Magical Mothering

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Gazers,

Wood Duck Mom
Mother Wood Duck on a fallen tree in the San Lorenzo River behind the Tannery – with 5 ducklings in water below below her , May 28, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Wood Duck 5 babies
5 ducklings playing on the same fallen tree. 

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!

Proud goose parents
Canada Geese with goslings, San Lorenzo Park, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Green Heron Drinking at Duck Pond
Green Heron drinking from Duck Pond, May 27, 2018, San Lorenzo Park, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Great Egret
Great Egret stalking fish in the Duck Pond, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Mallard Family Horseshoe formation
Mallard mother with 6 ducklings in horseshoe formation, near Water St. Bridge, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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:


Click here for my City checklist this week and here for my Tannery checklist.

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 22Please 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.

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.


















5 thoughts on “Magical Mothering

  1. Thank you for such a lovely sighting of those painted ducks!!! How awesome. And for your activism. It makes up for the fact that not only did you misidentify your merganzers but who warned you not to push that send button. Eh hem. Yours truly.

    1. Even at 80 I can still look to authority rather to my own eyes and ears – and friends! I better live to at least 100 so I can learn all the things I need to learn! Thanks for your sweet note.

  2. Those baby geese look silly. So does that green heron. The green herons had been more prominent in Felton, but are now gone, at least for now. One family nested in an elm tree in the parking lot at Rite Aid. The other nested in a stone pine in the parking lot at CVS. However, the pine was cut down.

    1. Green Herons seem to like urban sites for their nests. Last summer I heard there was a Green Heron nest somewhere on the Pacific Garden Mall. Interesting to hear that Green Herons are less prominent in Felton these days.

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