River Olympics

Dear Jane and Other Devotees of Nature,

As  usual, I missed the Olympics and Oscars , but happily caught a glimpse right here on the San Lorenzo River of some pretty outstanding  performances by the mating COMMON GOLDENEYES – carried out without benefit of celebrities and trophies.  Or I guess you could say that  the gleaming trophies will be the baby Goldeneyes, born sometime this summer in Canada or Alaska. Common Goldeneyes are known to bird lovers as  having the most dramatic courtship displays among all waterfowl.  And it’s all  happening right here, right now,  on the urban stretch of the San Lorenzo River!

I went out walking along the river last Sunday about 3 pm, poking along as usual, hoping to find some mating Goldeneyes which I had never seen in person.  My first sighting was a glorious OSPREY circling high  over the Water St. Bridge where I began my walk.  I was pleased to have see 27 different species (click here)  during the next two hours.    But I hadn’t seen Goldeneyes,  the Olympic performance I was most hoping to see.  Then, just as I was about to leave the river, there   they were, 15 of them– right under the Water St. Bridge.  I was lucky.  I learned only later that dawn and dusk  are the best times of day  to witness this event that takes place every year beginning about this time – in early or mid- march.   There were 2 males and 9 females swimming peacefully off to one side while 2 other males and 2 other females held center stage about 30 feet from their non-active  clan.

Goldeneye Mating 29
9 females and 2 males, floating peacefully off to the side of the main stage.  
Four finalists
The four leading actors, two male and two female.   See below.  

I have just been learning a little  about the Goldeneyes for the last couple of weeks, and loved the wonderful photo that you posted last week, Jane.  But this was my first experience of actually seeing them live in HD.  Fortunately, ornithologists have been paying close attention to the complex and dramatic displays of this waterfowl for a long time!   The detailed reports in Birds of North America, the largest compilation of recent research on birds, is always  a huge help in figuring out the complexity of the mysterious behaviors of birds.  The end-of-day lighting was not the greatest for taking photost, but the subject was stellar! I clicked away as fast as I could.  Then I came home and tried to figure out what I had recorded.  The following is my somewhat dubious efforts to put together my photos with all the information in BNA.

BNA identifies fourteen different postures or series of postures of the male Goldeneye, each with a separate name: head-throw, slow head-throw-kick, fast head-throw-kick, bowsprit, head-throw-bowsprit, nodding, masthead, ticking, head–flick, head-forward, head–up, head-up-pumping, head-back, and head back –bowsprit..    Since I only this year became aware of this annual show, I’m not at all sure what I’m seeing in each  of the photos below.  But I’m going to make a wild guess based on some descriptions I found in BNS- and maybe a reader will correct me if I get it wrong.  The rest of my blog piece is all photos, with captions trying to guess at what I am seeing.

Goldeneye Mating 23
This could be part of ‘Nodding’ where a ‘male stretches and withdraws his head at about a 45 degree angle, tracing an elliptical path with his  bill.”  Normally one doesn’t see any white on the neck of a male Goldeneye. The 2 females seem interested.
Goldeneye Mating 18
Might this have been  part of ‘Masthead’ , a series of postures where the drake first stretches his head parallel to water and then quickly jerks his head upright pointing bill vertically, then snaps his head back down to water lever and holds it there while paddling.’  In any case the female seems disinterested. or perhaps playing  hard to get.  
Goldeneye Mating 22
Here the male does the famous Head-throw  which seems to appeal to   the two females.  
Two followers2
The 2 females maybe decide they have a winner and stay close behind?


Goldeneye Mating 32
BNA doesn’t mention lifting oneself high out of the water.  
Goldeneye Mating 26
A second male doing a Head-throw – to keep up with the competitor?
Goldeneye Mating 10
BNA says  that in copulation, which averages 8.3 seconds, the “male overlies female, then holds nape of her neck, at which point she is nearly submerged.  I can’t tell what is going on here.  
Goldeneye Mating 5
There was  a lot of diving, kicking and splashing going on – to what end it was unclear. Do they snack while they court?
Goldeneye Mating 17
Two males and one female.  Clearly I needed a video to watch the sequencing and complexity of all this.
P1050619 2.jpg
I was really puzzled by this photo.  Could it be what BNA describes as a ‘copulatory display’ in which the drake ‘turns on one side and stretches out wing and leg” He seems to be holding onto something (a submerged female? )with his leg.  I would be thrilled if I captured this display.  
Goldeneye Mating4
BNA describes some ritual female displays during copulation, including ‘ritualized drinking.”   Is the female doing that here?  


