Troubled Teens in the World of Swallows

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

Once again I return with a story of the wonders of one’s own backyard! I was headed out this week for a walk along the River, about to go through the back gate of my mobile home park  that borders the levee. Something made me turn around and look up.  I blinked my eyes with wonderment as my gaze took in a row of 31 swallows, perched at regular intervals along a telephone wire.

swallows lined up, evening
8 of the 31 Violet-green Swallows lined up on a telephone wire next to the San Lorenzo River, July 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Usually I find these summertime visitors swooping over the river at breakneck speeds,  rarely if ever pausing to rest or pose for a photo.. Now here they were all lined up for me to enjoy and study at my leisure. What was going on?  I lost no time – immediately snapping about 150 photos, without much idea of what I was recording!

Colors from back
Juvenile, Male Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 7, 2018,  In spite of the telltale downiness, this juvenile must be pretty close to adulthood.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

Judging from all the fluffiness on the breasts and bellies of the birds, I figured out pretty quickly that almost all of the 31 birds were juveniles.   Only once did I glimpse a parent feeding a young one, somehow managing to capture this photo of a young one’s urgent hunger pangs.


violet green begging baby
Begging juvenile Violet-green Swallow.  El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 9, 2018.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

Most of the perched birds were approximately adult size.  And looking more closely, I realized that most of them were some complex combination of brown, white, gray and black, with little sign of the vivid green backs and iridescent violet tails of the adult male, nor the duller violet and green of the female.

creamy gape 3
Female juvenile Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, next to San Lorenzo River, July 6, 2018.  Note downy undersides, creamy white gape, marbled marking over eye, lack of much green and violet color on back and wings, shorter primary wings.    Photo by B. Riverwoman
Juvenile male 2
Juvenile Male Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, next to San Lorenzo River, July 6, 2018.  Note green back and cap, clean white over eye suggesting a male.  Still downy, no visible gape., slightly longer  primaries.

When I got home, I checked BNA for the breeding schedule of Violet-green Swallows. It reported that on the West Coast, this species normally arrives in early May, lays its eggs sometime between mid-May and mid-June, that the eggs normally take 15 days to hatch, and that the babies then stay in the nest for an average of 27 days before they fledge.   Calculating quickly, I realized that this fit exactly with what I was seeing.  Our Violet-greens did arrive in early May and so might be expected to leave the nest sometime between July 1 and August 1.   And here they were, 31 adult-sized but still downy fledglings  on July 6, right on schedule.

According to BNA, before the young have fledged and are still cozily nestled in their nests,  they feast  on a protein-rich diet of insects, actually growing heavier than their parents.  Then, during their last week as nestlings,  their weight returns to roughly the same weight as the parents.  So this is what I was looking at ––  fledglings that were already adult sized but still showing the downiness of the nestling.

As I was watching them I was struck by the incessant activity of many of them.   itching 5I was lucky to run into Kitty Stein at a Bird Club event on the weekend and told her about all the babies. She is very active in the local Breeding Bird Survey and asked to visit the scene.  She helped me solve the problem of why they were incessantly preening. They weren’t preening. She suggested that they were probably  scratching themselves in order to relieve the itchiness caused by their pin feathers (new feathers) pushing through their skin – just like a human baby’s teething woes.  In addition, I learned from BNA, that the young birds are vulnerable to surface parasites,  adding to  their pin feather discomfort.


itching 3
Juvenile female Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Another plausible explanation for their ‘preening’ behavior is that the juveniles were removing the waxy coating that sheathes their pin feathers, something that has to happen before the new feathers inside the wax can unfurl. But since the young ones had presumably managed to fly successfully to the telephone wire, we know that at least their wing feathers were already functioning pretty well. Still – there remained enough downiness on other parts of their bodies that they might have been removing wax on these breast feathers as well as scratching themselves.  So much for a teen-age swallow to deal with!

There were also some fledglings that were sitting without moving?  What about them?  BNA had an explanation for that as well.  It said that ‘sunbathing’ helps juveniles control the parasites by raising the temperature of the body to a point that seems to either drive away the parasites or kill them.  According to the BNA the juveniles can go into a trance while sunbathing and lose their balance. I saw that!  Here’s a juvenile I caught almost tipping off the wire, perhaps falling asleep and waking just in time to right herself.

Balancing Act
Juvenile Violet-green Swallow on the right regaining his (?) balance, skillfully using his growing primaries. El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River. July 6, 2018. Photo by B. Riverwoman

And below,  for comparison’s sake is a photo of an adult female Violet-green Swallow with some subtle brown marbling on its cheeks to distinguish it from the snowy-cheeked male, but with no down on its breast and belly.  Here, also,  you can see clearly the long primaries extending way past the end of the tail.

Long wings 2
Female Violet-green Swallow, El Rio Mobile Home Park, San Lorenzo River, July 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman


Honestly, I’m not 100% sure about any of the above identifications.  But I thought that if I stick my neck out and make my best guess, I may get back more info from readers.  Feel completely welcome to challenge me.

