Eternal Ebb and Flow

Dear Jane,

The river itself has begun to take back the river!

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A meandering river  along the Benchlands, May 13,  2017, 

One of my neighbors, Sherry Conable, said happily, “It is beginning to look like a real river.” I was also happy to hear Bill Henry, a local expert on native plants, speak before the Parks and Recreation Commission recently, saying that he hoped that the City would protect the naturally forming meanders that have been created by the dramatic flows this last winter. I hadn’t realized how important these bends in a river  are to the health of the entire ecosystem. And they are beautiful!

And speaking of intricate ecosystems – I was walking in the Benchlands on April 25 and noticed that the ground was absolutely covered with these white cotton pods that hold the seeds of the female Cottonwood trees.

cotton capsule Apruil 26, 2017
Cottonwood pod, Benchlands, April 25, 2017

I picked up a bunch to look at and maybe even try to plant. Then just a few days later I happened to run across some really interesting information about how the dropping of cottonwood seeds is exquisitely attuned to the time of year when  the river is at just the right height to carry the seeds down the river for regeneration along its banks – not too long after the peak flooding.  The author said that it is always late April or early May in California.  Our pods were right on time!   It seems that this kind of information is knocking at my brain more and more often, bringing home the awesome message of the extraordinary intelligence and interconnectedness of the animal and plant world.  Unfortunately, it is only the Benchlands,  the only flooded/riparian area along the entire stretch of the urban river, that is still potentially hospitable to such seeds.

On Saturday, I was out walking along the Riverwalk with my neighbor and fellow birder, Batya Kagan, when she pointed out to me an OSPREY soaring overhead.

Osprey, google image

For the first time I got a really good look at this elegant raptor in flight, looking just like this google image.   The osprey seems to be fishing up here a lot. I am still waiting to see one perform its speed-of-light drop out of the sky, feet first, to grab up a fish with only its talons entering the water. I read that one of its four talons is reversible – allowing it a two by two grasp or a one by three grasp, whichever works best.  Flexible!   I also just learned that it is the only raptor that lives on an essentially fish-only diet. It still feels like a very new and amazing bird for me

At the other end of the familiarity spectrum is my old friend, the common and much maligned CROW.

crow & croissant 1
Crow with croissant, May 14, 2017

I had to laugh at the cleverness of this urban exploiter as it took what appeared to be  an old dried up croissant and dunked it in the river to soften it up.   Sir Corvid even put its foot on the croissant to keep it from floating away until it reached the perfect consistency.
crow & croissant 2

I don’t get to see KILLDEERS that often, so I was pleased to see three of them just a few days ago. They choose the darndest places to feed and even nest – including parking lots. Who knows – they might even have a nest right here on this very inhospitable seeming sand bar . The Killdeers are pretty casual about their nest building, just scraping  a shallow indentation in some gravel in which to lay their eggs.  This kind of nest is consequently called a ‘scrape’.   I intend to go back and scan the area for a nest.

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Killdeer, May 14, 2017, sand bar between Soquel and Riverside bridges

Well – I’m happy to say I have had two sightings of at least one WOOD DUCK family, once just below the San Lorenzo Park pedestrian bridge and once just below the Riverside Bridge. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of either. I’m hoping it is two separate families.

I’ve lost count of the numbers of MALLARD families I’ve seen so far this year. I think it must be close to 8.  Here is one Mallard family that caught me off guard for a moment.

Seven immature Mallards, still together as a family.  

Why, I wondered, were there so many females together at this time of year, and why were they foraging  like shorebirds or ploughing through the water like mergansers?  I quickly realized that these were juveniles of one family that had reached almost adult size, but were still acting like juveniles, sticking close to their mom and exploring a range of different feeding behaviors.  Soon, when they are closer to maturity, these behaviors  will be extinguished and they will begin to act more like Mallards!   I watched them for quite a while and also got to see the juveniles diving, another behavior almost unseen among adult Mallards. I remember that we both saw this behavior last year and had a good laugh. These babies will apparently try anything. They don’t know yet that they are dabblers, not divers or shorebirds.

During my last walk, the short stretch between the pedestrian bridge and Soquel Ave. was filled with swallows of all kinds – mostly VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, with at least one CLIFF SWALLOW and maybe 8 NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS. The huge masses of Cliff Swallows that I saw two weeks ago seem to have moved on to other nesting areas. Most of the old Cliff Swallow nests under the Water St. Bridge  have been taken over by those pesky but handsome and pleasantly warbling HOUSE SPARROWS.

There’s been quite a bit of human buzz on the river, as the Coastal Watershed Council, the Arts Council, the Rotarians and other prepare for the Ebb and Flow festival on June 3. I stopped and talked to Greg Pepping, director of CWC, and Josh Tallis, native plant gardener.  GregGreg, Josh and other volunteers were creating a small parklet along the Riverwalk just north of Trader Joe’s, pulling out invasives like fennel, dock, and wild radish while protecting or planting natives like black sage (salvia melllifera), mugwort (artemisia vulgaris), gumplant (grindilia) California poppy (eschscholzia californica), sticky monkey flower (diplacus aurantiacus), and manzanita (arctostaphylos). P1140055Just south of T.J.’s a few Rotarians were working on a small native plant parklet of their own. Of course none of these natives are riparian plants, since the levee precludes that possibility. But the plants are all natives and will hopefully provide habitat to native pollinators, birds, etc. I was sorry to see the fennel go, since it was so happy there, and I know there are locals who harvest it for food and birds who use it.  Hopefully the area will soon fill in with natives.

This last weekend I also happened on a cheery pre-Ebb and Flow scene at the end of the pedestrian bridge where lots of folks were weaving yarn through the railings. The idea was that all the colors were colors of the river.  The red yarn, someone explained to me, represents the bright red head of the male House Finch.



The river itself and the wildlife it attracts provide all the beauty and happiness I need. But there is no denying that the philosophy of ‘positive engagement’ rather than simply law enforcement is beginning to show good results.  There is definitely  a new festive spirit along the river.

Here’s a quote from the famous 19th century naturalist, John Burroughs:

“The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot’. You are always nearer the divine and the true source of your power than you think.”

May your week be filled with wonderful things under your feet. You have taught me a lot about seeing things on the river than I never expected were there.




























One thought on “Eternal Ebb and Flow

  1. Thank you so much Barbara. I always feel very close to the river and nature reading your posts.

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