Political Alliances – Avian and Human

Dear Jane and Friends of the Wild,

May 9, 2019, San Lorenzo River, 2 gulls and 6 crows harass a Red-tailed Hawk at bottom left. Two gulls are slightly apart in photo but were flying close by most of the time. Photo by B. Riverwoman

My favorite bird moment on the river this last week was the sight of 2 GULLS flying with  6 AMERICAN CROWS in a joint attack on a long-suffering  RED-TAILED HAWK!   The action took place very high up in the sky so at first I didn’t see the two white streaks among the black ones. Then I did a double take.  Were those really gulls joining forces with the crows?   It sure looked that way as the gulls wove in and out among the crows  But it made sense when I thought about it.  The Red-tailed Hawks are predators on the nests of both.  As I left the levee, grinning from ear to ear,  I ran across my friend, Marilyn Strayer, who was also looking heavenward with a big smile on her face. A new and unlikely  political alliance was being born in front of our eyes.

I am so happy to follow up my report in my last blog with photos of another WOOD DUCK family!  This time with seven (7) little ones.   I was also really grateful to get an e-mail from Alex Rinkert,  head of the Breeding Bird Atlas II project, pointing out the historical significance of some of my sightings:

…all those are valuable to the Atlas,  especially the Canada Goose and Wood Duck. The former was not nesting in Santa Cruz during Atlas 1 (1987-1993) so your observation documents range expansion. The latter is one of few breeding records we have for Wood Duck and adds more support for their nesting along the lower San Lorenzo, where there is very little nesting habitat for them.

May 9, 2019, Wood Duck with one of 7 babies. Just north of Felker St. Footbridge, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I love this kind of historical perspective on the movement of populations, especially important now when so many species face imminent extinction .  Thanks to Alex and to Atlasers all over the country for their painstaking attention to detail.  (I have still not figured out how to enter my data correctly on the Atlas Excel sheets and Alex was trying to help me! )

Brochure on Stream Wood produced by the Resource Conservation District (RCD), the County of Santa Cruz Environmental Health Services, the County Santa Cruz Public Works and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Wood Ducks use the cavities in old fallen logs for their nests.  Maybe the County’s noble effort to educate us all on the greatness of old logs paid off with those seven little fluffy Wood Ducks.  I feel silly to be so excited about fallen logs.  But I am not alone.  At the recent conference on the river I picked up a  glossy brochure called ‘Stream Wood’ and I’ve been  reading and re-reading it.  I suspect it was written at least in part by that amazing woman Kristin Kittleson, who I believe works in the Water Resources Program of the County.  I know for sure that she is a lover of fallen logs and I have heard her  speak quite eloquently about how important they are – how they can  control water flow, enhance water quality, protect fish and fish eggs and offer habitat for a wide range of animal species.  Plus they are so beautiful as water spills over and around them.  No longer will Kristin allow us to cut them up and haul them away.  They are a key part of the ecology of a river. And can provide a nesting spot for Wood Ducks!

Canada Geese family, San Lorenzo Park near Duck Pond, May 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My  observations of CANADA GOOSE  that Alex Rinkert referred to were further downstream.  I found one handsome family with the five fluffy juveniles cuddled up together on the edge of the Duck Pond, then later foraging with their ever-watchful parents on the grassy area nearby.  Shortly after that I spotted another  family with just  two juveniles below the Water St. Bridge, pictured below.  I also saw a family with two goslings behind the Tannery on another day, but it could have been the same family.

 May 9, 2019, near Water St. Bridge, San Lorenzo River, two young Canada Geese, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Two  parents of the goslings hovering watchfully  nearby.
Juvenile Dark-eyed Junco, one of five, near Children’s Park, San Lorenzo Park, May 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Just past the Duck Pond, I ran across what at first I thought were five Juncos. But when I looked more closely the coloring was all off.  I went into my panicky photo snapping mode,  thinking I had just discovered a new species on the river. I could hardly wait to get home, download them, and identify my new find.  It turned out they were, after all, DARK-EYED JUNCOS.  But juveniles!  That explained the strange markings. This was my first look at Junco juveniles.  They were foraging in leaf litter underneath the redwoods close to the Children’s Park in San Lorenzo Park, apparently unperturbed by my excessive camera clicking.

Mallard pair resting near Duck Pond, May 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I have been noticing that  a lot of Mallards are back in pair formation, after a month or so of absent females (presumably on their nests) and packs of idle drakes lolllng about on the banks. But that has changed. These last weeks I have seen agitated male and female chases as well as cuddling pairs.  It seems like they are working on  second families.

.In addition to the waterfowl above, I have seen other evidence of breeding to report to eBird and Alex –  KILLDEER (pair flying and calling together), NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW (carrying nesting material and also dipping briefly into mud banks), and, thrillingly, a pair of YELLOW WARBLERS (in chasing pattern, across from Trader Joe’s). Here are my two eBird checklists, click here and here, if you want to check out all the species I saw these last two weeks.

I know all of you, like me, were shocked and disheartened by the  May 6th report  from the United Nations announcing that one million species are threatened with extinction, “many within decades”.   It’s hard to  think about for even a moment.

But if we don’t try our best to stop it, who will?  I want to take time here to acknowledge the truly excellent work that you, Jane, do in both loving nature deeply and immersing yourself in the hard but necessary organizational work of protecting the natural world.  Since we met just about five years ago (working to stop recreational paddling on the river), you have taken on leadership roles of all kinds– as  Conservation Chair of the Bird Club, as Executive Committee member of the Sierra Club, as appointed member of the City Parks and Recreation Commission, and as lead person in the Lagoon Re-vegetation Project. I am in awe!  Organizing on that scale is hard but so important to success.  And, of course, you write your amazingly observant and delightful stories on our blog.  Thank you for all of this!

The rest of this blog is  a brief follow up to my last post on Ross Camp – for those of you who are interested.

The new legal encampment at 1220 River St. with 60 City provided tents and surrounded by barbed wire.
Tents with storage container at left. Breakfast and lunch are provided and shuttle service 3 times a day.

On May 6,  the illegal Ross Camp was closed for good. Sixty people from the camp of 200 residents signed up for the  legal camp at 1220 River St. and were taken there by bus along with each camper’s two bins of belongings, all that was allowed.  They had been warned that  they would again be evicted from that temporary spot in  two months with no assured shelter after that.  (But as I understand it,  the intention of the City is to try and connect these campers with services during these two months.)  A few others were moved into empty beds in  previously existing housed programs.  Most have,  understandably, once again dispersed into the parks, doorways, woods, and sidewalks of Santa Cruz. Some opportunists have probably left town.  So far the City is not publicizing the numbers. Since camping arrests are no longer legal (Boise v. Martin), trespassing arrests in the last week have been way up according to the statistics just published this week by the Police Department.

