Let’s Restore the Benchlands

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird, Tree and Wild Mushroom Lovers,

Hardly believeable, is it Jane!  It is now just slightly over four years that you and I have been busy bloggers, celebrating all the wild surprises that await  nature lovers along this short stretch of urban river.  And of course, the more I learn, the more there is to protect.

I think between us we must have reported on most of the 122 species that our beloved and deceased master bird guru, Steve Gerow, identified as regular inhabitants of the urban river, species who depend for their survival on this stretch between the estuary and Highway 1.

steve-gerow-1-younger-lag-10-3-08-david-suddjian
Steve Gerow, master birder and teacher at Younger Lagoon., died 2018,  Photographer unknown. 

This number of 122 species, according to eBird, grows to 214 if you include rarities, as well as primarily ocean and beach species that occasionally appear a short ways up the river. But it was the 122 species that most concerned us when we  started this blog, and it is these same species that we will probably try to protect for the rest of our lives.

Well, today, I want to stretch the rules of our blog just a little bit.  I want to venture just a few steps north of our usual stretch to the area behind the Tannery, an area that because it is more truly riparian has the ability to show us how our river might have appeared before the levees were built. And, more importantly for this blog, how it might still exist if the City were to develop a plan to restore the Benchlands to a riparian woodland like the one behind the Tannery.  It took me more than a year to realize that – ah, yes – the Benchlands is the only area in our urban stretch of river which has no levee.  That means that it is a real wetland, open to flooding, which, by definition,  makes it a true riparian area.  It also means that it the only stretch along the entire urban river, strictly speaking,  that is open to true riparian restoration, as opposed to revegetation.

As most of of you know by now, this is my dream for the future – that the Benchlands be restored to the natural riparian woodland and wetland that it was in past years.  My dream is that it would be a protected area in the heart of downtown –with winding paths under native alder, sycamore, cottonwood and box elder trees, a slightly wild area that would include fallen trees, tangles of native backberries, wild mushrooms and all the other rich flora that grow naturally  along the damp edge of a river.  It would provide the public with easy access to a world of peace, quiet, and natural beauty in the heart of the downtown, a place with a few benches where people could sit quietly to rest during a lunch break or after an afternoon of shopping downtown.   I invite readers to take a little walk behind the Tannery sometime and try to visualize duplicating this environment on the Benchlands.

Here are  three of the birds that I saw this last week that never or rarely go south of Highway 1, but might try it if the environment was inviting.   Two of these birds  need dense and large wooded areas for their survival.  The third is highly dependent  on a certain tree for both its feeding and nesting habitat.

Stellar's Jay
STELLAR’S JAY, Tannery, January 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

The first bird is the STELLAR’S JAY, A common species in THE Santa Cruz Mountains and behind the Tannery, but one that I have absolutely never seen south of Highway 1.   It is as if there is some kind of invisible wall or sign that forbids a Stellar’s Jay from going south of that line.  I think the invisible sign must say ‘The dense coniferous forest ends here.  Proceed at your own risk.”  These jays are a species that love coniferous/deciduous forests and apparently do not consider the small patches of redwoods in the well-groomed Benchlands a suitable habitat.  I don’t blame them.  Perhaps we could lure them a little south if there were denser stands of older, coniferous trees in the Benchlands.

Another species that is tightly tied to a specific habitat is the small  OAK TITMOUSE.   As its name suggests, this species depends heavily on one tree, preferring to nest, roost and find its preferred insects and spiders along the branches and trunks of large oak trees. I saw two of these nondescript little gray/brownish birds this week,  hopping about in an enormous and beautiful oak tree behind the Tannery.  Although I failed to get a photo, here is one I took last March just south of Highway 1 on the east side of the river, on an old oak tree that somehow survived the levee construction

titmouse
Oak Titmouse on Oak Tree, San Lorenzo River between Highway 1 and Water St., March 25, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

Although common in their range, these titmice have one of the most limited ranges of all the birds in California, almost always occurring in the Pacific Slope (west of the Sierras) and extending only from southern Oregon to Baja. Because oak woodlands in California have been depleted by 25 to 50% since 1900,  due to expanding agriculture, rangeland and urbanization, these nondescript little birds are very vulnerable.  I’d love to plant some large oaks in the Benchland to provide at least a little more apropriate habitat for these common but threatened birds.  I see them occasionally at my seed and suet feeders, but I suspect they are only visiting under pressure, and would much rather be foraging further north in a more natural  habitat..

