It’s Moulting Time

Dear Jane and Bird Lovers,

mallard drake molting green
Male mallard beginning to moult, June 23, 2018, Duck Pond, San Lorenzo Park, photo by B. Riverwoman

I got engrossed this last week with the slightly ridiculous sight of the elegant male MALLARDS going through their annual post-breeding moult.  For three or four weeks now – during late summer and fall –we can expect to see the drakes first losing their sheen and then seeming to lose their masculinity!   The poor things not only lose those gleaming green heads  but during the 3-4 week moult period they are transformed into creatures that are almost indistinguishable from the females. Imagine!

mallard in molt 1
Male mallard in slightly later stage of moult, Neary Lagoon, formerly an oxbow in the San Lorenzo River, now cut off from main channel, June 16, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman  click here for checklist

What an ignominious state for these high testosterone creatures. The only vestige of their masculine dignity are  their yellow bills – the single feature by which I can still distinguish them from the female. So if some of you readers think that there are only female mallards around,  check the bill.  If it’s yellow it’s a male, if it is orange and black it’s  the female.  I hope these males won’t resent my showing them on a bad hair day.  I kind of like their subdued and feminized stage.


These gentlemen also lose the ability to fly during this annual moult.  And there’s more.  The process of losing old feathers and gaining new ones is also very energy consuming, so they have to spend more time foraging for high-protein food than usual. (Mallards are usually vegetarians but eat a lot of high-protein insects and crustaceans during breeding and moulting.)

The baby Mallards are coming in all sizes these days. I found a single eensy-teensy one all alone with its probably faithful mother this last  Saturday. Then the next day I found another family (below) of half-grown Mallards foraging along the concrete Branciforte Channel.

Mallard Branciforte Ck
Mallard Family, Branciforte Creek, June 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And finally I spotted a family of six under the Water St. Bridge in which the young ones were almost as large as the mother but still traveling together.  According to the BNA, the only difference between a female mom and both her older male and female children is that the children don’t have the bright blue speculum (not the medical kind but the feathery kind) as part of their secondary flight feathers. I guess they only win this stripe of maturity after three or four months when they will be able to fly.

I am so amused that the GREEN HERON – that I used to think of as a shy, reclusive bird – is actually quite habituated to urban environments. As I think I mentioned in a recent blog, one was even reported as nesting in downtown Santa Cruz.

green heron stalking 2
Green Heron, Duck Pond, San Lorenzo River, June 23, 2018 Photo by B.Riverwoman

And now I have twice spied this elegant fowl foraging happily in open view in the Duck Pond, much-frequented by humans.  She was delicately picking her way over the lily pads, then paused, stealthily elongated her body in one smooth ripple, stretched her neck forward, waited for just a moment, then threw herself out of range of my lens as she snatched a hapless fish who imagined that it was safe under the lily pad. It was only after I later uploaded my photos to my computer that I realized that my few wild camera clicks after she attacked actually caught her with a fish in her mouth. Lucky shot.

green heron stalking 3
Green Heron with fish in bill, Duck Pond, San Lorenzo Park, June 23, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Speaking of the Duck Pond, I am happy that the City Council will be considering a sweet, down-home proposal this very afternoon which I can wholeheartedly support – i.e. they are going to vote on changing the name of the San Lorenzo River Pedestrian Bridge (a mouthful) to the Chinatown Bridge! I love it! It is a lot easier to say, distinguishes it from the other pedestrian bridge near Highway 1, and – most importantly – it honors that spot where our own Chinatown used to exist from the 1860’s until the last remaining building was destroyed in the flood of 1955.   Click here to read a little more about the history of Chinatown in Santa Cruz. I read that the City will also install a historical plaque memorializing the Chinese presence along the river.

Wilson's Warbler
Male Wilson’s Warbler, Google image

Finally, I explored the Branciforte Creek area on Sunday with my friend Nancy who spotted a tiny flash of yellow near the Branciforte and Carbonera Creek confluence area.  I was happy to realize that it was a male WILSON’S WARBLER, a summer visitor that I haven’t seen much on the river this summer. Here is the e-Bird checklist I posted.



Quote of the week: “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”                                                             -Terry Tempest Williams

Let’s keep  celebrating the birds, the river and lots of other astonishing things.





7 thoughts on “It’s Moulting Time

    1. I was so thrilled to see the Green Heron alight on the flowering lily pads – crossing my fingers that I could capture the beauty. When I did –and caught a fish, too, my day was complete! Thank you for your appreciation.

    1. Hopefully we are moving in that direction. But we’re just at the beginning of the journey. I love the concept of the gender spectrum, the rainbow. Tremendous potential for realizing the full range of who we are. It’s like inner bio-diversity. Carl Jung would have applauded.

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