When Going With the Flow Gets Rough

Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Lovers,

Heavy rains  last Saturday and Sunday shook up the world of the river’s water fowl, challenging them to take cover, find new fishing grounds, or in the case of at least one of the species, simply jump on the swiftly flowing waters for what looked to me like a a joy ride! I even caught my first glimpse of  a Harbor Seal on the river,  just south of the Water St. Bridge!

The river crested sometime on Sunday at 13.5 feet, just 2.5 feet short of flooding.  When I  ventured out on Monday morning, the river was a grande dame, pridefully and powerfully flowing to her watery mansion in the great ocean.  Although by Monday morning  the velocity had slowed from  Sunday’s peak of 4000 cubic feet per second to only 1200 cubic feet per second, I suspected it would still present a challenge to the water birds.  And, indeed, things were a bit topsy-turvy.

I found one female COMMON MERGANSER who had clearly taken refuge in the glassy quiet of the Duck Pond, an unusual spot to find a  find a Merganser.  Was the river water too fast  for successful fishing?  Or was it too murky?

p1100784 (1)
Female Common Merganser in San Lorenzo Park Duck Pond, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Common MErgansewer in Duick Pond
Same female Common Merganser with new, exotic species. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Later I saw a pair of the Mergansers taking advantage of the high velocity current to take a swift ride to the mouth.  This is one of their favorite strategies in calm weather – fly upstream, then jump on the free river bus to carry them effortlessly back downstream, fishing and resting as they go. On Monday I didn’t see them fishing at all.

A few BUFFLEHEAD were retreating to the quieter Branciforte cement channel –more like the lakes and ponds that they generally prefer.    But later I was surprised to

Bufflehead in Branciforte Creet Channel
A barely visibleBufflehead  heading upstream on  Branciforte Creek, a partially cemented tributary  that enters the downtown river at the Soquel Bridge.  Photo by B. Riverwoman, January 7, 2019

see a pair of Bufflehead on the open river, alternately rising up out of the water and flapping their wings.  This sounds a little like a Bufflehead mating behavior described as “a head-dip, followed by a wing-flapping, then a rapid bow ending with a resounding slap of the wings against the side of the body.”   I’ll have to keep my eyes open to see if I can catch the rest of the display ritual.  In any case, Bufflehead hormones seem to be flowing, right along with the high water flows.

Buffleheads mating on high water
Mondayh morning after river height on Sunday at 12.5 feet, just 3.5 short of 16 to topof levee
Buffleheads mating on high water
Possible female Bufflehead mating display, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

A GREAT EGRET AND SNOWY EGRET were doing their best to adapt to the high waters.

Snowy Egret struggling with high water
Snowy Egret, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

These beauties prefer mud bars and shallow water, where their long bills can easily probe the mud for the crustaceans, small fish, insects and worms that they relish.  On Monday the Great Egret abandoned the River entirely, richly rewarded by the swampy pools in San Lorenzo Park.  The Snowy seemed to be faring less well, still exploring her normal areas on the edge of the water, but seeming to find that her usual spots were not so productive in a flood.  Perhaps this delicate creature can’t handle the chunkier morsels that are edible by the Great Egret.

Great Egret with Work
Great Egret with worm, San Lorenzo Children’s Park, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

This  egrets’ cousin, the GREAT BLUE HERON, looked glorious in the wind, settling comfortably on a sand bar where she could probably sustain herself until things settled down a little.

Great Blue Heron in high river
Great Blue Heron, Sandbar near Chinatown Bridge, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

A MALLARD was also wisely laying low, foraging in quiet backwaters  as she also waited for things to calm down a little.

Mallard taking cover from high river
Mallard in cattail thicket, San Lorenzo River, January 7, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I always wonder why my stubborn little PIED-BILLED GREBES would choose to fight a fast river flow rather than find a quieter lake where this species usually prefer to hang out.  Pied-billed Grebe out in high riverOn Monday, most apparently did go elsewhere.  I saw only one grebe between the Water St. Bridge and the Riverside Bridge.  One possible answer, an important consideration, is that maybe this particular grebe is low on the totem pole, forced to accept an inferior territory.  Or maybe she is stronger than the others and can handle the fast life of a river.  Maybe she likes adventure sports!

