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Where Have All the Young Birds Gone?

Feeling tired and a little sick lately, I haven’t taken my usual walks from Water to Laurel and back again.  Instead, this week, I took a fold-up chair and settled myself in a sunny spot next to the river behind the Tannery, staying for two hours, dozing off at least half the time.  That’s birding when you get to be eighty.   Of course, the great birder, Jon Young (What the Robin Knows), says that choosing a regular ‘sit spot’ makes for the best birding.

Even at 11 o’clock in the morning there were birds all around me, singing their hearts out.

Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River between Felker and Water Bridges, April 17, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Most insistent were the quick staccato songs of the JUNCOS, and the complex and irrepressible warbling of many SONG SPARROWS.
After a while I heard the distinctive buzz of a SPOTTED TOWHEE in the nearby underbrush, the squawk of a STELLAR’S JAY from a tall eucalyptus and the hammering of a WOODPECKER from a distance.  But I felt far too lazy to set out in search of  any of them.  Their songs, the light-filled river and the shadowy complexities of the storied canopy graced me with more than enough magic.

Spotted Towhee, San Lorenzo River, April 5,  2017, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was awake long enough to see a COMMON MERGANSER shoot by on the surface of the swiftly flowing river, its triple-jointed rubbery body stretched out flat to what seemed twice its length, intent on its hunting.  But, again,  I was far too slowed down to even attempt a photo.

Finally, I heard something stir below me, turned just slightly  and caught a short glimpse of the  intense metallic blue and deep russet colors given off by the feathers of the GREEN HERON in just the right light.  (In some lights the cap and wing feathers have a mossy green appearance, and in other lights the feathers appear to be all slate gray). Almost immediately the Green Heron took flight, no doubt disturbed by my slight motion.  I thought of you, Jane, and made my apologies. I find myself so drawn to that lovely patch of urban woods behind the Tannery.  Maybe I’m trying to dream into being a similarly rich environment on the Benchlands.

When I got home, I decided to take a little walk down memory lane.  I was wondering what we had seen in earlier years during this month.  (It’s great that, without any effort on our part, Word Press keeps our more than four years worth of blogs neatly categorized according to months.)

It made me a little sad to see this WOOD DUCK family from April 15, 2016. I haven’t seen even one Wood Duck on the river this spring, much less a whole family.

Wood Duck Family, near Laurel St. Bridge, San Lorenzo River, April 20, 2016, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was impressed once again at this amazing photo you took, Jane, of a HORNED GREBE  (below) in full breeding plumage in April 2017 , a rarity since they usually leave for their breeding grounds before they reach this stage of glory.   As far as I know, we didn’t get to see even one of the drabber versions of this  species  this winter. much less this bird in full regalia.

Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage, March 11, 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by Jane Mio

As I was poring my way through these old blogs, I came across this April 2016 photo of the Mallard mama who stayed with her nest in the Benchlands even after City mowers cut

Mallard on exposed nest in Benchlands after City  mowing, April 11, 2016, photo by B. Riverwoman

down her high grass hide-away in preparation for Earth Day. Yes, very ironic! For Earth Day!  As some of you readers may remember, I had a little dust up with one of the city employees as I tried my best to let her know that it was breeding season and there could well be ground nesters, especially mallards, in those ‘ugly’ weeds.   But this doughty and determined weeder was very resistant to turning off her weed whipper. I immediately called the City but they simply ordered the employee to continue. Several days later my friend Batya told me about the exposed nest and the faithful mom- and I took this photo. The two eggs never hatched. Of course, I spilled out the whole story in my blog that week.

Of course, running across this photo also reminded me that  Earth Day was less than a week away.  I hastily sent the photo, as well as a link to the blog, to Tony Eliot, the new director  of Parks and Rec, asking him to please not mow the area this year.  But I was too late.

I’m grateful that he or someone  forwarded my e-mail to Gary Kittleson, the biologist and amazing birder with whom the city contracts to do all kinds of ecological work.  Gary immediately let me know that the City had actually sent him out to survey the area before the mowing this year.  That was good news.  He had found no visible nests, and the mowing was already done.  That was the bad news. Gary expressed surprise that he didn’t find anything, especially considering the fact that the Benchlands have been fenced off since early winter, eliminating almost all human traffic and making it a theoretically safer nesting place.  We are left to wonder where all the female mallards that we’ve been seeing over the last months have gone.  I’ve seen drakes hanging out in large numbers in recent weeks  but practically no females. Let’s hope we begin seeing families soon.  In previous years they have already been out and about by this time.

Four GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS were still feeding at my feeder this morning, but the numbers have been diminishing dramatically.  I am slowly saying my sad good-byes as they fill their tummies in preparation for the long trip to Alaska and the demands of breeding.  It has been such fun watching the dull stripes on the crowns of many of them gradually become intensely gold, outlined on each side by thick black eyebrows.  Here is a

Golden-crowned Sparrow in early molt, March 22, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

photo of one of my Goldens from three weeks ago with splotchy eyebrows and a less regal  gold cap, followed by a photo of  a later stage molt from a couple of days ago.  One of the sparrows got to know me so well that it started peering in through my glass doors and emitting its plaintive two-note whistle if I was late in putting out their expected breakfast of black sunflower seeds.  I’ve gotten more dependable over the years and they have gotten more friendly and relaxed around me.


Golden-crowned Sparrow, late molt, April 13, 2019, Barbara’s feeder, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I hope you all know about the new Netflix series called Our Planet, narrated by none other than David Attenborough.  It stands out among nature programs by making the powerful climate change connection. The nature footage is the best I’ve ever seen.  It’s both heartbreaking and thrilling.  Don’t miss it.

Best to you all from an anxious granny waiting for babies to appear,



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