Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,
As far as I know, the first baby waterfowl of the season appeared this last week on the urban stretch of our river. On April 27, standing on the Felker St. Bridge, I spied four teensy MALLARD chicks, busily foraging for themselves in a quiet backwater just north of the bridge.
I guess that means the eggs were laid sometime towards the end of March (a 28 day incubation period). I originally saw four babies, and then, sadly, only three babies remained a day later. I’m pretty sure there were more eggs in the original clutch. According to BNA there is usually an average of 10 eggs per Mallard nest in an early season nest. Raccoons, rats, crows, hawks, coyotes? Lots of hungry critters out there with their own babies, all struggling to stay alive.
According to a friend, CHICKADEE babies have been heard begging from this box attached to a tree on the city side of the west levee near Water St. Bridge.
I saw parents flying back and forth but so far I haven’t seen or heard the babies. If readers are interested in building nestboxes, you can go to to NestWatch (click here) and get detailed specifications from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology for boxes specifically designed for more than 50 different species. Is anyone with carpentry skills interested in helping me build a Tree Swallow box? I have also seen a Kestrel box along the river, but so far no Kestrels.
While birding on the river this week I ran into Phil Brown, a keen-eyed local birder, who is working hard during this season trying to keep track of breeding birds in the area. He is officially in charge of monitoring not only the San Lorenzo River but Neary Lagoon, Schwann Lake, Arana Gulch and a few more key breeding areas in Santa Cruz County. It’s a big responsibility that he generously performs before and after his paying job.
He told me that he has seen NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS carrying nesting materials into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge, where this species has been nesting for quite a while. He also reports seeing HOUSE FINCHES and SONG SPARROWS carrying nesting materials and HOUSE SPARROWS carrying food. We were both keeping our eyes on the CANADA GEESE, COMMON MERGANSERS, PIED-BILLED GREBES AND KILLDEERS –hoping for signs of breeding between Water St. and the Highway 1 Bridge, or perhaps further upstream behind the Tannery for the Grebes and Mergansers.. All these species have been present in ‘suitable habitat’ – using the language of the Breeding Bird Bird Project. Phil was interested in the Chickadee box which he didn’t know about, and also pleased to hear about the baby Mallards. It’s so nice to meet a birder on the river and share sightings. I can honestly say that in the four years that I have been birding on the San Lorenzo I have only once run into a birder that I didn’t already know through the Bird Club. As far as pure joy goes, this has got to be one of the best kept secrets in Santa Cruz.
While we were staring at two landing Killdeer, Phil also spied a migratory TREE SWALLOW, rarely seen on the urban river.
We know that these swallows nest at Neary Lagoon where they seem well adapted to the human-made nest boxes that are available there. Would they like a box on the San Lorenzo? Are there any readers with carpentry skills that would like to help me build a Tree Swallow nest on the San Lorenzo River? According to BNA, Tree Swallows readily accept these artifical nests and indeed are thought to arrive early in the season in order to find the rare tree cavities (or nest boxes) that are in high demand by other cavity nesting birds.
Another curious phenomena of this season is the brotherhood of male Mallards, most of them hanging out together in pairs or small groups after doing their bit by inseminating the female. One rarely sees females at this time of year. The mother scrapes a depression in the ground by herself, pulls downy feathers from her breast to line the shallow ground nest, lays the eggs, and incubates the eggs for an average of 22 hours a day, for an average of 28 days – all by herself. She takes time off in early morning and late afternoon to forage and preen. No food delivery by that elegant Lothario with the shimmering green head feathers and bright orange feet. Nor does the drake appear once the babies are born. The young are ‘precocial’, able to take care of themselves as soon as they hatch. You can imagine how I work to suppress my feminist judgments! Who knows – considering how aggressive Mallard drakes are, perhaps the mom is glad to have some quiet time away from the early season onslaught of ardent suitors.
The levees are beautiful these days, ablaze with broad drifts of wildflowers – orange California poppies, pink, white and purple Wild Radish, pink Scabiosa, and a new flower for me, bright lavender Salsify.
My environmental educator friend, Batya Kagan, also helped me learn a little about all the lovely grasses that were trying to get my attention by waving to me in the breeze! Thanks to Batya, I pulled my attention away from the birds for a moment and stopped and made the acquaintance of the delicate native Purple Needle Grass and the very similar and also purple non-native Brome. If you rub your fingers against the grain of the Brome, it catches your skin. Purple Needle Nose doesn’t do that. Stop, shake hands and introduce yourself to the purple grasses this week.
Watching and worrying about birds seems to have burrowed down into my unconscious. Recently I dreamed that three Red-shouldered Hawks were circling above me as I walked along the Riverwalk close to where I live. Suddenly, one of the hawks dropped to the ground right in front of me. It was still alive when it hit the ground but I watched it slowly close its eyes and die. The other two hawks perched nearby, staring at their dead kin. I rushed to stop the bicycles on the Riverwalk. People stopped and one man sat down reverently in the lotus position in the middle of the pathway. The dream ends and I wake up. I am amazed to hear a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from outside. Does that mean that I am now able to identify a bird call in my sleep? A little later I go out onto the levee and as soon as I get to the pathway I see a Red-shouldered Hawk circling close by over my head, right where the dream took place! I think I may be tapping into something beyond my understanding. A new kind of mystery for this blog?
Speaking of bird language, enthusiastic bird advocate Jeff Caplan will be giving what looks like a very interesting workshop on his recent studies with a nationally-known bird aficionado. The Saturday morning event will start at 9 and will include the presentation on bird language as well as a walk along the river and a brunch at India Joze. I will be there! Click here to read about the workshop and sign up if you are interested. It looks like it may sell out.
I hope everyone turns on Bruce Bratton’s radio program at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, May 8, when Jane will be talking about her favorite subject – the San Lorenzo River. Good luck, Jane. That’s KZSC 88.1 fm.
Click here to see my eBird checklist for this week.
May everyone’s dreams be filled with the magic of the natural world.