Songbirds, were of course “above it all”,  simply happy to have a little sun on their feathers and unaware of the river changes that the waterfowl were contending with.  Finches muching on Sycamore fruit A small flock of HOUSE FINCHES were busy nibbling at the spiky seed balls that form on sycamore trees during the winter, balls that will spill their seeds in the spring.

And above them all was this COOPER’S HAWK, hardly moving a muscle, quietly marshaling its energy before its next sneak attack on an unsuspecting songbird.

Cooper's Hawk

Here’s the eBird LINK to the 31 species I found between Water and Riverside  on Monday.  I never fail to be amazed at the diversity and drama of this urban river.

Bankfull Channel

I talked to City Council member Chris Krohn about my concerns regarding the possible upcoming Bankfull river dredging project.  He sent on a list of my questions to Public Works Director, Mark Dettle, who responded promply with some helpful information.  Here’s what we know so far:

After decades of oversight, the Army Corps of Engineers, as we already know, is turning over the Levee Project to the City of Santa Cruz.  A problem that has arisen in this turnover process, according to Dettle,  is that actual 2017 flows “were about 1 foot higher than model predictions in the reach between Water Street and the Highway 1 Bridge.”  In other words, the City will not be protected against the 100-year flood, and will then have to face serious insurance problems.  Dettle wrote, “When this was brought to the CORPS’ attention, they were not interested in studying this issue and are proceeding with the project turnover.”  That response places the responsibility to get FEMA certification squarely on the slight shoulders of our City.  According to Dettle, it is the reason that the City is being forced to consider a Bankfull Channel Plan.

Dettle reported that the City is pursuing this plan “to increase sediment carrying capacity”.  He said, “The Bankfull design is a deeper, narrower channel in the larger channel so the low stream flows still have sufficient velocity to move the sediment out of the reach.”  He said that Public Works is ‘doing the environmental analysis now.”  When asked about whether the channel would be straight or winding, he said it ‘does not have to be a straight channel.”  I wonder if this is possible or feasible?

We also asked Dettle to comment on whether the City is working with the County to control erosion upstream, a major cause of downstream sediment buildup.  Dettle said that the city has had discussions with the County and Scotts Valley on this issue, but that “since a lot of the proerty is in private ownership, it is much more difficult to control the sediment loading.”  He added, “A lot of this material is a good source of beach sand.”

So the taxpayers of Santa Cruz may be burdened with a multi-million dollar dredging project that will be highly disruptive to wildlife because the County does not, or cannot afford to, enforce erosion control laws upstream.  This seems like a perfect emblem of what is wrong with a lot of our society.  The underlying causes are not addressed and the negative effects are felt ‘downstream’.

John Muir quote of the week:

“How little I know of all the vast show (of Nature), and how eagerly, tremulously hopeful of some day knowing more, learning the meaning of the divine symbols crowded together on this wondrous page.”

I’m glad we chose the word San Lorenzo River Mysteries for the name of our Blog.

May we all keep feeling the mystery of it all!

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fluffy-tailed Wonders

Hi Jane and Fellow Bird Lovers,

I’m checking in a bit late this week, returning just yesterday from a holiday trip to Sacramento to visit family and check out some astonishingly huge flocks of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes.  It was sundown when we arrived at the well-known spot where the cranes gather every evening during these winter months.   I never saw anything like it  – long swirling threads, high in the sky, created by thousands of birds outlined against the setting sun.  As the cranes descended, they burbled and gabbled in an excited cacophony, obviously  happy to be home for the night. I don’t know whether the Snow Geese were passing through or also heading home to rest.

