Make Way for Ducklings…and Dowitchers and Dunlins

Dear Jane,

What a  commotion on the river these days!

Ten Baby Mallards
Mallard family crossing Riverwalk from behind Wells Fargo on Soquel to levee bank.

On Saturday, I practically stumbled over these ten tiny MALLARD ducklings near Wells Fargo, braving the bicyclists as they filed across the Riverwalk  to the levee.  How do they survive on such a busy corner? I’m afraid many may not.

The same day, I was also taken by complete surprise by a flock of 35 migrating LONG-BILLED/SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHERS. stopping to rest and eat before their long journey to the northernmost coast of Alaska.

Version 2
Part of a flock of 35 Long-billed/Short-billed Dowitchers in early breeding plumage, Mudflats below Riverside Bridge, May 29, 2017

Mixed in with the large Dowitcher flock was a  single DUNLIN and five WESTERN

Dunlin in foreground with Long-billed/Short-billed Dowitchers, April 29, 2017

SANDPIPERS, presumably also headed to their breeding grounds In  Alaska. I have never seen these ocean shorebirds as far upriver as the Riverside Bridge. I guess a positive aspect of the huge sediment buildup created by the rains this winter are the lovely mudflats that provide good habitat for these hard working long distance flyers. They settled in for hours, digging as methodically as little sewing machines for their yummy treats buried in the sand. They will need all the protein they can get for their long flight north. So fun to see these dull winter birds in their fresh new breeding plumage – the Dowitchers sporting their brick-red breasts, the single Dunlin with a new black patch on its belly, and the Western Sandpipers also tinged with rich ruddy colors. I wonder how this motley group came together for the trip north.

cropped Western sandpiper
Migrating Western Sandpipers, April 29, 2017, south of Riverside Bridge with Dowitcher flock.

As if this wasn’t enough excitement for a Saturday morning, I also got to watch a huge flock of CLIFF SWALLOWS (I counted 95) frenetically dashing back and forth between a muddy patch on the river bank and their nests under the Riverside Bridge – carrying small dabs of mud in their beaks. They must make hundreds, even thousands, of trips a day during this nest-building period.

Large flock of Cliff Swallows gathering mud for nests under Riverside Bridge, April 29, 2017

Gary Kittleson, a local biologist and regular consultant for the City on bird matters, went out on the river on the previous weekend and compiled an impressive list of 47 species in less than 3 hours! The list included a crow’s nest between Water and Highway 1, as well as a CANADA GOOSE nest with eggs in it just upstream from the Soquel Bridge. Today, I found six baby geese near the Water St Bridge, now hatched and busily fending for themselves as the parents kept guard.

CANADA GOOSE parents with 6 goslings  near Water St. Bridge, May 2, 2017

Gary’s list also included a rare LARK SPARROW, a handsome sparrow that he saw on the levee crest near the Seaside Parking Lot between the Trestle Bridge and Riverside Bridge. Thanks, Gary, for the great photo. So helpful to have Gary’s eyes on the river.

Lark Sparrow - Gary
Lark Sparrow, April 20, near Seaside Company parking lot, photo by Gary Kittleson

I tried to find the Lark Sparrow in the parking lot and saw a migratory HOODED ORIOLE instead – not a bad consolation prize. The lot is surrounded by palm trees – trees where these migratory birds from Central American like to build their nests.


I’m eagerly watching for signs of baby Pied-billed Grebes, Common Mergansers and Wood Ducks, all of whom bred on our river last summer. They generally appear later in the season so I’m not panicking.

I’m happy to report that just today I saw all three of the long anticipated interpretive signs on the river, just freshly unwrapped!   As promised, one is on birds and I  think it is very well done!!!!  The bird sign includes 11 species, and has information on feeding habits, nesting, and other behaviors.  I’ll be interested in what you think.  I will try to find out who we have to thank for the artwork and language.


Can you guess what  this next bird is?   It certainly had me stumped.

Mystery bird
Just-fledged European Starling, April 29, 2017, near Kaiser Arena

I sent it off to Steve Gerow and he told me that he guesses it is a just-fledged juvenile EUROPEAN STARLING. Thanks Steve! I wonder why some babies are so much more colorful than their parents – Pied-billed Grebes, for instance – and others so much less?

And just to fill out the story of unappreciated birds working hard on the next generation, here is a photo of a pigeon entering its chosen nesting site, undeterred by the heavy machinery on the opposite bank of the Branciforte concrete channel. It looks like the last link in the Riverwalk is beginning to happen.

Pigeon Approachs Nesting Area
Rock Pigeon entering nesting site, May 29, 2017, Branciforte Creek.

Anyway, lots of birds on the river all the time, and especially during breeding and migratory season.  Click here to see my eBird list of the 35 species I saw this week.

I attended the meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission yesterday where they were talking about priorities for the  30-year Parks Master Plan. During public comment I read the commissioners this quote from the famous biologist E.O.Wilson that I found in the most recent issue of the Sierra Club journal. Wilson writes:

“It is necessary to obey the precautionary principle in the treatment of Earth’s natural ecosystem, and to do so strictly. Hold fast until we, scientists and the public alike, know much more about them. Proceed carefully – study, discuss, plan. Give the rest of earth’s life a chance.”

Cheers to our awesome planet and to some awesome biologists who help us appreciate it!


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