Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Huggers,
Sunday afternoon the sky was a soft gray, the air was chilly and I was inclined to take a nap. But I also wanted to take a last look at the river before I sat down to write this blog. As soon as I arrived at the levee, I spied a half-dozing GREAT BLUE HERON, reflecting my mood exactly. Her royal shagginess was sleepy but also watchful. Maybe she was engaged in what is called “unihemispheric” sleep, an ability of some birds to keep one eye open while resting the other side of their brain with that eye closed. But this behavior seemed more like my behavior, opening my eyes a little, then closing them, not really ready to wake up. In any case, I caught the heron with eyes closed, then half-open, then all the way open. Not wanting to disturb her further, I quickly took these photos, then pocketed my camera and went on my way.
Just a few steps downstream I could see four or five campers moving slowly around their tents under the Water St. Bridge. I stopped to chat with a soulful looking man named Paul Magdaleno. After repairing a scavenged and tattered tent, digging a little drainage ditch alongside the tent, and adding a small garbage can, he and the
others had been told in the morning that they would all have to leave by sundown. He seemed resigned to his fate, tidying up but not yet breaking camp. I learned that he was a drummer, grew up in a hippie family that loved the Grateful Dead, had made a living for years growing marijuana and dreamed of forming a band called the Invisible School Bus. I also learned from him that the Water St. Bridge attracts quite a community of musicians that gather and play together. He identified Lito in the next tent as an excellent drummer.
So I went over to meet Lito who let me take a picture of his drums. I can’t imagine how he manages these drums as an unsheltered person. I gave him my blog card and we talked about the name River Mysteries.
Then a kind of magical thing happened.. Another nearby camper overheard our conversation and said, “River mysteries? What kind of river mysteries?” I told him about how you and I, Jane, started this blog as a way of protecting the river from recreational and commercial “development”. We thought if we could help others see what we were slowly learning to see – all the hidden mysteries of the birds and plants and water – we might persuade the city to go slow on “development”.
This man, Guy, told me he had been curious about the name of our blog since he had spent twenty years doing research on crypto-hominids, or “crptids”. He said he could show me where they lived along the river if I showed him the photos on my camera. I handed him my camera and he scrolled back, then zoomed in to a photo with a lot of trees and undergrowth. That, he said, is where they lived and could be seen – if people had the eyes to see. He had seen them and communicated with them. He said that people thought he was crazy. I said I totally understood what he was saying. I have been reading Tolkien lately. And had I not just been zooming in on the Great Blue Heron 15 minutes earlier, looking for more understanding of what is hidden. He didn’t want his photo taken but said that he was a carpenter and a fly fisherman. I gave him my card, told him to call me if he wanted to discuss river mysteries some more, and we shook hands.
Just then two park rangers pulled up under the Bridge. I talked to one of them, a very friendly man who was happy to explain to me what was happening. He and his fellow rangers had been there earlier in the day and let the campers know that they would have to clean up their camps by sundown and would not be allowed to return for 24 hours – until the area had been inspected and cleaned. The two rangers good-naturedly pitched in, helping the campers load unwanted stuff into trashbags and throwing it all in the back of the truck. Campers and rangers alike seemed to carry out the process with as much mutual respect as possible under the conditions. I felt sad and grateful at the same time. I felt oddly connected to both the campers and the rangers. This terrible thing is happening to all of us, bringing out the best – and sometimes the worst – in people.
We have a lot to be grateful for in the way our police and rangers are struggling to deal with a really insoluble problem. Unfortunately, while we all obsess and argue about this and that band-aid solution, our country drags its feet about addressing the root causes of poverty, homelessness and high rents. Until that time, let’s hope our little Santa Cruz community has the patience and kindness to keep applying temporary band-aids until that revolution (hopefully peaceful) arrives.
I heard that Andy Mills, our police chief, spent all day this last Friday with his officers, slowly negotiating with a man who had kidnapped a one-year-old child. At the end of the day, the man finally released the child in exchange for some cigarettes. Andy is getting a lot of criticism right now from Keith McHenry and others about another new set of homeless policies, supposedly harsher than Newsom’s new standards. But I want to at least give credit to Police Chief Mills and his team for this possibly life-saving accomplishment.
I was excited this last week to see two female WESTERN BLUEBIRDS on the river for the first time in my five years of watching this area. These two members of the thrush family were busily foraging for insects in the new grass. This species didn’t make it onto Steve Gerow’s list of 122 regular residents of the levee stretch. I read that Western Bluebirds are expanding their range in southern California. Maybe here too?
According to eBird, this sighting brings my new total to 112 species seen on the levee.. I’m pleased that eBird keeps track for me. Readers should know that Jane is way ahead of me with a total of 148! She would be too modest to say so. And the person who has the highest total for this patch is our beloved teacher, now deceased, Steve Gerow. During his too short a life, he recorded a total of 177 species on the downtown stretch, from Highway 1 to the river mouth. But Jane and I don’t spend much time thinking about numbers of species seen. We are both too obsessed in getting to know and understand all the quirky life experiences of even one species.
Since there are so many GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS on the river and at my feeders, since they come so far to hang out with us in the winter, and since they are limited to such a narrow strip along the west coast and up into Canada and Alaska, I feel like they are very special birds and friends. I was therefore excited to stumble across a research session up at the Arboretum last week where Professor Bruce Lyon, along with PhD graduate student Theadora Block, have been carrying out research on the social behaviors of this species for close to 20 years now. I have always wanted to know more about how the research was actually carried out. Luckily, I spied the team sitting at a picnic table and was invited to watch. The research team worked quickly. Two students were tasked with
collecting the birds. one at a time, from about a dozen traps concealed in a dozen separate places not far away. A bird would be delivered to Block, after which she would skillfully take their measurements, draw blood with a tiny needle for later DNA testing, then gently release the small creature back into the wild. Block would call out the numbers, and Lyon would record the data. Of course I felt squeamish, wondering whether the data collected was worth the effect on the birds. But the birds themselves seemed peaceful,
Theadora was extremely gentle and experienced, and it was all over very quickly. Hopefully, as we learn more about birds’ health, migration patterns, population numbers, social behaviors, etc., we will be better able to respect our fellow inhabitants of this planet. For a very interesting article on the research project, click here.
May you all see something new and magical this week.