Your photo and story, Jane, on Captain Coot, proudly sweeping by the astonished Mallards while sailing his cardboad ship down the river, was one of your funniest of the year!
A slight glitch in my posting this week. I posted this piece to my education site by mistake. When I tried to move it back to this San Lorenzo River Mysteries Site, I lost photo captions and some links. If you would like to see the original post, you can click here and go to my other, now mostly moribund, education site. That way you can also take a peek at my former life!
I’ve been busy working on the Yes on M campaign (rent control), specializing, it seems, in trying to save the homes of human as well as avian creatures. I am perhaps unreasonably partial to the idea of a world where every sentient being has secure housing! Anyway, for this reason, as well as having a cold, I haven’t been out on the River this week . Fortunately the river has come to me in the form of many new riparian dwellers visiting my overgrown native garden, separated from the river by a single fence. My sunflower seed feeder is a major attraction, as well as a rotting log I introduce a while back. I hope the native plants factor in the equation somewhere. I really don’t have the vaguest understanding of the ecology that I am blindly trying to create. But I think it is working.
I have not been lucky enough in the past to catch many glimpses of our colorful
summer visitor, the BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, so you can imagine how happy I’ve been to have one of these showy creatures appear as a regular visitor in my backyard for the last two weeks. She (or he?) seems to love my sunflower seeds. Weirdly, it is impossible to know if my backyard Grosbeak is a first year male or a female, since in their first year the two are indistinguishable. All I know is that it was not a second year male whose solidly black head and deep orange breast clearly identify it as a breeding male. Unfortunately, one of those hasn’t visited yet.
I also read that this species loves to feast on Monarch butterflies, one of the few bird species that can successfully process the toxins in Monarchs that would kill or sicken another bird. Both Monarchs and Black-headed Grosbeaks return to the mountains of central Mexico in the winter – unfortunately for the Monarchs.
But I forgive the Grosbeaks since they are one of those lovable birds that share the duties of incubating and feeding their young. Here is a good website connected with Cornell University that I use to collect some of these interesting tidbits of information – All About Birds.
I’ve heard that HOUSE FINCHES tend to be late breeders and the recent mobbing of my tube feeder by all kinds of fluffy and scruffy young finches seems to prove the truth of this.
The tube is absolutely cleaned out by evening each day. I also wonder if some of them might be molting adults. I wonder where they nest.
Here is a video of house finches feeding their young – slightly overproduced for my taste, but a nice intro to my sightings of them after they are out of the nest.
Parent finches regurgitate food for the young, making it possible as we see in the film to feed many for quite a while. Click here.
I saw a juvenile COWBIRD perched near my house for the first time that I remember. A parasitic brooder, often leaving an egg in the nests of House Finches, I wonder if this juvenile was inadvertently raised as a sibling of one of my finches above.. He looks a bit bewildered and stranded, don’t you think?
Passing the 80 milestone has kept me from getting down to the estuary end of the river very much – so I much appreciate first hand news and photos of the breaching. What did you think of the Sentinel coverage of this phenomena? It cleared up some questions that I have had. For readers who didn’t see the article, click here for the link.
I don’t think I have mentioned my concern about the dirt road that the City built along the east side of the river bank on the riverine reach (Water to Highway 1) while they were doing their flood control work a month ago.
Here is a photo of the road as well as a close-up that shows how close the road comes to the river. I am worried that rangers and police will begin patrolling the area in their trucks, creating a disturbance to the wildlife and setting a bad precedent for the future in terms of how close humans should get to the river. I know that there are some commercial and recreational developers that would just love to create more paths right next to the river. I would love to walk there myself, – but I don’t think it bodes well for habitat protection. I am likely to hear and see more if I am not disturbing what I want to hear and see.
Have you seen this mighty sprinkling can heaving its way down the Riverwalk?
I talked to the driver and he told me that it brings water to thirsty native plants that are newly planted and need a little extra support. If we ever get the river levee re-planted with natives, and they get established, maybe this will become the dinosaur that it resembles. But I definitely appreciate the restoration work that seems to have taken off on the levee and Riverwalk.