Another bird that I have seen in the Benchlands on only one or two occasions is a more frequent resident of the  the Tannery woodlands.  It is one of my favorites – the BROWN CREEPER that spirals up the trunk of a tree, using its long, curved beak to forage for insects under the bark . When it reaches the top, it may fly back down to the

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper, Tannery, January 19, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

bottom of the tree and start up again, or fly off to another tree and start over again from the bottom.  (As I was trying to catch this photo of the Creeper, my camera lit on what I thought was the Creeper, but oddly, it had stopped moving. Guess what it was!  Yes, a very birdy looking leaf.   I had to quickly regroup to catch up with the real Creeper.)

Leaf, not bird
Believe it or not, this is a leaf, pretending it is a Creeper, on the same tree branch as the Creeper.!  January 19, 2019, photo by B. Riverwoman

Brown Creepers depend on large old trees, actually building little hammocks underneath the loose bark on living trees or dead snags. According to Birds of North America, old growth trees (ideal for creepers) are increasingly scarce in North America and elsewhere in the breeding range. According to this same source, “bark surface area, depth, and complexity of bark furrows in large trees and sloughing of bark in dying or dead trees offer unique foraging and nesting opportunities not available on smaller trees”.  Given this fact, it is amazing that we still see Brown Creepers in the Benchlands, much less the urban stretch of the river.   You can see that the tree that attracted this Brown Creeper behind the Tannery was most definitely not old growth, though still providing some loose bark behind which insects are hiding!  Birds may continue to survive long past the time when they can enjoy the habitat to which they are best adapted.  But how much does it stess them?  How close to the edge of extinction do they exist?  What is their reproductive success? I am always asking myself these questions.

Here are my two Tannery e-bird lists from this week, 21 species on the 19th and 12 species on the 21st.

January 19, 2019

January 21, 2019

My friend Batya accompanied me on one of my Tannery trips introducing me to her old friend, the Shaggy Mane mushroom.  I was quite astonished at the changes that this mushroom goes through as it ages.  Below is a slide show (the wonders of Word Press) that shows three stages of the mushroom, from quite firm, to slowly ‘deliquescing’ to absolutely oozing and dripping black goo.  The show includes brave Batya, smelling and touching this formidable wonder.  Let’s also bring back the Shaggy Mane to the Benchlands so we can all enjoy its curious habit of  deliquescing!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And although Monarchs are everywhere, this one was clearly enjoying something that it was drawing out of the tender buds of a willow.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nearby place where city workers and shoppers could go to take in the world of jays, titmice, creepers, mushrooms, butterflies – and a real woods?  Shouldn’t we be making more room, rather than less, for these incredible natural miracles in our own backyards?  Let’s talk it up!

Monarch suckingon willow buds
Monarch Butterfly dipping into a willow bud.  Tannery, January 19, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

John Muir quote of the day,

“Any fool can destroy trees. Trees cannot run away and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.  Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests.  During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees – tens of centuries old, that have been destroyed.”

With all due respect to John Muir, and considering what resilience the Brown Creeper and Oak Titmouse exhibit,  let’s give those small gray and brown birds every chance to continue. Let’s lure them a little bit south and let everyone get to make their acquaintance.

Congratulations to nature lovers Gillian Green and Dawn Schott-Morris, who – thanks to the new Council Majority – were appointed yesterday as members of the Parks and Recreation Commission.  So glad you will have their support, Jane, in protecting the natural treasures of Santa Cruz.

Adelante,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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