Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,
Sometimes I have to defer to some topnotch birders to bring you the hottest bird news from the levee.
As I was preparing to write this blog piece, I checked out eBird to see if there were any interesting reports out there. I admit I turned just slightly green with envy when I read Gary Kittleson’s late May posts. As most of you probably know, Gary is the professional biologist the City calls on to check out the bird situation when there is a City-planned disturbance to the levee habitat. I was very surprised to read that he had found an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, as well as 6 PURPLE FINCH fledglings between the Water St. and Laurel St. Bridges.
I went right out this morning to see if I could find any of them. Happily, I found not only one, but two of the flycatchers – hopping about very visibly in the huge cottonwood tree just above the Mimi de Marta Park! I think this is a life bird for me, or at least the first I’ve seen on the river. This summer visitor doesn’t venture much further than the northern part of our state from their wintering grounds in the deserts of western Mexico. Here’s an interesting fact that I learned about this desert-dwelling species. Like the kangaroo rat and a few other animals that live in dry conditions, Ash-throated Flycatchers don’t need to drink any water at all, meeting all their water needs from the insects and spiders that they consume – a kind of flying cactus! I guess that is one reason that they feel at home in our summer drought conditions.
PURPLE FINCHES are also a species that have eluded me over the years. I’m sure I have unknowingly seen these year-round residents on the river and even in my backyard, especially in the winter.
But I still haven’t learned to positively distinguish them from the much more common and similar looking House Finch. During breeding season they tend to hang out in forests and woods beyond the urban and suburban areas. During the winter they are more likely to venture downtown, especially if we put out seeds. But I admit I have never been sure of an identification and so don’t have them on my list of river birds.
Gary also reported on lots more evidence of breeding – recently-fledged BUSHTITS, HOUSE FINCHES and BLACK PHOEBES – as well as a LESSER GOLDFINCH carrying nesting material as well as singing male YELLOW WARBLERS and SONG SPARROWS – a possible indicator of courtship behavior.
Thanks to Gary for all the bird information. Click here to see Gary’s full list for May 22.
The breeding birds that you can’t miss these days are the highly visible CANADA GEESE. There is a tribe of three families (made up of 16 birds) that hang together wherever they go – with 5, 3 and 2 goslings respectively, 16 birds in all. One day last week I saw all sixteen of them swimming together on the river, then the next day all sixteen snoozing beside the Duck Pond, and then later the same group of sixteen grazing together on the grassy knoll next to the pond. All of us goose watchers dotingly share notes on these remarkably family-centered birds. Their social cohesion seems to pay off in reproductive success as they appear to be expanding southwards into Santa Cruz. We may not be so doting in the future. They have covered the grassy areas and sidewalks with astonishingly large droppings.
Rumors have circulated for some time now about the Duck Pond’s future being in danger of elimination. The Duck Pond attracts a surprising number of waterfowl besides the ever present MALLARDS, including GREEN HERON, COMMON MERGANSERS, COOTS, EGRETS, and even an occasional RING-NECKED DUCK. And the endangered WESTERN POND TURTLE has been spotted in this sweet oasis. It is also beloved by many people who love the beauty and calm of that little spot. So when I looked at the consent agenda for today’s City Council meeting, I got worried all over again. The Department of Parks and Recreation is asking for the go-ahead from the City to apply for newly available money from the state whose purpose is “to create new parks, and rehabilitate and expand recreational opportunities” in “critically underserved communities.” It sounds good! But when you read a description of the specific project the City wants funded, it requires a second critical look. The City’s proposal is the “rehabilitation of aging infrastructure on the Santa Cruz Riverwalk and upgrades to certain recreational areas and parklands with access to the Riverwalk.” The application is not only being submitted by Parks and Recreation but also by Economic Development, the Department that is focused on downtown development. I’m planning to ask for more specific information at the City Council meeting this afternoon. Stay tuned.
In the category of a small step forward for birdlife on the river, I saw a crew on Soquel Bridge removing the long string of wavy blue lights put up for the Ebb and Flow Festival last year. I was told by one of the guys that the City did not renew its contract for the coming year. So down came the lights after this weekend’s festival. Jane and I both expressed concern to the City’s Economic Development Department last year about the effect of the lights on wildlife. Maybe somebody was listening.
And in the category of activities that disturb both humans and wildlife on the river, there has been an ongoing racket behind the Bank of America where the Army Corps of Engineers has been carrying out some major reconstruction on the levee. The word from an engineer at the site is that the wrong kind of dirt was originally used at the site, a dirt that turns to mud if it gets wet, threatening the stability of the levee in the event of a flood. The bad dirt is all being removed and replaced with “engineered soil”, soil that has finely ground up rock in it. Unfortunately the engineers decided that three trees had to be removed to make this possible.
Hope you are all getting out to see some wildlife on these summer days. It may not be the best time of year for birding, but it sure is nice to stroll along the river in warm weather.