EARED GREBE –NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING

I keep thinking about the lonely little EARED GREBE

Eared Grebe.winter
Eared Grebe, Winter plumage, San Lorenzo River, November 25, 2018. Photo by B. Riverwoman

that I wrote  about a month ago.   As you all probably know, I am curiously drawn to the grebe family, and have been a little worried that only one Eared Grebe has been reported on the river all this season. It seems I needn’t worry too much. It turns out that Eared Grebes congregate by the thousands in Mono Lake, which is the quiet brackish lake habitat that these  shrimp-loving waterfowl prefer.  I was happy to read that they are a ‘species of least concern’ in terms of their populations.  I do wonder what brings a few Eared Grebes here every winter?  I am glad a few brave or careless ones make the trip here, intentionally or unintentionally. And just look at how they are transformed once they return to their breeding grounds!

 

 

Eared rebe breeding
Eared Grebe, Breeding Plumage, Google Image

There are four species of grebes that are seen on the urban stretch of the San Lorenzo River, i.e PIED-BILLED GREBE, Eared Grebe, Horned Grebe and Western/Clark’s Grebe.    I have seen all four of these species  on the river over the last four years, although the last two are even more rarely observed on the river than the Eared Grebe. (They are all really lake birds, not river birds, although the Western Grebe likes to winter on coastal waters, occasionally   venturing into the lower reaches of the river.)

Since I haven’t been out on the river these last weeks, I send some old photos on to you all as an end-of-the-year retrospective.

PIED-BILLED GREBE – NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING

PBG in flood
Pied-billed Grebe, San Lorenzo River high water, February 5, 2017, winter plumage, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

PBG breeding
Pied-billed Grebe, San Lorenzo River, July 15, 2016, breeding colors (bright white bill, bright white eye-ring,  black stripe on bill and black chin), photo by B. Riverwoman
PBG w baby
Pied-billed Grebe carrying new baby, Google image

 

HORNED GREBE – NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING

Horned grebe winter
Horned Grebe, non-breeding plumage, Google image
Horned grebe breedingg
Horned Grebe, breeding plumage, Google image

 

WESTERN GREBE – NON-BREEDING AND BREEDING

Western Grebe
Western Grebe, winter plumage, Google image
Western Grebe dance
Western grebe, mating dance, Google image
Western Grebe breeding
Western Grebe, breeding plumage, with babies on back, Google image

Perhaps two of the reasons that I am especially fond of grebes is that they all carry their babies on their backs and the Western and Clark’s Grebes do amazing mating dances. I also carried my baby on my back and I love to dance.  I feel much more grebish on some days than human.

Another  way I  resemble the Pied-billed and Western Grebes is that the difference between my everyday clothes and dress-up clothes is very subtle.  Compare that to the astonishing transformations of the Eared and Horned Grebes.  .

Long live the fascinating Podicipedidae family!!  (I think this is pronounced something like Po-DEE-chi PEH-dih-day.)  ‘Podici’ means ‘rump’ in Latin.  The fluffy tails serve exactly the same purpose as bustles did in the old days, i.e. to accentuate the rump.

Happy New Year to us all!

Barbara

 

 

Of Bushtits and Blankets

Dear Jane and Nature Lovers,

As I fall back on my yearly strategies to stay warm during these cold days – pea soup, more blankets, fleecy slippers –  I am once again sobered by the  determination of the small songbirds who have to work so much harder than me to keep warm.

Pretty bushtit
Bushtit, San Lorenzo River, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I learned recently that one of the reasons that tiny Bushtits like the one  pictured here are almost always seen in flocks of 6 to 30 is because they also roost together at night, huddled in tight masses to prevent heat loss.  Judging from this photo, they are also very good at fluffing up their feathers to make a neat little down jacket for themselves when they aren’t huddling.

And please take a look at these pleasingly plump birds, a CALIFORNIA TOWHEE and ROCK DOVE (Feral Pigeon) with their inflatable down jackets –a better evolutionary strategy, it seems, than depending on Patagonia or, in my case, Good Will.

Puffed up Cal towhee
California Towhee, San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Puffed up pigeon
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon), San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

House Finch glelaning in Curly Willow
House Finch, San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Of course, the most important heat protection strategy of a bird is finding enough food on which to survive. Here’s a HOUSE FINCH I saw this week exploring the vegan riches along a beautiful branch of curly willow.  House finches eat almost no high-protein insects, but seem to do well on their plant-based diet. Of course, I like to hear this.