Changing subjects rather drastically, –  it was nice, wasn’t it, Jane, that Mark Dettle, the head of the Public Works Department, chose to notify both of us, as well as many other stakeholders, about the Department’s upcoming plans to begin their annual flood control work all along the river.  They know how concerned we get each year!  But it wasn’t at all nice to learn that they may be planning to push the beginning date even earlier than August 1. I know that you have been in touch with Mr. Dettle about this and I plan to send a letter tomorrow. I think we both agree that in order to protect breeding birds on the River, the beginning date should be August 15 at the earliest and preferably September 1. I know Public Works worries about early  rains and the availability of contractors.   They clearly have their own set of problems and do their best to make it all work. Hopefully the schedules of the rain gods, the contractors and the breeding birds can be coordinated.

Did readers see the article in the Sentinel on July 6 about the new City laws regarding sewage leakages into the San Lorenzo River? Some property owners are not going to like the required inspections and costs of fixing sewer pipes on their private property.  But the news made me happy and I think I speak as well for the birds.  There have been just too many reports of sewage leakage seriously contributing to the fecal bacteria count in the River.   We humans and the birds all drink out of the same river.  Click here to read the full story.

All happiness to birds and people!










It’s Moulting Time

Dear Jane and Bird Lovers,

mallard drake molting green
Male mallard beginning to moult, June 23, 2018, Duck Pond, San Lorenzo Park, photo by B. Riverwoman

I got engrossed this last week with the slightly ridiculous sight of the elegant male MALLARDS going through their annual post-breeding moult.  For three or four weeks now – during late summer and fall –we can expect to see the drakes first losing their sheen and then seeming to lose their masculinity!   The poor things not only lose those gleaming green heads  but during the 3-4 week moult period they are transformed into creatures that are almost indistinguishable from the females. Imagine!

mallard in molt 1
Male mallard in slightly later stage of moult, Neary Lagoon, formerly an oxbow in the San Lorenzo River, now cut off from main channel, June 16, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman  click here for checklist

What an ignominious state for these high testosterone creatures. The only vestige of their masculine dignity are  their yellow bills – the single feature by which I can still distinguish them from the female. So if some of you readers think that there are only female mallards around,  check the bill.  If it’s yellow it’s a male, if it is orange and black it’s  the female.  I hope these males won’t resent my showing them on a bad hair day.  I kind of like their subdued and feminized stage.


These gentlemen also lose the ability to fly during this annual moult.  And there’s more.  The process of losing old feathers and gaining new ones is also very energy consuming, so they have to spend more time foraging for high-protein food than usual. (Mallards are usually vegetarians but eat a lot of high-protein insects and crustaceans during breeding and moulting.)

The baby Mallards are coming in all sizes these days. I found a single eensy-teensy one all alone with its probably faithful mother this last  Saturday. Then the next day I found another family (below) of half-grown Mallards foraging along the concrete Branciforte Channel.

Mallard Branciforte Ck
Mallard Family, Branciforte Creek, June 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And finally I spotted a family of six under the Water St. Bridge in which the young ones were almost as large as the mother but still traveling together.  According to the BNA, the only difference between a female mom and both her older male and female children is that the children don’t have the bright blue speculum (not the medical kind but the feathery kind) as part of their secondary flight feathers. I guess they only win this stripe of maturity after three or four months when they will be able to fly.

I am so amused that the GREEN HERON – that I used to think of as a shy, reclusive bird – is actually quite habituated to urban environments. As I think I mentioned in a recent blog, one was even reported as nesting in downtown Santa Cruz.

green heron stalking 2
Green Heron, Duck Pond, San Lorenzo River, June 23, 2018 Photo by B.Riverwoman

And now I have twice spied this elegant fowl foraging happily in open view in the Duck Pond, much-frequented by humans.  She was delicately picking her way over the lily pads, then paused, stealthily elongated her body in one smooth ripple, stretched her neck forward, waited for just a moment, then threw herself out of range of my lens as she snatched a hapless fish who imagined that it was safe under the lily pad. It was only after I later uploaded my photos to my computer that I realized that my few wild camera clicks after she attacked actually caught her with a fish in her mouth. Lucky shot.

green heron stalking 3
Green Heron with fish in bill, Duck Pond, San Lorenzo Park, June 23, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Speaking of the Duck Pond, I am happy that the City Council will be considering a sweet, down-home proposal this very afternoon which I can wholeheartedly support – i.e. they are going to vote on changing the name of the San Lorenzo River Pedestrian Bridge (a mouthful) to the Chinatown Bridge! I love it! It is a lot easier to say, distinguishes it from the other pedestrian bridge near Highway 1, and – most importantly – it honors that spot where our own Chinatown used to exist from the 1860’s until the last remaining building was destroyed in the flood of 1955.   Click here to read a little more about the history of Chinatown in Santa Cruz. I read that the City will also install a historical plaque memorializing the Chinese presence along the river.

Wilson's Warbler
Male Wilson’s Warbler, Google image

Finally, I explored the Branciforte Creek area on Sunday with my friend Nancy who spotted a tiny flash of yellow near the Branciforte and Carbonera Creek confluence area.  I was happy to realize that it was a male WILSON’S WARBLER, a summer visitor that I haven’t seen much on the river this summer. Here is the e-Bird checklist I posted.



