Dear Jane and other lovers of wildlife,
Starting this Friday, September 20th, we are all invited to join in a week-long series of hopefully historic Climate Strike events culminating a week later, on Friday, September 27th, in citywide student walk-outs. On that last day, students at colleges,
high schools and middle schools across Santa Cruz will leave their schools in early afternoon, march downtown, converge at Wells Fargo bank on River and Front St. at 2:15 p.m., then march to the future downtown Green Commons at the Farmers Market parking lot for speeches and activities, starting at 4 p.m. Click here to go to the Climate Strike website for information on lists of all the activities, sponsoring organizations, free films, community art projects and more! You can participate in any or all of these, during the week-long build-up to the big day – and on the big day itself.
I personally plan to start out the week as a rabbit, walking down Pacific Garden Mall to my probable doom at the hands of some sinister climate change forces that I’m told will be waiting for us hapless animals somewhere around New Leaf Market. For that fun event you can join me and others at the Town Clock about noon on Monday, the 23rd.
Well – the major flood control work on the levee is now into its second week, and this female HOUSE FINCH seems to epitomize the story. She was clearly relishing
the sweet fruits of the season, her stained beak testimony to many indulgent days of gourmet delights. She was in the same spot not only before the cutting, but a week after the chainsaws entered the picture! I sent this photo to the City Council members and council member Cynthia Mathews wrote me back saying this reminded her that she also liked to go out gathering wild berries at this time of year and that she still hoped to make some blackberry pies this season. I was pleased to get that note.
The crew this year is taking pains to protect the blackberry thickets, the coyote brush, the coastal live oak and a few other natives. And I have to say that the levee banks look more park-like this year, getting closer to achieving that sweet point between protecting non-threatening habitat and still complying with the Army Corps flood control prescriptions. A big shout-out to Public Works staff , who are definitely on board this year in terms of compliance with the City’s governing documents and also more interested in protecting some of the understory native plants that don’t pose a threat in terms of flood control. I sympathize with their situation. It’s a heavy burden to be responsible for protecting a City against a potentially devastating flood, especially in this time of increasing consciousness about sea-level rising.
I was particularly thrilled to see the crew chief, Randy Clayton, on Monday, the 9th, the first day of the mowing. There he was, loping down the Riverwalk towards us in his wide-brimmed leather cowboy hat, hailing me with a “Hi, Grandma!” and giving me a big hug. It was a far cry from two or three years ago when he was so peeved at me for my constant complaints and interference that he threatened to ‘throw me in the chipper’. I knew he’d been really sick last year and in the hospital with major heart surgery. I thought he might have died. Instead, there he was, totally resurrected, with his new heart and broad grin, ready to take on the grueling job of vegetation removal once again. He’s gotten this city contract for years, going back to when he used to drive a team of draft horses to power the mower!
Over the years, Randy has come to know the names and nesting places of some of the birds, as well as the names of many of the native trees and shrubs. And he knows by heart the Army Corps and City specifications as to which trees can be cut and which ones must be spared. I’m so glad the City continues to contract with him. (I can name at least one contractor the City sometimes uses who couldn’t care less about protecting a blackberry patch or an innocent young willow with a narrow trunk.) The Public Works folks, the mowing contactors, and I have been squabbling for so many years that this year it almost felt like a love-fest by comparison.
Randy also seems to have assembled a sensitive crew. I had a sweet conversation just yesterday morning with Randy’s foreman. I commented to him that I really appreciated how much protected flora had been left this year and how much better this was for the wildlife as well as the humans. . He grinned and said “I tried to trim up the trees so they looked nice. That’s what I do at my house and it makes things look like a park.” I had to agree. The crew has also created little groves of willows along the bank, as prescribed in the governing document, making it possible to catch occasional glimpses of the sparkling water shining through the Arroyo willows. I didn’t go down to the river this year with my 15-foot measuring pole, but I feel more confident than I did in the past that we’re all on the same page. I think we’re all doing the best we can with an ever-changing and complex river habitat.
Next year I’m hoping to recruit some California Native Plant Society folks to help me collect a little more data about some of the understory natives like the grasses and
small plants that have established themselves on the levee bank and that provide habitat for butterflies, bees and other creatures tinier than birds, creatures I’m slowly becoming more aware of myself, thanks to some of your posts, Jane.