Well, we wander through life missing so much that is right under our noses.  It took me 3 years to notice the mating Goldeneyes.  What wonders still await?

Happy birding to all, and to all a good night!





Where Have All The Rivers Gone?

Dear Jane and Friends of the River,

I just turned 80! I’m so grateful to have been allowed to hang out on this amazing planet long enough to get to know the San Lorenzo River so much better.  Along with a fine celebration,

Sandra Postel
Sandra Postel on a research trip

I received a very interesting new book (2017) called Replenish, the Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity.  ReplenishAmong a long list of writings and accomplishments, the author, Sandra Postel, won the 2017 Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. Each chapter in the book tells a detail-rich and hopeful story of successful efforts around the world to reverse the ecological, economic and social damage created by the levees, dams, diversions, and other 20th century feats of engineering.  These are inspiring stories and I highly recommend the book.

Sadly, Postel’s last chapter asks the question:

On balance, are rivers getting healthier, aquifers being recharged, floodplains being rejuvenated and wetlands being expanded?  Are we becoming more resilient to droughts, floods and fire? Is the water cycle being replenished and repaired?  So far the answer is no.  At best, it’s one step forward, two steps back. “

This book inspires me to redouble our efforts to protect our little corner of the world and not to be part of any ‘two steps back’!   The local Desal Alternatives led a model citizens’ initiative  here in Santa Cruz by successfully blocking the city’s ecologically and economically costly desalinization plant and at the same time providing a far more creative and planet-friendly solution to water security than offered by the City.   The solution promoted by Desal Alternatives was to recharge our county’s depleted aquifers with re-directed San Lorenzo River water that would otherwise just run into the ocean.  After a long struggle, which required a ballot measure, this solution finally won City approval.  Postel unfortunately doesn’t mention our inspiring local story, but she gives high praise to the equivalent David vs. Goliath battle in Rockland County,  New York, where another  local citizens’ coalition was able to fend off a multinational  corporation from building a desalting plant.

There are powerful  commercial and recreational interests in Santa Cruz that exert undue pressures on our local government and that do not take into account the protection of our natural resources.  We need to stay alert to any efforts that discount the ecological importance of areas like the San Lorenzo River and its overbuilt delta, Jessie St. Marsh – as well as Pogonip, DeLaveaga Park, Lighthouse Field, and other natural treasures.

Jessie St. Marsh
Jessie St. Marsh dried up and cut down.  The City reports that it has plans to restore the freshwater portion of the original saltwater lagoon.  Let’s strongly support this positive direction! September 22, 2014.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

I haven’t spent much time outside in the last 20 days because of a skin condition on my face – it’s being treated and the doctor has forbidden me to be in the sun for thirty days.  I’m so eager to get back on the River. In the meantime, I have had  to rely on other lovers of the San Lorenzo River birdlife for this week’s river news.

My neighbor and good bird scout, Batya Kagan, keeps a special eye out for my good friends, including the PIED-BILLED GREBES.  I mentioned in my last post that I hadn’t seen any Pied-billed Grebes with the telltale bright black ring on bright white bills, a sign that they are ready to mate.  But the most recent news flash from Batya is that the birds, both sexes (!), are now decked out and ready to start their families.  They are late starters, and also tend to be the last nesters of breeding season on the river.  Good luck to them!

Pied-billed Grebe best copy
PIed-billed Grebe, August 1, 2015, San Lorenzo River, photo by B. Riverwoman

And speaking of mating, a faithful observer of birds  on the San Lorenzo River, Shantanu Phukan, reported on eBird on February 12 that he saw “two pairs of  COMMON GOLDENEYES with the males repeatedly displaying with the head flexed back.”

common goldeneye
Displaying male Common Goldeneye, Google image

Did it look like this photo from Google Images, Shantanu? I have never seen this.  I wonder if  the Goldeneyes mate here before they travel north in March and April to nest in Canada and Alaska?  Come to think of it –   depending on the gestation period – that might make sense.  The timing could be tricky, though.

Did I already mention in one of my earlier posts that local birder Randy Wardle publishes a monthly list on the Monterey Bay Birds website letting us know what to watch for in the upcoming month.  Here’s what he says about the birds that will likely appear in Santa Cruz in the month of February, birds we are likely to find on the river:

“ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS and BUSHTITS are nesting now, and the first DARK-EYED JUNCO and other cavity-nesters may begin nest building this month as well.  ALLEN’S HUMMINGBIRD numbers continue to grow and RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS begin to arrive toward the end of the month….  TREE SWALLOWS are the first migrant swallows to appear, joining the wintering population.  VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS start coming mid-February, followed by NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS and then CLIFF SWALLOWS and BARN SWALLOWS.  Among warblers…, in February ….YELLOW-RUMPED and TOWNSEND’S are still common, ORANGE-CROWNEDS will continue to be sparse in the lowlands until numbers start swelling toward the end of the month with the arrival of spring migrants.  And finally, “February can sometimes be a stormy month, so continue to watch the weather forecast and be ready to search for any rarities that might get blown ashore.  This is also a good time to clean your feeders to help prevent the spread of diseases among bird species.