Quote of the week: “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”                                                             -Terry Tempest Williams

Let’s keep  celebrating the birds, the river and lots of other astonishing things.





Heeding the Call

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

That old enchantress, the River, always has a new trick up her sleeve!    This week I went to the exact spot where I found the wonderful little Wood Duck family  two weeks ago, hoping to see them again.  But the sloe-eyed mama and her babes were nowhere to be seen, maybe off shopping for all the vegan delights that the River offers a duck and her ducklings.

This time the flowing spinner of dreams had something else in store for me  – an avian concert the likes of which I haven’t heard for quite a while.  The woods along the river behind the Tannery was alive with the sound of music!  First I would hear a modest solo, then a different lilting voice would form a duet,  then many players would join in, sometimes building to a gloriously intricate and intriguing tangle of sounds.

I remember years ago taking a bird trip with David Suddjian, the famous local  birder and then president of the Bird club.  The walk was titled ‘Birding by Ear’.  I remember being absolutely astounded by what he could identify without seeing a single bird.  I had no idea this was possible. Now I have taken a few steps into that world, thanks to all the birders like David and Steve Gerow, who have patiently helped many of us along on this long path into a language that they didn’t teach at my high school.

Anyway, sitting by the river this week, I  ultimately identified the songs of six star performers – which, thanks to YouTube, I am now able to share with all of you (see below).   I haven’t tried playing these all at the same time.  That might give you a better sense of my experience!

I was especially excited to  identify my first SWAINSON’S THRUSH by sound.  The song starts out as a high, somewhat reedy warble, spirals upwards a couple of times, then finishes with only the spectral hint of a thin, fluty sound –  seeming to disappear into the clouds. Maybe the oboe/flute in the orchestra..  Click here.

The solid violin section of the avian symphony is provided by  the male HOUSE FINCH,  a slightly raspy warble that flits up and down the scale  in seemingly random musical acrobatics –before finishing on a high note.   Click here.

The migrant BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS held center stage for this morning’s performance,  Although the Grosbeak’s song is often shorter and a little more jerky than that of the House Finch, his warble is deliciously rich and liquid.  One or two of them sang constantly for the entire half hour I sat by the river, appearing in full view only once when three of them appeared to have a little dust-up in what I imagined to be the cello section of that morning’s orchestra.  Click here.

I wonder if it is the same modest little SONG SPARROW who appears in almost the same spot on the same tree – every time I sit in my chosen spot.  He is a most dependable singer and I was glad to hear his cheery and familiar  voice.  This video clip captures the most basic song – two initial cheeps, then a trill, then a final signature flourish.  Individual Song Sparrows dream up many variations on this basic structure, some quite a bit more complex, but this is the bare bones. Click here.

The PACIFIC SLOPE FLYCATCHER, also a migratory bird, plays a simple rustic flute – the same note over and over again .  The note  is a thin, ascendant whistle, that is quite easy to identify when the woods are quiet.   This shy, elusive bird whistles once, then pauses, then whistles again – easy to hear and identify but hard to find.  Click here

And, finally, in the percussion section, was the loud, resounding and repeated yelp of the PIED-BILLED GREBE, a sound that would seem to come from some mythical creature – certainly  not from the  little brown waterfowl whose modest appearance seems at odds with its deep feelings.  Click here.

For so many years, I missed all this music.  And what I know now  only makes me more aware of the vast world of animal feelings and language about which I know nothing at all.  May we all slowly develop the capacity to hear and sense and understand the mysterious voices of  the natural world – which is so close to us and so far away.

On a more political note – I called Beth Tobey of the Economic Development Department of the City regarding your concerns, Jane,  about the art installation over the Cliff Swallows nest.  I asked her if you and I  could meet with her to talk about the Ebb and Flow Event next year.   She indicated that she was interested in such a meeting but she hasn’t yet answered my e-mail about when this might happen.

There are only 11 more days to write the City’s Parks and Recreation Department about their planned recruitment of a new director.   I hope everyone who reads this blog will send an e-mail to Carol Scurich, acting director, at  Please emphasize the importance of choosing someone who has experience and training in environmental protection; who will work to achieve a balance between recreational event planning  and environmental protection work;  and who will work collaboratively with environmental organizations in the community, i.e. the Sierra Club, the Bird Club, Friends of the Pogonip, Friends of the San Lorenzo River, Friends of Arana Gulch, Friends of Jessie St. Marsh, etc.  All our Open Spaces are under the jurisdiction of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.  The Department has a solemn responsibility to be good stewards of our natural treasures.

May we all learn to listen  to the birds and to each other!

Happy birding to all.

















Pied-billed grebes

Swainson’s Thrush

black headed grosbeak

Song sparrow.

pacific slope flycatcher

House finch


Sent from my iPad

Magical Mothering

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Gazers,

Wood Duck Mom
Mother Wood Duck on a fallen tree in the San Lorenzo River behind the Tannery – with 5 ducklings in water below below her , May 28, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Late Monday afternoon while  the nation was barbecuing, I decided to go in search of WOOD DUCKS.  They have been on my mind lately.  At least one family has been  breeding on the river for quite a few years, but they are still rare here, most local Wood Ducks preferring to raise their young in  Neary Lagoon.   I hadn’t even seen a report of an adult on the River, much less a family.  I was worried.   I headed towards that short stretch of river behind the Tannery,   a stretch, as you well know, that is the closest spot to downtown  where something like a natural riparian habitat still exists.  That is where Wood Ducks can find the hollow cavities in old or fallen trees that they need to make a successful nest.