After that, I hope to talk to Public Works about jointly coming up with a plan to save more of these plants that pose no threat to flood control objectives. It might require extra funds to carry out this kind of more labor-intensive selective plant removal. But maybe some of the money could come from Parks and Rec. I have to say I was disappointed that Public Works did not invite the contracting biologist or the city arborist to mark the natives this year. But it appears that Randy pretty much handled much of it on his own. Each year gets a little better. And I’m getting a little more patient.
For the first time this year I learned about the scary Yellow Jacket drama – scary for the yellow jackets, and scary for the humans. Just yesterday, as I was about to leave the levee, I saw a big white truck pull up on the Riverwalk with Santa Cruz County Mosquito and Vector Control written on it. I went over and introduced myself to Steve, gave him my card with the Pied-billed Grebe on it, and asked him what was going on. He was very friendly and took enough time to briefly explain that the mowers had found twelve large nests of yellow jackets in the short stretch along the westside of the levee banks between Water St. and Highway 1, and that several of the guys cutting willows had been stung.
He told me that the male worker wasps get especially aggressive at this time of year, just before they all die off for the winter. He told me that only the fattened up and inseminated queens survive the winter months, often going into complete hibernation until they start new tribes in the spring. I asked him what chemicals the County used and he showed me the bottle of Drione that he said they inject into the hole in the ground where the nests are. I later did a little google investigating and hope to find out more about possible side effects of this chemical on other wildlife. The yellow jackets are native insects, and according to Wikipedia, “ are important predators of pest insects”.
Steve apologized for having to get back to work, then donned a full white bodysuit with protective headgear and descended the levee bank with a crew member who showed him the location of a remaining willow thicket on the levee toe. The crew hadn’t been able to cut it down because of an especially aggressive wasp attack the day before. Several hours later I got a phone call from Steve, apologizing again for not being able to take more time to answer my questions and asking if there was anything else I needed to know. Wow! That is really government accountability in action. Sadly, he told me that while he was removing the wasps, the unprotected crew member, had been badly stung.
Checking the levee both before and after the mowing, I have been struck this year by how many of the water fowl continue to hang around. They may have no choice, other territories being taken. Not only before, but almost immediately after the mowing I have seen a GREAT BLUE HERON, a SNOWY EGRET, a BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON, a GREEN HERON, COMMON MERGANSERS, PIED BILLED GREBES, and a BELTED KINGFISHER. I also saw three first-of-season AMERICAN COOTS under the Water St. Bridge, waterfowl who who are ubiquitous during the winter months but breed elsewhere in the area during the summer. This Great Blue Heron, particularly unflappable, was calmly foraging in the disturbed soil while the chainsaws whined loudly from the other side of the river.
I haven’t really come to any hard and fast conclusions about the long term effects on the songbirds, who depend on the willows and other riparian trees for cover, food and rest. (At least we haven’t had to worry about late nesters this year since the mowing started more than a month later than usual.) I went out three times the week before the cutting (Sept. 1,2,8) and found 22, 19 and 19 species, respectively, on the pre-cutting days. On my first trip out after the cutting I saw a total of 15 species, including songbirds. I saw some Wilson’s Warblers before the mowing and a pair of chasing YELLOW WARBLERS after the mowing. Both of these species could be migrants or year-round residents. The CALIFORNIA TOWHEES, like the Great Blue Herons, appreciate the disturbed soil so are doing fine. And of course the BLACK PHOEBE keeps on singing and chasing airborne insects through it all. I haven’t seen any SONG SPARROWS this week but there weren’t that many in the week before the mowing. Best of all was my first-of-season sighting of two WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS on September 14th,
one an adult and one a first winter, busily exploring the east bank after their long flight south from Alaska. Readers can go to eBird and study my five pre- and post-cutting lists for other conclusions.
My neighbor, Bob, who has lived at El Rio for three decades, told me he saw a beautiful juvenile Pacific Gopher Snake last week, the first one he said he has seen for years. Mostly we see garter snakes here, but rarely. Was the gopher snake a refugee from the river cutting? Or is new attention to river wildlife helping more creatures survive?
But, let’s face it, if we don’t slow down Climate Change, our small efforts are for naught! So let’s devote next week, if we can, to addressing the big picture.
Warm greetings to the wild life and not-so-wild life, including humans.