On Monday, May 9, the day that the Ross Camp was sealed off for good, I went to pay my last sad respects to what had suddenly become an eery ghost town, devoid of people and filled only with abandoned tents and the roar of bulldozers.  Outside were two women, one sobbing and  cradling a bicycle like a young child and one woman named Hope shaking her fist and cursing loudly at the milling police rangers and First Alarm employees. I couldn’t bear to linger and crossed the Felker St. Bridge.  That was the moment when I discovered the  seven baby Wood Ducks, cosmically positioned to lift my spirits!

An artist’s tent home at Camp Ross on May 6, last day of the camp. Thanks to Abbi Samuels, strong homeless advocate, for introducing me to this site. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I  fell into a very dark emotional  place the next day.  It wasn’t that I loved that place.  No one really loved it, including the residents. One homeless man told me on the last day that he wouldn’t “wish this on his worst enemy.”   I had spent a good amount of time there, and in many ways it did include exactly what critics described – drugs, crime, and trash (though I personally, in five prolonged visits, never saw a single needle and I did see beautifully kept tents and even artistic embellishments.  The main pathways were usually kept clear of trash by the residents.) There was also despair, rage and grief. And because it was so visible, it attracted occasionally vicious harrassment from some drive-by oppponents.  I guess the sign carried by one homeless woman expressed my overriding feeling about it all – ‘If you don’t have a better solution, please don’t take away our solution. It’s the best we have”.  What homeless people did have at the Ross Camp that they lacked before was more community, more protection, and some growing awareness and even empathy from the Santa Cruz community of their desperate situation.

I expect we are all deeply sobered by this very visible eruption of the physical pain, mental suffering and social failing that is normally hidden in the the shadows of our fair City.  Can we now reflect on  this failure/success and come up with a better answer?

Entrance to Brent Adam’s Storage Program near Felker St. Bridge Photo by B. Riverwoman

After leaving the sealed off camp on Monday, and letting the Wood Duck babies heal my bruised soul,  Brent Adams happened along and invited me to take a short tour of his Storage Program, just across the footbridge from the closed Camp.  Brent is a controversial figure in our town, someone who is very warm-hearted and hard-working but who can be harshly critical at times of both homeless advocates as well as City officials.  He says he wants to create constructive solutions to homelessness, not just protest.  He almost single-handedly raised the funds for a small but beautifully organized and much-needed storage center for the homeless.  He proudly showed me 483 large plastic tubs, each labelled with the name of a homeless individual.  There was another room filled with medical supplies, clothes organized by size and gender , as well as a lobby/meeting space/reception area.  Brent took time off from my ‘tour’ to bring out, one by one, 6 pairs of women’s pants, size 4 to 6, for a very thin, pale and dishevelled young woman.  She finally found a pair that she liked. I was impressed by Brent’s kindness. He told me that sometimes a homeless individual will stop by to simply spend time with the contents of his or her bin, often just to pore over family photos. Brent always makes the bins available.  Unfortunately, the building that now houses the program is about to be sold to a developer and Brent will have to find a new place. Brent lives in a van.

In spite of the unique blinders that all of us wear, I believe that everyone– the homeless, the City, the residents, the police, the activists – have done their best.  There is no point in castigating each other.

My own hope is that Brent’s vision of  a real Transitional Encampment like the ones  being experimented with successfully in Seattle, will someday be considered seriously by Santa Cruz.  I really don’t see any other solution..  Unfortunately, I don’t think our City government is yet ready to imagine authorized shelter in tents, nor some level of self-governance by the houseless themselves.  But emergency conditions require new and creative  solutions.  Seattle has succeeded in finding a some kind of balance between emergency shelter and human dignity.  We can do it, too.

I hope you all get to see some bird babies before they all grow up. Maybe you would even consider Atlasing.  It’s made me so much more aware of breeding behavior.
















This is All We Have. Don’t Take It Away.

Dear Jane and other friends of the natural world,

I’m going to take a slight detour this week and focus on the ‘people’ side of our River Mysteries blog.   In just two days, the 200 or more homeless  campers at Camp Ross will be forced to evacuate with no clear plan from the City on where they are all to go. Many will no doubt return to our river banks,  the Pogonip and City Parks – with the inevitable environmental impact.  And the campers will lose the community of friends and fellow sufferers that they have built and value, and the safety it affords them.

Part of the reason that you and I have focused on the urban river, and especially birds, is that urban wildlife and habitat is so sorely misunderstood, neglected and mistreated.   I feel that, in the same way, the very vulnerable human population of homeless campers is badly understood and treated disrespectfully.  Under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings have a right to be treated with dignity.Far end of Camp Ross near the welcome sign. The irony speaks for itself. .

So –  for the last couple of weeks I have left my binoculars at home and instead carried a notebook and pen as I headed up river to the crowded Ross Camp wedged into a small space between the Ross Store and the glitzy “Welcome to Santa Cruz’ sign at the main highway entrance to Santa Cruz. I wanted to know who was living there,  wanted to know from their own mouths what they were struggling with.

I visited five times, and each time I came away touched and sobered, depressed and impressed, shocked and thrilled.  It is that kind of camp!  It needs a combination of John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens to tell the story, as well as a first rate modern documentary film.  This report, long as it is, is extremely superficial.  Nonetheless, it was an important experience for me,  and I hope others will be interested in the  people I met and learned from. I have changed all the names except three who gave me permission to use their  full name.

I’ll start with the most important thing that I learned.  I used to think that food, water and shelter were the most important elements of meeting our human survival needs, a la Abraham Maslow.   But after talking to at least twenty people from the camp, I have begun to revise that belief.  In some cases at least, community seems to be as important to survival as water. ALICEa quiet, beautiful and slightly dishevelled young  woman told me, “A lot of people here don’t have family.  This is what we have. Don’t take it away unless you can give us something better.”  This sentence still brings tears to my eyes as I write it.  Can’t the wonderful community of Santa Cruz  understand this basic truth and build their programs on this foundation.  City workers go home after a hard days work to children, spouses, parents, friends. Will they really deny ‘family’, and the safety this provides,  to those who may need it most.  It is not enabling to be humane.

One woman I talked to at length was  MAGGIE ROCHELLE, not a homeless person but an art instructor in Houston, Texas and a  mother who had not heard from her son, Alan, in three years.  She had done some serious detective work and had followed her son from Houston to Santa Cruz.  As she said, “If he had lived out in the woods, I would never have found him.  But he was at the camp here and I found him!” Last week, she drove him to Oakland to help him buy a banjo and he has been playing at the camp ever since.  Her son has not yet broken free of his drug habit, but Maggie feels that he seems to be doing better, the two of them are more connected, and she is more hopeful about his future.  She has visited Alan in the camp almost every day for a month, even staying with him in his tent for three days to learn more about his life.  As I talked to her yesterday,   another young man who had been the one to lead her to her son’s tent on the first day strolled by. He had disappeared and she had been worried. But he had been at the Janus drug recovery center for 52 days, had put on 30 pounds, and was neatly dressed and shaven.  He was completely out of touch with his own mother and seemed almost as happy to see Maggie as she was to see him.  Maggie had tears in her eyes as she gave him a warm embrace..  A little love goes a long ways, especially in a homeless camp.