I very quietly approached the  spot where I had seen these beautiful ducks in previous years – and  – lo and behold – there was a mother Wood Duck with five very new little fuzzballs.  Oh, those soulful, teardrop eyes!  I love it when this sort of thing happens- as if the proud mother was calling to me, saying, “I’m ready for visitors, come and see my lovely brood.”  Well, it didn’t turn out exactly that way. They actually saw me first, in spite of my stealthy approach, and by the time I actually reached the riverside the babies were already skittering away fast, disappearing almost immediately into the dense  vegetation along the edge of the river, followed closely by the mother.

Wood Duck 5 babies
5 ducklings playing on the same fallen tree. 

I set up my little birding chair, determined to not move a muscle until they returned.   I didn’t even raise my binoculars to look at other birds.  And,  sure enough,  in about 20 minutes they re-appeared from upstream, this time fooled into a false sense of security by my immobility.   The mother climbed up on a fallen tree just across the river form me, preening and resting, while the babies first hung out in the water nearby (if you look carefully, you will see them in the water near the log).  Then copying their mother, then clambered up  on the fallen tree,  scrambling and tumbling around each other just like baby kittens.  I stared and stared, grateful from the bottom of my heart.  I am wondering if this fallen tree is where their nest cavity is.  They don’t make their own holes, but search for ones already made by woodpeckers, or rot.  A dead tree is ideal.

According to BNA, the population of Wood ducks was robust through the nineteenth century but then began to decline due to deforestation and loss of wetland habitats.  Ornithologists thought they were probably doomed as a species.  But thanks in large part to the wonderful Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, this species was protected from hunters through1941 – and it made a great comeback.  But this year, on the eve of the centennial of this landmark conservation act, the Trump administration gutted the law.  It freed private interests – most notably energy companies – from criminal prosecutions and fines for the deaths of migratory birds killed by industrial practices.  When will the energy companies and their friends (and our City government) come to realize that our real power is in our connection with the earth and all the natural wonders that it holds.   (See below for something you can do about our local situation.)

The Wood Duck sighting followed a wonderful couple of hours birding with my friend Batya the day before in a much more urban environment – the Duck Pond!

Proud goose parents
Canada Geese with goslings, San Lorenzo Park, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

She was the one that first spotted the CANADA GOOSE goslings, hanging out on the grassy areas, their favorite spots to forage.    Unlike the Mallard and the Wood Duck parents, where the male disappears after the eggs are layed, Canada Geese are the helicopter parents of the avian world, neither parent  letting the young ones out of their sight for a minute.  Don’t they look proud!!!

The breeding range of the Canada Goose extends only as far south as central California – so we are along the edge of what’s possible.  The local Breeding Bird Atlas folks are keeping a  special eye out to see if  there is a trend towards more nesting in the Santa Cruz area.    I’ve seen more adults than I have in past years, 12 adults this last Sunday, all parading around San Lorenzo Park.  But there was only the one family.  Will there be more goslings.?  Stay tuned.  I hope they keep coming back and I hope we get more families.

Green Heron Drinking at Duck Pond
Green Heron drinking from Duck Pond, May 27, 2018, San Lorenzo Park, Photo by B. Riverwoman

To my surprise, I also spotted not only a GREAT EGRET, but a GREEN HERON, both foraging and drinking from the Duck Pond at the same time.  Quite a sight!  Last year as the Parks and Recreation Department drilled deeper and deeper into  their Master Plan for the future, they discussed getting rid of the Duck Pond.

Great Egret
Great Egret stalking fish in the Duck Pond, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

That would be a terrible shame in my opinion.  On many levels!  It is such a welcoming place for both birds and humans.  Maybe we could all agree on an even larger and more natural water feature.  Right now I think the birds and visitors are pretty safe since the city departments are all suffering major budget cuts.  But we should stay alert!

Just to add a final fillip to this urban river outing, there appeared a MALLARD family swimming in horseshoe formation just under the noisy Water St. Bridge, one of several sightings of Mallard babies so far this summer.

Mallard Family Horseshoe formation
Mallard mother with 6 ducklings in horseshoe formation, near Water St. Bridge, May 27, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

That adds up to four  separate species of waterfowl families, all plying our river at the same  time – Wood Ducks, Common Mergansers, Canada Geese, and Mallard.  Now I await my favorite – the Pied-billed Grebe – more fingernails to be chewed.  I heard one giving its inimitable roar from downstream  while I sat watching the Wood Ducks behind the Tannery.  What was it announcing so forcefully?

