The Ecology of Darkness

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Lovers,

Do you realize, Jane, that we have just passed the three-year anniversary of our blog! Our first post was January 8, 2015! It’s been a unique journey for me – and I look forward to more years of surprises. I have learned so much from focusing on the river, from your keen observations, and from all the conversations this blog inspires. Funny how adversity (the threat of recreational boating on the river) has inspired actions we never dreamed of, helping us see things we never expected to see.

Scharfenstein & Hernandez
L to R Joaquin and Lorenzo Pacheco in front, Michael Hernandez and Bob Scharfenstein in back, January 6, 2018, Riverside Bridge, Photo by B. Riverwoman

All the fish news in your last blog was extremely interesting to me.  I took your lead and introduced myself to Bob Scharfenstein as he was standing with a fishing pole next to the Riverside Bridge. Bob, a longtime fishing aficionado (afishionado?) told me that this spot used to be called Buckeye Hole, commenting nostalgically that “in the sixties, steelhead used to be elbow to elbow here.” Now, it seems, fisherfolk are allowed to fish for only three days a week for 3 months (December, January and February) and it’s all on a ‘capture and release’ basis unless the fish is a hatchery steelhead. Bob showed me a photo on his cell phone of a steelhead with an adipose fin (wild) and without an adipose fin (clipped in the hatchery). Pretty good news for our wild steelhead if people comply with the law. Right now, he said, the steelhead are 4-5 feet long, but can get as long as 20 feet.

It turned out that Bob is the son of Barbara Scharfenstein, the founder of the Bird Club. Bob told me that just days before Barbara died on September 14th, 2015, she mentioned to him that ‘my Yellow Warbler’ should be back soon. The Yellow Warbler appeared the day she died.  Bob is taking care of his mom’s birds now that she is gone.

As Bob and I were chatting, former mayor (1960-64) Michael Hernandez came along and joined the conversation. He and Bob shared river stories, compared fish tattoos and talked about their lives.  “Fishing is my life,” Michael said, introducing me to his two grandsons, Lorenzo and Joaquin, both named after rivers. He quizzed them on river lore and casting techniques, apparently proving to  Michael’s satisfaction that they had been paying attention to their grandpa.

Seal Upsteam
Sea Lion resting on side of San Lorenzo River between Riverside Bridge and Trestle, Jan. 6, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Obviously, Bob and Michael weren’t the only one with their minds on steelhead. Bob commented on the rather unusual presence of sea lions in the river and said, “they aren’t here for laughs!” Shortly after our conversation I spotted a SEA LION lounging on a rock, presumably with a belly full of steelhead, taking a break before taking off on another fishing trip.


DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS were actively fishing on the river in numbers I don’t usually see – joining Bob and Michael, the seals, osprey, and striped bass in pursuit of their prized prey.   Nor have I seen cormorants swimming along rapidly in formation like this. I can’t help thinking they look very satisfied.

seven cormorants
Seven Double-crested Cormorants swimming downstream between Riverside Bridge and Trestle, January 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I suspect this wading OSPREY had also just enjoyed a good meal. I’m glad our fisherfolk can still enjoy their sport but leave the wild fish for the birds, seals and striped bass to eat. They need them more than we do.

Osprey in river
Osprey in river north of Riverside Bridge, January 6, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

There were more non-fishy wonders awaiting me once I tore myself away from my conversation with Bob and Michael.

I loved getting this photo of my little PIED-BILLED GREBE friend checking out a male COMMON MERGANSER. Pied-billed grebes are very solitary, but perversely seem very curious about other species, often poking their little beaks into groups of coots, mergansers, buffleheads and more. I guess I am a little grebe-like in this respect – perhaps another reason I am so fond of them.

Meganser & Piedbilled grebe
Male Common Merganser and Pied-billed Grebe, SLR, January 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Congratulations on posting your first video. You are raising the bar! I appreciated your pointing out that the huge gull congregations might be caused by storms out at sea that push the birds towards land. Don’t you love it when we see how  everything is connected to everything else.

Speaking of gulls, I love watching the communal baths of some of our very social birds. Here are some AMERICAN CROWS and SEAGULLS that I saw this week taking their baths together in the river.

I have been quite mystified about why I never see the shimmering rainbow plumage on the heads and necks of BUFFLEHEADS that appear in the photos of others. This week I was determined to look carefully and, sure enough, I saw the subtle breeding display.

Rainbow neck - bufflehead 2
Male and Female Bufflehead in breeding plumage, between Riverside Bridge and Trestle, January 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Jean Brocklebank just sent out a wonderful article by George Monbiot, (a well known British naturalist and writer) on the very subject of learning to see what we usually don’t see He starts out saying, “

“What you see is not what others see. We inhabit parallel worlds of perception, bounded by our interests and experience. What is obvious to some is invisible to others. I might find myself standing, transfixed, by the roadside, watching a sparrowhawk hunting among the bushes, astonished that other people could ignore it. But they might just as well be wondering how I could have failed to notice the new V6 Pentastar Sahara that just drove past.”

Monbiot says that there are 59 species of butterflies in the UK and 2500 species of moths. He says that “our failure to apprehend the ecology of darkness limits our understanding of the living world.” I know there are owls on the urban river stretch, but neither of us has reported on them. But the Benchland campers tell me they hear them often.

Well – we can only keep doing our best to make the wildlife of the river visible to ourselves and others. That’s what our blog is all about.  Even with out best efforts, though, I’m sure we miss 99 % of what’s there.

Happy birding to all, rain or shine!









2 thoughts on “The Ecology of Darkness

  1. 20 foot long steelhead, oh my, ha ha! I think it might be inches. However, if a 20-footer turns up, I want to ride it!

    1. I was wondering about that! Fish are clearly not my focus. As far as riding a steelhead, it seems the Boardwalk should have a sea carousel where one could ride fish, octopii, sea slugs, pelicans, etc.

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