Bushtit nest,Google image

I remember several years ago joining a bird walk with Steve Gerow when one of our group sadly found a Bushtit’s nest like this one that had fallen onto the ground.  It was empty by the time we found it.

According to a staff report at the last City Council meeting on February 13, the Benchlands homeless campground will be shut down on February 28th and moved to 1220 River St.  The City Council unanimously approved a three-phase plan to replace the current encampment with a more structured program with more services.  It’s been tried here before –  and failed, says homeless activist Brent Adams.

Benchlands Encampment, February 6, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

Let’s hope it will work this time. I have actually enjoyed the brightly colored and orderly cluster of tents along the river, knowing that at least 50 or more people had minimal shelter and the comfort of sleeping legally.  I think the provision of porta-potties and washing stations has provided better protection for the river than campers hiding much closer to  the river without any services.

Quote of the day: “The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land” Luna Leopold

Wishing you all lots of bird friends and happy walks in nature.







Where Are You Going, Crows?

Hello Jane and All Other Bird Lovers,

Lately I’ve been stumped when people ask me ‘What’s with all the crows these days?”  Like me, they are astonished and mystified at the huge numbers of these darksome creatures that sometimes, especially at sunset, seem to be taking over the skies here in Santa Cruz.  (Spoiler alert: It turns out that crow populations are not increasing nationwide nor is a Hitchcock nightmare about to descend upon us.)

10 crows in tree
Crows gathering in pre-roosting site,  February 4, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

I decided I had better do a little online research and also pay closer attention to the actual crows around me!  Here’s what I discovered when I googled ‘Why are there so many crows?’  First of all, the huge concentrations of crows  is a five-month winter phenomenon, starting sometime in November and ending in March when the crows disperse to their individual territories to start building their nests and raising their young.   Add to this the fact that large flocks of crows head south each year from Canada for the more hospitable  winter climate of the states, adding large numbers to the ranks of local crows.   Further add to this the fact that crows are wonderfully communal creatures, mating for life, and even depending on first and second year non-breeding siblings to help raise their new broods.  During breeding season they are isolated from the rest of their clan .  But once the kids are raised,  I like to imagine,  the crowd-loving crows all get together in  raucous celebration of their temporary freedom  from childcare responsibilities and in joy at hanging out with the rest of their  huge clan that they don’t get to see for nine months.  Whatever the true motivations and feelings are,  these intrepid socialists gather in the hundreds, the thousands and even – in at least one documented case in Oklahoma – in the millions  – with the purpose of all sleeping in a few trees together!  It’s called roosting.  Why do they do this?  Primarily for safety say the experts.  During the long winter nights, they are especially vulnerable to nighttime predators like  Great-horned Owls.  Roosting in large groups gives them more protection.

Crow entering tree
Another crow flies in to pre-roosting site, February 4, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

In the process of reading about crows, I also discovered that crows  were originally drawn to agricultural lands outside of cities.  But they were unwelcome guests –– driven off by guns, firecrackers and furious farmers who didn’t appreciate their fine brains.  So over time the crows  have congregated more and more in urban areas like ours – another reason that we see so many of them.  They are mostly ground foragers preferring open spaces with just enough nearby trees for cover.  They are never found in  densely vegetated areas like forests.  Being undiscriminating omnivores, they will eat just about anything – from wild plants and seeds to carrion and human garbage.  This is another reason we city dwellers see so many of them.  We have so much garbage lying around.

The one thing that I wasn’t able to find out from the online literature was more about their roosting.   Close to sundown, I got to witness first hand  large flocks of crows (about 250)   flying in from all directions and assembling on some sycamores and cottonwoods along the river. They never stopped emitting their strident chatter,  creating a huge, cacophonous racket that never stopped.   Some of them hopped into the river for a very splashy bath, others  got a drink of water, others gathered bedtime snacks along the sandbars and most of them settled into an already crowded tree for the night.  I assumed they had found their night time roosting spot and were settling in for the night. I seems I was wrong.

drinking crow
Crow getting a drink of water near pre-roosting site. February 4, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman
crows - flock of 270
Crows bathing together in river north of Water St. Bridge, near pre-roosting site, anuary, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