Here is the bonus photo for the day, a mysterious insect that graced my garden for a moment. I would love to begin to learn the names of these visitors.
Quote of the Day
No Sierra landscape that I have seen holds anything truly dead or dull, or any trace of what in manufactories is called rubbish or waste. Everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons.
May we all learn to respect the right of all living creatures to a secured place to live.
Why am I so happy to see a delicate pink ribbon still dangling from some scrubby little bush along the levee bank?
Well– because those ribbons were finally placed there this year by the City to warn the mowing crew to leave the native Coyote Bush alone. These low growing shrubs pose no flood threat, but have perished as collateral damage in the City’s grander mission of removing the large-diameter trees like Cottonwoods, Alders, Willows and Box Elders. The pink ribbons remind me that change is slow, but if we keep asking year after year, the City does listen. I hope that in the future many more of the smaller native plants, important to the diversity of the habitat, will be flagged in order to ward off the chainsaws.
I had another ‘first-time-on-the-river’ experience this week, spotting a BAND-TAILED PIGEON perched high overhead on a telephone wire. Even more interesting, she was a juvenile. What was a juvenile Band-tailed doing on the river. Why was she alone instead of in a flock where you usually find these birds? Why have I never seen this year-round resident on the River before. I also started wondering why doves and pigeons (the columbidae family) favor telephone wires.
I decided to do a little research on this unlikely river bird. I found out that Band-tailed pigeons usually stay close to their flock except when breeding. I also learned that they lay only one egg per nest – perhaps explaining why this juvenile was still alone. It turns out that these birds prefer coniferous and oak forest habitats. Maybe their high wire preferences are because these wires are the closest urban equivalent to the high branches in their normal forest habitats. And to my surprise, I found out that this particular species is the closest genetic relative of the extinct Passenger Pigeon. For this reason, the species has been widely studied in an effort to bring back the extinct species
Band-tailed Pigeons and MOURNING DOVES are the two native members of the pigeon and dove family that reside year-round in Santa Cruz.
The Mourning Dove occurs throughout the U.S, but the Band-tailed Pigeon’s range is more limited, extending only along the western parts of Washington, Oregon, California and south to northern Argentina. Its population plunged before the Federal Migratory Game Bird Act of 1918 was passed, due to severe hunting. But it has now recovered and is not longer listed as endangered. Cheers to all the survivors on our River and to all those environmentalists before us who help save threatened plants and animals.
The other two common members of this family, the ROCK PIGEON and the EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE, are introduced species. The former is an old timer, having been introduced, I learned, very early in the 17thcentury from Europe, Africa and other parts. The Eurasian Collared-dove, on the other hand, is an upstart. It is native to subtropical Asia and, believe it or not, didn’t arrive in North America until the 1980’s. At that time it entered Florida and has since become one of the great bird colonizers, spreading rapidly across the country. They breed throughout the year, three to four broods being common. Unfortunately, they are known carriers of parasites that can spread to native birds via commingling at feeders and by consumption by predators.
Since I learned that bad news, I’ve been discouraging them from foraging in my backyard where my House Finches, California Towhees and winter sparrows forage. Sad. Before I got wiser, I used to love to see them. During one walk this week, I saw at least one of all four members of this Columbidae family.
As for continuing juveniles, there are still many young SCRUB JAYS hopping around with telltale fluff popping out all over. I laughed out loud earlier in the week to see a young House Finch on a telephone wire with its parent. The teen-ager would edge its way along the wire until it got very close to the mother, who would then scuttle further down the wire, the scene repeating itself again and again. And today, I smiled as I watched two somewhat dazed looking young crows, fully feathered except for just a few wisps of down on their still fairly naked faces. The sight that pleased me the most was this juvenile JUNCO, busily foraging along the sidewalk with a group of adult Juncos. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a juvenile Junco.
On a sad note, I think I will have to reconcile myself to the fact that the PIED-BILLED GREBES have not been able to successfully produce any young this year. This is the first time there haven’t been young PBG’s on the River in the four years that I have been watching. Here’s a photo of Stripey, the product of the first nest of Grebes that I discovered in 2015, the highpoint of my river birdwatching. I’m especially sad since I watched the hard working parents try several times to build nests, foiled each time by the suddenly rising or falling river due to the artifical breach of the sand bar.
