Shakespeare on the River

Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Lovers,

I was totally entranced by your description last week of the Romeo and Juliet drama unfolding beween the COOT and the courageous (or confused) female BUFFLEHEAD. It seemed just short of miraculous that  the star-crossed lovers stuck so closely to the Shakespearean script, with the outraged Bufflehead family rushing in to pull the tragic couple apart. What a tale! Coots are such odd creatures! They seem to have unlimited curiosity and very permeable boundaries.  I’m so glad that you captured a photo of the Coot imitating the Bufflehead’s  water-pecking courtship behavior.

Speaking of curiosity, I am very curious about our winter waterfowl who actually build their nests and raise their young elsewhere, but are in full breeding plumage all winter long on our river. Now I learn from your last posting that they even begin their courtship behavior while still here! Do they actually copulate while they’re here or do they leave that step until after they arrive in western Canada and Alaska? How does that work?  I would imagine the timing could get a little tricky.

I have been asked by the Breeding Bird Atlas folks to  pay special attention  to four species on our urban stretch of the river, species who  may either have stopped breeding on the river, or may be beginning to breed here.They are the AMERICAN KESTREL, the RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, the YELLOW WARBLER and the CANADA GOOSE.

In the category of species who may be moving into Santa Cruz County to breed is the CANADA GOOSE. Last week I heard a lot of very loud honking on the river, just south of the Pedestrian Bridge. I hustled there as fast as my 80–year-old legs could carry me.  Although things had settled down somewhat by the time I arrived, I found a pair of Canada Geese on the water, still exhibiting some agitated behavior, and some odd neck elongations.   As soon as I got home, I check my BNA which told me that  ‘copulation generally occurs on water at spring staging areas, or on breeding grounds, before and after nest-site selection. Copulation is preceded by pre-copulatory Head-Dipping, after which both birds stretch necks and lift chins and call; displays serve as sexual releasers that function to bring about synchronization of sexual activities in members of the pair.” I seem to have made it at least in time to see the neck stretching part.

Canada Geese mating2
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 12
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 13
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory,  wing-flapping behavior, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 1
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, calmly swimming, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

According to the range map of the BNA, Canada Geese do not breed south of the Oregon/California border.   But in 2014, Gerow reported a few that bred in the area nearby the urban river. And last summer we had a sweet family of five young ones and two very solicitous parents.  The parents bond for life. This spring there have been two pairs of Canada Geese hanging out in the grassy mounds near the Duck Pond and on the nearby river. Obviously, the BNA hasn’t quite caught up with what is happening here on the ground in Santa Cruz County.  But it’s true that we do not yet have a confirmed nesting on the urban river itself.

Where should we look for a nest? According to the BNA, this species typically nests on drier, slightly elevated sites near water, more frequently on islands with good visibility. They can nest near ponds (Duck Pond?), near taller willows, even in trees and on human-made structures. Let’s all keep our eyes open.

The other three species I was asked to look for are KESTRELS, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS AND YELLOW WARBLERS. Kestrels were reported (2014) by the late Steve Gerow as breeding near the river up through 2012 or 13. Since then there have been no reported nests. RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS breed in weeds, marsh and willows in the river channel and, according to Gerow, may be increasing. They would be especially vulnerable to any human or animal activity on the levee banks.  I was also told to keep an eye out for possible YELLOW WARBLER nesting activity.

Male Yellow Warbler, Google image

According to Gerow’s 2014 report, this migrant species “is declining as a breeder in Central California; probably the closest current nesting is in the Felton area. ” Gerow adds, “these birds could breed in the lower river area if there were somewhat more natural habitat conditions.” I was told that we might be more likely to see them nesting just upstream from the Highway 1 Bridge , behind the Tannery, where there is no levee and a more natural riparian habitat. Unfortunately, a lot of the displaced Benchland campers seem to have moved upstream to the cemetary side of the river, making that riparian habitat much less attractive for nesting birds. Anyway, please let me know if any of you see any nesting behavior of this possible river breeder. I would so like to see the Benchlands behind the Courthouse returned to its original habitat and then see my first nesting Yellow Warbler lured there by the perfect tree.   Is this another ‘impossible dream’.


Last week I was watching the typical behavior of four crows bedeviling a perched RED-TAILED HAWK. After some especially close swipes by the persistent crows, the long-suffering hawk was practically toppled from his perch in a very graceless take off.   Red-tailed hawks are major predators of crow nests, and crows don’t easily forget a grudge. I wouldn’t either if a hawk got my baby, no matter how majestic the hawk.

crow harrassing
Perched Red-tailed Hawk assailed by American Crow, one of four, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Red-tailed Hawk in Eucalyptus
Red-tailed Hawk, disturbed take-off, San Lorenzo River, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here’s my list of other species that I posted on eBird this last week.

Happy trails to all.













8 thoughts on “Shakespeare on the River

  1. Hello Barbara ~

    If you or others want to see photos of Canada Goose pairs with youngsters only a couple of miles east of the SL River, take a look at nesting pair results at Corcoran Lagoon and CL Beach. Go to the Friends of Corcoran Lagoon Beach web site here Then scroll down chronologically to May 5, 2017 and then May 21, 2015.

    By the way, I am distressed to learn that homeless campers have once more occupied wildlife habitat to the detriment of the birds. This is what humans do every time they occupy wildlife habitat. Too many humans.

    1. Thanks, Jean. I am interested to know that the geese are nesting at CL? Thank you for keeping these records on your website. And yes, I am very sad that there are campers in unsupervised areas along the river, especially in wilder areas. I believe that behind the Tannery is the area where Wood Ducks may have nested in the past. It has the wood cavities they need. So far I haven’t seen any reports of Wood Ducks on the river.

    2. Dear Jean, I just visited your Corcoran Lagoon website for the first time and was blown away by your faithful reporting on, and protection of, the birdlife there. Ever since 2014!!!!! I am also in awe of the great quality of so many of your photos, catching the birds in exquisite action! I had no idea this record existed, and can’t imagine how I could have been so unaware of this lovely work. Thank you for your faithfulness to this mission of honoring our natural world. I need to subscribe.

  2. What a magnificent picture of the hawk taking off. You captured a moment of life fierce and full.

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