And speaking of COMMON MERGANSERS, I must now officially confess that I was wrong in my last post when I identified Common Mergansers as Red-breasted Mergansers.  Hats off to Michael Levy  who had the good sense to warn me before I posted that I should pay more attention to the neck markings, and less to the crest. But I stubbornly hit the publish button anyway, swayed by the scruffy head feathers and the reports of two eBird reports of experienced birders, both of whom  seemed to have made  the same mistake  about the same family.  The local bird guru, Alex Rinkert, who monitors eBird postings from this area, quickly picked up my mistake, alerted me, and I changed my post.   It turns out that the usually sleeker hairdo of the Common Mergansers can be easily ruffled by the wind, their hairdos then appearing very similar to the more permanently dishevelled Red-breasted.  Alex was kind enough to take the time to write me with the following clarification: “The key characteristics for Red-breasted Mergansers are a thinner bill, tan head, and weakly contrasting tan head and gray breast.  Common Mergansers have thicker bills, chestnut heads and sharply contrasting head/breast line.”   (My mother told me to pay more attention to the  ring around my tomboy  neck.)   Here is a photo from Google of a Red-breasted Merganser on the left  and the actual San Lorenzo River  Common Merganser (with babies)  that I posted last week on the right – next to each other for the serious birders to pore over:


Click here for my City checklist this week and here for my Tannery checklist.

As readers probably already know, Mauro Garcia, the head of Parks and Recreation, suddenly left the position last month.  The Department has invited community members to fill out a survey and submit it by June 22Please do that! Emphasize that the Department should do a nationwide search for someone with strong environmental qualifications.  Parks and Recreation is in charge of our most valuable natural areas – Pogonip, Arana Gulch, San Lorenzo Park, Moore Creek, De Laveaga, Jessie St. Marsh and others.  Here is the link to the survey.

You can also call (831) 420-5045 for more information.  It would be great if some people could write actual letters.

Happy Birding to all.


















Mergansers Steal the Show

3 Merganser babies
Red-breasted Merganser, San Lorenzo River, between Laurel and Broadway, May 15,2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Dear Jane and All Bird Lovers,

RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS have been stealing the show these last two weeks, partly because their babies are so darn cute and partly because they aren’t even supposed to be breeding here. Their normal breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, and even northern and Eastern Canada at that.  Red-breasted are a separate species from the COMMON MERGANSERS, the Mergansers that are our normal year-round resident and the ones that usually produce some families during breeding season.   Red-breasteds are a surprise as local breeders!   When I posted my citing to e-Bird, I got an automatic message pointing out that this is a rare sighting and that I needed to give more details.  Fortunately, two leading birders in our area, Kumaran Arul and Alexander Gaguine had also  reported them earlier this week, so I think I’m not going out too far on a limb.  The Red-breasteds can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the COMMON MERGANSERS – but the female Red-breasteds can display a wildly shaggy crest that the Commons can’t equal. I hope these mops are shaggy enough for e-Bird!   I was just done oohing and aahing about the little family of four when not much later along came another family of 7 fledglings.  I could hardly believe my eyes.  Two families within minutes of each other on one stretch of the river!  The babies are so little but they must have powerful legs. When they pick up speed to keep up with their mother,  they lift right up out of the water and seem to be flying rather than swimming.. Watching 7 tiny babies flying over the surface of the water has got to be one of life’s finest experiences.

RBM with 7 babies
A second family of Red-breasted Mergansers,same area on the river, May 15,2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Coming in a close second this week for drama are the rambunctious CLIFF SWALLOWS.  Today I counted about 75, dipping and darting with wild abandon around the Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  I also counted about 120 old mud nests in various states of repair on just these two bridges.  The swallows have their work cut out for them, for sure!  Quite a few of of the nests at the Laurel Bridge had one Swallow seeming to hold down the fort while another went out gathering mud and catching insects. The Cliff Swallows have been here now for quite a few weeks, but according to BNA, the males tend to arrive first, and only begin pair formation and nest building when the females arrive.  Did you know that the famous swallows of Capistrano are Cliff Swallows!  I had to wait 80 years to learn that.

swallows in nests 4
Cliff Swallows holding down the fort as partners forage and gather mud to repair these old nests.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

People that I meet on the River are always interested that we have not just one but two species of white egrets on the River – the larger and less commonly seen GREAT EGRET (37” long) and the smaller SNOWY EGRET (27” long).  And of course that doesn’t count the other member of the family, our iconic GREAT BLUE HERON (46” long).  What treasures our river holds.  ( I caught this photo of the Great and Snowy next to each other for comparison. ) These are all colony-nesting birds, usually high up in trees.  I would love to know where our birds are nesting these days.

Great and Snowys
Great Egret and two Snowy Egrets out in the middle of the river. The water is so shallow that they appear to be walking on the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Two lovely KILLDEERS were hanging out on the sandbars between Laurel and Riverside this week, a very probable habitat for their nests.  I felt horrible when I saw a young woman throwing a ball for her dog right where the the birds might be nesting.  We have got to get the City to put up signs letting people know that it is illegal to be anywhere on the levee banks or next to the river.

Killdeer drinking
Killdeer taking a drink from the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwomannter a caption

My strangest sight this week was a GREEN HERON squawking loudly while dive-bombing a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK.  What do you think that was about??  I hope not nest robbing. The heron quickly flew off and this elegant fiend settled down on a pole above my head, pretending that nothing had happened.