The second time I watched the scene, I again saw them all settling into  the cottonwoods along the Benchlands.  But I hung around longer this time.  After about 30 minutes it slowly dawned on me that they were peeling off alone or in groups of 2 or 3 , leaving the tree I was photographing more and more empty – until it was entirely bare.  Now I saw dark shapes slipping silently downstream in the twilight, no longer a loud chorus of wildly chattering birds.

two crows flying
Crows leaving pre-roosting site, heading off downstream, February 4, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Were the sycamores that I had been watching  only a way station?   It suddenly made sense to me that the wily crows might not have wanted to advertise their actual sleeping place with so much drama.  It was as if they had chosen their first place as a site where they could  greet each other,  pass on messages of the day, bathe, snack, and maybe talk about where they would go next.  But perhaps haunted by memories of furious farmers with guns, or of Great Horned Owls (crows have prodigious memories), they understandably did not want to advertise where they actually planned to spend the night.   I tried to follow them.  I crossed the bridge, followed them downstream in the direction they were all going and peered out into the distance.  But no sounds and no flocks.  They had given me the slip!   I went home and started reading and discovered the term ‘pre-roosting site’.   Ah!  That was the concept I needed to understand what I had just seen.   I am now seriously on the trail of a final roosting site!  I’m wondering how many birds might be found there.  I wish I could tell them I carry only a camera and a loving heart, not a gun.  Nor do I want to eat them.  I’m a vegan.

While in pursuit of the departing crows I saw 10 CANADA GEESE AND 2 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE,  calmly nibbling away on the grassy lawns near the Duck Pond.  This was only my second sighting of the latter less common goose, bringing my total goose species to three this year – including the much rarer Snow Goose I wrote about several months ago.  The orange legs, white forehead shield and pinkish beak of the Greater White-fronted Goose give her quite a fanciful look, don’t you think?

Greater White-fronted Goose.jpg
Greater White-fronted Goose, February 4, 2018, grassy lawn near Duck Pond, photo by B. Riverwoman

Bad as the world can seem some days under the new Trump regime, there is still lots to crow about, isn’t there!  At least in the world of birds. Let’s keep cawing loudly about these wonderful birds on our river!

My best to all lovers of nature.






Nightlife on the River

Dear Jane and Bird-loving Readers,

Congratulations, Jane, on your recent cascade of honors. We learned earlier this week that you were re-elected to serve on the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club! And now, just this afternoon, you were unanimously elected by the City Council to serve on the Santa Cruz City Parks and Recreation Commission. Fantastic! A strong voice for the environment will now take her rightful place at the table.   I can hear the birds and other critters cheering.

Meanwhile, our city – and the developers that they work with so closely –  are busily trying to bring more nightlife to the river.   Human nightlife, that is.  But what about the existing nightlife of the river, the non-human variety? I admit my own ignorance on this subject.   But recently my visiting son has been bringing me reports based on his nightly trips over the Water St. Bridge on his way back from the gym. Every night he sees a GREAT BLUE HERON standing motionless  on a small reed-blanketed island,  separated from the river bank by a narrow and shallow eddy of water.  The eddy he guesses, is only about 5 feet wide, seeming to offer minimal protection from night predators. I have been surprisingly excited to hear these reports, like a child wanting to know what adults do after we kids go to bed. My son reports that the heron’s eyes appear to be shut. Is she asleep? Is she both asleep and awake? Does she leave a slit open like the Buddha? Is she safe from night-time predators? I checked a Cornell University site and learned for the first time the ability of some species to be both asleep and awake at the same time:

“Some (birds) can even sleep with one eye open, as half of their brain is alert while the other is asleep. This is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) and it allows the sleeping bird to spring into action quickly from rest if a threat approaches while still being able to satisfactorily rest if no threat arises. Ducks and waterfowl are particularly good at this….Species that use this adaptation may even be able to sleep while flying!

coyote 2
One of two coyotes watching a Great Blue Heron near the Water St. Bridge about 9 P.M,, January 20, 2017

Then three nights ago, adding to my excitement, my son brought especially interesting news about the heron’s life. As he stood watching the heron from the bridge, he saw a coyote run past, followed almost immediately by a second one. The second coyote made eye contact with my son, then retreated into the shadows. The first one soon doubled back, moving closer to the edge of the water nearest the heron and fixing his eyes on her. My son judged that the coyote was about twenty feet away from the heron at this point. Was he considering the possibility of splashing through the shallow eddy between him and the heron? A moment later, the heron took flight. About an hour later I persuaded my son to go back to the bridge with me to see if the heron had returned to her nightly spot. The coyotes were gone, and the heron was nowhere to be seen. I hope the heron has a safe backup spot for spending the night?