I met an enthusiastic bird lover named Andy Davis this week while he was out keeping our river clean with the Downtown Street Team.
If some of our readers haven’t met members of this team yet, stop and talk with them. They’re out on the River everyday and know a lot about what is going on. Andy reported the discovery recently of a very large gopher snake, good news on the state of our River’s ecosystem. Somehow she survived the flood chainsaws and bulldozers. When I said to Andy how great it was that the DST is keeping an eye on the wildlife, he said to me, “That’s what we’re here for –to protect the river.” Thanks, Andy.
My friend Jeff Caplan, an ardent advocate of birds, is sponsoring a Bird Fun Festival on Saturday and Sunday, September 15 and 16th, at the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz. There will be a bilingual walk from Beach Flats Park to the MAH, starting Saturday at 10 a.m. with events to follow at the MAH. Sunday will be focused especially on bird related activities for children. It sounds like lots of fun. I will be there on Sunday with a cooperative nesting bird game to play with kids ages 7 to 11. Hope to see some of you there. Click here for the full website.
Quote of the Week
“I care to live only to entice people to loook at Nature’s loveliness. Heaven knows that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.” John Muir
I hope everybody is enjoying the remaining young birds of the season. They are growing up fast. Happy Birding!
As I write this article, it is August 6th, Hiroshima Day. I light a candle, take out my Buddhist prayer bead made from the wooden propeller of a Japanese airplane, and sing a Japanese song against nuclear war. I do a little ritual on this day almost every year, sometimes with others, sometimes by myself. This year for the first time my small prayer for peace includes all living species. I wonder why it has taken me so long to add other species to my thoughts on Hiroshima Day.
I almost always return from my walk along the degraded River with such a strange sense of peace. Maybe it is precisely because it is so degraded that the life it protects offers such a message of hope. So much wildness has survived so much human violence.
On my walks this week, I was struck by how some birds spend most of their time together, while other species spend most of their time alone. They have all figured out different strategies on how to give life a chance., give peace a chance. But how different their lives must be depending on what has worked to keep them alive and flourishing. Today’s blog is dedicated to all the birds who have learned to live in flocks and also those who spend most of their time alone. Many different evolutionary strategies have helped them make it this far!
As I walked along the River I saw 9 CANADA GEESE swimming along in an almost straight line, reminding me always of what a closely knit group of social beings they are. I saw 18 DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS fishing and taking a rambunctious early morning bath together, then swimming off purposefully in formation to continue their fishing downstream. I hailed 85 ROCK PIGEONS in three separate flocks, one large flock creating a magic circle in the air while another flock spaced itself evenly along a stretch of telephone wire. I was delighted to see 15 beautiful COMMON MERGANSERS on the river bank just south of the Chinatown Bridge, preening and resting together.
Interspersed among these gregarious groupies were the loners –
the spectral SNOWY EGRET, dignified and graceful, foraging in the muddy banks and shallow waters for crunchy crustaceans, elusive fish and buried insects; the busy SPOTTED SANDPIPER plunging his pointed beak again and again into the sand bar between Laurel and Riverside, a spot he has pretty much claimed for his own year after year; the Belted Kingfisher perching briefly on a branch before rattling on down the river in search of a better vantage point; the unusual and mysterious RED-THROATED LOON, whose rare lingering on the River for two summers is a mystery we will probably never understand, and of course my very special little PIED-BILLED GREBE, who almost certainly has a mate not too far away, but almost always fishes alone.
Here is my eBird checklist with the names of all 20 species, blessed survivors, that I saw on my river outing this week. Click here.
The SWALLOWS seem mostly gone. I saw a few remnant CLIFF SWALLOWS still whirling about near the Laurel St. Bridge, but they will presumably be flying a little straighter once they head south.
May all human beings figure out a way to survive peacefully, together or alone, with their own kind and with all living creatures.
It’s been a challenging week on the River! For the last week or so, I have been watching anxiously as two small Pied-billed Grebes have tried their best to resist the powerful force of human encroachment onto the river. I have named these two feisty little creatures Podilymbus and Podiceps, based on their full Latin name Podilymbus Podiceps. I call them both Podi for short.