“Who, me??”  Red-shouldered Hawk  after being chased by Green Heron.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

So far this summer I’ve seen only one MALLARD family with babies, and not a single WOOD DUCK or PIED-BILLED GREBE family.  I don’t know whether the one grebe I’ve seen on the river is a bachelor or is one of a pair. Grebes tend not to hang out with each other, and they look almost exactly the same. I’m hoping our grebe has a partner tucked away somewhere on a well-concealed floating nest, incubating some eggs and waiting his or her turn to leave the nest and catch some delectable crawfish.  I saw two male Mallards chasing a female Mallard this week, so maybe some second families are in the making.

One of the few Mallard couples still on the river, perhaps planning a second family.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

I got a fund-raising letter from the UCSC Arboretum this week pointing out that anxiety will be the leading health problem by 2020, replaceing diabetes.  The point being made was that nature is one of our great resources to provide respite from an over-stimulating and too often distressing society.  I feel so grateful that there are so many people in our community dedicated to protecting the nature we already have and trying to create even more places where people can benefit from the healing effects of a tree or a flower or a river.

Flowers between Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  May 15, 2018 photo by B. Riverwoman

The riverside flowers these days may not be natives – but they delight my eyes.   I like to believe that Wordsworth was right when he suggested that nature and birds and trees all experience joy – and that this joy is contagious.   It is certainly true that I always feel more joyful after walking along the river.

“Through primrose tufts in that green bower

The periwinkle trails its wreathes,

And t’is my faith that every flower,

Enjoys the air it breathes”.

William Wordsworth

May we all  breathe in some anxiety-reducing joy from the birds and flowers and trees.


Fertile Dreams

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

As far as I know, the first baby waterfowl of the season appeared this last week on the urban stretch of our river.  On April 27,  standing on the Felker St. Bridge, I spied four teensy MALLARD chicks, busily foraging for themselves in a quiet backwater just north of the bridge.

Mallard BAbies FOS
Four Mallard fledglings, April 27, 2018, North of Highway 1 Bridge, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I guess that means the eggs were laid sometime towards the end of March  (a 28 day incubation period).  I originally saw four babies,  and then, sadly, only three babies remained a day later.  I’m pretty sure there were more eggs in the original clutch. According to BNA there is usually an average of 10 eggs per Mallard nest in an early season nest.  Raccoons, rats, crows, hawks, coyotes?  Lots of hungry critters out there with their own babies, all struggling to stay alive.


According to a friend, CHICKADEE babies have been heard begging from this box attached to a tree on the city side of the west levee near Water St. Bridge.

Chickadee Box
Chickadee nestbox near Water St. Bridge, April 27, 2018. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I saw parents flying back and forth but so far I haven’t seen or heard the babies.  If readers are interested in building nestboxes, you can go to to NestWatch (click here) and get detailed specifications from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology for boxes specifically designed for more than 50 different species.  Is anyone with carpentry skills interested in helping me build a Tree Swallow box?  I have also seen a Kestrel box along the river, but so far no Kestrels.


While birding on the river this week I ran into Phil Brown, a keen-eyed local birder, who is working hard during this season trying to keep track of breeding birds in the area.  He is officially in charge of monitoring not only the San Lorenzo River but Neary Lagoon, Schwann Lake, Arana Gulch and a few more key breeding areas in Santa Cruz County.  It’s a big responsibility that he generously performs before and after his paying job.

He told me that he has seen NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS carrying nesting materials into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge, where this species has been nesting for quite a while.  He also reports seeing HOUSE FINCHES and SONG SPARROWS carrying nesting materials and HOUSE SPARROWS carrying food.  We were both keeping our eyes on the CANADA GEESE, COMMON MERGANSERS, PIED-BILLED GREBES AND KILLDEERS –hoping for signs of breeding between Water St. and the Highway 1 Bridge, or perhaps further upstream behind the Tannery for the Grebes and Mergansers.. All these species have been present in ‘suitable habitat’ – using the language of the Breeding Bird Bird Project.  Phil was interested in the Chickadee box which he didn’t know about, and also pleased to hear about the baby Mallards. It’s so nice to meet a birder on the river and share sightings. I can honestly say that in the four years that I have been birding on the San Lorenzo I have only once run into a birder that I didn’t already know through the Bird Club.  As far as pure joy goes, this has got to be one of the best kept secrets in Santa Cruz.

While we were staring at two landing Killdeer, Phil also spied a migratory TREE SWALLOW, rarely seen on the urban river.

Tree swallow
Tree Swallow, Google Image

We know that these swallows nest at Neary Lagoon where they seem well adapted to the human-made nest boxes that are available there. Would they like a box on the San Lorenzo?  Are there any readers with carpentry skills that would like to help me build a Tree Swallow nest on the San Lorenzo River?  According to BNA, Tree Swallows readily accept these artifical nests  and indeed are thought to arrive early in the season in order to find the rare tree cavities (or nest boxes) that are in high demand by other cavity nesting birds.


