Little Green Frog of Hope

green gree frog

Good Morning Jane,

As usual I loved your last post. So glad you got to look into the eyes of your dear GREEN HERON, even if she was watching you warily.   I know you have missed her. And so glad you keep pushing for the City to hire an environmental coordinator.  Your persistence matches that of the Green Heron!

Speaking of Green Herons, I went out after dark under a full moon last week with my neighbor and bird lover, Michael Levy.  And who was there but a Green Heron – hopping rather clumsily from rock to rock under the Water St. Bridge.  She would first stare at the water and then snap a treasure from its bosom! I’ve never seen such a frisky Green Heron. Was it the full moon or the night or both? My friend also identified the call of a BARN OWL. There’s more to this river than any of us suspect! Are there other owls out there? I strongly recommend birding at night under a full moon. It was magical.

The last weeks have been a schlep!  As you well know, quite a few of us (including you!) got very involved with trying to protect Jessie St. Marsh last week. Poor Jessie St. Marsh! It is so misunderstood and mistreated, yet so magnificent in its own modest way. Here is a somewhat simplified, personalized version of the latest chapter in this mournful tale.

On June 14, the Parks and Recreation Department casually notified a very small group called the Friends of Jessie St. Marsh that the City intended to move up the annual mowing date at the Marsh from October to June 20. Six days notice! We were blindsided! The Sierra Club had been preparing to hold some kind of educational event on Jessie St. Marsh before the normal October onslaught, hoping to bring more awareness to the site before the mighty charge of the Chainsaw Brigade. That date was destined for the dustbin, postponed to later in the fall.   Was the City really going to start ripping through the tules right in the middle of nesting season? The legal agreement between Fish and Wildlife and the City states clearly that July 15 is the official end of nesting season and absolutely the earliest date they can begin cutting. How could they get away with this? It has been bad enough that the City has artificially blocked river water from entering the Marsh for decades. Bad enough that they cut the Marsh to the ground every fall. Now they were going to do the damage in nesting season. What would they think of next? Furthermore, the crew that the City hired to do the work was made up of prisoners from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. As far as I know, these crews are not used in any other sensitive habitat in the county.  They are not trained to work in this kind of sensitive area.

I asked a Parks and Rec staff member who was on site to tell me why they were doing this. First he said “stream flow”.  That was a little difficult to grasp since there is no stream to speak of.  Then he added, “health and safety.’ I said, “You mean driving the drug dealers and prostitutes out of the Marsh?” He gave a hardly detectable nod of his head. But he nodded.

The simple truth is that the police can’t or don’t want to deal with all the illegal activity that is admittedly well hidden behind the tules and cattails. Indeed, while I was at the Marsh, I ran into a woman loading her car with box after box.  She was taking her two children and moving to Felton.  She couldn’t stand the drug dealing and prostitution in what was essentially her backyard.   I can’t blame her. Santa Cruz has a big problem.  But destroying a critical and sensitive wetland area is just not an acceptable solution. There are far better solutions.  The best one in most peoples’ opinions is to  open an already existing slide gate between the Marsh and the San Lorenzo Lagoon that would allow lagoon water back into  the Marsh. This would solve two problems – it would drive out the illegal activity and it would bring back life to the Marsh. When we ask about this, we are told that the needed upgrade to the slide gate costs too much money. But because the JSM project is a required mitigation measure for the Wastewater Treatment Plant expansion project, a funding stream is already established – from the Sewer Fund. What happened to this money during the last 25 years? This is the conversation we must have with our community.

Anyway, back to the present-day story. Rachel O’Malley is the the go-to person for Jessie St. Marsh.  She is a professor of environmental studies at San Jose University and has been valiantly struggling with the City over this issue for 25 years. Supporters began peppering the City with letters. Was it legal to begin so early? Did they have special permission from CDFW? Had they sent a qualified biologist to survey the area for nests as required by the Streambed Alteration Agreement? Were native plants marked for protection? Was someone with environmental knowledge going to monitor the vegetation removal?

Two days before doomsday, I asked my native plant loving friend, Batya Kagan, an environmental educator, to go out to the Marsh with me and see if we could find native plants. I was amazed as she pointed out one native after another, half the names like a foreign language to me – potentilla, juncus, joema, scirpus, smartweed, atriplex, blue oat grass – along with the more familiar wild rose, native blackberry, poison oak.

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Juncus in background, Blue Oat Grass in foreground

This list doesn’t include the hardy willows which are leveled each year and resurrect with a vengeance, but without a chance to become trees. How have all these plants withstood the predations of decades, coming back year after year! What resilience. I  also appreciated once again the large trees in the Park that are , for the most part, mercifully protected- the sprawling Box Elders, the luxuriant Sycamores and the magnificent Oaks, all native trees. I snapped photos madly,  labelled them as best I could, and sent them off to Parks and Recreation.  I tried my best to send a  clear message that there was so much native habitat in the Marsh that could not  possibly hide drug dealers. These plants should be protected at the very least! I copied my letter to the lawyer and to Fish and Wildlife, just for good measure!

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Oak tree

The next day, on Sunday , a small group of us birders (you were there!), as well as leading local birder Steve Gerow, came out to look at the birdlife of the Marsh. Steve identified 28 species, including four SONG SPARROWS, the species most vulnerable since they typically build their nests on the ground among the tules and cattails. The number included five migratory birds, the HOODED ORIOLE, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, PACIFIC SLOPE FLYCATCHER, NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW AND VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW.  I quickly sent all this information to Parks and Rec, hoping they might read their mail on the weekend.

