Dear Jane and All Bird Lovers,
RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS have been stealing the show these last two weeks, partly because their babies are so darn cute and partly because they aren’t even supposed to be breeding here. Their normal breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, and even northern and Eastern Canada at that. Red-breasted are a separate species from the COMMON MERGANSERS, the Mergansers that are our normal year-round resident and the ones that usually produce some families during breeding season. Red-breasteds are a surprise as local breeders! When I posted my citing to e-Bird, I got an automatic message pointing out that this is a rare sighting and that I needed to give more details. Fortunately, two leading birders in our area, Kumaran Arul and Alexander Gaguine had also reported them earlier this week, so I think I’m not going out too far on a limb. The Red-breasteds can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the COMMON MERGANSERS – but the female Red-breasteds can display a wildly shaggy crest that the Commons can’t equal. I hope these mops are shaggy enough for e-Bird! I was just done oohing and aahing about the little family of four when not much later along came another family of 7 fledglings. I could hardly believe my eyes. Two families within minutes of each other on one stretch of the river! The babies are so little but they must have powerful legs. When they pick up speed to keep up with their mother, they lift right up out of the water and seem to be flying rather than swimming.. Watching 7 tiny babies flying over the surface of the water has got to be one of life’s finest experiences.
Coming in a close second this week for drama are the rambunctious CLIFF SWALLOWS. Today I counted about 75, dipping and darting with wild abandon around the Laurel and Riverside Bridges. I also counted about 120 old mud nests in various states of repair on just these two bridges. The swallows have their work cut out for them, for sure! Quite a few of of the nests at the Laurel Bridge had one Swallow seeming to hold down the fort while another went out gathering mud and catching insects. The Cliff Swallows have been here now for quite a few weeks, but according to BNA, the males tend to arrive first, and only begin pair formation and nest building when the females arrive. Did you know that the famous swallows of Capistrano are Cliff Swallows! I had to wait 80 years to learn that.
People that I meet on the River are always interested that we have not just one but two species of white egrets on the River – the larger and less commonly seen GREAT EGRET (37” long) and the smaller SNOWY EGRET (27” long). And of course that doesn’t count the other member of the family, our iconic GREAT BLUE HERON (46” long). What treasures our river holds. ( I caught this photo of the Great and Snowy next to each other for comparison. ) These are all colony-nesting birds, usually high up in trees. I would love to know where our birds are nesting these days.
Two lovely KILLDEERS were hanging out on the sandbars between Laurel and Riverside this week, a very probable habitat for their nests. I felt horrible when I saw a young woman throwing a ball for her dog right where the the birds might be nesting. We have got to get the City to put up signs letting people know that it is illegal to be anywhere on the levee banks or next to the river.
My strangest sight this week was a GREEN HERON squawking loudly while dive-bombing a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK. What do you think that was about?? I hope not nest robbing. The heron quickly flew off and this elegant fiend settled down on a pole above my head, pretending that nothing had happened.
So far this summer I’ve seen only one MALLARD family with babies, and not a single WOOD DUCK or PIED-BILLED GREBE family. I don’t know whether the one grebe I’ve seen on the river is a bachelor or is one of a pair. Grebes tend not to hang out with each other, and they look almost exactly the same. I’m hoping our grebe has a partner tucked away somewhere on a well-concealed floating nest, incubating some eggs and waiting his or her turn to leave the nest and catch some delectable crawfish. I saw two male Mallards chasing a female Mallard this week, so maybe some second families are in the making.
I got a fund-raising letter from the UCSC Arboretum this week pointing out that anxiety will be the leading health problem by 2020, replaceing diabetes. The point being made was that nature is one of our great resources to provide respite from an over-stimulating and too often distressing society. I feel so grateful that there are so many people in our community dedicated to protecting the nature we already have and trying to create even more places where people can benefit from the healing effects of a tree or a flower or a river.
The riverside flowers these days may not be natives – but they delight my eyes. I like to believe that Wordsworth was right when he suggested that nature and birds and trees all experience joy – and that this joy is contagious. It is certainly true that I always feel more joyful after walking along the river.
“Through primrose tufts in that green bower
The periwinkle trails its wreathes,
And t’is my faith that every flower,
Enjoys the air it breathes”.
May we all breathe in some anxiety-reducing joy from the birds and flowers and trees.