Another curious phenomena of this season is the brotherhood of male Mallards, most of them hanging out together in pairs or small groups after doing their bit by inseminating the female.  One rarely sees females at this time of year. The mother scrapes a depression in the ground by herself, pulls downy feathers from her breast to line the shallow ground nest, lays the eggs, and incubates the eggs for an average of 22 hours a day, for an average of 28 days – all by herself.  She takes time off in early morning and  late afternoon to forage and preen. No food delivery by that elegant Lothario with the shimmering green head feathers and bright orange feet.  Nor does the drake appear once the babies are born. The young are ‘precocial’, able to take care of themselves as soon as they hatch.  You can imagine how I work to suppress my feminist judgments!  Who knows – considering how aggressive Mallard drakes are, perhaps the mom is glad to have some quiet time away from the early season onslaught of ardent suitors.

two drakes
Two male Mallards.  Are they bonding with each other in absence of females?  April 27, 2018, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The levees are beautiful these days, ablaze with broad drifts of wildflowers – orange California poppies,  pink, white and purple Wild Radish, pink Scabiosa, and a new flower for me, bright lavender Salsify.

Purple needle grass
Native Purple Needle Grass, San Lorenzo River Levee, April 28, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My environmental educator friend, Batya Kagan, also helped me learn a little about all the lovely grasses that were trying to get my attention by waving to me in the breeze!  Thanks to Batya, I pulled my attention away from the birds for a moment and stopped and made the acquaintance of the delicate native Purple Needle Grass and the very similar and also purple non-native Brome. If you rub your fingers against the grain of the Brome, it catches your skin.  Purple Needle Nose doesn’t do that.  Stop, shake hands and introduce yourself to the purple grasses this week.


purple flowers
Salsify, San Lorenzo River, April 28, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

Watching and worrying about birds seems to have burrowed down into my unconscious.  Recently I dreamed that three Red-shouldered Hawks were circling above me as I walked along the Riverwalk close to where I live. Suddenly, one of the hawks dropped to the ground right in front of me.  It was still alive when it hit the ground but I watched it slowly close its eyes and die. The other two hawks perched nearby, staring at their dead kin.  I rushed to stop the bicycles on the Riverwalk. People stopped and one man sat down reverently in the lotus position in the middle of the pathway.  The dream ends and I wake up. I am amazed to hear a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from outside.  Does that mean that I am now able to identify a bird call in my sleep?  A little later I go out onto the levee and as soon as I get to the pathway I see a Red-shouldered Hawk circling close by over my head, right where the dream took place!  I think I may be tapping into something beyond my understanding. A new kind of mystery for this blog?


Red Shoulder
Red-shouldered Hawk, San Lorenzo River,May 2017, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

Speaking of bird language, enthusiastic bird advocate Jeff Caplan will be giving what looks like  a very interesting workshop on his recent studies with a nationally-known bird aficionado. The Saturday morning event will start at 9 and will include the  presentation on bird language as well as a walk along the river and a brunch at India Joze.  I will be there!  Click here to read about the workshop and sign up if you are interested.  It looks like it may sell out.

I hope everyone turns on Bruce Bratton’s radio program at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, May 8, when  Jane will be talking about her favorite subject – the San Lorenzo River.  Good luck, Jane.   That’s KZSC 88.1 fm.

Click here to see my  eBird checklist for this week.

May everyone’s dreams be filled with the magic of the natural world.


























Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.”  Our feathery friends on the river are singing their hearts out with hope these days – hope for the continuation of their species.   They cheer me on enormously in these crazy times when we sometimes have to wonder about the continuation of our species!

song sparrow
Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River, watching the flood waters,  2016, photo by B. Riverwoman

I especially love listening to all the SONG SPARROWS at this time of year. Each bird seems to have its own distinct variation on what is usually a three-part song – twee-twee/buzz/chip-chip – or twee-twee-twee/trill/whistled cascade.    As I walk down the river I hear seemingly infinite variations.  I think if I were starting over again I would become a biologist and study the songs of the Song Sparrow.

Well – here is the mystery bird for the month of April.   Don’t peek at the answer (at the end of this blog) until you’ve given it a try.

April Fool's
Mystery Bird, between Water St. Bridge and Highway 1, April 13, Photo by B. Riverwoman


I am always intrigued to see a bird where I’ve never seen one before.

Nesting Merganser? – Version 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. ,April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

This COMMON MERGANSER, perched on a fallen willow tree in the middle of the river, definitely caught my attention. I wondered if she could possibly be scoping out this tree

Merganswer 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

as a suitable spot for a nest. Mergansers usually use cavities in the trunks of dead trees,  so it would seem unlikely. But I’m keeping an eye on the area just in case. Desperate birds do desperate things. And I would guess that nesting territory is at a premium.



For about two weeks now I have been seeing NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SPARROWS disappearing into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge where I finally learned last year that they nest.

