Fighting Coots and Dancing Mergansers

Dear Jane,

I never know what new surprise is going to entertain me on my river walks!  These two  AMERICAN COOTS may top the list of surprises!  They were part of a  wild melee going on last Friday near your end of the river.   I snapped a bunch of photos without being aware of  this detail.  Imagine my surprise when I uploaded the photos and saw what I had captured.  I stared and laughed out loud!    Was it love or play or a fight?  BNA came through for me again with an exact description of what I saw.  What a treasure trove of information.  Here is what it said:

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American Coots in territorial fight near San Lorenzo River mouth, November 25,  2016

“Opposing birds drive toward each other with elevated wing-tips and heads extended along water. First contact usually made by striking with bill, after which combatants begin to lie back in water, propped on their wings and tails, and strike with their feet, attempting to rake each other’s breasts with their claws. At same time, attempt to defend by grasping opponent’s feet. This often results in birds becoming locked together with their feet, while continuing to strike with their bills.”

During the group melee, I also got to observe another Coot doing what is called ‘splattering’.  In this maneuver,  a coot lifts off the water and runs across the surface on webbed feet in order to escape an attacker.  I wasn’t fast enough to capture a photo but here is a google image of a coot splattering – as well as an old photo I took of a Coot’s  surreal feet.

American Coot feet
‘Splattering’ – Google image

I was excited to see two migratory RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS last week – returning from somewhere in northern Canada or Alaska where they breed. They are rare enough on the River to not be listed on Steve Gerow’s list of regular users of the River.  They are also on the Audubon List of top Climate Endangered birds.  I wish everyone could have seen their incredible synchronized swimming and fishing. They arched and dove together, surfaced together, floated sideways with the current together, swam swiftly downstream together. It was beautiful. Later, watching them move independently, I wondered what that first display was all about. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of their dance.  Here is the only photo that that I managed to get – showing only one Red-breasted Merganser swimming along with her two much more common and year-round residents, the COMMON MERGANSERS.  She is the one in the back with the lighter, longer, more slender bill.

Two resident Common Mergansers with one migratory Red-breasted Merganser in rear.  San Lorenzo River, November 25, 2016

I remember you writing a long time ago about Coots forming strange friendships with other birds. I was thinking of this as I watched with great amusement one Coot joining a MALLARD family on its trip up river. I wondered if the Coot might be trying to get in on some food source, but I think that there is enough vegetarian fare to go around.  My guess is that the Coots are just very sociable and/or very curious. Other species seem to hang out pretty much with their own kind. Hurrah for the wild little hearts of the Coots.

8 mallards and 1 Coot.  Mallards have already paired up for the season.  Note 4 males and 4 females.  November 25,  2016


A little bit later I spied a PEREGRINE FALCON perched high on the communication tower on top of the County Building, next to San Lorenzo Park. This was another first for me on the river.   I wonder what is bringing the Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys up to my end of the river? Is the dining on birds and fish, respectively, better up here right now?  Or are they not getting what they need at your end?

Peregrine Falcon perched on communication tower on County Building, San Lorenzo Park, November 26, 2016

Another surprise for the day was when I followed a soft ‘chup’ sound and was rewarded with my first experience of a HERMIT THRUSH on the urban stretch of the river. She was perched on thick ivy growing up the cliff near the Riverbend Garden.

Hermit Thrush, near Riverbend Garden, November 25, 2016

To complete my adventure on the river, I found this juvenile RED-SHOULDERED HAWK perched atop a fence surrounding the Boardwalk maintenance yard. She didn’t move a muscle as a worker threw some trash into the dumpster right behind her. Is she that adapted to human activity? Or was she too young to know better, or too hungry or confused to be able to respond more appropriately? My own child has long flown the nest and now here I am worrying about a Red-shouldered Hawk. Once a mother, always a mother.

Red Shouldered Hawk
Unflappable (!) juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk, Boardwalk Maintenance Yard, November 25, 2016

On a negative note, I noticed that the Pump Track has been left in place so far, although I thought it was scheduled to be removed during the rainy season. It is halfway between the GREAT BLUE HERON in the photo and the tower with the Peregrine Falcon. I had to smile when a homeless man who sleeps near the pump track each night told me that some young homeless boys are having a lot of fun on the track!

Great Blue Heron near the San Lorenzo Park pump track.  November 26, 2016

On a positive note, it felt good to stand with so many others to chant and keep vigil by the river a couple of weeks ago in recognition of the Standing Rock protest -all of us River Protectors!


It was so fun reading your description of the complex overtures that EARED GREBES make in the process of bonding. Yes, I’m so grateful that these endangered birds are still making it here in spite of climate changes. And I’m so glad you had a chance to share your uniquely personal perspective on our birds with a community bird walk.

Here’s the eBird list I posted for last week – once again 28 species in about three hours.  May Santa Cruz continue to support and even improve this rich riparian habitat.

May All Bird Power Be With You!










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