Sitting Still

Dear Jane,

I had such a good time reading your latest piece, especially the account and unusual photo of the gull struggling with a lamprey. That’s a definite first for our blog! It’s so true that, as you said, almost all of this drama unfolds beneath the radar of all of us until we take the time to pay attention.

Since this is true, how do we alert our community to a threat to something they cannot see? This question is especially relevant right now as the Parks and Recreation Department gears up to put the finishing touches on its 15 year Master Plan. If our readers want a voice in what that Plan will look like we all need to get involved. Our open spaces and other wildlife areas are threatened. The best way to help right now is to attend the April 10 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission, 4 pm at the City Council chambers. This is a chance for everyone to express concern about the proposal to remove the Duck Pond in San Lorenzo Park, open up three new mountain bike trails in the Pogonip, introduce wildlife-threatening activities in Jessie St. Marsh, and more.   Let’s raise our voices! (See last paragraph in this post for more details.)


Now back to the birds! Since I’ve been struggling with a cold this week and didn’t feel like a long hike, I decided to take the advice of famous local birder, Jon Young (What the Robin Knows) and just sit still and see what birds came to me.

My sit spot next to large willow tree, across Benchlands from County Building

So yesterday at 11:30, not a good birding time, I chose a spot behind the County Building right next to the river. A large old willow beckoned to me. I hoped that its newly leafing branches, extending  over the river, might also attract some birds, even at this hour. I lugged my fold-up chair to the edge of the bank, sat down and was greeted by nothing. But as Young says, if you sit still, the birds will come.

And indeed, after about 10 minutes of waiting, they came! (I assume they had been watching me the whole time.) The first ones I spied were three RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS, high in the canopy, flitting frenetically from branch to branch, sometimes even hopping straight up from a branch as if it were a trampoline.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, google image

Especially on an overcast day like today, with one of my 80-year-old eyes clouded by a cataract, it is often hard to identify small, active birds far up in the trees. But the Kinglets give themselves away by hopping about more actively than just about any other bird in the tree canopy. They are even willing to expend extra energy by hovering in the air and fluttering their wings as they snatch an especially delectable insect in mid-flight. Since this hummingbird-like behavior is so unusual in a larger bird, I was able to identify the bird long before I got a glimpse of its white and black wing-bars and its distinctive broken eye-ring. Always fascinated by this bird’s extreme busyness, I decided to count how often the bird switched from one branch to another. I discovered that she rarely stayed longer than 3 seconds in one place. I guess the reality of chasing down  busy insects determines the behavior of these equally hyperactive birds.

Willow catkins, tasty treats for the House Finches

Not long afterwards, a small flock of 7 HOUSE FINCHES flew in, also hanging out at the top of the canopy and apparently driving the Kinglets elsewhere. The target of these non-carnivores was the soft and sweet new catkins that hung temptingly from all the branches. Since the catkins obviously do not require a chase, the finches stayed longer in each spot. But interestingly, they do not eat the whole catkin before moving on. On the contrary, they act as if they are at a wine tasting, taking just a few bites, then moving on to the next, as if checking out the unique quality of each catkin. I wonder if each catkin tastes a little different to a finnicky finch?

Suddenly a medium-sized brown bird whizzed by an open clearing at the bottom of the bank beneath my feet, disappearing into a tangle of dense willow thicket at the edge of the river. I guessed it might be a BEWICK’S WREN,

Bewick's Wren
Bewick’s Wren, google image

but hadn’t seen it clearly enough to be sure. A little later I heard a sound that was like a SONG SPARROW, but not a Song Sparrow, about as close as I have yet gotten to identifying the highly variable songs or calls of a Bewick’s Wren. I watched but didn’t see it fly out. I want to go back and see if by any chance the suspected wren is building a nest there.

I did clearly identify many SONG SPARROWS singing from a distance just up and down river, but not in the willow where I could identify them by sight.   I love to hear Song Sparrows, perhaps because they were one of the first birds I learned to identify by ear, and also because their songs are complex and varied. The most common songs of this ebullient species consist of three parts – an initial three or four sharp notes, then a buzzy sound, then some sort of more or less complex fillip at the end. But the variations are so many that sometimes this description doesn’t capture it at all – except that the typical three-part progression almost always gives it away. The Song Sparrows continued to serenade me throughout my 90 minute stay under the willow.

I saw only two of our very common BLACK PHOEBES,

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe, google image

one on each side of the river. As they are solitary birds and very territorial, I was not surprised. But I was surprised at the one that flew close to me, insistently repeating its usually more restrained single note call. Was it also involved in nesting and annoyed at my presence?

I was distracted from this thought by the sight of what seemed at first to be a pagan version of a Christian miracle – a MALLARD appearing to walk on water. Then I realized that he was simply hauling up on a barely submerged sandbar. This brought home again how much silt has been deposited in the river since the heavy rains began. I became worried about the little island just beyond my willow tree which has in the past provided lots of dense and protected willow cover for hiding and nesting birds. Now it seems like a bare sand bar, the few supine willows still brown and lying low. Or did the river racing along at 20,000 cubic-feet-per-second uproot most of the vegetation in the center of the stampeding river? I wonder if any of the foliage will come back.