Resting Northern-winged
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, April 13, 2018, perched near Water St. Bridge where it is nesting.  Photo by B.Riverwoman

Then, just today, I was happy to see my first CLIFF SPARROWS exploring their old mud nests under the Water St. Bridge. I am wondering if they will reclaim these nests this year. They decided not to last year. I think it was because those pesky

house sparrow copy
Squatting House Sparrow, 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

HOUSE SPARROWS occupied most of their old mud nests before the Cliff Swallows had returned from down south. A willow clump right next to the bridge has been a major headquarters for the aggressive House Sparrows for the four years I’ve been watching birds on the river. I suspect they may have settled there for exactly this purpose. Location, location, location.



There have been a few VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS around for a while, but not the usual high numbers. I’ve never seen a Violet-green Swallow nest. BNA says they like to nest in cavities in trees or cliffs and will also use human-made boxes.

Violet-green Swallow perched near her nesting cavity hollowed out by another bird like a woodpecker.  Google image.

If any readers see such a nest, especially one near the river, I’d love to know. You can always e-mail me at about this or any other interesting things you see on the river. Here’s a cool fact about the Violet-green Swallows. They have been recorded flying at 28 miles per hour— pretty fast when you consider that the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird of prey, averages about 25–35 miles per hour in traveling flight.  A good online resource that I just discovered is They have lots of useful information including how to build nest boxes for common birds in our area, especially ones in decline like the Kestrel and Mourning Dove.


I caught a glimpse this week of one of my favorite  sights – two ravens circling together very, very high up in the sky. I tried to get photos, but was not up to the challenge – so fell back on a Google image.  But the photo is exactly what I saw.  BNA says there is no solid evidence that paired soaring behavior has any relationship to breeding.

ravens soaring
Two Common Ravens, circling at a high altitude.  Google image.

But it is a beautiful and heart-stopping performance, no matter what their intentions. Such form, such freedom. Two years ago the ravens built a nest on the roof of the courthouse – but not last year and no sign yet of activity this year.  Mating pairs usually stay together throughout the year.


In the singing category, the HOUSE FINCHES

5 finches
Five House Finches stirring things up at the El Rio Mobile Home Park garden facing on the river.  April 13, 2018.

continue to outdo themselves at this time of year – warbling irrepressibly up and down and all over the map.   There is also lots of chasing behavior – as there is with so many of the species – as the birds sort out who belongs to whom. I often count three birds in these chasing scenes, suggesting that one of the birds is being chased away rather than pursued.


The WHITE-CROWNED AND GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS, on the other hand, are pretty silent, although I have heard  a few Golden-crowned singing their plaintive descending three-note song lately. I am guessing that this call is for the purpose of gathering the tribe to start the long trip back to their breeding grounds in Canada. It is the same song, as far as I can tell, that they sing when they arrive in the fall and are establishing their territory. Both the White-crowned and Golden-crowned are in full-breeding plumage, the Golden-crowned especially handsome these days compared to their winter drabness. I keep saying good-bye to these backyard birds (I’m right on the river), but some of them still hang around. Or have our winter residents already left and others are passing through from further south? I wonder how we would know this.   Here is the White-crowned Sparrow just coming in for a landing.  Next stop British Columbia?

WC Landing
White-crowned Sparrow, April 13, 2018, El Rio Riverside Garden, Photo by B.Riverwoman

And in the fish department, I recently joined a riverside workshop led by Ben Wasserman, a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department up at UCSC.

Ben Wasserman holding fully-grown Three-spined Stickleback taken from river underneath Water St. Bridge. April 14, 2018  Photo by B. Riverwoman

He was introducing about 25 of us, adults and children, to the fascinating THREE-SPINED STICKLEBACK, a fish that he called the ‘lab rat’ of fish biologists around the world. According to Wasserman, the Sticklebacks are not only abundant  in inland coastal waters everywhere on the planet, but they are also easily caught (and released) for research studies. According to Wasserman, this abundance and easy accessibility, added to the fact that they are highly adaptive to changing environmental conditions, make them a workhorse of evolutionary studies

stickleback closeup
Ben Wasserman holding Stickleback, Photo by B. Riverwoman

around the world.  UCSC is doing its part, and Wasserman is part of that, focusing his graduate studies on the Stickleback’s evolution through natural selection. Like coho salmon and steelhead trout, the sticklebacks are ‘anadramous’, meaning they breed in freshwater but can survive in the ocean. But unlike the salmon and steelhead, the stickleback don’t always return to the ocean. This wide range of environmental influences results in an equally broad range of adaptations – giving Wasserman lots to study.    I wonder if  the research surrounding the tiny and obscure stickleback could one day become more important to human survival than all the recreational attention given to the iconic salmon and steelhead.


Congratulations, Jane, on being chosen by the City of Santa Cruz as a ‘2018 Outstanding Volunteer’!! You certainly deserve the recognition. I hope some of our readers will be at City Hall on April 24th at 2 pm to help celebrate with you. I know I will be there. I wish I knew how to get all the birds there to express their gratitude for all your advocacy and organizational work on the environment.

Click here to see my latest eBird checklist.

And the mystery bird is…….April Fool’s! What you see is only a clump of leaves left by a high river! There is rarely a bird trip I make when I don’t eagerly lift my binoculars to examine an enticing scrap of white plastic, a suggestive root projection, a falling leaf or some other beguiling and ultimately deceptive phenomenon.

Laughing with the birds,