The story starts when I I heard on July 13 that the City was planning to begin its annual flood control work on the river levee on Monday, July 16! I was shocked! This is the earliest it has ever begun, at least in my memory. You and I, Jane, innocent of their plans, had both written the Public Works Department several weeks earlier, asking them to move the start date from early August to September 1, so as to avoid any interference with the breeding season. Instead, they moved it even earlier than we could have imagined! And neither of us has yet been told why, even though we have both inquired as to the reason. I personally think it has to do with finances. What a disappointment!
When I heard about the earlier-than-usual start date, my adrenalin started flowing again as it does each year. Flood control means chainsaws, tractors, mowers and lots of racket. It means massive destruction of habitat for not only birds but hundreds of other creatures – mammals, rodents, turtles, snakes, insects. Yes, it may help protect our City from a 100-year flood. Indeed, I myself live in that flood plain. But at least let’s admit up front that we shouldn’t have settled on the flood plain in the first place. And I think we owe it to those wild creatures, who lived and raised families long before we took it over, to do what we can to ease their situation.
Pied-billed Grebes are the most vulnerable nesting population right now, at least among the waterfowl. The Mergansers and Wood Ducks nest north of Highway 1, in more thickly-wooded riparian habitat, out of the reach of the flood control operation. I believe all their young have already fledged. The Mallards still have some tiny babies on the River, but I’m hoping that at least their very vulnerable nests on the levee banks have now been vacated. But I worry about the Grebes.
I have been out on the river looking for Grebes almost every day since I heard that the start date would be so early, getting out much earlier and later than usual. That’s been a plus, being on the river in very early morning and again at sundown! It’s beautiful at that time.
On July 14 I heard Podi and Podi calling, then found them hovering around a tule clump just north of the Water St. Bridge, only about 20 feet from where the flood control work was to begin. I immediately posted to eBird that I had seen two Pied-billed Grebes together in a ‘suitable breeding habitat’. Then I wrote Public Works and the contracting biologist about the existence of the pair and the suitable habitat. On July 15,
I decided to go out at sundown to see if I could catch Podi and Podi entering the clump for the night. It was a good guess. I did see them go in, and although I waited at least 20 minutes, I didn’t see either of them re-emerge. (Unlike Mallards, the Grebes are almost always seen alone, except occasionally during breeding season, and even then they fish alone and then take turns incubating the eggs.)
The next morning, the day the big chainsaw extravaganza was to begin, I stood on the Water St. Bridge watching Podi and Podi, both swimming nearby. Then, to my delight, I saw Podilymbus, or was it Podiceps, carrying a long trailing green stalk in her mouth, swimming towards the tule clump. My guess was right! They were almost surely building a nest. I strained my eyes through my binoculars, but just couldn’t see anything definitive.
Just about then, Gary Kittleson came along. He is the biologist who contracts with the City every year to do a wildlife survey of the river before the mowing onslaught begins (the survey is required by California State Fish and Wildlife.) I told him about the Grebes and showed him the tule clump where I had just seen at least one of the Podi’s enter. He raised his binoculars and almost immediately saw what I hadn’t been able to see – Podiceps (or was it Podilymbus) actually weaving the tules together to build the nest. He helped me catch a glimpse as well! Gary had just returned from Alaska where he was documenting some breeding Grizzlies, pretty exciting stuff. But even he got very interested when he saw one of the Podi’s actually weaving the floating nest together and securing it to the anchored tules surrounding the nest. The thicket was too dense to get a photo, but here is a photo of the Grebe nest I found in 2015 near Mimi de Marta Park.
We then walked back to the staging ground of the day’s operation, where Gary reviewed with the clearing crew what vegetation they were required to cut and what they were required to leave. You can imagine how happy I was when I heard him tell them about the Pied-billed Grebe nest! They were very receptive. Some of them really care about the birds.