Two friends help Rune,  a  60 year old man at Camp Ross, who has just overdosed. He was immediately given Norcan by a friend and survived.  County  health workers who happened to be on site follow with medical supplies.  

A man I met on my first visit was KEVIN SCOTT JONES, 57 years old, a wiry, lively man with long curly brown hair tumbling down to his shoulders.  He danced around and talked with great animation as he explained a little about his life to me and Councilmember Sandy Brown.  He had grown up with an abusive stepfather in Felton,  his home had burned to the ground when he  was seven years old,  he had been living outside since then, except when he had a girlfriend or was in jail.   Ironically, he committed his first ‘crime’ when he took some gold coins from under the bed of a housemate who owed him money.  He did it  in order to keep a promise to a girlfriend that they wouldn’t end up on the streets.  Over the course of his life, he ended up spending a total of 20 years behind bars.  He said he usually sleeps during the days and only goes out at night when there is less tempation to steal.  He has cancer and is in constant pain, bleeding every time he urinates. He said he is impervious to cold after having lived outside so many years.   He said his nickname was ‘Nobody’ and proudly showed us the word boldly tattooed in large black letters on his back. He loves the community aspect of Ross Camp and told us that he knows the names of most people in the camp. People know him, too. For me the most significant moment of our talk came when someone from outside the Camp walked up to him in stockinged feet and said he needed a pair of shoes to be allowed to get into court for his own hearing.  Kevin asked for his shoe size and then immediately took off his own shoes and gave them to the man.  Kevin said he does not need a house, much less a managed shelter. He does not want medical care.   He likes the community aspect of the Ross Camp, but  would also love just a small piece of land that he can control himself, and on which he might even be able to build a small cabin. Nobody created the land.  Why shouldn’t a small but fair share of it belong to Nate? Who is stealing from whom?

On my walk up to the Camp I met TOM,  a young man in his 20’s with a sensitive face and gentle demeanor.  He was traveling the coast, working on organic farms, interested in permaculture and justice, and clearly trying to come to grips with the terrible injustices in the world.  He was circling around the Ross Camp, trying to make sense of it, but not able to enter that world so much tougher  than the world he came from. He had stayed briefly at the Veterans shelter and was searching for a sanctioned place where he could simply hang a hammock in exchange for some kind of service, a tent being too heavy to carry everywhere.  He said he became delusional when he didn’t get good food to eat. He was very understanding of both sides in the conflict between the housed and unhoused, pointing out how isolated many housed people were, how many of those people are working hard and are still close to homelessness themselves.   He talked about communal land trusts as a good answer, but said that the banks control the market and they are stopping positive social change.  He also longed for a ‘festival culture’ of dancing and gardening.   Would it be so hard to find some land and put up some hooks where the lovely Toms of this world could hang their hammocks as they search for peace and justice for all of us?

I met DANE, in his sixties,  not at the Ross Camp but just outside the only entrance to a spanking new Benchlands campground in a large grassy area that stretches along the river in San Lorenzo Park.  A middle-aged white man, well-dressed and clean shaven, Dane was re-visiting his history by visiting this tightly-managed camp, much like the River St. Shelter where  Dane had stayed last year period of homelessness.  “The River St. Shelter  saved my life. It gave me a stable place to get over a temporary setback and find housing again”.  Dane and I learned from the four guards at the one entrance  to the Benchlands Campground that   campers are offered free tents on platforms, free sleeping bags, clean water. The City also promises transitional services to help people find medical treatment, drug treatment, housing, jobs.  It seems like it might be a camper’s dream come true.  But very few are biting.  Why?

First open day at Benchlands Campground, but few applicants.. 20 Coleman tents set up with one security guard and  three City employees at entrance.

Because the Benchlands Campground is scheduled to be open for only 7 days, and was never intended as anything more than a place to temporarily ease the evacuation of the Ross Camp.  Nor is the City’s promise of two months at the River St. Shelter after the Benchlands close an enticement to most of the Ross campers.   Why did the City think that the Ross campers would choose this option – forsaking their community and their freedom for five days at the chain-link fence surrounded Benchlands and then two months in a dusk to dawn only camp.  Is it any wonder that the homeless lose their faith in the  City.     I don’t think the City has met or or really listened to most of the people I talked to at the Ross Camp.

DESIREE  QUINTERO (her real name)  is a 54-year-old woman with thyroid cancer and the political and moral strength of a bulldog. She is intelligent and articulate, a determined leader of the camp, a former firefighter and the the first-named  plaintiff on the lawsuit Quintero v. the City of Santa Cruz, which challenged the legality of closing the Ross Camp.  (The lawsuit lost in the local court, was temporarily overruled in the federal district court in San Jose but was finally sustained in federal court on Monday, April 29.. All residents at the Ross Camp will be forcibly evicted this Friday, May 3.. The word is that the campers are planning to occupy another ‘illegal’ site.

Desiree Quintero near entrance to Ross Camp

Desiree flinches slightly when I ask her about her childhood, but says matter-of-factly “My mother beat the hell out of me. I still suffer from PTSD as a result.”  She is proud that she never physically hurt her own four children, and  visibly thrilled  about the good careers they have made for themselves.   She shakes her head when she tells me that she tried to get into the Page Smith program for three years.  “I was never bad enough’ to get accepted – no drug problem, no CPS, no bad driving record. Just homeless.”  She would love to  love to get into subsidized senior housing, since market rate housing is far beyond what she can afford.  She uses CBD’s, the non-high marijuana for the pain associated with her cancer.  She loves the community that has grown up at the Ross Camp, seems to know almost everyone by name, and talks to everyone. “I’m especially interested in protecting women.  Any female can come here to the Ross Camp and nobody is going to mess with them.  I am fighting for the women more than anything.” She shakes her head again when she hears that the Benchlands camp will check for weapons at the gate.  “We all carry weapons” she said,  showing me her buck knife in a belt pouch.  “We carry them to protect ourselves, cut rope, etc. Every homeless person needs a knife. How can we move to the Benchlands?”

“I would love a   round-the-clock Homeless Center with storage and showers and kind people. It’s all about being respectful and kind.”  She believes the homeless can govern themselves and has worked hard to make that a reality at the Ross Camp.  .She would like a non-profit like Food Not Bombs to be the official manager, not the City.

Desiree introduced me to CHERYL(50’s) a slightly beaten down looking middle-aged woman with what looked like a permanently damaged, probably blind eye.  She does not live in the Ross Camp but visits friends there while camping on the nearby tracks.  I asked her if she felt safe there.  “I’ve got a boyfriend, my knife and an attitude”, she responded with humor and barely concealed pride.  Her voice was surprisingly strong.

