Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.”  Our feathery friends on the river are singing their hearts out with hope these days – hope for the continuation of their species.   They cheer me on enormously in these crazy times when we sometimes have to wonder about the continuation of our species!

song sparrow
Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River, watching the flood waters,  2016, photo by B. Riverwoman

I especially love listening to all the SONG SPARROWS at this time of year. Each bird seems to have its own distinct variation on what is usually a three-part song – twee-twee/buzz/chip-chip – or twee-twee-twee/trill/whistled cascade.    As I walk down the river I hear seemingly infinite variations.  I think if I were starting over again I would become a biologist and study the songs of the Song Sparrow.

Well – here is the mystery bird for the month of April.   Don’t peek at the answer (at the end of this blog) until you’ve given it a try.

April Fool's
Mystery Bird, between Water St. Bridge and Highway 1, April 13, Photo by B. Riverwoman


I am always intrigued to see a bird where I’ve never seen one before.

Nesting Merganser? – Version 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. ,April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

This COMMON MERGANSER, perched on a fallen willow tree in the middle of the river, definitely caught my attention. I wondered if she could possibly be scoping out this tree

Merganswer 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

as a suitable spot for a nest. Mergansers usually use cavities in the trunks of dead trees,  so it would seem unlikely. But I’m keeping an eye on the area just in case. Desperate birds do desperate things. And I would guess that nesting territory is at a premium.



For about two weeks now I have been seeing NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SPARROWS disappearing into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge where I finally learned last year that they nest.

Resting Northern-winged
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, April 13, 2018, perched near Water St. Bridge where it is nesting.  Photo by B.Riverwoman

Then, just today, I was happy to see my first CLIFF SPARROWS exploring their old mud nests under the Water St. Bridge. I am wondering if they will reclaim these nests this year. They decided not to last year. I think it was because those pesky

house sparrow copy
Squatting House Sparrow, 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

HOUSE SPARROWS occupied most of their old mud nests before the Cliff Swallows had returned from down south. A willow clump right next to the bridge has been a major headquarters for the aggressive House Sparrows for the four years I’ve been watching birds on the river. I suspect they may have settled there for exactly this purpose. Location, location, location.



There have been a few VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS around for a while, but not the usual high numbers. I’ve never seen a Violet-green Swallow nest. BNA says they like to nest in cavities in trees or cliffs and will also use human-made boxes.

Violet-green Swallow perched near her nesting cavity hollowed out by another bird like a woodpecker.  Google image.

If any readers see such a nest, especially one near the river, I’d love to know. You can always e-mail me at river@cruzio.com about this or any other interesting things you see on the river. Here’s a cool fact about the Violet-green Swallows. They have been recorded flying at 28 miles per hour— pretty fast when you consider that the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird of prey, averages about 25–35 miles per hour in traveling flight.  A good online resource that I just discovered is nestwatch.org. They have lots of useful information including how to build nest boxes for common birds in our area, especially ones in decline like the Kestrel and Mourning Dove.


I caught a glimpse this week of one of my favorite  sights – two ravens circling together very, very high up in the sky. I tried to get photos, but was not up to the challenge – so fell back on a Google image.  But the photo is exactly what I saw.  BNA says there is no solid evidence that paired soaring behavior has any relationship to breeding.

ravens soaring
Two Common Ravens, circling at a high altitude.  Google image.

But it is a beautiful and heart-stopping performance, no matter what their intentions. Such form, such freedom. Two years ago the ravens built a nest on the roof of the courthouse – but not last year and no sign yet of activity this year.  Mating pairs usually stay together throughout the year.


In the singing category, the HOUSE FINCHES

5 finches
Five House Finches stirring things up at the El Rio Mobile Home Park garden facing on the river.  April 13, 2018.

continue to outdo themselves at this time of year – warbling irrepressibly up and down and all over the map.   There is also lots of chasing behavior – as there is with so many of the species – as the birds sort out who belongs to whom. I often count three birds in these chasing scenes, suggesting that one of the birds is being chased away rather than pursued.


The WHITE-CROWNED AND GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS, on the other hand, are pretty silent, although I have heard  a few Golden-crowned singing their plaintive descending three-note song lately. I am guessing that this call is for the purpose of gathering the tribe to start the long trip back to their breeding grounds in Canada. It is the same song, as far as I can tell, that they sing when they arrive in the fall and are establishing their territory. Both the White-crowned and Golden-crowned are in full-breeding plumage, the Golden-crowned especially handsome these days compared to their winter drabness. I keep saying good-bye to these backyard birds (I’m right on the river), but some of them still hang around. Or have our winter residents already left and others are passing through from further south? I wonder how we would know this.   Here is the White-crowned Sparrow just coming in for a landing.  Next stop British Columbia?

WC Landing
White-crowned Sparrow, April 13, 2018, El Rio Riverside Garden, Photo by B.Riverwoman

And in the fish department, I recently joined a riverside workshop led by Ben Wasserman, a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department up at UCSC.

Ben Wasserman holding fully-grown Three-spined Stickleback taken from river underneath Water St. Bridge. April 14, 2018  Photo by B. Riverwoman

He was introducing about 25 of us, adults and children, to the fascinating THREE-SPINED STICKLEBACK, a fish that he called the ‘lab rat’ of fish biologists around the world. According to Wasserman, the Sticklebacks are not only abundant  in inland coastal waters everywhere on the planet, but they are also easily caught (and released) for research studies. According to Wasserman, this abundance and easy accessibility, added to the fact that they are highly adaptive to changing environmental conditions, make them a workhorse of evolutionary studies

stickleback closeup
Ben Wasserman holding Stickleback, Photo by B. Riverwoman

around the world.  UCSC is doing its part, and Wasserman is part of that, focusing his graduate studies on the Stickleback’s evolution through natural selection. Like coho salmon and steelhead trout, the sticklebacks are ‘anadramous’, meaning they breed in freshwater but can survive in the ocean. But unlike the salmon and steelhead, the stickleback don’t always return to the ocean. This wide range of environmental influences results in an equally broad range of adaptations – giving Wasserman lots to study.    I wonder if  the research surrounding the tiny and obscure stickleback could one day become more important to human survival than all the recreational attention given to the iconic salmon and steelhead.


Congratulations, Jane, on being chosen by the City of Santa Cruz as a ‘2018 Outstanding Volunteer’!! You certainly deserve the recognition. I hope some of our readers will be at City Hall on April 24th at 2 pm to help celebrate with you. I know I will be there. I wish I knew how to get all the birds there to express their gratitude for all your advocacy and organizational work on the environment.

Click here to see my latest eBird checklist.

And the mystery bird is…….April Fool’s! What you see is only a clump of leaves left by a high river! There is rarely a bird trip I make when I don’t eagerly lift my binoculars to examine an enticing scrap of white plastic, a suggestive root projection, a falling leaf or some other beguiling and ultimately deceptive phenomenon.

Laughing with the birds,











7 thoughts on “Hope is the Thing with Feathers

  1. Ha! You totally had me going with the mystery bird! I just knew it was a red-shouldered hawk. Speaking of birds being late to migrate (maybe), did I tell you I saw 3 or 4 Townsend’s Warblers in Pogonip a few days ago, singing away and eating oak caterpillars?

  2. Another gem! Thank you Barbara.

    Re Jane’s award…you mean April 24th right? You have March.

    Gillian >

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