As we looked upstream for the heron, I spied in the distance a juvenile BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON standing in the middle of the river, moving slowly downstream as she stalked her underwater prey. I had never seen these nocturnal hunters at night, never seen them actively stalking fish in the middle of the river. During the day they are usually seen perched on some tree branch that extends out over the river.   I had assumed they fished from there.

Night Heron at night
Juvenile Black-crowned NIght-Heron actively fishing midstream just north of Water St. Bridge about 10 pm, January 20, 2017.
From Water St. Bridge at night
River and levee  just north of Water St. Bridge.  Juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron appears as  small white dot where eddy on the right converges with the bank of the river. January 20, 2017

I try to do a bird count at least once every two weeks for the citizen science online website called  eBird. This week I found 28 species in the short space between the Water St. and Laurel St. Bridges. Click here to see the list.  Among the 28 species recorded, I was excited to find the relatively rare and slightly magical BROWN CREEPER, spiraling upwards around the trunk of a craggy-barked tree, using her delicate and perfectly adapted curved bill to dig out insects hiding underneath the bark.

brown creeper
Brown Creeper, San Lorenzo Park bench lands.  Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

Other birds seem to flit about randomly in pursuit of their prey. But the little Creeper is always so systematic in her search, starting at the bottom of a tree, then spiraling her way up to the top, only to return again to the bottom of the tree to start over.

While in the Park, I walked over to check on two regular winter visitors to the Duck Pond, the so-called RING-NECKED DUCKS.  These birds have no ring around their neck

Ring-necked duck female
Female Ring-necked Duck in San Lorenzo Park Duck Pond, January 21, 2017, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

but do display a very distinctive ring around their bill.  They also like to hang out at Westlake Pond – preferring, it seems, lakes to rivers. Although they resemble the Common Goldeneyes in their appearance, and dive like them, their diet is based mostly on plants and some mollusks, eschewing the sportier fish that engage the advanced skills of the  Goldeneyes.

Ring-necked duck, male
Male Ring-necked duck in San Lorenzo Park Duck Pond, January 21, 2017, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

As I watched the Ring-necked Ducks, I suddenly heard an unusually raucous honking sound from a strangely patterned and unusually large female mallard. She was very aggressive, poking and prodding at the tail feathers of the male mallards. Who was she? Was she some kind of strange domestic hybrid like a Peking Duck? Anybody have any idea?

Humongous female mallard
half again as big as all the other feales. Very different marking on face. Very aggressive, very loud honk, almost like a goose.


Another odd sight this week was this COMMON GOLDENEYE north of the Water St. Bridge, sitting on a log. Goldeneyes rarely occur as far upstream as the Water St. Bridge, normally preferring the Estuarine reach of the river from Laurel St. Bridge to the mouth of the river.  Was it because of the high tide and the returning steelhead? And why was she sitting on a log? Have any of you ever seen a Goldeneye sitting on a log?

Common Goldeneye
Common Goldeneye just north of Water St. Bridge, January 21,2017, photo by B. Riverwoman

So many of the waterfowl are in breeding plumage at this time of year, including our resident mallards, coots and mergansers, as well as the migrating buffleheads and common goldeneyes. But my dear little PIED-BILLED GREBES have not yet taken on their breeding outfits. Maybe this explains in part why they tend to be the late breeders on the river. I find it so interesting that breeding attire for Pied-billed Grebes does not entail any changes at all in the color of feathers, but instead is displayed as a change in beak pigmentation!  Both display modest but elegant white beaks with a handsome black stripe. They also distinguish themselves from most other species by the fact that both the male and female go into breeding display mode, not just the male. There is no way a casual observer can tell them apart. One more reason I love the Pied-billed Grebes.

Pied-billed grebe
Pied-billed Grebe, not yet in breeding colors.  January 21, 2017. Photo by B. Riverwoman

And turning for a moment to human life on the river, I noticed an Asian- looking woman pulling up ‘weeds’ close to the

Chiese woman gathering lo-bo roots and leaves
Woman harvesting Asian green called lo-bo in Cantonese, probably ‘river spinach’ in translation.  January 21, 2017, photo by B. Riverwoman

pedestrian bridge leading into San Lorenzo Park. Another Asian woman was standing on the bridge and we easily slipped into conversation when I asked her in Chinese what her friend was harvesting (Full disclosure – my previous life was as a student and then teacher of classical Chinese literature.) In spite of her heavy Cantonese accent, I learned that the woman below us was harvesting a vegetable called lo-bo in Cantonese. As she chatted on in Chinese,

Asian vegetables
Lo-bo in Cantonese, river spinach in English.

