Science First, Management Second

Dear Jane and Lovers of Nature,

I loved your BALD EAGLE sighting, Jane, and your description of the bitter feelings this evoked in the displaced Peregrine Falcon. I’m on tenterhooks to know whether Perry managed to chase off Baldy for good – or not. Imagine if we had a Bald Eagle as a regular resident at the mouth of our river!

I have been so pleased to welcome an  OSPREY as a regular visitor to those of us upsteam folks. I am wondering if our visitor is the same bird as your downstream friend –just expanding her territory? Probably. Anyway, Ozzie perches almost every day on the very tip of the twin redwoods across the river from my house, surveying the world for fish and then more fish.   For the first time in my life, I finally saw her do her spectacular foot-first plunge into the river, emerging with quite a large fish. Was it a Coho? I hope so. I ran into Jon Jankovitz, one of the local representatives of California Department of Fish and Wildlife, at the State of the San Lorenzo River Symposium this last Saturday. I asked him what was his favorite bird and he said ‘the Osprey’. He added that there are not many of them around these days. I told him about yours and mine, maybe the same one. He seemed slightly jealous. It’s pretty special to have one of these glorious and rare birds in our backyards.

Osprey, San Lorenzo River, east bank, just north of Water St. Bridge, March 19, 2018 photo by B. Riverwoman

I thought the Symposium was really good this year. Chris Berry of the Santa Cruz Water District opened the event by saying that this year’s symposium was focusing on the science of the San Lorenzo River Watershed. He said,

“We need to get good science before we try to figure out how to best manage our watershed.”

I loved hearing him say that. State Assembly member,  Mark Stone,  followed with a really solid keynote address. I especially leaned in when he said he felt that Sacramento was too focused on climate change legislation, saying that we have already passed the tipping point on climate change and now need to re-direct at least some of our money and energy into planning what to do in response to the inevitability of sea level rise and other grim results of climate change. Dark news, indeed. I don’t think he meant that we should give up on all the good anti-climate change work that people are doing.   But I thought his big picture warning constituted a pretty direct challenge to our downtown city planners who seem a bit too complacent about the spectre of sea level rise. Do we really want to build hotels, restaurants, and housing in the flood plain? Why not keep Old Town Santa Cruz as it is for as long as we can, but plan all new development further south on Soquel? I looked at some of the pro-downtown development folks in the room, trying to detect whether they were getting the same message as I was. But they remained stoic. I hope they were listening.

I am constantly wondering what our shorebirds and waterfowl are catching as they stalk and dive. So during break time at the Symposium, when I spotted local fish guru Don Alley in the room, I maneuvered my way through the crowd and sidled up to him. He seemed happy to share his vast store of fish knowledge. Here is a little of what he told me. (I know you, Jane, are far better versed on this subject than I am). There are SMELT high up in the water column in the estuary, easy for birds to catch , said Don. PACIFIC STICKLEBACK are also small, easily caught fish. There are SCULPIN at the bottom of the water column, dark fish that are hard to see and not a major food source for birds. HERRING and ANCHOVY come in from the ocean when the sand bars are open, providing a special feast for the birds.

Pacific Lamprey in early stage. Google image

He also talked a little about our strange PACIFIC LAMPREY, an eel-like fish that grows up to 31 inches in the ocean where it migrates for a couple of years towards the end of its lifetime. Most of its early life, though, about 7 years, is spent in freshwater, and most of that time as a much smaller larvae buried underneath the sand. It has a bad reputation as a parasitic fish that sucks blood from ocean creatures in its adult ocean stage. But, according to Don, it is pretty harmless in its earlier and much smaller river stage.

I was so happy to get trained recently to be part of the new Santa Cruz County Breeding Bird Atlas II. I am now duly authorized to go out with my official datasheet and record any breeding behaviors I observe. We carry with us a list of 24 separate breeding behaviors that we look for and record. Before I was trained, I think I would have just reported to eBird that I saw a RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD yesterday – while enjoying the private pleasure of hearing its sweet, melodic burbling that I haven’t heard since last summer.

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Red-winged Blackbird, San Lorenzo River, west bank between Hwy 1 and Water St. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Now as an authorized reporter, I will earnestly write down ‘S’ ‘for Singing Male.” And if I see a singing male for 7 or more days , I will notch that observation up 3 rungs and write down S7. What fun to be a part of this kind of citizen science project – good for tracking breeding populations across the nation and a good nudge for birders like me who will begin to pay more attention to signs of breeding behavior. I’ll try to send everyone the link to the website once it is up and running.

Another big change on the River is the return of the VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, dashing madly about overhead, swallowing as many insects as they can catch. I think I also saw

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First year White-crowned Sparrow.  San Lorenzo River.  Photo by B. Riverwoman


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Violet-green Swallow, google image.

