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!

Image_0
“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!

Barbara

 

 

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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.

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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
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!

Barbara

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
Cana

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.

P1110142
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.

Starling
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.

Barbara

 

 

Mud, Wind and Rain

Dear Jane and Other Windblown, Rainsoaked Adventurers,

It’s been a pretty wild week, hasn’t it!  Even thunder and lightning slipped in for a short visit  under cover of  dark.  I do miss my Minnesota thunderstorms.

I ventured out the day before the big storm was predicted to hit, always loving it when the sky turns dark and foreboding, and everything seems slightly ominous.  The world holds its breath.

I don’t know if I just imagined it, but the birds seemed to be congregating in larger groups than usual that day.  A pretty large flock of  LESSER GOLDFINCHES seemed

Lesser Goldfinch flock
Flock of LesserGoldfinches with one House Finch, El Rio Mobile Home Park on levee, February 1, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

agitated as they flitted about in a leafless grape arbor, close to the levee.   I saw a  group of 18 AMERICAN COOTS hugging  the banks, a larger congregation than I usually see.  When things get rough, stick together.   I thought of your very interesting comments, Jane, in your last blog, on how the birds near the besieged trestle seem to be anticipating danger and disruption ahead of time.  Since birds probably don’t think into the future, does the space between now and the future collapse into the present.  Do they live in some kind of timeless, non-cognitive world that folds the future into the present?

Two  CANADA GEESE  near the Chinatown Bridge, seemed preoccupied with

Geese Fixing Tailfeathers
Two Canada Geese, San Lorenzo River near Chinatown Bridge, February 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

tuning up their tail feathers, while a GREEN HERON once more took refuge in the quiet waters of the Duck Pond, peering  around anxiously rather than actively concentrating on the fishing.   Was I just projecting or was all of nature, including me,  waiting for something to descend upon us?  While we filled our cars with gas, the birds lubricated their feathers, took cover, and gathered in protective groups.

Green heron
Green Heron, Duck Pond, February 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My pre-storm outing  concluded rather grandly.   Just as I approached my gate, I spied a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK in a tall redwood on the levee just up from he County Jail. Then, suddenly,  a COOPER’S HAWK came shooting  over my head, landing  on a nearby eucalyptus tree just behind Bank of America.  After studying her for a minute, I turned back to  the other hawk and my eye was led skyward to  an OSPREY perched at the pinnacle of another tall redwood  just across the street from the County Building, all visible at the same time from the spot where I stood.   A bank, a county government building and a jail!  And a rapturous raptor moment for me in urban Santa Cruz.

According to eBird, I have now reported on a total of 109 species seen on the urban stretch of the river  – they keep count for you!  But it’s not about numbers.  For me it’s about trying to imagine what it is like to be a solitary pied-billed grebe, or a busily grooming goose,  or a nervous green heron.

The storm hit Saturday, and I stayed hunkered down inside – but went out again the next day during a sunny break.  The wind was still high, and the river looked like soft coffee ice cream.  Wouldn’t that be nice!  Here are two photos, the first on February 1 before the storm hit, and the second on February 3, during a lull in the storm.  It shows the huge loads of sediment that the  river was bearing to the sea, and also suggesting the layers of silt it may unfortunately  – for us humans – be laying down on the bottom of the river.

Here are two photos of the river, before and after the storm, looking north  from the  Chinatown Bridge towards Water St.Bridge.

Looking north Feb. 1
Looking upstream from the Chinatown Bridge  to the Water St. Bridge, February 1, 2019, before the heavy rains came. Photo by B. Riverwoman
Feb. 3 looking north 2
Looking upstream from the Chinatown Bridge  to the Water St. Bridge, February 3, 2019, after the heavy rains came. Photo by B. Riverwoman

There were almost no diving waterfowl on the river after the storm – except two COMMON GOLDENEYE that were not diving.  Even with their bright yellow eyes, which might be good for seeing in murky water  (I think of the eyes of owls), they were still just floating along on the surface, not fishing.  This brave KINGFISHER was also out and about,

Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher, San Lorenzo River, February 3, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

but I never saw him leave the telephone wire.  Maybe the thought of plunging into that fast-moving river of coffee and cream just wasn’t enticing.  He was no doubt hungry.  What should he do?

The PIGEONS, on the other hand, whom I rarely see feeding, seemed to be enjoying the wild wind.  A flock of about 75 would lift up together, sail in elegant formation above the houses and trees, settle to rest for a moment in a tidy line along a telephone wire, then, as if of a single mind, in perfect synchrony, happily abandon themselves again to the wind!

