With a Little Help From My Friends

Hello Jane and Fellow Celebrants of the Natural World,

In spite of the heart-breaking destruction of the natural world, there is still so  much to see and love.  Perhaps the ghosts of extinct insects that I never learned to celebrate will feel some bitterness at that remark.  But we all live in our severely blinkered worlds and do our best to celebrate what comes our way.

The river has offered us some exciting new sightings this last week, none of them discovered by me due to a  few ill advised  moves that provoked my back into rebellion.   But thanks to friends and eBird I still managed to keep abreast of some of the mysterious comings and goings on the river.

The biggest news in terms of a rarity was Alex Rinkert’s sighting February 17 of a female BARROW’S GOLDENEYE just upstream of the trestle bridge near

 Female Barrow’s Goldeneye, San Lorenzo River estuary, February 17, 2020, alone and later with group of Common Goldeneyes. Sighting and Photo by Alex Rinkert.

the mouth of the river.. According to Alex, the Barrow’s Goldeneye has not been seen in the entire County since winter 2009-10. a full decade.   Only a birding expert like Alex could have made the identification since it is almost indistinguishable from the Common Goldeneye that we see all the time at this time of year. Below is a photo of a female COMMON GOLDENEYE  for comparison:

Female Common Goldeneye, MaCaulay Library, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology  photo

: The discovery has stirred up quite a bit of excitement among local bird aficionados as they confirm the identifiation. Here is Alex’ amazing description, providing an illuminating  peek into the world of birding experts using all their skills to observe and record every obscure detail of a bird’s anatomy and plumage to assure correct identification of a rare sighting. Can you tell them apart, especially the head shape and the size of the beak?  I think you have a better future as a serious birder than I do.  Below is the description that Alex made in eBird.

Alex Rinkert Feb. 17, 2020, 9:40 a.m. “Female actively diving and preening just upstream of the trestle. Head and bill shape were typical of Barrow’s. The head was peaked at the forehead when loafing (i.e., not preening or diving). The bill was noticeably curved up at the base and toward the tip, and the contrasting dark nail at the tip of the bill seemed wide. The bill color and pattern was not the typical bright orange often associated with Barrow’s but is apparently within the range of variability in this species. The basal third or half of the bill was blackish and the distal end was a pale flesh-orange. The amount of color visible on the bill depended on the direction the bird was facing. Often the bill looked almost entirely dark but when in a profile view or straight on, the color was evident as it is in many of the photos. During our long observation we were able to directly compare the body size of this bird to numerous female Commons and this bird appeared slightly larger, but the difference in size was not noticeable except when they were side by side. Photos reveal six fully white secondaries and possibly a seventh that is partially white, as well as no white bar on the lesser covs. The pale yellow iris and the scattered white feathers on the lesser coverts suggest this is an adult female.”

“Common Goldeneyes can have an extensively yellow bill, but these aberrant individuals tend to have a completely yellow bill instead of a broad flesh-orange tip with a dark nail, and the bill and head shape is unlike Common. A hybrid was carefully considered in light of the somewhat darker bill color, but the bill shape and head (especially for an ad female) was typical of Barrow’s, as was the wing pattern.”

Here are two responses from Monterey Bay Birds listserv where rarities are often reported.

Liam Murphy February 17, 2020 7:37 pm  “I refound the Barrow’s this evening about 1 hour before sunset. It had moved upstream a bit, just above the first sweeping bend, but still below the Riverside Ave Bridge. Alex’s notes are spot on.  The color in the bill is not obvious from a distance.  There is more color on the bill than on some of the Commons, but it’s a duller orange with a hint of pink (some of the Commons have a limited bright orange bill tip).  The small size of the bill is really what stands out from a distance.”

Alexander  Gauguine Feb. 18 5:19 pm  Female Barrow’s Goldeneye now present just downstream of Trestle Bridge San Lorenzo with 4 female Commons. (Many more Common’s further upstream.)

It’s quite a blessing to have so much birding expertise in our community.

I did a little research and found out that the Common Goldeneye can be found during the winter in all 48 lower states and Alaska, but breeds almost solely in Canada and Alaska.  Much less common, the Barrows are only found along the west coast from southern California up to Alaska during the winter. During breeding season, this species leaves the states almost entirely and moves inland in Canada and Alaska.

The discovery  of the Barrow’s upstaged another wonderful discovery on  February 15 by friends Michael Levy and Batya Kagan. They saw  a pair of

Male Hooded Merganser with crest fully extended, behind Tannery above Highway 1, discovered by Michael Levy and Batya Kagan, photo by Batya Kagan.

HOODED MERGANSERS swimming just upstream of Highway 1 Bridge behind the Tannery. Above is Batya’s photo of the male Hooded Merganser with his elegant crest extended in full breeding display.  I was thrilled to hear about this.  I have been waiting for another glimpse of these gorgeous winter migrants for five years now.  Below are three photos I caught five years ago in 2015  at almost the same time of year, and in the exact same area.   I was lucky enough to catch the male in both full display mode and with his crest pulled in, and the female with her beautiful chestnut hairdo fully poofed out. I wonder if they take turns displaying their charms to each other. They don’t breed here but they clearly start courting early and before they reach their breeding site. I think I would also stretch out the courting season if I were this beautiful.

Hooded Merganser pair, February 25, 2015, behind Tannery,  male on left in full breeding display with crest fully extended  Photo by B. Riverwoman
Hooded Merganser pair, February 25 2015, behind Tannery, female on right with crest in full display, male with crest lowered. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I liked learning on the Cornell website that baby Hooded Mergansers leap from their nests, when they are only one day old.  Bold babies!  Or pushy moms?  “Their mother checks the area around the nest,  then calls to the nestlings from ground level. From inside the nest, the little fluffballs scramble up to the entrance hole and then flutter to the ground, which may be 50 feet or more below them. In some cases they have to walk half a mile or more with their mother to the nearest body of water.”

And as another gift to me in my semi-homebound state, Batya also found a RING-NECKED DUCK in the same area behind the Tannery. I’ve seen this duck only occasionally in the Duck Pond and  never behind the Tannery in a natural setting. Thanks again, Batya!   .

Ring-necked Duck, San Lorenzo River above Highway1 behind Tannery, February 17, 2020, Photo by Batya Kagan.

Save yourself the trouble of looking for the ringed neck that gives this bird its name.  It’s almost impossible to see.  Apparently there is a chestnut collar on the bird’s black neck that 19th century biologists used to describe the species.  The speciments were dead which I guess made it easier to see the brown ring.  The best field marks are the pointed head and the white ring on the bill. We in Santa Cruz get to see both the Ring-necked Duck and the Hooded Merganser as they over-winter along the west coast of the U.S and Canada.  Both species  fly north to Canada during breeding season but like the Hooded Mergansers and a lot of our winter water fowl, they are in breeding plumage during most of the time they are with us.

I met Yosi Almog several weeks ago who is building an owl house on his property.  The Cornell Lab is encouraging people to create more nesting boxes for local birds as natural nesting sites continue to shrink.  CLICK HERE to see expert advice from the Cornell Lab’s website  on how to build them.    I’d love to hear about any successes you have. Good luck, Yosi.

With best wishes to all our local breeding birds, many of whom are busy scouting out nesting sites, building nests and even incubating (some hummingbirds).

“Teach us to walk the soft earth as relatives to all that live.”  from a Sioux prayer

With gratitude for all that is “natural, wild and free” (from Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac)

Barbara

 

 

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