I shiver when I see songbirds taking baths in this cold weather. When I saw this GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW and House Finch staring at each other so seriously  from the roof of a home near the River, I thought they might be exchanging their

Golden-crowned and House Finch discuss bath house
Golden-crowned Sparrow and House Finch, San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

unique insights on how to stay warm.  Or maybe they are conversing about how titillating it is to take a cold bath on a cold day!

Click here to see my last eBird posting of the 24 species I saw in little more than an hour on the river just two days ago.

 

There is so much bad news on the environmental front that I was very happy to receive an article forwarded to me by Patricia Matejcek titled ‘Terrific Win for California Birds”.

Audubons's Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

It was about California’s  strong message to the federal government stating  its intent to continue protecting migratory birds in spite of federal legislation that would roll back the longtime legal protections of the Migratory Bird Act. As I spotted this YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER as well as the migrant RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS that are now  now flitting everywhere in the trees along the urban stretch of the river, I wanted to let them know that California is on their side in spite of Trump.

Last week I Levee certification Projectsaw the first concrete signs of the enormous flood control project that is slowly ratcheting up, possibly leading to what I now call the ‘dreaded dredging’ project. Employees of the engineering contractor MBK were out with their surveying instruments, recording and measuring everything from the placement of lampposts to topographical details of the levee.  If their results show that the levee will not provide protection against a 100- year flood, then the City is in trouble – flood-wise, financially, and environmentally.  Let’s hope these guys can find the evidence to convince FEMA that we are ready for the big flood.   Or – I’ll say it again – maybe we should just start packing our bags in readiness to leave the flood plain to the floods, and to all the habitat and wildlife that this departure of ours would support.

And coming full circle back to where this blog began four years ago – i.e. resisting recreational boating on the river – I chatted with these two Water Department employees as they were out measuring water quality.

Testing Water Qualityu
Water Department employees testing water quality, December 90, 2018

They were paddling along slowly but still managed to startle and flush out a GREAT BLUE HERON who screeched raucously and non-stop as she indignantly flew up river, finally finding respite at the top of a big pine tree.  Yes, even a single boat on the river for very good purposes, can dramatically disturb the avian wildlife of the river, even the usually unflappable Great Blue!

 

FGBH in retreat from Water Department canoe
Great Blue Heron retreating from boat, San Lorenzo River between Water and Soquel, December 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I hope some of you get to the Council Chambers tonight when our new Council is officially seated. Just imagine!  The top vote getter in the election was Justin Cummings, who has a PHD in eolutionary biology!   Am I dreaming?

Muir quote of the week:

“ After witnessing the bad effect of homelessness, developed to so destructive an extent in Califonia, it would assure every lover of their race to see the hearty home-building going on here and the blessed contentment that naturally follows it.”

John Muir (1838-1914)

This encampment just behind Ross Stores near the Felker St. Bridge is not exactly what John Muir had in mind, I know.   campsiteBut I can’t help but think that the closeness to the river and a few trees, plus the independence, provide at least some healing to those who, like the birds,  have to work harder than most of us to stay warm  during this chilly time of year.   The City provides porta-potties and trash pick-up and otherwise leaves the campers alone.

Stay warm, stay active, stay faithful to our feathered and non-feathered friends.  Happy Holidays to all.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday on the River

Dear Jane and Nature Lovers,

The river was celebrating yesterday.  Filled with the rain offerings from hundreds of small tributaries in the San Lorenzo River watershed, blessed by a perfectly sunny day, and clearly filled with a plenitude of fish, it was the kind of birding day that we all  dream of.  A glorious array of feathered creatures came to the party.

A newly arrived and delicately sculptured EARED GREBE, with her bulging petticoat in full display, came floating along as if slightly bewildered at this annual  change of venue.  “Where am I,” she seemed to be asking.  “And where is my flock?”

P1100448
Eared Grebe, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

She was accompanied slightly further downstream by three other migrating waterfowl species, including two sleeping RUDDY DUCKS, with their beaks buried deeply in their feathers and their eyes  opening only occasionally to make sure everything was safe.

