When Going With the Flow Gets Rough

Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Lovers,

Heavy rains  last Saturday and Sunday shook up the world of the river’s water fowl, challenging them to take cover, find new fishing grounds, or in the case of at least one of the species, simply jump on the swiftly flowing waters for what looked to me like a a joy ride! I even caught my first glimpse of  a Harbor Seal on the river,  just south of the Water St. Bridge!

The river crested sometime on Sunday at 13.5 feet, just 2.5 feet short of flooding.  When I  ventured out on Monday morning, the river was a grande dame, pridefully and powerfully flowing to her watery mansion in the great ocean.  Although by Monday morning  the velocity had slowed from  Sunday’s peak of 4000 cubic feet per second to only 1200 cubic feet per second, I suspected it would still present a challenge to the water birds.  And, indeed, things were a bit topsy-turvy.

I found one female COMMON MERGANSER who had clearly taken refuge in the glassy quiet of the Duck Pond, an unusual spot to find a  find a Merganser.  Was the river water too fast  for successful fishing?  Or was it too murky?

p1100784 (1)
Female Common Merganser in San Lorenzo Park Duck Pond, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Common MErgansewer in Duick Pond
Same female Common Merganser with new, exotic species. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Later I saw a pair of the Mergansers taking advantage of the high velocity current to take a swift ride to the mouth.  This is one of their favorite strategies in calm weather – fly upstream, then jump on the free river bus to carry them effortlessly back downstream, fishing and resting as they go. On Monday I didn’t see them fishing at all.

A few BUFFLEHEAD were retreating to the quieter Branciforte cement channel –more like the lakes and ponds that they generally prefer.    But later I was surprised to

Bufflehead in Branciforte Creet Channel
A barely visibleBufflehead  heading upstream on  Branciforte Creek, a partially cemented tributary  that enters the downtown river at the Soquel Bridge.  Photo by B. Riverwoman, January 7, 2019

see a pair of Bufflehead on the open river, alternately rising up out of the water and flapping their wings.  This sounds a little like a Bufflehead mating behavior described as “a head-dip, followed by a wing-flapping, then a rapid bow ending with a resounding slap of the wings against the side of the body.”   I’ll have to keep my eyes open to see if I can catch the rest of the display ritual.  In any case, Bufflehead hormones seem to be flowing, right along with the high water flows.

Buffleheads mating on high water
Mondayh morning after river height on Sunday at 12.5 feet, just 3.5 short of 16 to topof levee
Buffleheads mating on high water
Possible female Bufflehead mating display, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

A GREAT EGRET AND SNOWY EGRET were doing their best to adapt to the high waters.

Snowy Egret struggling with high water
Snowy Egret, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

These beauties prefer mud bars and shallow water, where their long bills can easily probe the mud for the crustaceans, small fish, insects and worms that they relish.  On Monday the Great Egret abandoned the River entirely, richly rewarded by the swampy pools in San Lorenzo Park.  The Snowy seemed to be faring less well, still exploring her normal areas on the edge of the water, but seeming to find that her usual spots were not so productive in a flood.  Perhaps this delicate creature can’t handle the chunkier morsels that are edible by the Great Egret.

Great Egret with Work
Great Egret with worm, San Lorenzo Children’s Park, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This  egrets’ cousin, the GREAT BLUE HERON, looked glorious in the wind, settling comfortably on a sand bar where she could probably sustain herself until things settled down a little.

Great Blue Heron in high river
Great Blue Heron, Sandbar near Chinatown Bridge, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

A MALLARD was also wisely laying low, foraging in quiet backwaters  as she also waited for things to calm down a little.

Mallard taking cover from high river
Mallard in cattail thicket, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I always wonder why my stubborn little PIED-BILLED GREBES would choose to fight a fast river flow rather than find a quieter lake where this species usually prefer to hang out.  Pied-billed Grebe out in high riverOn Monday, most apparently did go elsewhere.  I saw only one grebe between the Water St. Bridge and the Riverside Bridge.  One possible answer, an important consideration, is that maybe this particular grebe is low on the totem pole, forced to accept an inferior territory.  Or maybe she is stronger than the others and can handle the fast life of a river.  Maybe she likes adventure sports!

Songbirds, were of course “above it all”,  simply happy to have a little sun on their feathers and unaware of the river changes that the waterfowl were contending with.  Finches muching on Sycamore fruit A small flock of HOUSE FINCHES were busy nibbling at the spiky seed balls that form on sycamore trees during the winter, balls that will spill their seeds in the spring.

And above them all was this COOPER’S HAWK, hardly moving a muscle, quietly marshaling its energy before its next sneak attack on an unsuspecting songbird.

Cooper's Hawk

Here’s the eBird LINK to the 31 species I found between Water and Riverside  on Monday.  I never fail to be amazed at the diversity and drama of this urban river.

Bankfull Channel

I talked to City Council member Chris Krohn about my concerns regarding the possible upcoming Bankfull river dredging project.  He sent on a list of my questions to Public Works Director, Mark Dettle, who responded promply with some helpful information.  Here’s what we know so far:

After decades of oversight, the Army Corps of Engineers, as we already know, is turning over the Levee Project to the City of Santa Cruz.  A problem that has arisen in this turnover process, according to Dettle,  is that actual 2017 flows “were about 1 foot higher than model predictions in the reach between Water Street and the Highway 1 Bridge.”  In other words, the City will not be protected against the 100-year flood, and will then have to face serious insurance problems.  Dettle wrote, “When this was brought to the CORPS’ attention, they were not interested in studying this issue and are proceeding with the project turnover.”  That response places the responsibility to get FEMA certification squarely on the slight shoulders of our City.  According to Dettle, it is the reason that the City is being forced to consider a Bankfull Channel Plan.

Dettle reported that the City is pursuing this plan “to increase sediment carrying capacity”.  He said, “The Bankfull design is a deeper, narrower channel in the larger channel so the low stream flows still have sufficient velocity to move the sediment out of the reach.”  He said that Public Works is ‘doing the environmental analysis now.”  When asked about whether the channel would be straight or winding, he said it ‘does not have to be a straight channel.”  I wonder if this is possible or feasible?

We also asked Dettle to comment on whether the City is working with the County to control erosion upstream, a major cause of downstream sediment buildup.  Dettle said that the city has had discussions with the County and Scotts Valley on this issue, but that “since a lot of the proerty is in private ownership, it is much more difficult to control the sediment loading.”  He added, “A lot of this material is a good source of beach sand.”

So the taxpayers of Santa Cruz may be burdened with a multi-million dollar dredging project that will be highly disruptive to wildlife because the County does not, or cannot afford to, enforce erosion control laws upstream.  This seems like a perfect emblem of what is wrong with a lot of our society.  The underlying causes are not addressed and the negative effects are felt ‘downstream’.

John Muir quote of the week:

“How little I know of all the vast show (of Nature), and how eagerly, tremulously hopeful of some day knowing more, learning the meaning of the divine symbols crowded together on this wondrous page.”

I’m glad we chose the word San Lorenzo River Mysteries for the name of our Blog.

May we all keep feeling the mystery of it all!

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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