MICHAEL SWEATT is a tall, handsome, black man, probably in  his thirties,  articulate,  a leader in the camp and one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit against the City.  He grew up in Kentucky where he admits he suffered a lot of violence both at home and from other kids in the neighborhood.  “I never had a childhood, I’m jealous of those who got that, I always have to be the adult,” he says.  He has lived in Santa Cruz for 23 years.  His campsite is completely shipshape, and he has Michael Sweatt

put a lot of effort into keeping the whole camp clear of as much trash as possible.   But when others, especially “outsider party kids”, trash the Camp he becomes  enraged.  He knows that a lot of people in Santa Cruz  stereotype all campers as trashing the camp and he hates it when a few campers feed that image.

MELANIE is a young, healthy looking  pregnant woman from Watsonville who is due to deliver in June.  She told me that she is homeless because of ‘unhealthy relationships and drugs’.  “I have relapsed several times, but I really want to be clean again.  I am much happier when I am.”

EUGENIA isa very thin, fine-boned. well dressed  Hispanic looking woman who had just gotten out of jail.  “I thought my boyfriend would be at the Camp, butI found out yesterday that he was sentenced to nine more years in prison. I just can’t stand it. The whole thing has been  so bogus, so unfair”

There is no point concealing the lives of suffering, humiliation and hopelessness that lie close to the surface of so many of the people at the Camp.  The pain has led to criminal behavior, drug addiction, and mental health problems.  The campers are poor and so they may steal.  They are in physical and mental pain, sometimes excruciating, and so they may self-soothe with drugs.  They are living in unjust and discriminatory world that leaves many of them enraged.  They are victims since childhood of racism and rape, poverty and prison, bad homes and bad schools.

There is commonality, but, as  I’ve tried to show, each person’s story is different, and the needs are different.  Dane needed a structured shelter with a lot of rules that the City feels comfortable in providing.  Tom needs a place where he can hang his hammock, eat healthy organic food, and work on social justice issues.  Desiree needs subsidized senior housing, but also a community of people that she can serve, especially women.  Nate needs a small plot of land on which to build a small house.  Many of them would welcome drug rehab programs or mental health programs where they felt respected and where they had a voice in their own lives and treatment.  Many have already tried to make it, again and again, in such programs but something hasn’t worked.

Many of the  people I talked to have not experienced the kind of respect from the people in power that they deserve, nor have they been encouraged to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Until the City can adopt an attitude, as well as policies and programs, that clearly recognize the intrinsic dignity of every person in our community, how can we not support the movement of the homeless to build their own world as best they can, with at least a decent campground, clean drinking water, the right to govern themselves, and the right to occupy a piece of public land.

It is, of course, not the fault of our City or County leaders that homelessness exists.  The problem is rooted in something much deeper, namely an economic system that valorizes greed and undercuts human connections.  But some cities are doing better than we.   I hope we will also step up to the plate.

Here is my quote of the day, which can refer to non-human species as well as humans.  The earth, after all,  belongs to all kinds of species.

“The equal right of all men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air.  It is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence. For we cannot suppose that some men have a right to be in this world, and others no right.”                                                                  Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879

I’m so happy to report that I found my first WOOD DUCK family up behind the Tannery last week.

May we guarantee safe habitats for all living creatures. especially the most vulnerable. May the Ross Camp morph into something that works well for both the campers,  all other humans in our City, and the non-human creatures that populate our river.













Where Have All the Young Birds Gone?

Feeling tired and a little sick lately, I haven’t taken my usual walks from Water to Laurel and back again.  Instead, this week, I took a fold-up chair and settled myself in a sunny spot next to the river behind the Tannery, staying for two hours, dozing off at least half the time.  That’s birding when you get to be eighty.   Of course, the great birder, Jon Young (What the Robin Knows), says that choosing a regular ‘sit spot’ makes for the best birding.

Even at 11 o’clock in the morning there were birds all around me, singing their hearts out.

Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River between Felker and Water Bridges, April 17, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Most insistent were the quick staccato songs of the JUNCOS, and the complex and irrepressible warbling of many SONG SPARROWS.
After a while I heard the distinctive buzz of a SPOTTED TOWHEE in the nearby underbrush, the squawk of a STELLAR’S JAY from a tall eucalyptus and the hammering of a WOODPECKER from a distance.  But I felt far too lazy to set out in search of  any of them.  Their songs, the light-filled river and the shadowy complexities of the storied canopy graced me with more than enough magic.

Emma McCrary Trail
Spotted Towhee, San Lorenzo River, April 5,  2017, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was awake long enough to see a COMMON MERGANSER shoot by on the surface of the swiftly flowing river, its triple-jointed rubbery body stretched out flat to what seemed twice its length, intent on its hunting.  But, again,  I was far too slowed down to even attempt a photo.

Finally, I heard something stir below me, turned just slightly  and caught a short glimpse of the  intense metallic blue and deep russet colors given off by the feathers of the GREEN HERON in just the right light.  (In some lights the cap and wing feathers have a mossygreen heron green appearance, and in other lights the feathers appear to be all slate gray). Almost immediately the Green Heron took flight, no doubt disturbed by my slight motion.  I thought of you, Jane, and made my apologies. I find myself so drawn to that lovely patch of urban woods behind the Tannery.  Maybe I’m trying to dream into being a similarly rich environment on the Benchlands.

When I got home, I decided to take a little walk down memory lane.  I was wondering what we had seen in earlier years during this month.  (It’s great that, without any effort on our part, Word Press keeps our more than four years worth of blogs neatly categorized according to months.)

It made me a little sad to see this WOOD DUCK family from April 15, 2016. I haven’t seen even one Wood Duck on the river this spring, much less a whole family.

Wood duck
Wood Duck Family, near Laurel St. Bridge, San Lorenzo River, April 20, 2016, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was impressed once again at this amazing photo you took, Jane, of a HORNED GREBE  (below) in full breeding plumage in April 2017 , a rarity since they usually leave for their breeding grounds before they reach this stage of glory.   As far as I know, we didn’t get to see even one of the drabber versions of this  species  this winter. much less this bird in full regalia.

HOrned Grebe Jane Mio
Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage, March 11, 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by Jane Mio

As I was poring my way through these old blogs, I came across this April 2016 photo of the Mallard mama who stayed with her nest in the Benchlands even after City mowers cut

Faith exposed
Mallard on exposed nest in Benchlands after City  mowing, April 11, 2016, photo by B. Riverwoman

down her high grass hide-away in preparation for Earth Day. Yes, very ironic! For Earth Day!  As some of you readers may remember, I had a little dust up with one of the city employees as I tried my best to let her know that it was breeding season and there could well be ground nesters, especially mallards, in those ‘ugly’ weeds.   But this doughty and determined weeder was very resistant to turning off her weed whipper. I immediately called the City but they simply ordered the employee to continue. Several days later my friend Batya told me about the exposed nest and the faithful mom- and I took this photo. The two eggs never hatched. Of course, I spilled out the whole story in my blog that week.

