Light and Dark on the River

Hello Jane and all our followers,

I am luxuriating in the rich autumnal light these days – the sky, the water, the trees – all are transformed. Everything seems aglow in that special ‘slant of light’ that brings life into high relief as it slowly surrenders to dormancy and death.

Bufflehead, Male and Female
Newly arrived Male and Female Bufflehead between Riverside and Laurel St. Bridges – in a flock of 11.  November 14, 2017

Light patterns on the river mesmerize me.  The luminous quality of the light helps screen out not only the city noise and buildings, but even, for a moment, the presence of tormented souls curled up silently in pain or screaming curses at no one in particular. The full spectrum of our life in Santa Cruz is out here on the river. But the harshness seems to fade away under the  magic of light and water. I fall into a kind of revery.  I go back to the river again and again – to learn once more what is so easy to forget.  I hope it is also healing to those experiencing homelessness.

Returning from the river, I watched the City Council meeting last night  with a mixture of resignation and  frustration. (I’m so glad you were there to speak up for the birds.)  The majority of the Council, of course, did what we knew was inevitable – rubber stamping the Downtown Commission’s development plan and pretty much ignoring  or putting off major environmental concerns.  Only Chris Krohn and Sandy Brown voted ‘no’.   What is most  maddening to me is  the term ‘activating the river’. With no hope of turning around the juggernaut of capitalism in Santa Cruz, I at least yearn for Confucian ‘rectification of language’.  The river does not need activation.  Let’s start by getting rid of that phrase!   Non-human life along the river is enormously active and complex, even if it is unseen and unappreciated.   What ‘activation’ means for most people is a bustling downtown with lots of humans (with money) and lots of things being bought and sold.   Why not just say that openly–  and not pretend that it has anything to do with the river.  I guess the City likes the idea of a scenic backdrop to all the bustle and exchange of money.  I guess that is where the river comes in.

The river itself, as I often say, provides key habitat for 122 species of birds not to speak of fish, insects, etc.  Rivers and wetlands are the most damaged ecosystem in our country and throughout the world.  Santa Cruz is contributing to that sad statistic.    It is so easy to mock Trump and company as we ourselves fall under the spell of build, build, build, despoil, despoil, despoil.   Climate change denial is alive and well in Santa Cruz.

I got my first glimpse today of the returning BUFFLEHEADS, dressed in their elegant black and white breeding plumage.

Bufflehead displaying
Bufflehead with extended wings.  November 14, 2017

I keep forgetting that for many waterfowl, including the common MALLARD, this is breeding season! The season starts  in October when the Buffleheads return from their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska in full breeding plumage.  I guess they mate here, then head north again in May to lay their eggs and raise their young.    Do you think this Bufflehead with extended wings was doing some kind of mating display?  The AMERICAN COOT seems uninterested.  When the Planning Commission talks about activating the river, do they include the active mating dances of the Buffleheads?  Just joking.

I saw two Mallards last week doing a very long and animated mating dance.  The male and female faced each other, bobbing their heads up and down in perfect synchrony for quite a while, followed immediately by a 3-second copulation. Admirable balance. Will there still be mallards actively mating in the river once the the City ‘activates’ the river?  Not joking.


Cormorants drying out
Double-crested Cormorants drying their wings, near Laurel St. Bridge, November 14 2017

were scudding along the surface of the river this morning at a mighty pace, then diving, surfacing, diving again and finally resting and digesting their fishy meals on this old twisted stump – the light pouring through their drying feathers.  I’m sure all of you readers share with me fear that all the fancy new bars, restaurants, hotels and coffee shops (a human habitat) will ultimately destroy the habitat that supports  these wild creature .   And where will they go, I ask?

Alan Lozano, the river-loving maintenance person from Parks and Recreation, told me that since the homeless camp has been set up in the Benchlands, the GREAT BLUE HERON that regularly inhabits this

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron between Soquel and Riverside Bridges, November 14,2017

area has not been seen. I told him the Heron might be the same one that I had seen lower down on the river this morning, bathed in light. But even the saintly Great Blue can’t live on light alone! Hopefully the Heron is also finding good meals downstream.  But as we know,  birds must choose their domains carefully and can suffer if pushed into inferior territories. Still, all things considered, I am excited about the experiment on the Benchlands.  It seems to be a positive experiment in human decency. I wish it well. I hope it leads to something more permanent.

I was encouraged to see some native habitat restoration work going on between Soquel and Laurel St. on the east side of the river, sponsored by the City in

Restoration Project
Restoration project near Mimi De Marta Dog Park,

conjunction with the Coastal Watershed Council. Ice plant is being replaced with Coyote Bush, Manzanita, Tules, Gumweed and Native Blackberry. It’s cause for celebration when you see an agency that was actively promoting habitat-degrading recreation (paddling on the river) shift  to habitat preservation.

Hopefully, we will never hear again about putting boats on the river. But if we do, the City and CWC can expect more energetic resistance.   Just saying.

Here is the latest list of 28 species   that I saw yesterday and posted to eBird. Alan Lozano also shared with me a rather spine-tingling tale about the OSPREY that I saw yesterday and that regularly hangs out on the tall redwood just north of Water St.  He saw it plunge into a flock of seagulls resting on an island in the river. The osprey pinned one gull to the ground, attacking it again and again but failed to either kill it or carry it off. Probably too heavy.

And on that rather raw note, I bid you a light-filled week on the River!












6 thoughts on “Light and Dark on the River

  1. Wait a minute! The river-loving maintenance person from Parks and Recreation told you that since the homeless camp has been set up in the Benchlands, the GREAT BLUE HERON that regularly inhabits this area has not been seen and you think this is okay because the destructive campground is an experiment in human decency?!I The Heron was pushed out of its habitat by”activation” of the benchlands. By humans. Isn’t that the same thing that will happen with the other “activation” of the river planned by those horrible capitalists?

    1. I counted thirty tents on the Benchlands this week, representing a home where at least twice as many human beings can sleep through the night in relative peace and safety. The Great Blue Heron moves around regularly, although as I acknowledged in the blog, it is possible that its life has been disturbed. To what extent we can’t know. My subjective sense is that the trade-off in this situation is ethically responsible. The human needs being met are fundamental ones on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Business activity on the Mall rarely meets basic human needs. I do worry, though, about the Great Blue Heron, and will keep a careful eye out for her. I’m sure Alan will, too. Thanks for caring so much about the Great Blue!

  2. Let’s hope that all those residents who will eventually inhabit the multi-story buildings planned for Front and Pacific Streets will become advocates for preservation of the river habitats and not just preoccupied with commerce.

Leave a Reply