Sadly, this nest was not destined to survive, although not primarily through the fault of the flood control work. Coincidentally, I think, on July 18, the City decided to artifically breach the sand bar that blocks the river mouth. The sand bar allows the lagoon to form each year, pushing water back up the river channel, as far as Highway 1 and beyond. Podi and Podi’s nest was floating on that water! All the noise of the mowers and chainsaws, only 20 or so feet from the nest, may have contributed to the almost immediate abandonment of the nest. But the nest wouldn’t have survived anyway. By nighttime on the 18th, the water level had dropped about 2 feet or more. I couldn’t see it, but it was not hard to imagine that the painstakingly woven nest would have been left dangling from an anchored tule, and then probably dumped or tipped sideways into the water, undoing all the hard work of Podilymbus and Podiceps. Gary Kittleson was able to wade in several days later and confirm the nest, but found the no eggs.
Most Pied-billed Grebes nest on quiet bays, in marshes, or on lakes. In their wilder or more desperate moments, a grebe may choose a sluggish river. Our intrepid pair had chosen a relatively quiet, backed up river. But they unknowingly had also chosen a river where the interests of commerce, residents, city government and the Army Corps of Engineers take precedence over protection of wildlife.
For a couple of days, the grebes hung around the abandoned nest, then apparently gave up on it. They have now moved downriver towards the Benchlands area and are now hovering near and entering a stand of tules near the south end of a small channel between the Chinatown Bridge and the Soquel Bridge, on the West Bank. Sadly, that is just where the tractors and chainsaws are moving next, probably this week. I saw two of them enter there just this morning around 7:30 a.m. Will they try to build a new nest? It is late in the season. The biologist Gary Kittleson is also monitoring the situation and will continue notify the City.
I just want to add that the sand bar itself is not an entirely natural phenomenon but one that is also affected by human activity. As I understand it, the annual buildup of sand at the San Lorenzo river mouth is caused by a phenomenon called littoral drift, in which sand is transported along the length of an ocean shore because of wave action. This natural flow of sediment along our coast is partially blocked by the jetties built out from the Santa Cruz Harbor. This exerts backward pressure, increasing the amount of sand that collects at the San Lorenzo River Mouth, thus exacerbating the annual sand bar problem. Our problem occurs when the water rises. Podilymbus and Podiceps suffer when the water is suddenly and unpredictably pulled out from underneath them.
I know you have felt discouraged, Jane, by the annual actions of Public Works. But, to tell the truth, in spite of everything terrible that happens each year, I have actually felt this season that we are making progress. Here is a list of the things that have changed for the better during the four years we have been working together with the Department:
On the upper reach, north of the Water St. Bridge, the Department now protects 15 feet of vegetation along the riverbank, as required by City Documents, rather than the 5 feet originally protected.
A biologist now instructs the mowing crew on the specifications of what to cut and what not to cut, rather than leaving it to the foreman of the crew.
For the first time this year, the 15 feet is flagged by someone from the Public Works Department, rather than the foreman of the crew.
For the first time this year, some native shrubbery and perennials – in areas normally scalped to the ground – were flagged for protection
So far we have been able to protect Riverbend Park – where large cottonwoods and alders were originally slated for removal.
So let’s stay hopeful and work hard next year to (1) get a later start date, (2) require removal of invasives like the pampas grass we have seen, and (3) flag more natives for protection.
On a positive note, I saw my first kestrel on the river two days ago – thanks to Michael
Levy who recognized the call and pointed the adult male out to me as it landed in a nearby redwood tree. This was one of the birds that Alex Rinkert of the Breeding Bird Atlas project asked us to especially look out for on the River. These birds formerly nested along the San Lorenzo River but haven’t been observed or reported for several years. Could it have a nest nearby?
One day later I found this mosaic of a kestrel by the amazingly prolific and bird-conscious artist Kathleen Crocetti. It wasn’t far from where I saw the real bird, on the wall separating Front St. from the river, across from Trader Joe’s. The permanent exhibit includes 80 (!) bird mosaics, mostly by Kathleen’s students, as well as lots more of fish and insects. It must have been fun to break all those plates!
Let us all keep our eyes open for anything and everything . There’s way more to see on our River than people dream of.
Once again I return with a story of the wonders of one’s own backyard! I was headed out this week for a walk along the River, about to go through the back gate of my mobile home park that borders the levee. Something made me turn around and look up. I blinked my eyes with wonderment as my gaze took in a row of 31 swallows, perched at regular intervals along a telephone wire.