Of course, running across this photo also reminded me that  Earth Day was less than a week away.  I hastily sent the photo, as well as a link to the blog, to Tony Eliot, the new director  of Parks and Rec, asking him to please not mow the area this year.  But I was too late.

I’m grateful that he or someone  forwarded my e-mail to Gary Kittleson, the biologist and amazing birder with whom the city contracts to do all kinds of ecological work.  Gary immediately let me know that the City had actually sent him out to survey the area before the mowing this year.  That was good news.  He had found no visible nests, and the mowing was already done.  That was the bad news. Gary expressed surprise that he didn’t find anything, especially considering the fact that the Benchlands have been fenced off since early winter, eliminating almost all human traffic and making it a theoretically safer nesting place.  We are left to wonder where all the female mallards that we’ve been seeing over the last months have gone.  I’ve seen drakes hanging out in large numbers in recent weeks  but practically no females. Let’s hope we begin seeing families soon.  In previous years they have already been out and about by this time.

Four GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS were still feeding at my feeder this morning, but the numbers have been diminishing dramatically.  I am slowly saying my sad good-byes as they fill their tummies in preparation for the long trip to Alaska and the demands of breeding.  It has been such fun watching the dull stripes on the crowns of many of them gradually become intensely gold, outlined on each side by thick black eyebrows.  Here is a

golden crown splotchy
Golden-crowned Sparrow in early molt, March 22, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

photo of one of my Goldens from three weeks ago with splotchy eyebrows and a less regal  gold cap, followed by a photo of  a later stage molt from a couple of days ago.  One of the sparrows got to know me so well that it started peering in through my glass doors and emitting its plaintive two-note whistle if I was late in putting out their expected breakfast of black sunflower seeds.  I’ve gotten more dependable over the years and they have gotten more friendly and relaxed around me.


Golden-crowned in full head plumage 1
Golden-crowned Sparrow, late molt, April 13, 2019, Barbara’s feeder, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I hope you all know about the new Netflix series called Our Planet, narrated by none other than David Attenborough.  It stands out among nature programs by making the powerful climate change connection. The nature footage is the best I’ve ever seen.  It’s both heartbreaking and thrilling.  Don’t miss it.

Best to you all from an anxious granny waiting for babies to appear,



Bird Conflicts, Human Conflicts and World War II

Dear Jane and Other Bird Lovers,

I just can’t help smiling at the predictable flare-ups between the stolid RED-TAILED HAWKS
and the feisty and vociferous AMERICAN CROWS.

Red=tailed under harrassment
Red-tailed Hawk, San Lorenzo Park, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I used to worry a little about the hawks who seemed to be the constant target of the crows indignation.  Then, as I’ve written before, I learned that Red-tails are regular predators on crow eggs, and that the intelligent crows never forgive and forget, supposedly carrying their bitter feuds even into the next generation of hawks.  So this week when I saw a Red-tailed Hawk fly into the large pine tree above, and then saw it almost immediately attacked by a single crow, I settled back to watch the natural unfolding of this conflict of interests.

Crows drive out hawk
15 American Crows stand in solidarity, protecting  territory after driving off Red-tailed Hawk.  March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And true to form, the stolid hawk maintained its dignity for a few minutes, pretending to ignore the smaller but vehement crow, who squawked and dive-bombed again and again.  As usual, the hawk quickly got fed up with the pesky crow and flew off, pursued by the original crow and one more. I continued on my walk, crossed a bridge, and looked back to see whether the hawk had returned or not. Instead, what greeted my eyes were now 15 crows, all sitting in the very area where the hawk had been.  Talk about tribal solidarity!  I hadn’t seen quite this strong a show of support before.  I wonder if this time there is a nest involved? I’m definitely going to keep watch over that tree.

I caught a glimpse of another annual nesting drama playing out under the Water St. Bridge where a HOUSE SPARROW

House Sparrow in Cliff Sparrow nest
House Sparrow occupying last year’s Cliff Swallow nest.  Water St. Bridge, San Lorenzo River, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

was peering out from inside an old CLIFF SWALLOW nest.   But in this case, there were no Cliff Swallows present to defend their rights.  I had to walk downriver a bit, to the Laurel St. Bridge, to see 15 newly arrived Cliff Swallows flying in and out of their old nests from last year, probably assessing their durability for this year’s batch of young swallows. Welcome back cliff swallows!

Cliff swallow - 1
Cliff Swallow, occupying old nest under Laurel St. Bridge, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Thanks, Jane, for your careful monitoring of the river and your capturing of the photo of the well-known local man, and his friend, smiling and paddling on the river in open defiance of our City’s law on that subject.   I kind of lost it when I saw that photo and then received a letter from the man, confirming his intention of defying the law.  It is especially galling during breeding season when river birds like the Pied-billed Grebes are searching for nesting spots among the downstream tules. The man has read our blog, and still seems unpersuaded that he has no legal or ethical right to use that space. I’ve felt angry all week, uable to compose a civil letter to him.

I do not think this should become a public issue. The City Council is already burdened by social problems of far greater gravity than one pesky pleasure seeker on the river, even during breeding season.  But my constant fear is that actions like this could open the door to hundreds of pleasure-seeking boaters on the river.  This fear was strengthened by the public comment of a staff person from County Parks during last week’s Symposium on the State of the San Lorenzo River.  He said that he hoped access to the Riverwalk and San Lorenzo Park could be extended to the river itself.  This has always been the desire of the commercial and recreational interests in Santa Cruz City.   I’m afraid it has not gone away.

Let’s hope that environmental awareness grows enough in future years so that this controversial issue will not have to divide the City again.  If it does, I hope we can mount another campaign as successful as our small victory in 2015, and as successful as the determined campaign of the crows to protect their nests from certain raptors.   I would like to ask readers to e-mail me at river@cruzio.com if you see any recreational boating on the river.  We need to document it.  Also, please check out the ‘Links’ page on this blog and read the documentation by Jane, myself and others (fourth article down) on the effect of the pilot paddling project in 2014 on our river birds.  It is a sad story but needs to be re-told and re-read regularly.

Have any of you ever noticed the large number of cork oaks that line the area just outside the lawn bowling area and the children’s playground in San Lorenzo Park?

Cork close up
Mediterranean cork oak tree, historically used in the building of WWII bomber planes, San Lorenzo Children’s Park, March 31, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman 

Over the years, I’ve taken quite a few photos of these unusual Mediterranean trees since the bark is so exotic and beautiful.  But I had no idea of their historical significance until my sister in Baltimore mentioned that she was going to hear a lecture on cork oaks and their relationship to the miliary effort during World War II.  I googled it and discovered that 5 million Mediterranean cork oak acorns were planted across the country by children nationwide during the war, only a few of which still survive, most of which are in California!  If you are interested  in the story, you can read about it here.  It would be nice if Parks and Recreation could create a plaque with this interesting story.