I felt magically transported backwards in time, imagining that somehow the seeds of this vegetable were planted back in the days when the Santa Cruz Chinatown thrived along this very stretch of river in the area now occuped by Trader Joe’s. It was as if history was reasserting itself, brushing off our headlong rush into development and bringing back a lost age of gathering wild vegetables along the river. When a park ranger stopped to talk to the woman gathering the vegetables I was worried that he might stop her.  I was so pleased when  he simply warned her to wash them carefully. The next day I went out and harvested some myself, very cautiously sterilizing them first with the required amount of chlorine and then boiling them for good measure.   They were delicious, tasting like a combination between beet greens and spinach, without the acidic aftertaste of spinach.

The river binds us across time and space – and species, ethnicity and class. May it continue to do its cleansing work.

Happy Birding – and once again – thank you, Jane,  for taking on such a strong leadership role in our community on behalf of wild nature.







The Ecology of Darkness

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Lovers,

Do you realize, Jane, that we have just passed the three-year anniversary of our blog! Our first post was January 8, 2015! It’s been a unique journey for me – and I look forward to more years of surprises. I have learned so much from focusing on the river, from your keen observations, and from all the conversations this blog inspires. Funny how adversity (the threat of recreational boating on the river) has inspired actions we never dreamed of, helping us see things we never expected to see.

Scharfenstein & Hernandez
L to R Joaquin and Lorenzo Pacheco in front, Michael Hernandez and Bob Scharfenstein in back, January 6, 2018, Riverside Bridge, Photo by B. Riverwoman

All the fish news in your last blog was extremely interesting to me.  I took your lead and introduced myself to Bob Scharfenstein as he was standing with a fishing pole next to the Riverside Bridge. Bob, a longtime fishing aficionado (afishionado?) told me that this spot used to be called Buckeye Hole, commenting nostalgically that “in the sixties, steelhead used to be elbow to elbow here.” Now, it seems, fisherfolk are allowed to fish for only three days a week for 3 months (December, January and February) and it’s all on a ‘capture and release’ basis unless the fish is a hatchery steelhead. Bob showed me a photo on his cell phone of a steelhead with an adipose fin (wild) and without an adipose fin (clipped in the hatchery). Pretty good news for our wild steelhead if people comply with the law. Right now, he said, the steelhead are 4-5 feet long, but can get as long as 20 feet.

It turned out that Bob is the son of Barbara Scharfenstein, the founder of the Bird Club. Bob told me that just days before Barbara died on September 14th, 2015, she mentioned to him that ‘my Yellow Warbler’ should be back soon. The Yellow Warbler appeared the day she died.  Bob is taking care of his mom’s birds now that she is gone.

As Bob and I were chatting, former mayor (1960-64) Michael Hernandez came along and joined the conversation. He and Bob shared river stories, compared fish tattoos and talked about their lives.  “Fishing is my life,” Michael said, introducing me to his two grandsons, Lorenzo and Joaquin, both named after rivers. He quizzed them on river lore and casting techniques, apparently proving to  Michael’s satisfaction that they had been paying attention to their grandpa.

Seal Upsteam
Sea Lion resting on side of San Lorenzo River between Riverside Bridge and Trestle, Jan. 6, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Obviously, Bob and Michael weren’t the only one with their minds on steelhead. Bob commented on the rather unusual presence of sea lions in the river and said, “they aren’t here for laughs!” Shortly after our conversation I spotted a SEA LION lounging on a rock, presumably with a belly full of steelhead, taking a break before taking off on another fishing trip.


DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS were actively fishing on the river in numbers I don’t usually see – joining Bob and Michael, the seals, osprey, and striped bass in pursuit of their prized prey.   Nor have I seen cormorants swimming along rapidly in formation like this. I can’t help thinking they look very satisfied.

seven cormorants
Seven Double-crested Cormorants swimming downstream between Riverside Bridge and Trestle, January 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I suspect this wading OSPREY had also just enjoyed a good meal. I’m glad our fisherfolk can still enjoy their sport but leave the wild fish for the birds, seals and striped bass to eat. They need them more than we do.

Osprey in river
Osprey in river north of Riverside Bridge, January 6, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

There were more non-fishy wonders awaiting me once I tore myself away from my conversation with Bob and Michael.

I loved getting this photo of my little PIED-BILLED GREBE friend checking out a male COMMON MERGANSER. Pied-billed grebes are very solitary, but perversely seem very curious about other species, often poking their little beaks into groups of coots, mergansers, buffleheads and more. I guess I am a little grebe-like in this respect – perhaps another reason I am so fond of them.