Their arrival also signals the the impending departure of my dear bird feeder sparrows. The WHITE-CROWNED AND GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS that arrive each fall are spending their last days with us before they  leave for their breeding grounds in British Columbia and points north. Say your farewells before they leave!

I happened to notice this weekend that the Coastal Watershed Council was offering a willow planting event for children and parents this coming Sunday – very close to where I found the Pied-billed Grebe nest in 2015 and where I saw a PBG exploring along the same tules just a couple of weeks ago. The event was planned for about 25 children and adults and would have taken place just 5 feet from the riverbank. The kids would have been pounding in the willow cuttings with a hammer.   I was really sad to see this scheduled for breeding season – so I called CWC and the City right away on Monday morning. Turns out that the permitting process for these kinds of community-initiated projects do not have a comprehensive environmental component. This failure resulted in the permit being issued without considering that breeding season was well underway. Leslie Keedy, the City’s urban forester, intervened with CWC on our behalf, informing CWC that the area should be visited by a qualified biologist before the event took place. The good news is that just this morning I heard from Alev Bilginsoy, the river scientist at CWC, that she had walked the levee with Gary Kittleson, a certified biologist. Gary had identified a possible MALLARD’S nest in the area, as well as breeding activity of COMMON YELLOWTHROATS AND BUSHTITS.   The event was cancelled!

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Common Yellowthroat, in tules between Soquel and Laurel, east side, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Back to the Symposium. I pricked up my ears when I heard Kristen Kittleson, Fishery Resource Manager at the County of Santa Cruz, talk about the importance of what she calls Stream Wood, ie. trees that fall into the river and are usually labelled ‘debris’. She prefers the term ‘Stream Wood’ because of all the positive ecological and even flood control functions these fallen trees provide when allowed to remain in the river. All these years I have been told by Public Works that fallen trees constitute a flood hazard and therefore cannot be allowed to grow past a certain trunk diameter.   It is this policy, imposed by the Army Corps of Engineers on our City government, that is responsible for the removal of all the native COTTONWOODS, ALDERS, BOX ELDERS and WILLOWS of a certain trunk diameter along the urban stretch of the river. These native riparian species are never allowed to develop their upper canopy, so critical as part of the bird habitat. Literally tons of these trees are trucked away to the landfill each fall.

I was therefore very happy when Kristen explained that fallen trees actually keep sediment from being swept down the river in a storm, preventing the sediment from being deposited along the wider and flatter riverbed downstream.  Indeed, the very significant sediment build-up between Highway 1 and Water St. (‘lowering’ the levee by 2 feet) might have been prevented if woody debris (Stream Wood) had been left in the rivers upstream. The levee ‘lowering’ between Highway 1 and Water St. that is currently of serious concern to Public Works seems to be the major reason that this Department is now asking City Council for more money to carry out some kind of a variant on dredging right around where I live near the Water St. Bridge. I wish the Coastal Watershed Council would use its institutional heft to work on the science behind vegetation removal and see if it is really justified. It would be wonderful if our City could get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to retract the Corp’s requirement for all this cutting. This, I think, would be a more effective restoration project than planting a few more willows! I’m happy to report that the two Cottonwoods and one Alder that I was lucky enough to save from the chainsaw at Riverbend Park are still there, finally getting to grow a large upper canopy.  I’m waiting for the first nest.

Well – here is one event I can really get behind. My friend Jeff Caplan will be leading a Bilingual Bird Walk (Andar con los Aves) this Saturday, March 24, from 10 to 12 a.m. Meet at Beach Flats Park (corner of Leibrant and Raymond Streets in Santa Cruz) You can read more about Jeff and his fine work on behalf of birds on his website.  http://commonlanguageprogram.

I hope we all become more aware of the wonder and blessings of breeding season. What an amazing natural drama is beginning to unfold along the river right now.

Good birding-watching to all.










2 thoughts on “Science First, Management Second

  1. Barbara, I couldn’t agree more with your statement, ” But I thought his big picture warning constituted a pretty direct challenge to our downtown city planners who seem a bit too complacent about the spectre of sea level rise. Do we really want to build hotels, restaurants, and housing in the flood plain? Why not keep Old Town Santa Cruz as it is for as long as we can, but plan all new development further south on Soquel?”

    Over a year ago, during public communications at a Corridor Committee meeting, I urged City representatives to start thinking about moving City offices to a higher marine terrace. I even suggested they consider the triangular area between Soquel Ave., Water Street and Branciforte Ave. (the original location of the non-native settlement in the Santa Cruz area). I have also argued against building a new public library in the flood plain.

    When the next big flood wipes out half of downtown Santa Cruz, the area should be returned to agricultural land and possibly low-income RV parks that can be evacuated when necessary.

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