On Monday, Doomsday, I went out to the Marsh at 8 a.m. No human activity yet. As I walked around the Marsh, I saw a SONG SPARROW singing at the top of its small lungs from the top of a Tule, then saw it dive into the dense tule undergrowth. I watched for quite a while and didn’t see it re-emerge. Feeding young? Nesting? Foraging for itself? Who knows.

At 8:30 I heard two voices, and within minutes two members of Parks and Recreation emerged, one the urban forester, Leslie Keedy, to whom many of us had written. To my surprise, she was busily marking all the native plants with small yellow flags.

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Yellow flags mark native blackberry, almost swallowed up by the invasive ivy.

I was thrilled. She told me that Parks and Rec had also sent out Gary Kittleson, a respected biologist and birder, to do an official search for nests. She said that this year she had instructed the crew not to cut the tules below knee height, so as to save the small green tree frogs that lived there.  Maybe I shouldn’t have felt so grateful for these small favors, considering the devastation that was about to take place. But I couldn’t help feel appreciation for the earnest attempts of a bureaucracy to do the right thing, at least on a small scale. Of course, we have to push much harder. I couldn’t ignore the fact that more than an acre of tules and cattails, precious wildlife habitat, was about to disappear. But I have to admit that I felt better because of the efforts that were being made.

At 10 a.m. about 25 orange-suited prisoners piled out of two bright red Cal Fire trucks.

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Cal Fire trucks

The words ‘California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation’ on the back of the prisoners’ suits signaled personal human tragedies as clearly as their chainsaws signaled the tragedy of a wetland. Black prisoners were disproportionately represented.

 

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Cal Fire crew

The spectre of drug dealers and prostitutes hung in the air, the presence of prisoners sent a chill, and the imminent destruction of what should be a beautiful and protected wetland – all took the glow off a lovely Santa Cruz day.

And yet there were the small yellow flags that Leslie had planted next to every native plant she could find, like so many bright wildflowers, reminding me of the sincere efforts of an urban forester to do what little she could do.

And then the terrible racket began.  A diabolic orchestra of at least 12 chainsaws and weed whackers competed with each other in a cacophonous roar.  To our surprise, after a short time, the crew stopped and quickly piled back into the big red trucks,  called away to a fire.  This gave me a chance to  walk back into the proscribed area.  I immediately  noticed that the tules were being cut to the ground, contrary to Leslie’s orders.

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Tules cut to the ground.

I pointed this out to Leslie when she returned from a meeting.   She looked dismayed, her orders having gotten lost somehow when she had to leave.  The prisoners returned shortly afterwards, and this time she gave them a strongly worded lecture. I imagined that it was awkward to hold the weed whips at the angle she required, but Leslie stuck around to make sure the tules were left high enough to protect the frogs and other small creatures who might live there.   This time they followed her instructions.  Vicki Winters, another Friends of Jessie St. Marsh stalwart,  and I stuck around for awhile, watching from a neighbor ‘s house whose backyard faced the Marsh.  It was grim.  There was nothing more we could do, so we went home.

The next morning  I forced myself to go back to take a look. Although my heart sank at the fallen tule marsh, I was amazed at how beautiful the protected parts were – a lovely native garden stretched along the path, a garden that looked as if it had been carefully landscaped. It had been waiting there all along to rise from the ruins.

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Surviving miracle  garden after chainsaws had their day!

 

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Knee-high tules where green frogs can still hide.  A few tules in foreground left uncut.

And the tules cut to knee height at least looked better.  Much more importantly, I hoped that they protected at least some wildlife.   As I stood there numbly trying to take it all in, a neighbor walked up with a small tree frog that he had captured in his house that morning, almost certainly a refugee from the Marsh. The neighbor was gently returning it to its home. Large-eyed and brilliant green, it was motionless, staring at us for a fraction of a second. Then it hopped off into the tules,  hopefully  a harbinger of the future.

But I didn’t see a single Song Sparrow.

As for the San Lorenzo River, you can understand why I didn’t get out there much.  But I did see more babies and teens the few times I made it out. Most exciting was a mother PIED-BILLED GREBE and her two young. One of the teens kept dashing up to its mom, pressing her with its beak in a plea for more food. Mama was impatient and chased it away again and again. It was absorbing to watch.  The shift of baby birds from dependence to independence is always fascinating.  Like human babies, they don’t want to give up the bottle.  I’m so happy that at least one family has successfully bred on the river again this year!  If we could only solve the sedimentation problem, I know there would be many more.  Fish don’t do well with so much sedimentation.  And Grebes need fish!

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Two young grebes struggling over some delicacy in river behind the Tannery.

 

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Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe squawking and chasing mother, saying, “I’m hungry!”

The most talked about birds on the River this week were a very solicitous Mama and Papa CANADA GOOSE with five young ones, hanging around the Duck Pond.  I also saw baby swallows hanging out on a telephone line as their parents flew back and forth again and again, bringing goodies. And I discovered a MOURNING DOVE building a nest in a sycamore near Highway 1.  Nesting and breeding season is not over!

Long live the Green Frogs, the Green Herons, the Pied-billed Grebes, the Canada Geese, the Song Sparrows and all the rest of creation.   “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir”!

Barbara

P.S. A small group of amateur naturalists (like us!) has a wonderful Facebook site called Santa Cruz Critter Club. Local nature lovers post photos of bugs, butterflies, plants, reptiles, mammals, mushrooms, and just about anything natural from all over the County. Several of the most regular posters live near the River and often post flora and fauna that live on our River.  I strongly recommend this site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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