 

ruddy duck, female
Sleeping Ruddy Duck, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Walking south just a bit further I finally got to see what I haven’t seen yet this season, the most elegant of all migrants, the handsome black and white male BUFFLEHEADS that you have been reporting now for some time, Jane.  I’m always surprised at how early they don their breeding plumage – sometime in October.  And how beautiful this plumage is!   Seen in the right light, their headdresses give off a shimmering display of iridescent colors.  Quite an evolutionary accomplishment!  They spend so little time between their underwater diving forays that I simply was not fast enough to capture a photo. Their regular migratory sidekicks, the golden-eyed and velvety brown-headed  COMMON GOLDENEYES were diving not far away and almost as hard to catch above water.

fishing escape
What I usually catch, at best, when I try to photograph a Pied-billed Grebe, a Bufflehead, or a Common Goldeneye

In the migrating songbird category, a few flashes of bright yellow brought me my first sight of the returning LESSER GOLDFINCHES while a large flock of migrant WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS foraged industriously on the ground among the grasses, hopefully enjoying what Santa Cruz has to offer in the way of a winter diet.

Year-round residents were also out in force.  I had barely stepped onto the levee walk, when I spied three shining  COMMON MERGANSERS,  sailing swiftly and purposefully upstream, searching for the surface dwelling fish.

Merganswers, Out Swimming
One male and two female Common Mergansers, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Nearby 4 DOUBLED-CRESTED CORMORANTS  and 2 PELAGIC CORMORANTS were busily diving  for their choice of fishy treats from the deeper reaches of the river.

pelagic  cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant with dark black feathers gleaming in the sun. San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Like the Ruddy Ducks, a GREAT BLUE HERON also appeared to be feeling sleepy, perhaps after fishing all night long.  She was tucked weirdly into a fork between two sycamore branches, and like the duck, only opened one eye occasionally to take a peek before settling back into turpitude.

GBH resting
Great Blue Heron wedged into a sycamore tree. San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

I almost missed seeing this nattily outfitted KILLDEER, so small and well camouflaged picking its way carefully between the river and the rocky shore.

killdeer
Killdeer, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Unlike me, she seem not at all excited when, in quick succession,   two loudly expostulating BELTED KINGFISHERS competed with a cackling GREEN HERON for the honor of noisiest fly-bys on the river.

 

I also got very distracted by my odd little friends, the AMERICAN COOTS.  I watched with amusement as one busy Coot plucked experimentally at a floating piece of vegetation that she had discovered, only to be visited by a perhaps curious or covetous cousin.  They seemed to discuss the situation, then the cousin left and the original Coot gave what I imagined was a big happy splash to think that she had her treat all to herself again.

 

 

6. Splash, it's mine!
Social coot in solitary enterprise. San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was especially happy to count 8 PIED-BILLED GREBES, more than I have ever counted on one day.  Needless to say, they were all fishing quite separately, definitely not a flocking type.  And my wish came true when I found an OSPREY holding court from the top branches of that tall sycamore at your end of the river, Jane, her regular  throne, I believe.

In all I spotted 26 species in my two-hour walk. Click here for the list. What an avian feast.  And unlike my earlier Thanksgiving feast (sans turkey) it didn’t make me fat!  Just very happy!

And speaking of Thanksgiving, I am filled with gratitude that Santa Cruz has chosen Justin Cummings, a person with deep environmental values, as one of the three new city councilperson.  The second top vote-getter, Donna Meyers, also has an impressive record over the years of serving in various  capacities related to the protection of the environment, but  I worry that she may not be able to withstand the powerful pressures of the real estate and development forces in town.  Drew Glover and Greg Larson are now third and fourth for the three available seats, separated by only twenty votes as I write this.  A real nail biter!  Drew will be strong on the environment as well as most social justice issues I care about, and I am rooting for him.  One oddity of the campaign, overlooked by most, is that David Yarnold, the  CEO and president of   the National Audubon Society, was on the long list of endorsers for Greg Larson.  What, I wonder, is that connection?  If Larson is elected, I hope to ask him about that!