Meganser & Piedbilled grebe
Male Common Merganser and Pied-billed Grebe, SLR, January 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Congratulations on posting your first video. You are raising the bar! I appreciated your pointing out that the huge gull congregations might be caused by storms out at sea that push the birds towards land. Don’t you love it when we see how  everything is connected to everything else.

Speaking of gulls, I love watching the communal baths of some of our very social birds. Here are some AMERICAN CROWS and SEAGULLS that I saw this week taking their baths together in the river.

I have been quite mystified about why I never see the shimmering rainbow plumage on the heads and necks of BUFFLEHEADS that appear in the photos of others. This week I was determined to look carefully and, sure enough, I saw the subtle breeding display.

Rainbow neck - bufflehead 2
Male and Female Bufflehead in breeding plumage, between Riverside Bridge and Trestle, January 6, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Jean Brocklebank just sent out a wonderful article by George Monbiot, (a well known British naturalist and writer) on the very subject of learning to see what we usually don’t see http://www.monbiot.com/2017/12/28/the-unseen-world/ He starts out saying, “

“What you see is not what others see. We inhabit parallel worlds of perception, bounded by our interests and experience. What is obvious to some is invisible to others. I might find myself standing, transfixed, by the roadside, watching a sparrowhawk hunting among the bushes, astonished that other people could ignore it. But they might just as well be wondering how I could have failed to notice the new V6 Pentastar Sahara that just drove past.”

Monbiot says that there are 59 species of butterflies in the UK and 2500 species of moths. He says that “our failure to apprehend the ecology of darkness limits our understanding of the living world.” I know there are owls on the urban river stretch, but neither of us has reported on them. But the Benchland campers tell me they hear them often.

Well – we can only keep doing our best to make the wildlife of the river visible to ourselves and others. That’s what our blog is all about.  Even with out best efforts, though, I’m sure we miss 99 % of what’s there.

Happy birding to all, rain or shine!









The Secret Life of a Drab Bird

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Lovers,

I’ve had the joy of walking along the river with my son Anders this Christmas season, happily pointing out to him all my avian friends.  P1040650I challenged him to tell me whether the first photo below was an EARED GREBE or a Horned Grebe.  He studied the photos in Sibley, comparing them to my photo and, almost without hesitation,  made the correct choice – an Eared Grebe.  A budding birder?


I added a Horned Grebe from Google for all of you to compare.  It’s not as easy to distinguish between the two species as as you might think.  An experienced birder friend of mine says he remembers the difference between the two because the Eared Grebe is the one with the dirty neck.  With this  helpful mnemonic, I have given the nickname Smudgy to  all Eared Grebes.  The Horned Grebe, as you can see from the second Google photo, has much cleaner lines. Eared Grebes are much more common on our river, but Horned Grebes do appear from time to time.  Horned Grebes can also spend the winter out at sea.

Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe, non-breeding migrant,  near mouth of river, December 25, 2017 Photo by Barbara Riverwoman
Horned Grebe, non-breeding, Google photo


Drab they may be, but both  of these species go for broke during  breeding season!   The Google photos below reveal the transformation they go through each year!  And now you can see where they get their names.  Who would have suspected.

And if you want to see the Eared Grebe in person, you don’t have to travel to the Arctic.  Just go inland to the Central Valley this summer and you may find them.  They are alleged to gather by the thousands in Mono Lake right after their chicks hatch.  To see the Horned Grebe in breeding plumage, you would have to go to Canada or Alaska.

Eared Grebe
Eared Grebe, breeding plumage, Google image
Horned Grebe 2
Horned Grebe, breeding plumage, Google image.



It is very sad that both of these species are at the top of the list of North American birds most endangered by climate change.   The climate change model developed by researchers of the Audubon Society predicts a very bleak future for both the Eared and Horned Grebes.  Both species are predicted to lose 100% of their summer breeding range by 2080!  Their winter breeding range (including the San Lorenzo River),  is also steadily contracting, although it is predicted by the Audubon Report to  remain somewhat more stable (only a 38% loss).  That is too much!  And as the Audubon Report states,  what good is a stable wintering ground with a summer breeding range that will disappear by 2080!

The report adds that “Thankfully, the species also lives in the Old World and in central Mexico.  One hopes that those breeding populations fare better than is projected for the ones in the U.S. and Canada.”    Click here to see the report. We know so little about the effect our growth policies have on all the wonderful species that have evolved over millions of years.  Such hubris!

