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Nightlife on the River

Dear Jane and Bird-loving Readers,

Congratulations, Jane, on your recent cascade of honors. We learned earlier this week that you were re-elected to serve on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club! And now, just this afternoon, you were unanimously elected by the City Council to serve on the Santa Cruz City Parks and Recreation Commission. Fantastic! A strong voice for the environment will now take her rightful place at the table.   I can hear the birds and other critters cheering.

Meanwhile, our city – and the developers that they work with so closely –  are busily trying to bring more nightlife to the river.   Human nightlife, that is.  But what about the existing nightlife of the river, the non-human variety? I admit my own ignorance on this subject.   But recently my visiting son has been bringing me reports based on his nightly trips over the Water St. Bridge on his way back from the gym. Every night he sees a GREAT BLUE HERON standing motionless  on a small reed-blanketed island,  separated from the river bank by a narrow and shallow eddy of water.  The eddy he guesses, is only about 5 feet wide, seeming to offer minimal protection from night predators. I have been surprisingly excited to hear these reports, like a child wanting to know what adults do after we kids go to bed. My son reports that the heron’s eyes appear to be shut. Is she asleep? Is she both asleep and awake? Does she leave a slit open like the Buddha? Is she safe from night-time predators? I checked a Cornell University site and learned for the first time the ability of some species to be both asleep and awake at the same time:

“Some (birds) can even sleep with one eye open, as half of their brain is alert while the other is asleep. This is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) and it allows the sleeping bird to spring into action quickly from rest if a threat approaches while still being able to satisfactorily rest if no threat arises. Ducks and waterfowl are particularly good at this….Species that use this adaptation may even be able to sleep while flying!

One of two coyotes watching a Great Blue Heron near the Water St. Bridge about 9 P.M,, January 20, 2017

Then three nights ago, adding to my excitement, my son brought especially interesting news about the heron’s life. As he stood watching the heron from the bridge, he saw a coyote run past, followed almost immediately by a second one. The second coyote made eye contact with my son, then retreated into the shadows. The first one soon doubled back, moving closer to the edge of the water nearest the heron and fixing his eyes on her. My son judged that the coyote was about twenty feet away from the heron at this point. Was he considering the possibility of splashing through the shallow eddy between him and the heron? A moment later, the heron took flight. About an hour later I persuaded my son to go back to the bridge with me to see if the heron had returned to her nightly spot. The coyotes were gone, and the heron was nowhere to be seen. I hope the heron has a safe backup spot for spending the night?

As we looked upstream for the heron, I spied in the distance a juvenile BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON standing in the middle of the river, moving slowly downstream as she stalked her underwater prey. I had never seen these nocturnal hunters at night, never seen them actively stalking fish in the middle of the river. During the day they are usually seen perched on some tree branch that extends out over the river.   I had assumed they fished from there.

Juvenile Black-crowned NIght-Heron actively fishing midstream just north of Water St. Bridge about 10 pm, January 20, 2017.
River and levee  just north of Water St. Bridge.  Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron appears as  small white dot where eddy on the right converges with the bank of the river. January 20, 2017

I try to do a bird count at least once every two weeks for the citizen science online website called  eBird. This week I found 28 species in the short space between the Water St. and Laurel St. Bridges. Click here to see the list.  Among the 28 species recorded, I was excited to find the relatively rare and slightly magical BROWN CREEPER, spiraling upwards around the trunk of a craggy-barked tree, using her delicate and perfectly adapted curved bill to dig out insects hiding underneath the bark.

Brown Creeper, San Lorenzo Park bench lands.  Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

Other birds seem to flit about randomly in pursuit of their prey. But the little Creeper is always so systematic in her search, starting at the bottom of a tree, then spiraling her way up to the top, only to return again to the bottom of the tree to start over.

While in the Park, I walked over to check on two regular winter visitors to the Duck Pond, the so-called RING-NECKED DUCKS.  These birds have no ring around their neck

Female Ring-necked Duck in San Lorenzo Park Duck Pond, January 21, 2017, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

but do display a very distinctive ring around their bill.  They also like to hang out at Westlake Pond – preferring, it seems, lakes to rivers. Although they resemble the Common Goldeneyes in their appearance, and dive like them, their diet is based mostly on plants and some mollusks, eschewing the sportier fish that engage the advanced skills of the  Goldeneyes.

Male Ring-necked duck in San Lorenzo Park Duck Pond, January 21, 2017, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

As I watched the Ring-necked Ducks, I suddenly heard an unusually raucous honking sound from a strangely patterned and unusually large female mallard. She was very aggressive, poking and prodding at the tail feathers of the male mallards. Who was she? Was she some kind of strange domestic hybrid like a Peking Duck? Anybody have any idea?

half again as big as all the other feales. Very different marking on face. Very aggressive, very loud honk, almost like a goose.


Another odd sight this week was this COMMON GOLDENEYE north of the Water St. Bridge, sitting on a log. Goldeneyes rarely occur as far upstream as the Water St. Bridge, normally preferring the Estuarine reach of the river from Laurel St. Bridge to the mouth of the river.  Was it because of the high tide and the returning steelhead? And why was she sitting on a log? Have any of you ever seen a Goldeneye sitting on a log?

Common Goldeneye just north of Water St. Bridge, January 21,2017, photo by B. Riverwoman

So many of the waterfowl are in breeding plumage at this time of year, including our resident mallards, coots and mergansers, as well as the migrating buffleheads and common goldeneyes. But my dear little PIED-BILLED GREBES have not yet taken on their breeding outfits. Maybe this explains in part why they tend to be the late breeders on the river. I find it so interesting that breeding attire for Pied-billed Grebes does not entail any changes at all in the color of feathers, but instead is displayed as a change in beak pigmentation!  Both display modest but elegant white beaks with a handsome black stripe. They also distinguish themselves from most other species by the fact that both the male and female go into breeding display mode, not just the male. There is no way a casual observer can tell them apart. One more reason I love the Pied-billed Grebes.

Pied-billed Grebe, not yet in breeding colors.  January 21, 2017. Photo by B. Riverwoman

And turning for a moment to human life on the river, I noticed an Asian- looking woman pulling up ‘weeds’ close to the

Woman harvesting Asian green called lo-bo in Cantonese, probably ‘river spinach’ in translation.  January 21, 2017, photo by B. Riverwoman

pedestrian bridge leading into San Lorenzo Park. Another Asian woman was standing on the bridge and we easily slipped into conversation when I asked her in Chinese what her friend was harvesting (Full disclosure – my previous life was as a student and then teacher of classical Chinese literature.) In spite of her heavy Cantonese accent, I learned that the woman below us was harvesting a vegetable called lo-bo in Cantonese. As she chatted on in Chinese,

Lo-bo in Cantonese, river spinach in English.

I felt magically transported backwards in time, imagining that somehow the seeds of this vegetable were planted back in the days when the Santa Cruz Chinatown thrived along this very stretch of river in the area now occuped by Trader Joe’s. It was as if history was reasserting itself, brushing off our headlong rush into development and bringing back a lost age of gathering wild vegetables along the river. When a park ranger stopped to talk to the woman gathering the vegetables I was worried that he might stop her.  I was so pleased when  he simply warned her to wash them carefully. The next day I went out and harvested some myself, very cautiously sterilizing them first with the required amount of chlorine and then boiling them for good measure.   They were delicious, tasting like a combination between beet greens and spinach, without the acidic aftertaste of spinach.

The river binds us across time and space – and species, ethnicity and class. May it continue to do its cleansing work.

Happy Birding – and once again – thank you, Jane,  for taking on such a strong leadership role in our community on behalf of wild nature.







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