Usually I find these summertime visitors swooping over the river at breakneck speeds, rarely if ever pausing to rest or pose for a photo.. Now here they were all lined up for me to enjoy and study at my leisure. What was going on? I lost no time – immediately snapping about 150 photos, without much idea of what I was recording!
Judging from all the fluffiness on the breasts and bellies of the birds, I figured out pretty quickly that almost all of the 31 birds were juveniles. Only once did I glimpse a parent feeding a young one, somehow managing to capture this photo of a young one’s urgent hunger pangs.
Most of the perched birds were approximately adult size. And looking more closely, I realized that most of them were some complex combination of brown, white, gray and black, with little sign of the vivid green backs and iridescent violet tails of the adult male, nor the duller violet and green of the female.
When I got home, I checked BNA for the breeding schedule of Violet-green Swallows. It reported that on the West Coast, this species normally arrives in early May, lays its eggs sometime between mid-May and mid-June, that the eggs normally take 15 days to hatch, and that the babies then stay in the nest for an average of 27 days before they fledge. Calculating quickly, I realized that this fit exactly with what I was seeing. Our Violet-greens did arrive in early May and so might be expected to leave the nest sometime between July 1 and August 1. And here they were, 31 adult-sized but still downy fledglings on July 6, right on schedule.
According to BNA, before the young have fledged and are still cozily nestled in their nests, they feast on a protein-rich diet of insects, actually growing heavier than their parents. Then, during their last week as nestlings, their weight returns to roughly the same weight as the parents. So this is what I was looking at –– fledglings that were already adult sized but still showing the downiness of the nestling.
As I was watching them I was struck by the incessant activity of many of them. I was lucky to run into Kitty Stein at a Bird Club event on the weekend and told her about all the babies. She is very active in the local Breeding Bird Survey and asked to visit the scene. She helped me solve the problem of why they were incessantly preening. They weren’t preening. She suggested that they were probably scratching themselves in order to relieve the itchiness caused by their pin feathers (new feathers) pushing through their skin – just like a human baby’s teething woes. In addition, I learned from BNA, that the young birds are vulnerable to surface parasites, adding to their pin feather discomfort.
Another plausible explanation for their ‘preening’ behavior is that the juveniles were removing the waxy coating that sheathes their pin feathers, something that has to happen before the new feathers inside the wax can unfurl. But since the young ones had presumably managed to fly successfully to the telephone wire, we know that at least their wing feathers were already functioning pretty well. Still – there remained enough downiness on other parts of their bodies that they might have been removing wax on these breast feathers as well as scratching themselves. So much for a teen-age swallow to deal with!
There were also some fledglings that were sitting without moving? What about them? BNA had an explanation for that as well. It said that ‘sunbathing’ helps juveniles control the parasites by raising the temperature of the body to a point that seems to either drive away the parasites or kill them. According to the BNA the juveniles can go into a trance while sunbathing and lose their balance. I saw that! Here’s a juvenile I caught almost tipping off the wire, perhaps falling asleep and waking just in time to right herself.
And below, for comparison’s sake is a photo of an adult female Violet-green Swallow with some subtle brown marbling on its cheeks to distinguish it from the snowy-cheeked male, but with no down on its breast and belly. Here, also, you can see clearly the long primaries extending way past the end of the tail.
Honestly, I’m not 100% sure about any of the above identifications. But I thought that if I stick my neck out and make my best guess, I may get back more info from readers. Feel completely welcome to challenge me.
Changing subjects rather drastically, – it was nice, wasn’t it, Jane, that Mark Dettle, the head of the Public Works Department, chose to notify both of us, as well as many other stakeholders, about the Department’s upcoming plans to begin their annual flood control work all along the river. They know how concerned we get each year! But it wasn’t at all nice to learn that they may be planning to push the beginning date even earlier than August 1. I know that you have been in touch with Mr. Dettle about this and I plan to send a letter tomorrow. I think we both agree that in order to protect breeding birds on the River, the beginning date should be August 15 at the earliest and preferably September 1. I know Public Works worries about early rains and the availability of contractors. They clearly have their own set of problems and do their best to make it all work. Hopefully the schedules of the rain gods, the contractors and the breeding birds can be coordinated.
