Hello Jane and All Bird Lovers,
While the attention of many Santa Cruz residents is riveted on the Homeless Camp behind Gateway Plaza, there is another drama unfolding less than a block away, a drama tucked behind the Tannery – on the river itself, along the branches of live trees, in cavities of old snags, and under the eaves of the housing complex. This drama is almost invisible to members of our human species who whiz by overhead on Highway 1, speed by on bicycles or walk by chatting excitedly with friends. Hidden from most of these community members are priceless natural treasures to be enjoyed if a person just sits or stands quietly in even a small but natural woods, with ears and eyes open and a good pair of binoculars in hand. I feel so lucky to live very near to this spot, and to have grown up with a mother who opened my mind and heart to the world of birds at a very young age.
For some reason, Nuttall’s Woodpeckers were on my mind as I walked with my friend Rick earlier this week. I had only seen a Nuttall’s once in my life and it was behind the Tannery. I said to Rick, “Oh, I would really love to see a Nuttall’s Woodpecker today.” And, lo and
behold, within minutes not only was I looking at a beautiful male Nuttall’s Woodpecker busily foraging for insects along the trunk of a tree, but at a female Nuttall’s poking her head out of a cavity in an old snag nearby – a very likely nesting spot! Joy! This is exactly where our beloved mentor, Steve Gerow, would have expected to find a Nuttall’s Woodpecker. In Steve’s extremely useful list of the 122 species that regularly depend on the urban river, he comments that many riparian species like the Nuttall’s “could breed in the lower river area if there were somewhat more natural habitat conditions.” Inspired by Steve,
I have talked for years about restoring the Benchlands (the only area along the urban river without a levee) as a fully riparian ecosystem. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to leave the County Building after some tedious or distressing county business and take a peaceful and restorative walk along a narrow path through a natural snag-inclusive riparian woodland, then wander down for a peek through the willows at at our beautiful urban river? Wouldn’t it be nice for shoppers in Santa Cruz to take a short foray into a sun-dappled, bird-filled woodland? Did you all see this photo from sometime in the 1920’s in a recent edition of the Sentinel? We could restore this woodland and restore ourselves in the process. It’s doable!
As if the woodpeckers weren’t treasure enough, I went back the next day and had another once in a lifetime experience. I think you all know by now how inexplicably attached I am to Pied-billed Grebes. In fact it’s been a bit of an obsession ever since I discovered a floating nest of these intriguing creatures in 2015. I have been quite aware that I haven’t seen a single grebe on the river yet this spring, and was feeling a little bereft.
So you can imagine how excited I was when I not only spied one in the river, but found it engaged in very unusual behavior. It was extremely agitated, splashing around wildly, quivering its wings, then extending them, contorting its body into unusual postures, lifting itself halfway out of the water, exposing its white breast, then rising almost completely out of the water with wings again fully extended!
This went on for at least five minutes. What was going on? There was no other grebe to be seen. Was it a courtship display? Was the object of its intentions hidden somewhere in the dense vegetation on the river bank? Was this grebe engaged in territorial defense if some kind? I snapped photo after photo, hoping to capture a few of these wild moments on my camera.
When I got home, I checked my Birds of North America bible for more information. BNA reports that in sexual displays, as well as territorial displays and also ‘triumph ceremonies’ (after copulation or after defeat of an aggressor), the grebe will exhibit some of the same frenzied and contortionist activity I witnessed – though not all. So it is hard to know exactly what was going on since at this time of year birds are both valiantly protecting their nesting territories and desperately trying to find mates. I could hardly believe it when the grebe finally lifted itself fully out of the water (below), with only it’s feet underwater. Powerful legs, powerful wings, powerful will! Let’s hope our little grebe is successful at achieving his goals. He was sure giving it a good try!
During this same trip, A BEWICK’S WREN began singing non-stop over a spot I had chosen for sitting. When I finally decided to move to a new spot nearby, this little bird began to issue a rapid-fire alarm call. From my new vantage point I quickly figured out what the fuss was about when I spied the wren slipping into a fairly large space behind a sizable patch of loosened bark very near where I was standing.
She disappeared before I could get a photo of the bird inside the bark,, but here are photos of the potential nesting spot, as well as the fierce little bird just before she tucked herself into this space. These wrens usually stick fairly close to the more natural areas north of Highway 1, but sometimes disperse south, including to the suet cage in my back yard!
As I sat in my first spot, I also got a brief glimpse of a HERMIT THRUSH, a shy bird rarely seen south of Highway 1. This one crept up right behind where I was sitting motionless. I luckily turned my head and glimpsed her pretty well concealed in a woody thicket, foraging in the large sand deposits left after the recent storms.
Although I once spied one of these thrushes in the area behind the Ross Store several years ago, I have never seen another one that dispersed even that short a distance from the natural riparian habitat above Highway 1.
To top off the morning, I looked up and saw five VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, all swooping around some vent holes in the roof of the Tannery, but never actually entering. Violet-greens are cavity-nesting birds, newly arrived in Santa Cruz and at this time of year looking for existing holes in trees or in buildings.
I didn’t learn until just recently that the ranges of the other common swallows along the river, i.e. the Northern Rough-winged, Tree and Cliff swallows, all extend across the entire United States. Only the Violet-green Swallow is confined to the western U.S., Canada and Alaska. They are therefore not only special, but definitely one of the most beautiful swallows, with their shimmering green and violet feathers, white scalloped faces, and snowy white breasts. Unfortunately, they rarely sit still long enough to give us a good look. I was lucky to catch this one pausing for a rare daytime respite, although the photo doesn’t do her justice.
Finally, returning to the subject of restoring the Benchlands, here is a 1960 photo of the San Lorenzo River taken from a great new collection of essays called Landscapes, Activism that Shaped Santa Cruz County, 1955-2005, published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in 2018.
In the collection is an extremely informative essay on the history of local activism that saved the San Lorenzo River from looking like this photo, taken just after the Army Corps of Engineers had its first go at building a very low levee following the historic flood of 1955. Early activism has brought the river a long ways from being a cement ditch. Don’t you agree that it’s time to take the last step and fully restore the Benchlands to its original grandeur as a full riparian ecosystem?
Happy spring birding to all, and happy activism!