Branching Out Into The Watershed

Hello Jane,

I liked the phrase in your last post, the ‘river sandbarring itself’. When we use nouns as verbs it makes the natural world come alive in a new way, doesn’t it.  It gives me a sense of the river almost consciously creating a lagoon that provides a safe place for the ‘small fry’ salmon as they transition from their upstream breeding grounds to the wild ocean.

These last weeks I have sort of unintentionally expanded our definition of San Lorenzo River to include Neary Lagoon and Jessie St. Marsh, historic floodplains of our urban river, now hidden away behind buildings and roads and trestles. Fortunately for us, Neary Lagoon has been carefully protected as a freshwater marsh although no longer the saltwater lagoon that gave it its name. Unfortunately, Jessie St. Marsh is another story, neither protected as a marsh or a lagoon.  That has to change.

First, the happy story. My friend Rick Longinotti and I watched with fascination and amusement as two adult PIED-BILLED GREBES were kept very busy feeding their three very hungry juvenile offspring in Neary Lagoon.

Feeding Juveniles
Adult Pied-billed Grebe with four hungry juveniles and a crawdad.  Google image

When we arrived, the parents were napping, their heads tucked under their wings in possible denial of all the work that lay ahead. The three teen-agers were impatient with their snoozing parents, squealing without stop and even pecking the parents’ beaks to remind them of their duty. One parent finally shook herself awake, then clambered up on a nearby wooden raft to get away from the pesky kids. This drove the kids into a frenzy. Squealing even louder, they started whizzing around the raft, trying unsuccessfully to climb up themselves, raising little waves in their frantic efforts. It seemed as if they couldn’t believe that their mom was making herself that inaccessible when they were so hungry. Pretty soon, though, we saw both the mom and dad (they are indistinguishable from each other) start to fish in earnest, each quickly bringing up a good-sized crawdad. They would pass it to one of the kids, who would grab it and then lose it. Thus began the comic highlight of the show, with the parents repeatedly diving after the dropped food, patiently passing it back to the juvenile, who would then drop it again as he or she  tried to get at the meat underneath the shell. This happened at least twenty times while we watched. They were still at it 30 minutes later when we reluctantly left. The whole thing reminded me of my son when he was a year old,  gaily tossing or dropping food on the floor from his high hair. I strongly resonated  with the napping grebes, very reluctant to ‘get out of bed.’ I was so sorry not to have my camera since they were so close and the light was perfect.   I’ve included a google image of some slightly younger juveniles engaged in similar behavior.

Another part of the San Lorenzo River floodplain is the long-suffering Jesse St. Marsh which  once again this last week fell victim to the annual predation by the Parks  and Recreation Department. I called the Department and asked them why they were destroying the Marsh again. I was told that the main reasons are ‘health and safety’ and more specifically ‘crime, fire and biohazards.’ Why, I wondered, can’t these issues be addressed through measures other than destruction of a sensitive habitat.


A loud thank you to Chris Krohn, a city council member, who has challenged the City to answer these questions and more.   “Why,” he asks, “are other cities investing in marsh protection while we are not?”   Apart from the intrinsic value of a rare wetland, Chris points out, other cities rightly see such protection as an important mitigation for climate change – much less expensive than sea walls and other human-built strategies. I hope he gets a good answer. One staff member did provide a ray of hope when he told me that an upcoming report from a consultant about long range plans for the Marsh could possibly offer more habitat protection. I will try to learn more about what he is talking about.

In the meantime, as you already know, our mutual friend and skilled birder, Kitty Stein, has agreed to bird the marsh area at least once a month for the next year, so that we have some ongoing record of bird populations. And you and I have talked about doing the same. If we follow through, that will be at least three eBird postings each month on Jessie St. Marsh. Maybe others will join us. As I said in my last blog, Gary Kittleson birded the Marsh just before the onslaught on June 30, and found 21 species of birds, including two fledgling COMMON YELLOWTHROATS that nest in the tules that were cut to the ground.  My friends Batya Kagan and Michael Levy went down with me the next day to witness the devastation.

Lucky Pacific Chorus Frog that has not lost its home. Google image

The saddest part for me was watching about 25 tiny bright green PACIFIC CHORUS FROGS,  hopping about in a frenzy in the area where the tules had just been cut down.

I hope readers pray that this will be the last year that Jessie St. Marsh will be ravaged. And besides praying, let’s write letters to the City Manager, the Parks and Recreation Department and the City Council. Also, check out the very helpful website of Friends of Jessie St. Marsh.    Click here.

I attended a very interesting presentation on the San Lorenzo River Watershed at the monthly meeting of the California Native Plant Society. Fred McPherson, legendary naturalist of our area, talked about his early days in the 50’s as he was setting off on his career as a biologist. “In those days, biology was divided into two fields, botany and zoology. A college student like myself had only that choice.” By the time Fred was in college, there was a revolution in the field, centered around the new concept and new word, ‘ecology’. By that time, Fred was in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago, helping to define the new field of ecology with its multiple layers of ecological systems. Fred became fascinated with the ecosystem of the ‘watershed’ and has been exploring it ever since – for the last 50 plus years. He and his wife have just produced a beautiful new video called the Fall Creek Watershed which he uses at numerous presentations throughout Santa Cruz, especially in the schools. You can watch it on You Tube by googling “Getting To Know Our Watershed: Fall Creek, or just click here  If you are feeling downhearted about our planet’s future, just talk to Fred. He has never given up his faith that we can win if we want to. Thanks for never giving up on our beautiful planet, Fred!

Quote of the Week: “Many marine birds–such as penguins, gulls, albatrosses, and pelicans–have built-in water desalination filters. With salt glands and ducts connected to their bills that rid their bodies of excess salts, these birds can drink seawater straight up or eat prey, such as squid and crabs, that are as salty as seawater.” “Living Bird”, Summer 2017   (This is my favorite bird magazine.)

Cheers to the ever-changing and complex ecosystem of the San Lorenzo River Watershed, including Neary Lagoon, Jessie St. Marsh and Fall Creek.

Looking forward to more lively bird news from your end of the river.






2 thoughts on “Branching Out Into The Watershed

  1. Thank you, Barbara, for including the link to the Fall Creek Watershed video. And thank you for your continued writing and work on behalf of the natural world. You are a blessing for the community we call home.

  2. When I saw those frogs, all I could think of was the Lorax saying, “Where will they go? I don’t hopefully know.” Dammit.

Leave a Reply to Jean Brocklebank Cancel reply