I attended an absolutely wonderful Bird Club event two weeks ago that had me sitting on the edge of my seat during the whole brilliant presentation.

GCSP dominatn
Dominant Golden-crowned Sparrow (Google image)

The speaker was Theodora Block, a member of a research team at the UCSC Arboretum who has been studying the behaviors of GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS for the last six years.  She is continuing the work of the lead researcher Bruce Lyons, who has been studying this species for 20 years!  What a wealth of information.

The focus of her talk was how the size and intensity of gold color on the head of this migratory species is a signal of each bird’s place in a dominance hierarchy. A bird with the brightest and largest patch of gold places him or her at the top of the hierarchy.   Just below the top bird in terms of status is the the bird with the strongest side patches of black, a bird who is still not fully established in the chain of command and thus is still quite aggressive.

GCSP lower
Less dominant Golden-crowned Sparrow (Google image)

Below these two top birds are variations of black and gold, fading away to only the slightest wash of pale yellow and dull mottled grey/black coloring for the bird at the bottom of the dominance chain.

As I think I’ve mentioned, the range of the Golden-crowned sparrows is pretty much limited to western Washington, Oregon and California.  I wonder if this species is being studied anywhere else in such depth. They fill my backyard every winter, so I am now busily trying to see if I can detect any signs that my sparrows are following the dominance rules!  Flocks tend to return to the same spot year after year, so I am very unlikely to see one of the tagged Arboretum birds in my back yard, and an now assuming that many of my backyard birds are my friends from past years.

 

I opened my John Muir book in search of a good quote for this week and, in perfect synchronicity, the book fell open to this quote on gold-seeking! I think John Muir would sympathize strongly with Theodora Block’s version of gold seeking.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself;  and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean from the earth-stains of this sordid, gold-seeking crowd in God’s pure air.  It will help you in your efforts to bring to these people something better than gold.” John Muir

May we all find a way to build a world more deeply centered in Nature and distant from the  accumulation of external wealth.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becalmed

Dear Jane and Santa Cruz nature lovers,

Thanks, Jane, for your ‘breaking’ (and concerning) inside story of the most recent breach of the sand bar.  Good to have your bright eyes, and the bright eyes of your friends, on the river!

I took my first leisurely walk along the River for the first time in many weeks, soaking in the peacefulness of the slow-moving river, and falling into a very dreamy state myself. The sand bar must be back in place since the river is still very high up on my end.  As I walked along, I could feel my body relax into almost perfect resonance with the smooth, gray silence of this becalmed river.  It seemed a perfect emblem of my newly found protection from the roiling waters of the election season.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron, San Lorenzo River, November 12, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

As always, I marveled at the self-control and patience of a GREAT BLUE HERON, standing motionless and utterly concentrated, waiting for the moment to strike.  I wish I could have mustered this kind of contained power during the last few months.

As I ambled south on the River, wondering where all the MALLARDS had gone, I reached the Duck Pond and almost stumbled back as a huge flock of these highly sociable creatures came flapping and honking right in front of me, lowering their landing gear to create a huge splash in a small pond.  They quickly settled into a calmer state, just like me.

Mallard
Mallard in Duck Pond, November 12, 2018

I had wondered whether I would see any difference in bird life because of the terrible fires up north. I saw nothing that might be suspicious. The familiar birds were all there.  I did a Google search and found an interesting article on the Audubon Society website about the effect of wildfires on birds.  Not so surprising, birds are also susceptible to lung damage from smoke inhalation or polluted air as well as exhaustion while trying to escape. But they clearly are not as vulnerable as humans – with all our physical encumbrances and our major flaw,  the inability to fly away.   Indeed, many new feeding possibilities open up for some birds after a fire.   Click here  if you are interested in reading more.

Which brings me to the possible discovery of a protected snake species next door to my house.    I found my friend and neighbor, Batya, anxiously protecting a small snake from two troublesome cats, and waiting for another neighbor to bring a container.

