saw  two SNOWY EGRETS waiting patiently for breakfast.  Glad to see them back after a winter when they seemed to find better fishing elsewhere in Santa Cruz.  The river was too high, I suspect.

Wishing you the playfulness of baby mallards and the determination of their mothers.







4 thoughts on “Babies Everywhere

  1. Maybe the baby mallards don’t yet know that they are supposed to be dabblers, not divers. If no one tells them, they will be “Free to be You and Me” and get to be both…let’s hear it for mallard liberation!

    1. It’s like language. All kinds of possibilities are available to babies and they try everything out. But if they aren’t part of the culture and don’t get reinforced they don’t persist. It’s good that lots of possibilities exist so that a species can be more adaptable. Maybe with climate change, mallards will have to start diving more.

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