Please help protect our river from recreational paddling.  We love the safety and peacefulness of our human homes, especially when we have young children at home.  Let’s offer the same respect to our wild and breeding friends on the river.

Happy springtime to all,













SOS:Save Our Snags

Hello Jane and All Bird Lovers,

While the attention of many Santa Cruz residents is riveted on the Homeless Camp behind Gateway Plaza, there is another drama unfolding less than a block away, a drama tucked  behind the Tannery – on the river itself, along  the branches of live trees, in cavities of old snags, and under the eaves of the housing complex.  This drama is almost invisible to members of our human species who whiz by overhead on Highway 1, speed by on bicycles or walk by chatting excitedly with friends.  Hidden from most of these community members are priceless natural treasures to be enjoyed if a person just sits or stands quietly in even a small but natural woods, with ears and eyes open and a good pair of binoculars in hand. I feel so lucky to live very near to this spot, and to have grown up with a mother who opened my mind and heart to the world of birds at a very young age.

For some reason, Nuttall’s Woodpeckers were on my mind as I walked with my friend Rick earlier this week.  I had only seen a Nuttall’s once in my life and it was behind the Tannery.  I said to Rick, “Oh, I would really love to see a Nuttall’s Woodpecker today.”  And, lo and

Nuttall's Female in nest best
Female Nuttall’s Woodpecker inside potential nesting cavity, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 15, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

behold, within minutes not only was I looking at a beautiful male Nuttall’s Woodpecker busily foraging for insects along the trunk of a tree, but at a female Nuttall’s poking her head out of a cavity in an old snag nearby – a very likely nesting spot!  Joy!  This is exactly where our beloved mentor, Steve Gerow, would have expected to find a Nuttall’s Woodpecker. In Steve’s extremely useful list of the 122 species that regularly depend on the urban river, he comments that many riparian species like the Nuttall’s “could breed in the lower river area if there were somewhat more natural habitat conditions.” Inspired by Steve,

Nuttalls male  best
Male Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 15, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman 

I have talked for years about restoring the Benchlands (the only area along the urban river without a levee) as a fully riparian ecosystem. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to leave the County Building after some tedious or distressing county business and take a peaceful and restorative walk along a narrow path through a natural snag-inclusive riparian woodland, then wander down for a peek through the willows at at our beautiful urban river?  Wouldn’t it be nice for shoppers in Santa Cruz to take a short foray into a sun-dappled, bird-filled woodland?  Did you all see this photo from sometime in the 1920’s in a recent edition of the Sentinel?  We could restore this woodland and restore ourselves in the process. It’s doable!

“Santa Cruz is hardly recognizable in this circa 1920 view up the San Lorenzo River from Beach Hill. The river edge was heavily vegetated with willows and other trees. To the right of the white building is the Soquel Avenue Covered Bridge, demolished in 1921. The flood-control levees would not be built for almost 40 years.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, Section B2, March 17, 2019 

As if the woodpeckers weren’t treasure  enough, I went back the next day and had another once in a lifetime experience. I think you all know by now how inexplicably attached I am to Pied-billed Grebes. In fact it’s been a bit of an obsession ever since I discovered a floating nest of these intriguing creatures in 2015. I have been quite aware that I haven’t seen a single grebe on the river yet this spring, and was feeling a little bereft.

Head extended
According to BNA, this horizontal head posture is a typical courtship behavior of the Pied-billed Grebe, as well as lifting itself out of the water to display its white breast.  Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

So you can imagine how excited I was when I not only spied one in the river, but found it engaged in very unusual behavior.  It was extremely agitated, splashing around wildly, quivering its wings, then extending them, contorting its body into unusual postures, lifting itself halfway out of the water, exposing its white breast, then rising almost completely out of the water with wings again fully extended!

Rising up and splashing
Pied-billed Grebe engaged in almost regular intermittent splashing behavior, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This went on for at least  five minutes. What was going on?  There was no other grebe to be seen.  Was it a courtship display? Was the object of its intentions hidden somewhere in the dense vegetation on the river bank?  Was this grebe engaged in  territorial defense if some kind?  I snapped photo after photo, hoping to capture a few of these wild moments on my camera.

Extended wings
Pied-billed Grebe with fluffed feathers, extended wings, and a determined look!  Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

When I got home, I checked my Birds of North America bible for more information.  BNA reports that in sexual displays, as well as territorial displays and also ‘triumph ceremonies’ (after copulation or after defeat of an aggressor), the grebe will exhibit some of the same frenzied and contortionist activity I witnessed – though not all.  So it is hard to know exactly what was going on since at this time of year birds are both valiantly protecting their nesting territories and desperately trying to find mates.  I could hardly believe it when the grebe finally lifted itself fully out of the water (below), with only it’s feet underwater.  Powerful legs, powerful wings, powerful will! Let’s hope our little grebe is successful at achieving his goals.  He was sure giving it a good try!


During this same trip, A BEWICK’S WREN began singing non-stop over a spot I had chosen for sitting. When I finally decided to move to a new spot nearby, this little bird began to issue a rapid-fire alarm call.   From my new vantage point I quickly figured out what the fuss was about when I spied the wren slipping into a fairly large space behind a sizable patch of loosened bark very near where I was standing.

Potential nest of Bewick's
Potential nesting site for Bewick’s wren underneath a large chunk of loosened bark.  The wren was observed inside this spot just before the photo was taken.  Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 19, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

She disappeared before I could get a photo of the bird inside the bark,, but here are photos of the potential nesting spot, as well as the fierce little bird just before she tucked herself into this space. These wrens usually stick fairly close to the more natural areas north of Highway 1, but sometimes disperse south, including to the suet cage in my back yard!


Bewick wren with worms?
Bewick’s Wren, with worms(?) or nesting materials (?), near potential nesting site above, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

As I sat in my first spot, I also got a brief glimpse of a HERMIT THRUSH, a shy bird rarely seen south of Highway 1.  This one crept up right behind where I was sitting motionless.  I luckily turned my head and glimpsed her pretty well concealed in a woody thicket, foraging in the large sand deposits left after the recent storms.

Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Although I once spied one of these thrushes in the area behind the Ross Store several years ago, I have never seen another one that dispersed even that short a distance from the natural riparian habitat above Highway 1.

To top off the morning, I looked up and saw five VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, all swooping around some vent holes in the roof of the Tannery, but never actually entering. Violet-greens are cavity-nesting birds, newly arrived in Santa Cruz and at this time of year looking for existing holes in trees or in buildings.

