Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Gazers,
Late Monday afternoon while the nation was barbecuing, I decided to go in search of WOOD DUCKS. They have been on my mind lately. At least one family has been breeding on the river for quite a few years, but they are still rare here, most local Wood Ducks preferring to raise their young in Neary Lagoon. I hadn’t even seen a report of an adult on the River, much less a family. I was worried. I headed towards that short stretch of river behind the Tannery, a stretch, as you well know, that is the closest spot to downtown where something like a natural riparian habitat still exists. That is where Wood Ducks can find the hollow cavities in old or fallen trees that they need to make a successful nest.
I very quietly approached the spot where I had seen these beautiful ducks in previous years – and – lo and behold – there was a mother Wood Duck with five very new little fuzzballs. Oh, those soulful, teardrop eyes! I love it when this sort of thing happens- as if the proud mother was calling to me, saying, “I’m ready for visitors, come and see my lovely brood.” Well, it didn’t turn out exactly that way. They actually saw me first, in spite of my stealthy approach, and by the time I actually reached the riverside the babies were already skittering away fast, disappearing almost immediately into the dense vegetation along the edge of the river, followed closely by the mother.
I set up my little birding chair, determined to not move a muscle until they returned. I didn’t even raise my binoculars to look at other birds. And, sure enough, in about 20 minutes they re-appeared from upstream, this time fooled into a false sense of security by my immobility. The mother climbed up on a fallen tree just across the river form me, preening and resting, while the babies first hung out in the water nearby (if you look carefully, you will see them in the water near the log). Then copying their mother, then clambered up on the fallen tree, scrambling and tumbling around each other just like baby kittens. I stared and stared, grateful from the bottom of my heart. I am wondering if this fallen tree is where their nest cavity is. They don’t make their own holes, but search for ones already made by woodpeckers, or rot. A dead tree is ideal.
According to BNA, the population of Wood ducks was robust through the nineteenth century but then began to decline due to deforestation and loss of wetland habitats. Ornithologists thought they were probably doomed as a species. But thanks in large part to the wonderful Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, this species was protected from hunters through1941 – and it made a great comeback. But this year, on the eve of the centennial of this landmark conservation act, the Trump administration gutted the law. It freed private interests – most notably energy companies – from criminal prosecutions and fines for the deaths of migratory birds killed by industrial practices. When will the energy companies and their friends (and our City government) come to realize that our real power is in our connection with the earth and all the natural wonders that it holds. (See below for something you can do about our local situation.)
The Wood Duck sighting followed a wonderful couple of hours birding with my friend Batya the day before in a much more urban environment – the Duck Pond!
She was the one that first spotted the CANADA GOOSE goslings, hanging out on the grassy areas, their favorite spots to forage. Unlike the Mallard and the Wood Duck parents, where the male disappears after the eggs are layed, Canada Geese are the helicopter parents of the avian world, neither parent letting the young ones out of their sight for a minute. Don’t they look proud!!!
The breeding range of the Canada Goose extends only as far south as central California – so we are along the edge of what’s possible. The local Breeding Bird Atlas folks are keeping a special eye out to see if there is a trend towards more nesting in the Santa Cruz area. I’ve seen more adults than I have in past years, 12 adults this last Sunday, all parading around San Lorenzo Park. But there was only the one family. Will there be more goslings.? Stay tuned. I hope they keep coming back and I hope we get more families.
To my surprise, I also spotted not only a GREAT EGRET, but a GREEN HERON, both foraging and drinking from the Duck Pond at the same time. Quite a sight! Last year as the Parks and Recreation Department drilled deeper and deeper into their Master Plan for the future, they discussed getting rid of the Duck Pond.
That would be a terrible shame in my opinion. On many levels! It is such a welcoming place for both birds and humans. Maybe we could all agree on an even larger and more natural water feature. Right now I think the birds and visitors are pretty safe since the city departments are all suffering major budget cuts. But we should stay alert!
Just to add a final fillip to this urban river outing, there appeared a MALLARD family swimming in horseshoe formation just under the noisy Water St. Bridge, one of several sightings of Mallard babies so far this summer.
That adds up to four separate species of waterfowl families, all plying our river at the same time – Wood Ducks, Common Mergansers, Canada Geese, and Mallard. Now I await my favorite – the Pied-billed Grebe – more fingernails to be chewed. I heard one giving its inimitable roar from downstream while I sat watching the Wood Ducks behind the Tannery. What was it announcing so forcefully?
And speaking of COMMON MERGANSERS, I must now officially confess that I was wrong in my last post when I identified Common Mergansers as Red-breasted Mergansers. Hats off to Michael Levy who had the good sense to warn me before I posted that I should pay more attention to the neck markings, and less to the crest. But I stubbornly hit the publish button anyway, swayed by the scruffy head feathers and the reports of two eBird reports of experienced birders, both of whom seemed to have made the same mistake about the same family. The local bird guru, Alex Rinkert, who monitors eBird postings from this area, quickly picked up my mistake, alerted me, and I changed my post. It turns out that the usually sleeker hairdo of the Common Mergansers can be easily ruffled by the wind, their hairdos then appearing very similar to the more permanently dishevelled Red-breasted. Alex was kind enough to take the time to write me with the following clarification: “The key characteristics for Red-breasted Mergansers are a thinner bill, tan head, and weakly contrasting tan head and gray breast. Common Mergansers have thicker bills, chestnut heads and sharply contrasting head/breast line.” (My mother told me to pay more attention to the ring around my tomboy neck.) Here is a photo from Google of a Red-breasted Merganser on the left and the actual San Lorenzo River Common Merganser (with babies) that I posted last week on the right – next to each other for the serious birders to pore over:
As readers probably already know, Mauro Garcia, the head of Parks and Recreation, suddenly left the position last month. The Department has invited community members to fill out a survey and submit it by June 22. Please do that! Emphasize that the Department should do a nationwide search for someone with strong environmental qualifications. Parks and Recreation is in charge of our most valuable natural areas – Pogonip, Arana Gulch, San Lorenzo Park, Moore Creek, De Laveaga, Jessie St. Marsh and others. Here is the link to the survey. https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NKKBKXS
You can also call (831) 420-5045 for more information. It would be great if some people could write actual letters.
Happy Birding to all.