Unknown
San Francisco Garter Snake, federally endangered, google image

After scooping the terrified and frozen snake into a can and hurriedly returning it to the levee, she consulted a reptile field guide and realized belatedly that the patterning was much closer to the federally endangered San Francisco Garter Snake than the more common Red-sided Garter Snake she had imagined before releasing it.  We ran out to the levee to try to get a photo, but it had moved on.  So no photo documentation of what could have been a big find. But here is the Google image in case you are looking for snakes as you walk the River.  I almost never see snakes except after a major disturbance like the vegetation removal each year.  The San Francisco Garter Snake’s normal habitat is limited almost entirely to San Mateo County so it would be very unusual to find it in Santa Cruz.

It’s sad to walk through San Lorenzo Park these days.  Chain link fences surround almost all the green areas where Santa Cruzans, including the homeless, used to find temporary respite.

Fence
New fencing just south of the Chinatown Bridge, river on the right, November 12, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The erection of the fences happened simultaneously with the closing of the Homeless River Street Camp on October 30th, turning 50 campers back onto the City streets with nowhere to go. It was especially maddening to have the City tell us that the fences were coincidental, and that they are simply there to allow for routine maintenance.  I scratch my head when I read the words ‘focused maintenance’ on the signs!  What, pray tell, is that.  C’mon folks! Let’s at least call a spade a spade. I have lived in Santa Cruz for 39 years and never seen so much fencing.

Sign
“Focused Maintenance, Public Safety” sign on the Benchlands.  So different from last year when the homeless were offered secure campsites in this spot with portapotties and sinks.  

I did manage to smile when I saw the controversial pump track, the Rotary Club’s solution to homeless camping, itself surrounded by the chain fence.  Ironic, isn’t it?

pump track
Pump Track entrapped by chain link fence

If anyone wants the City to find a better way to address the homeless situation than pump tracks or chain link fences, you can join a protest at the Santa Cruz City Post Office at 4 pm this Thursday, November 15.   Bring tents, sleeping bags, blankets and tarps if you want to spend the night in solidarity with the homeless.

Later on Thursday, starting at 6:30 p.m., there will be a wonderful opportunity to hear a specialist talk about her research on the GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW, a common  winter bird here in Santa Cruz but one that exists only on the west coast.  Theodora Block,a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz who is studying how individual behavior impacts the social structure of these sparrows, will be the speaker at the monthly Bird Club Meeting at the Museum of Natural History. For more information go to the Santa Cruz Bird Club website.  I’m including a link, click here,  to an article written this last summer by the same team of researchers studying dominance patterns among Golden-crowned Sparrows.

And here is my eBird report from two days ago.  Click here

Muir Quote of the Week: “The forests, too, seem kindly familiar, and the lakes and meadow and glad singing streams.  I should like to dwell with them forever.  Here with bread and water I should be content.”

It’s so good to have a river in one’s life.

Barbara

 

Soras: Heard But Not Seen

Hi Jane and Birding Aficionados,

One week left to the election and I am still donning my canvassing hat more often than my birding hat. Hopefully my next blog will be based on some serious birding.

I can only report that I read with a twinge of jealousy Shantanu Phukan’s eBird report this week about once again hearing (but not seeing) a SORA,  the sound emerging from among the tules down by the  Laurel Street Bridge.  I bustled down there this morning at about the same hour that Shantanu heard this elusive creature – but no luck.

google hi res
Sora, photo by Google

So here I am again – borrowing from Google a photo of this shy and solitary member of the rail family, so different than it’s gregarious and social cousin, the common American Coot who is also reappearing in large numbers on the River these days.  Here’s a photo that I took of a Sora in 2015, in its most typical, hidden-from-view, spot.

Sora hiding
Sora., San Lorenzo River, north of Laurel Bridge, 2015, photo by B. Riverwoman

Soras breed as far north as the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada, then fly back along the California Coast about this time of year on their way to Mexico and points south.  The Central Coast of California is the only spot in the entire U.S. where Soras are reported to also dwell year-round.  I wonder if Shantanu’s Sora is a migrant or a regular.  I suspect the former since she is being reported during the fall migratory season and is rarely seen at other times.

Here, for comparison,  are the Sora’s cousins, the highly visible and gregarious  AMERICAN COOTS .