Violet Green at Tannery
Violet-green Swallow, Tannery Loft, Tannery, San Lorenzo River, March 18, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I didn’t learn until just recently that the ranges of the other common swallows along the river, i.e. the Northern Rough-winged, Tree and Cliff swallows, all extend across the entire United States.  Only the Violet-green Swallow is confined to the western U.S., Canada and Alaska.  They are therefore not only special, but definitely one of the most beautiful swallows, with their shimmering green and violet feathers, white scalloped faces, and snowy white breasts.  Unfortunately, they rarely sit still long enough to give us a good look.  I was lucky to catch this one pausing for a rare daytime respite, although the photo doesn’t do her justice.

Finally, returning to the subject of restoring the Benchlands, here is a 1960 photo of the San Lorenzo River taken from a great new collection of essays called Landscapes, Activism that Shaped Santa Cruz County, 1955-2005, published by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in 2018.

levee 1960
San Lorenzo River, April, 1960,  between Soquel Bridge (at bottom),  Water St. Bridge (in middle),  and Highway 1 Bridge at top.    Shows nearly total clearing within the redevelopment project area (Benchlands and San Lorenzo Park) after completion of the San Lorenzo River levees and Branciforte Creek channel. See the realigned curve of Dakota St crossing over Branciforte Creek and connecting to Soquel Ave. 

In the collection is an extremely informative essay on the history of local activism that saved the San Lorenzo River from looking like this  photo,  taken just after the Army Corps of Engineers had its first go at building a very low levee following the historic flood of 1955. Early activism has brought the river a long ways from being a cement ditch.  Don’t you agree that it’s time to take the last step and fully restore the Benchlands to its original grandeur as a full riparian ecosystem?      

Happy spring birding to all, and happy activism!




We’re All Part of One Another

Hello Jane and Nature Lovers,

Powerful  natural forces have been reshaping the fast-flowing river, braiding new streams around the old channel and artistically depositing wave-like sculptures of sand along the edges.  Just up the slope from these sand dunes lies the Ross Homeless Camp, the tragic product of powerful human forces  that consign human beings  to a life of mud, fear, cold, discrimination and humiliation.

Riverbank near Felker St. Pedestrian Bridge, streamflow  800 cubit feet per second. March 4, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here are some of some random images I snapped of the Ross Camp, hopefully not too intrusive and suggestive of some of the powerful social forces roiling the camp.  I only took these four shots so as not to be obnoxious.  Here’s what these images suggested to me.  People who can’t afford to live inside houses in Santa Cruz want the privacy and the dignity that goes with having personal space, no matter how humble.   Thus the signs on the large blue and white tents say ‘Private Property’ and ‘Do Not Enter’.  Humorous, poignant.  We all need familiar, comforting objects like a large teddy bear, objects that go with having a space 24/7.  Without a permanent space, how can these objects be carried around?  We all need to feel like hiding under a blanket sometimes.  Here’s the homeless version.  People in the camp may both welcome the protection and services provided by the City and at the same time resent the intrusion of officers who drive up and start questioning the the first people they see on the walkway. That’s how I interpreted what I was seeing.   As I stood there, the old man near the porta-potties seemed eager to get away. The officer kept pressing closer. The other officer seemed to be listening respectfully, maintaining distance.  Just a superficial, uninformed peek at some human life on the river these days.

Further south along the river, I stopped to talk to a young man named Joshua who was busy weaving flowers out of palm fronds .  He and his two friends, who were sharing a guitar,  told me that they have  chosen not to participate in the Ross Camp for a variety of reasons and have instead set up a pretty comfortable looking camp under the Water St. Bridge with a folding chair and an elevated  bed.   Joshua who agreed to let me use his name and photograph him, told me he learned the art of weaving palm fronds  from a South Pacific Islander and has adopted it.  “Other people see a useless palm frond, but I see a way to get food for 2 or 3 days.”  One of Joshua’s friends told me that he had grown up in Santa Cruz, had suffered from chronic depression, had managed to hold down a job for 10 years,  had succumbed to drugs but then overcome that.   He was very disturbed by the littering associated with living without homes and told me that he tried to do a lot of cleaning up. Joshua said he was enjoying  the ‘mud hens’  (or  AMERICAN COOTS) who were swimming and foraging nearby,  birds who have also chosen  the Water St. Bridge as their home during the stormy weather.

Joshua, currently at home under the Water St. Bridge. March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This week I saw my first Western Pond Turtle this week, clinging to the bank of the Duck Pond.

Western Pond Turtle
Western Pond Turtle, edge of Duck Pond, San Lorenzo Park, March 4, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This turtle is the West Coast’s only native freshwater turtle, and is listed as a  “species of special concern” in California.  It has fared worse  in the State of Washington where it  is listed as ‘endangered, and in Oregon where it is listed as  “sensitive/critical”.   In 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list this species   under the Endangered Species Act, along with 52 other amphibians and reptiles. In 2015 the Service made an initial finding that the turtles may qualify for protection.  According to one source, these turtles do not live primarily in ponds, but in rivers and often on land.  They are one of the creatures we need to be very concerned about when Public Works is doing its vegetation removal each year.  With all the re-vegetation work that people like you, Jane, (as well as  groups like the Coastal Watershed Council) are doing on the levee, maybe the bulldozers and chain saws will gradually disappear.

In my eBird report this week, I reported seeing three species exhibiting  breeding behaviors: Two BUSHTITS chasing each among delicious catkins on a willow tree, and two CANADA GEESE settled comfortably near the Soquel Bridge, both qualifying as “P – pair in suitable habitat’;   and an AMERICAN CROW breaking a small branch off a tree and flying off with it, qualifying as “CN – Carrying Nesting Material.  (If you look carefully at the crow photo, the whole vertical branch next to her bill is the one she carried off – three times as long as the crow). I love participating even a little in the Breeding Bird Project, and encourage everyone who’s interested to get trained.  I learned a lot last year.  Trainings are Saturday, March 9,  Thursday, March 14, and Saturday, March 16.  Go to the Santa Cruz Bird Club website for details. Click Here

Bushtit in Willow
Bushtit, part of a chasing couple, in suitable nesting habitat, March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman


Canada Goose Pair
Canada Geese, in suitable nesting habitat,  near Soquel Bridge,March 3, 2019, Photo by B, Riverwoman


Crow with nesting material
American Crow, breaking off branch of Sycamore Tree, about to fly off to build nest. March 4, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I saw one BUFFLEHEAD and one COMMON GOLDENEYE on my outing this week, probably the last to leave the river for breeding grounds elsewhere?  The Bufflehead worried me a little.  It was in the same spot near the Laurel St. Bridge when I saw it two weeks ago, and it wasn’t fishing.  I first saw the  Goldeneye in the Duck Pond, and then later in the river.  I was happy to see it  diving vigorously, hardly spending a second above water.  That made it hard to catch this shot, but I finally succeeded.