Pigeons in the wind
Pigeons returning to telephone wire in high wind, February 3,  2019, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Two top birders in the area, Lois Goldfrank and Phil Brown,  visited our stretch of the river on January 13 and reported a PALM WARBLER and a LINCOLN’S SPARROW.  I have found the latter bird only once in my life, but will re-double my efforts.

For those of you who still don’t know about Monterey Bay Birds (mbbirds) Google Group, I strongly encourage you to subscribe.  You can get regular updates by e-mail of interesting sightings throughout the County.  This week Randy Wardle posted his monthly report on what birds we can expect to see leaving, arriving and breeding this month – jam-packed with useful information.  One of the things he mentioned is that ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS and BUSHTITS are already nesting  and DARK-EYED JUNCOS and other cavity nesters may begin this month as well.  All San Lorenzo regulars. Keep your eyes open.

Here are my two e-Bird lists this week: February 1 and February 3. 

John Muir quote of the week:

“The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Special love to one whose soul was shaken deeply by the storm of life, who sought peace in the wilderness of the  Sierra Nevada and who has now abandoned her dear self to the wind and the waves.  Rest in peace,  brave  woman.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Restore the Benchlands

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird, Tree and Wild Mushroom Lovers,

Hardly believeable, is it Jane!  It is now just slightly over four years that you and I have been busy bloggers, celebrating all the wild surprises that await  nature lovers along this short stretch of urban river.  And of course, the more I learn, the more there is to protect.

I think between us we must have reported on most of the 122 species that our beloved and deceased master bird guru, Steve Gerow, identified as regular inhabitants of the urban river, species who depend for their survival on this stretch between the estuary and Highway 1.

steve-gerow-1-younger-lag-10-3-08-david-suddjian
Steve Gerow, master birder and teacher at Younger Lagoon., died 2018,  Photographer unknown. 

This number of 122 species, according to eBird, grows to 214 if you include rarities, as well as primarily ocean and beach species that occasionally appear a short ways up the river. But it was the 122 species that most concerned us when we  started this blog, and it is these same species that we will probably try to protect for the rest of our lives.

Well, today, I want to stretch the rules of our blog just a little bit.  I want to venture just a few steps north of our usual stretch to the area behind the Tannery, an area that because it is more truly riparian has the ability to show us how our river might have appeared before the levees were built. And, more importantly for this blog, how it might still exist if the City were to develop a plan to restore the Benchlands to a riparian woodland like the one behind the Tannery.  It took me more than a year to realize that – ah, yes – the Benchlands is the only area in our urban stretch of river which has no levee.  That means that it is a real wetland, open to flooding, which, by definition,  makes it a true riparian area.  It also means that it the only stretch along the entire urban river, strictly speaking,  that is open to true riparian restoration, as opposed to revegetation.

As most of of you know by now, this is my dream for the future – that the Benchlands be restored to the natural riparian woodland and wetland that it was in past years.  My dream is that it would be a protected area in the heart of downtown –with winding paths under native alder, sycamore, cottonwood and box elder trees, a slightly wild area that would include fallen trees, tangles of native backberries, wild mushrooms and all the other rich flora that grow naturally  along the damp edge of a river.  It would provide the public with easy access to a world of peace, quiet, and natural beauty in the heart of the downtown, a place with a few benches where people could sit quietly to rest during a lunch break or after an afternoon of shopping downtown.   I invite readers to take a little walk behind the Tannery sometime and try to visualize duplicating this environment on the Benchlands.

Here are  three of the birds that I saw this last week that never or rarely go south of Highway 1, but might try it if the environment was inviting.   Two of these birds  need dense and large wooded areas for their survival.  The third is highly dependent  on a certain tree for both its feeding and nesting habitat.

Stellar's Jay
STELLAR’S JAY, Tannery, January 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

The first bird is the STELLAR’S JAY, A common species in THE Santa Cruz Mountains and behind the Tannery, but one that I have absolutely never seen south of Highway 1.   It is as if there is some kind of invisible wall or sign that forbids a Stellar’s Jay from going south of that line.  I think the invisible sign must say ‘The dense coniferous forest ends here.  Proceed at your own risk.”  These jays are a species that love coniferous/deciduous forests and apparently do not consider the small patches of redwoods in the well-groomed Benchlands a suitable habitat.  I don’t blame them.  Perhaps we could lure them a little south if there were denser stands of older, coniferous trees in the Benchlands.