Here is a mosaic of some of the other beautiful birds that Anders and I saw and photographed on the river. Clockwise from upper left: PELAGIC CORMORANT, RED-TAILED HAWK, GREEN HERON, PEREGRINE FALCON (google image), COMMON GOLDENEYE, GREAT BLUE HERON.

May our New Year be filled with better news for the birds and for all living creatures great and small.







Vagrant Snow Goose Lingers on River

Dear Jane and Nature-loving followers,

As I approach my 80th birthday, everything – every new bird species, every new bird song, every curious new bird fact – they all seem like little gifts piled one upon the other like gifts under a Christmas tree.

Snow Goose
Snow Goose near confluence of Branciforte Creek and San Lorenzo River.  Photo by Barbara Riverwoman, December 12, 2017

My most recent gift was this vagrant SNOW GOOSE, almost certainly the same one that you reported on so delightfully in your last blog post, Jane. (I haven’t yet seen the Cackling Goose you also discovered, but I’m  keeping my eyes open). I did a little research on the Snow Goose on eBird and discovered that this species has never been reported on the San Lorenzo River in the last one hundred years! And it has been extremely rare in all of Santa Cruz County  throughout the last one hundred years (averaging 15 at this peak time of migration).   Our hapless, solitary visitor seems to have been blown away or strayed away  from a large flock that normally moves south through  the Central Valley.  Suddenly interested in this bird, I also checked BNA and found out that these powerful birds  have been reported to fly 1800 miles without stopping to rest, and can ascend as high as 25,000 feet. Furthermore,  the Snow Geese that may stop to winter in California can come from as far away as Siberia! Snow Geese apparently take their merry time on the trip south, lingering on marshes, estuaries, slow rivers as well as rice and corn fields, the latter providing an especially rich food source that may contribute to the population increase in this species.

There may still be time to check out this unusual visitor.  As of yesterday,  December 12, the Snow Goose was still on the River, foraging peacefully on the grassy area just north of the new Branciforte footbridge, at the confluence of Branciforte Creek and San Lorenzo River. I hope everyone gets a chance to visit and say ‘hello’. However nice it is to see this bird, though, I hope that she leaves soon and is able to rejoin her flock wherever they may be. I am worried about her.

Isn’t eBird wonderful! Just a few clicks and you can find out not only where a bird is located in your area, but the history of its presence on the San Lorenzo River for the last hundred years. I hope by now all our readers have checked out this amazing website and maybe even started to become citizen scientists yourselves. It’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it. This last week, two top birders in our area, Phil Brown and David Sidle reported 48 species (!) that they spotted during a three-hour hike up and down the river from Highway 1 to the Trestle. Impressive! I made a quick search for migrants and found 13 on their list. I hope you all will  check out Phil and David’s list.  Just click here. They didn’t see the Snow Goose, but their list suggests once again how many species depend on our urban river for sustenance.

And speaking of protecting our urban wetlands, a neglected marshland right in the middle of our City finally got the positive attention from the City that it has long deserved. Jessie St. Marsh, which drains into the San Lorenzo River just before the river enters the sea, was the subject last week of a a two-hour long meeting in the community room of the Police Headquarters.  Noah Downing of Parks and Recreation and Steve Wolfman of the Public Works Department made the major presentations, followed by lots of input from the community. Gary Kittleson, biological consultant, was on hand to answer wildlife questions and Jessie St. Marsh advocates and activists, Rachel O’Malley and Vicki Winters, were there, continuing their decades-long effort to protect this degraded but important wetland.   For the first time in my memory, there was a notable shift in the level of collaborative feeling between city staff and members of the community who want to protect and improve the Marsh as a wildlife habitat. Many of us from the community were very happy, for instance, to hear that if the current proposal is enacted, the distressing annual destruction of tules and cattails  will not be necessary, saving lots of beautiful and ecologically valuable wetland habitat.

Jessie St. Marsh 1.20.16
41 mallards counted in Jessie St. Marsh after heavy rain. Photo by Barbara Riverwoman, 2015

A question that many of us environmentalists left with was whether we would be able to someday remove the enormous amount of  landfill dumped years ago in  the Lower Estuary (the end of the Marsh that is closest to the river).  If the landfill were removed, it would not only double the size of the Marsh but restore it from its current freshwater marsh status to its original brackish lagoon status. According to O’Malley, a professor of environmental studies at San Jose State, brackish wetland habitat is a more critical habitat to protect than even freshwater marshes. But for the moment, given the time of year, let’s celebrate the commitment of the City to restore the Upper Marsh.

Hoping that you all have a grateful and hopeful bird-filled holiday.