And here is significant  news – I saw my first-of-season swallow – three of them.  I’m guessing this one resting on the the telephone wire near Riverside Bridge is a VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW though I’m not sure.  The wing projects past the tail which is one sign.  Hundreds of swallows have been in South County for several weeks, but I don’t think any have been reported on the urban river yet.

VG Swallow? Tree?
First of season swallow, likely Violet Green Swallow, near Riverside Bridge, March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And here’s an odd pair – A DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT AND A COMMON MALLARD, sharing refuge on a tiny island, safe from the rapid current moving at a clip of  about 1000 cfs.   The cormorant seemed to think it was odd, too, and tried to chase the mallard off their little island.  But the mallard hung on to the unusual new relationship, though accepting a more marginal status.  Were the head up, head down postures a sign of the agreed on dominance roles?  Maybe the mallard can’t find a girlfriend in spite of his brilliant colors.  Most of the mallards are all paired up by now and hanging out together.

Mallard and Cormorant, Chinatown Bridge
Mallard and Double-crested Cormorant, Chinatown Bridge, March 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I’m sad to say that the wounded WESTERN GREBE that I saw two weeks ago is still hanging out by the Laurel St. Bridge. The river seems to also serve as a kind of refuge for wounded sea birds.

Here is my latest eBird checklist with  34 species.  Click Here.

Quote of the week from the March/April edition of Sierra by  Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“Of all the tools we rely on to fulfill our mission, the most indispensable is the principle that every citizen can participate in the electoral process. Any assault on our democracy is also an assault on public lands, healthy communities and a stable climate.  If we fail to defend out democracy, then nothing that we hope to protect – and nothing that we’ve already protected–will be safe.”

Click Here for full article.

Stay active, stay well, watch birds!


Nuptial Plumes,Wounded Grebe and Early Warbler

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Lovers,

The shifting seasons, the  wild weather, and the whims of fate continued to shake up the normal behaviors of our winged friends these last two weeks.

A lone PELAGIC CORMORANT  seems to have chosen to temporarily abandon its normal habitat along the ocean cliffs in order to try  its luck fishing  away from the high waves.

Breeding Pelagic
Pelagic Cormorant in new breeding plumage, San Lorenzo River near Riverside Bridge, February 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

While other regular residents moved off the fast-flowing river, the cormorant moved in. As an ocean fisher, I guess it is better adapted than the regular river residents to taking on the challenge of a river moving at a clip of 750 cubit feet per second.  I was excited to see this shiny black creature all decked out in its fresh new breeding plumage, especially since I have never seen its delightfully named white ‘nuptial plumes’.   I imagine they function somewhat like runway lights.  If you look closely, you can see the red spot that is also part of the breeding plumage.  I think the green iridescence on the long, slender throat is present year round, but it can’t hurt this sleek beauty’s chances of a successful conquest.  I learned that in spite of its name it is not a true pelagic bird since the word pelagic signifies that the bird spends most of its time over the open sea.  Instead, Pelagic Cormorants do most of their fishing close to the ocean cliffs  where they also breed and roost.  Alarm flags went up for me when I read in Birds of North America that ocean kayaks and other human traffic increasingly pose a serious threat to the nests of this cormorant, for whom the Central Coast is about as far south as it breeds.  While our City is busy ‘keeping Santa Cruz safe,’ I hope it does not forget our smallest cormorant.

Another bird that is primarily an ocean-dweller, a WESTERN GREBE,  seems to have paddled upriver for a sadder reason.

Western Grebe
Western Grebe, with wounded leg, on bank of San Lorenzo River near Laurel St. Bridge, February 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Can you see the foot splayed out at an awkward angle underneath her body.  At first I wondered why she was resting on a sandbank underneath the Laurel St. Bridge.  Then I saw  her stand and lurch towards the river, one leg trailing behind her, wings flapping wildly to keep her balance.  I was happy to see her diving once she reached the river, but wonder if she will be able to chase down the fish she needs with only one strong leg to propel and direct her.

If the cormorant’s behavior  was informed by the search for quieter waters than the Bay, and the grebe’s by the search for a place to heal, this pint-sized YELLOW WARBLER was an early harbinger of the seasonal  flow of migratory warblers.  The bright yellow insect lover arrived far earlier than the normal date of early April when Santa Cruz sees it highest number of this  species passing through our area on its nocturnal passage to as far north as Alaska.  Since it is so early in the season, eBird

Yellow warbler
Yellow Warbler, Google Image

challenged me on this one, but my friends Michael Levy and Batya Kagan excitedly reported to me a week ago that they had seen this same bird, so I studied it carefully and made my best case to the Cornell experts.  Unfortunately, the tiny bird was flitting so rapidly through the willow thickets that my camera was never able to catch up with it. This Google image captures exactly what I saw.

And then there are those birds just being playful and eccentric.  I counted 56 MALLARDS on my walk two days ago,  44 of them hunkering down in the Duck Pond to escape the rapid current and all but one hugging the banks.   But not this one!

Mallard paddling nowhere
Mallard, midstream, San Lorenzo River, February 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

He was the only one in midstream, paddling his little orange-webbed feet as fast as he could and going absolutely nowhere.  Was he trying to figure out how hard he needed to paddle to go absolutely nowhere. Or maybe he was being much more utilitarian, using the river as a  treadmill to build female-chasing muscles. It is, after all,  the beginning of the mallard mating season.

I have never seen so many CANADA GEESE on the river in past years – 16 by my count.  8 of

Canada Goose Profile

them were lolling about at the Duck Pond, while others were playing along the edges of the river where the water was  pretty slow-moving. Strangely, right next to the Grebe with the wounded leg was this goose standing on one leg, shifting his weight far to one side to keep from toppling.  But no worry, his other leg was fine.  Birds often conserve heat by tucking one leg underneath their feathers.  But might this goose have also been standing in solidarity with the Grebe?  Who knows.

Goose on one leg
Canada Goose, San Lorenzo River, February 17,  2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman 

Although a relatively common bird, I don’t think I have ever recorded a ROBIN on the river.

American Robin, San Lorenzo River, February 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This should bring my total number of birds seen on the urban river stretch to 109.  Thank you eBird!   True, this falls significantly short of the 147 species seen by my awesome co-blogger!  But we both have quite a ways to go, Jane,  to catch up with Steve Gerow who peaked at 177 birds on this same urban stretch !  With all this documented bird life, it should be kind of hard for the City to make a case, as they have in the past,  that the river has no wildlife value and therefore should be opened to all kinds of recreational and commercial activity.

European Starling, American Robin, San Lorenzo River, February 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here is the non-native but handsome EUROPEAN STARLING relishing the same berries as the robin, just inches away.  Click HERE to see my complete list of 32 species seen during my last outing.

John Muir quote of the week:

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can”.  

High waters or low, in honor of all Yosemite lovers, including John Muir and Sherry Conable, keep flying, keep singing.