Did readers see the article in the Sentinel on July 6 about the new City laws regarding sewage leakages into the San Lorenzo River? Some property owners are not going to like the required inspections and costs of fixing sewer pipes on their private property. But the news made me happy and I think I speak as well for the birds. There have been just too many reports of sewage leakage seriously contributing to the fecal bacteria count in the River. We humans and the birds all drink out of the same river. Click here to read the full story.
I got engrossed this last week with the slightly ridiculous sight of the elegant male MALLARDS going through their annual post-breeding moult. For three or four weeks now – during late summer and fall –we can expect to see the drakes first losing their sheen and then seeming to lose their masculinity! The poor things not only lose those gleaming green heads but during the 3-4 week moult period they are transformed into creatures that are almost indistinguishable from the females. Imagine!
What an ignominious state for these high testosterone creatures. The only vestige of their masculine dignity are their yellow bills – the single feature by which I can still distinguish them from the female. So if some of you readers think that there are only female mallards around, check the bill. If it’s yellow it’s a male, if it is orange and black it’s the female. I hope these males won’t resent my showing them on a bad hair day. I kind of like their subdued and feminized stage.
These gentlemen also lose the ability to fly during this annual moult. And there’s more. The process of losing old feathers and gaining new ones is also very energy consuming, so they have to spend more time foraging for high-protein food than usual. (Mallards are usually vegetarians but eat a lot of high-protein insects and crustaceans during breeding and moulting.)
The baby Mallards are coming in all sizes these days. I found a single eensy-teensy one all alone with its probably faithful mother this last Saturday. Then the next day I found another family (below) of half-grown Mallards foraging along the concrete Branciforte Channel.
And finally I spotted a family of six under the Water St. Bridge in which the young ones were almost as large as the mother but still traveling together. According to the BNA, the only difference between a female mom and both her older male and female children is that the children don’t have the bright blue speculum (not the medical kind but the feathery kind) as part of their secondary flight feathers. I guess they only win this stripe of maturity after three or four months when they will be able to fly.
I am so amused that the GREEN HERON – that I used to think of as a shy, reclusive bird – is actually quite habituated to urban environments. As I think I mentioned in a recent blog, one was even reported as nesting in downtown Santa Cruz.
And now I have twice spied this elegant fowl foraging happily in open view in the Duck Pond, much-frequented by humans. She was delicately picking her way over the lily pads, then paused, stealthily elongated her body in one smooth ripple, stretched her neck forward, waited for just a moment, then threw herself out of range of my lens as she snatched a hapless fish who imagined that it was safe under the lily pad. It was only after I later uploaded my photos to my computer that I realized that my few wild camera clicks after she attacked actually caught her with a fish in her mouth. Lucky shot.
Speaking of the Duck Pond, I am happy that the City Council will be considering a sweet, down-home proposal this very afternoon which I can wholeheartedly support – i.e. they are going to vote on changing the name of the San Lorenzo River Pedestrian Bridge (a mouthful) to the Chinatown Bridge! I love it! It is a lot easier to say, distinguishes it from the other pedestrian bridge near Highway 1, and – most importantly – it honors that spot where our own Chinatown used to exist from the 1860’s until the last remaining building was destroyed in the flood of 1955. Click here to read a little more about the history of Chinatown in Santa Cruz. I read that the City will also install a historical plaque memorializing the Chinese presence along the river.
Finally, I explored the Branciforte Creek area on Sunday with my friend Nancy who spotted a tiny flash of yellow near the Branciforte and Carbonera Creek confluence area. I was happy to realize that it was a male WILSON’S WARBLER, a summer visitor that I haven’t seen much on the river this summer. Here is the e-Bird checklist I posted.
Quote of the week: “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.” -Terry Tempest Williams
Let’s keep celebrating the birds, the river and lots of other astonishing things.
That old enchantress, the River, always has a new trick up her sleeve! This week I went to the exact spot where I found the wonderful little Wood Duck family two weeks ago, hoping to see them again. But the sloe-eyed mama and her babes were nowhere to be seen, maybe off shopping for all the vegan delights that the River offers a duck and her ducklings.