Movement across the river caught my eye, revealing a CALIFORNIA TOWHEE scurrying along the muddy bank, then freezing and remaining motionless until I tired of watching. No feeding activity, no nesting. What was she doing?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement that turned out to be two CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEES hanging upside down in a dense young willow thicket – gleaning insects from the undersides of some young willow leaves. I wondered what they were doing here away from their preferred feeding areas in coniferous forests. . I have seen them more often in the tall redwoods along the eastern side of the Benchlands. Were they just stopping for a smoothy before going back to a real meal? Well – they are surely welcome

A light rain started to fall, quieting everything. As I began packing up to go home, I saw a spectral SNOWY EGRET slowly and gracefully winging its way northward under the darkening skies. Massive numbers of black cottonwood seeds, covered with their distinctive cottony white coverings, were also raining down around my head, covering my shoulders and joining the ubiquitous heralds of spring. Underlying all the sounds and sights of the morning was the ever present river, continuing to ripple over the barely submerged sand bar, producing a quiet and soothing song. I silently thanked Jon Young and the river and headed home.

In addition to all this, my friend Batya Kagan went out earlier this week along the stretch of river from Highway 1 to Soquel and wrote a small piece for our blog about becoming ‘enraptured by raptors’. Batya writes:

“ This week I saw RED-SHOULDERED HAWKS swooping around the County Building and then landing in the redwood trees in the Benchlands.  Later, near the bocce ball courts, Michael Levy and I saw a big skirmish between two accipiters, either hunting together or competing for some bird they were chasing.  One landed in a black cottonwood tree. We got a good look at it, finally concluding that it was a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK.

sharp shinned hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk, google image

We thought at first that it was a Cooper’s Hawk, but then the shorter tail and the less pronounced streaky breast led us to believe it was the Sharp-shinned Hawk.   Then today an OSPREY flew over the Bank of America building and landed in a redwood tree near the river.  This activity is in addition to the RED-TAILED HAWK I saw between Water and Highway when I last wrote, actively hunting along the edge of the river and clearly claiming this area as its territory. This river sure supports a lot of predatory birds.  I keep thinking about the PEREGRINE FALCON I finally saw at the river mouth as well.  All of this in just one small stretch of one urban river.  Amazing.

“Other sightings: Male and female COMMON MERGANSER in the pond at the San Lorenzo Park and then a couple of days later, a female COMMON MERGANSER swimming right next to a female COMMON GOLDENEYE like they were of the same clan.  (There were also a pair of Common Mergansers in the river in the shallows).

“In the same pond, I noticed that the AMERICAN COOTS were probably doing some sort of display with their back under-tail white spots really being splayed out and shown off.  Wonder if that is a mating display.  And do Mallards do a mating display of acting like a dipper, bobbing their heads up and down.  Hadn’t noticed that behavior before.  (Ed. Yes!)

“A BELTED KINGFISHER who is typically on the telephone wire over the river still is keeping his post, looking for some good fish for breakfast.

“Speaking of breakfast, there are a pair of MALLARDS that seem to have figured out to hang out under the Water Street Bridge – I have seen them there twice already.  They appear to be poking through the sand.  Since there are homeless people that sleep there all the time, I think they are finding scraps and have claimed this spot.

“Lots of sparrows… WHITE CROWN SPARROWS, SONG SPARROW.  And the swallows of course are back. “

Batya Kagan

I (Barbara again) also noticed a report from Jim Maughn in the Monterey Bay Bird Listserv of a sighting of a relatively rare PALM WARBLER near the Blaine St. entrance to the Riverwalk near the County Jail. He took this excellent photo and said he was happy to have us re-post it to our blog.

J. Maughn palm warbler .3.11 Blaoine St. jpg
Palm Warbler, Blaine St. east of Riverwalk, March 11, 2017 , photo by Jim Maughn

Now back to Parks and Recreation before I sign off on this rather longish blog! There is always so much to write! Congratulations to anyone who has read this far! I urge all readers to go to the newly updated Parks and Recreation website where you can now read about upcoming meetings of the Parks and Recreation Commission. Click Here.  The next scheduled one is for April 10 at 4 pm in the City Council Chambers. The agenda includes the San Lorenzo Park Redesign as well as the relationship of the Pogonip Master Plan to current proposals for mountain bikes! I hope many of you will show up! Many of us are especially concerned about the possibility of the City approving three added mountain bike trails in the Pogonip, one of which is proposed to be a downhill technical trail with lots of jumps and obstacles. Do we really want to turn the Pogonip into an amusement park for mostly well-muscled and well-heeled young men, many with $5000 mountain bikes – a rather narrow and already privileged slice of the demographic map of our community.  Do we really want to say good-bye to the quiet pleasure of our Duck Pond to make way for a possible large event venue, maybe large concerts with amplified sound?

See you at the Commission meeting, Jane!

Happy Spring Equinox!



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