American coots
Flock of American Coots, San Lorenzo River, 2015, photo by B. Riverwoman

Also in the heard but not seen category was a  GREAT-HORNED OWL heard from the direction of the River last Friday night as I was sitting around a campfire here at El Rio..  So good to know they are out there.

owl
Great Horned Owl, Google image, 

And shortly afterwards we heard the almost nightly cries of coyotes coyotewho are rumored to be parading down the riverwalk and even wandering into the mobile home park.  My friend Batya says she often hears the coyotes responding to the sirens of the ambulances at night.    I love it when nature begins to encroach on civilization.

 

Quote of the Week:

“Contemplating the lace-like fabric of streams outspread over the mountains, we are reminded that everything is flowing, going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Rocks flow from volcanoes like water from springs, while the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood globules in Nature’s warm heart.”  John Muir

May we  vote for those people and measures that we judge best suited to nourish the flow of life on our amazing planet.

Barbara

 

 

 

Measure M for Birds and Humans

Hi Jane and all,

As I think I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been spending most of my time these days trying to protect some habitat for my own species. I’ve saved all of my bird walking energy for canvassing the neighborhoods for Measure M, the rent control ballot measure.  At 80 years old I have to measure out my walking time carefully.

It’s funny how protecting human habitat and bird habitat in Santa Cruz kind of amounts to the same thing. Birds and people in Santa Cruz are being driven out primarily due to commercial and recreational development for financial gain. Some people think, and even say, ‘well, if birds get driven out of the San Lorenzo River (or people out of Santa Cruz),  they can always go somewhere else’.  That’s just plain wrong for animals and just as wrong for humans.  Animals establish their territories for specific reasons (safety, food and water availability,  nesting habitat, etc.  They do this at considerable expense, and depend on that habitat to survive.  With humans, we also move into a place for specific reasons – family, friends, nearby schools, services, quiet, the neighborhood, the cost. We want to stay there for these reasons. Our homes aren’t interchangeable for  homes anywhere.  Measure M would protect the 5500 humans that now live in their rented homes and would be covered by Measure M, but will be vulnerable to eviction the day Measure M loses.   Let’s not let that happen.  Let’s keep birds and humans safe in their homes!

two close crows
Two American Crows, talking things over – perhaps.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

I did take one walk where I captured some photos that made me smile, especially these two crows either schmoozing, begging, or perhaps plotting an assault on a hapless  hawk; and this row of very well behaved pigeons in perfect formation.

pigeons in a row
14 pigeons, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I sometimes think that pigeons would make good candidates for military school. They are impressive in both their flight formations and their battlement line-ups!

 

 

There are many new signs of ongoing efforts  by the Public Works Department to control our River.  Here’s a photo of the surface of the riverbed that has been ploughed into furrows in hopes that a fast flowing stream will carry away some of the excess sediment that will otherwise have to be dredged. I hope it works.

roughing up
Flood Control, San Lorenzo River, October 14, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was surprised to see this unfamiliar little creature which I am guessing is a juvenile CALIFORNIA TOWHEE. Also a late breeder.

towhee juv
Juvenile California Towhee, October 14, 2018, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I also stepped back with surprise at my first sight of a hammock on the Riverwalk, hung skillfully between a redwood tree and the exercise station.  A fashionable new trend for the unhoused?

hammock
Hammocking on the River, October 14, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman,

Finally, stealing a moment to take a short walk at twilight, I was happily drawn into the magic of a solitary Pied-billed Grebe outlined against the silky, sunlight-infused  surface of the River.

grebe in sunset
Pied-billed Grebe at sunset, San Lorenzo River, October 12, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here’s a quote from John Muir about why you and I, Jane, go back again and again to the same place – even though the urban river isn’t exactly pure wilderness:

“So abundant and novel are the objects of interest in a pure wilderness …it matters little where you go or how often to the same place.  Wherever you chance to be always seems at the moment of all places the best; and you feel that there can be no happiness in this world, or in any other, for those who may not be happy here.”  John Muir

May we all find happiness wherever we find ourselves.

Barbara