This time the flowing spinner of dreams had something else in store for me – an avian concert the likes of which I haven’t heard for quite a while. The woods along the river behind the Tannery was alive with the sound of music! First I would hear a modest solo, then a different lilting voice would form a duet, then many players would join in, sometimes building to a gloriously intricate and intriguing tangle of sounds.
I remember years ago taking a bird trip with David Suddjian, the famous local birder and then president of the Bird club. The walk was titled ‘Birding by Ear’. I remember being absolutely astounded by what he could identify without seeing a single bird. I had no idea this was possible. Now I have taken a few steps into that world, thanks to all the birders like David and Steve Gerow, who have patiently helped many of us along on this long path into a language that they didn’t teach at my high school.
Anyway, sitting by the river this week, I ultimately identified the songs of six star performers – which, thanks to YouTube, I am now able to share with all of you (see below). I haven’t tried playing these all at the same time. That might give you a better sense of my experience!
I was especially excited to identify my first SWAINSON’S THRUSH by sound. The song starts out as a high, somewhat reedy warble, spirals upwards a couple of times, then finishes with only the spectral hint of a thin, fluty sound – seeming to disappear into the clouds. Maybe the oboe/flute in the orchestra.. Click here.
The solid violin section of the avian symphony is provided by the male HOUSE FINCH, a slightly raspy warble that flits up and down the scale in seemingly random musical acrobatics –before finishing on a high note. Click here.
The migrant BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS held center stage for this morning’s performance, Although the Grosbeak’s song is often shorter and a little more jerky than that of the House Finch, his warble is deliciously rich and liquid. One or two of them sang constantly for the entire half hour I sat by the river, appearing in full view only once when three of them appeared to have a little dust-up in what I imagined to be the cello section of that morning’s orchestra. Click here.
I wonder if it is the same modest little SONG SPARROW who appears in almost the same spot on the same tree – every time I sit in my chosen spot. He is a most dependable singer and I was glad to hear his cheery and familiar voice. This video clip captures the most basic song – two initial cheeps, then a trill, then a final signature flourish. Individual Song Sparrows dream up many variations on this basic structure, some quite a bit more complex, but this is the bare bones. Click here.
The PACIFIC SLOPE FLYCATCHER, also a migratory bird, plays a simple rustic flute – the same note over and over again . The note is a thin, ascendant whistle, that is quite easy to identify when the woods are quiet. This shy, elusive bird whistles once, then pauses, then whistles again – easy to hear and identify but hard to find. Click here
And, finally, in the percussion section, was the loud, resounding and repeated yelp of the PIED-BILLED GREBE, a sound that would seem to come from some mythical creature – certainly not from the little brown waterfowl whose modest appearance seems at odds with its deep feelings. Click here.
For so many years, I missed all this music. And what I know now only makes me more aware of the vast world of animal feelings and language about which I know nothing at all. May we all slowly develop the capacity to hear and sense and understand the mysterious voices of the natural world – which is so close to us and so far away.
On a more political note – I called Beth Tobey of the Economic Development Department of the City regarding your concerns, Jane, about the art installation over the Cliff Swallows nest. I asked her if you and I could meet with her to talk about the Ebb and Flow Event next year. She indicated that she was interested in such a meeting but she hasn’t yet answered my e-mail about when this might happen.
There are only 11 more days to write the City’s Parks and Recreation Department about their planned recruitment of a new director. I hope everyone who reads this blog will send an e-mail to Carol Scurich, acting director, at email@example.com. Please emphasize the importance of choosing someone who has experience and training in environmental protection; who will work to achieve a balance between recreational event planning and environmental protection work; and who will work collaboratively with environmental organizations in the community, i.e. the Sierra Club, the Bird Club, Friends of the Pogonip, Friends of the San Lorenzo River, Friends of Arana Gulch, Friends of Jessie St. Marsh, etc. All our Open Spaces are under the jurisdiction of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department. The Department has a solemn responsibility to be good stewards of our natural treasures.
May we all learn to listen to the birds and to each other!