Another species that is tightly tied to a specific habitat is the small  OAK TITMOUSE.   As its name suggests, this species depends heavily on one tree, preferring to nest, roost and find its preferred insects and spiders along the branches and trunks of large oak trees. I saw two of these nondescript little gray/brownish birds this week,  hopping about in an enormous and beautiful oak tree behind the Tannery.  Although I failed to get a photo, here is one I took last March just south of Highway 1 on the east side of the river, on an old oak tree that somehow survived the levee construction

titmouse
Oak Titmouse on Oak Tree, San Lorenzo River between Highway 1 and Water St., March 25, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

Although common in their range, these titmice have one of the most limited ranges of all the birds in California, almost always occurring in the Pacific Slope (west of the Sierras) and extending only from southern Oregon to Baja. Because oak woodlands in California have been depleted by 25 to 50% since 1900,  due to expanding agriculture, rangeland and urbanization, these nondescript little birds are very vulnerable.  I’d love to plant some large oaks in the Benchland to provide at least a little more apropriate habitat for these common but threatened birds.  I see them occasionally at my seed and suet feeders, but I suspect they are only visiting under pressure, and would much rather be foraging further north in a more natural  habitat..

Another bird that I have seen in the Benchlands on only one or two occasions is a more frequent resident of the  the Tannery woodlands.  It is one of my favorites – the BROWN CREEPER that spirals up the trunk of a tree, using its long, curved beak to forage for insects under the bark . When it reaches the top, it may fly back down to the

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper, Tannery, January 19, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

bottom of the tree and start up again, or fly off to another tree and start over again from the bottom.  (As I was trying to catch this photo of the Creeper, my camera lit on what I thought was the Creeper, but oddly, it had stopped moving. Guess what it was!  Yes, a very birdy looking leaf.   I had to quickly regroup to catch up with the real Creeper.)

Leaf, not bird
Believe it or not, this is a leaf, pretending it is a Creeper, on the same tree branch as the Creeper.!  January 19, 2019, photo by B. Riverwoman

Brown Creepers depend on large old trees, actually building little hammocks underneath the loose bark on living trees or dead snags. According to Birds of North America, old growth trees (ideal for creepers) are increasingly scarce in North America and elsewhere in the breeding range. According to this same source, “bark surface area, depth, and complexity of bark furrows in large trees and sloughing of bark in dying or dead trees offer unique foraging and nesting opportunities not available on smaller trees”.  Given this fact, it is amazing that we still see Brown Creepers in the Benchlands, much less the urban stretch of the river.   You can see that the tree that attracted this Brown Creeper behind the Tannery was most definitely not old growth, though still providing some loose bark behind which insects are hiding!  Birds may continue to survive long past the time when they can enjoy the habitat to which they are best adapted.  But how much does it stess them?  How close to the edge of extinction do they exist?  What is their reproductive success? I am always asking myself these questions.

Here are my two Tannery e-bird lists from this week, 21 species on the 19th and 12 species on the 21st.

January 19, 2019

January 21, 2019

My friend Batya accompanied me on one of my Tannery trips introducing me to her old friend, the Shaggy Mane mushroom.  I was quite astonished at the changes that this mushroom goes through as it ages.  Below is a slide show (the wonders of Word Press) that shows three stages of the mushroom, from quite firm, to slowly ‘deliquescing’ to absolutely oozing and dripping black goo.  The show includes brave Batya, smelling and touching this formidable wonder.  Let’s also bring back the Shaggy Mane to the Benchlands so we can all enjoy its curious habit of  deliquescing!

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And although Monarchs are everywhere, this one was clearly enjoying something that it was drawing out of the tender buds of a willow.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nearby place where city workers and shoppers could go to take in the world of jays, titmice, creepers, mushrooms, butterflies – and a real woods?  Shouldn’t we be making more room, rather than less, for these incredible natural miracles in our own backyards?  Let’s talk it up!

Monarch suckingon willow buds
Monarch Butterfly dipping into a willow bud.  Tannery, January 19, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

John Muir quote of the day,

“Any fool can destroy trees. Trees cannot run away and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.  Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests.  During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees – tens of centuries old, that have been destroyed.”

With all due respect to John Muir, and considering what resilience the Brown Creeper and Oak Titmouse exhibit,  let’s give those small gray and brown birds every chance to continue. Let’s lure them a little bit south and let everyone get to make their acquaintance.

Congratulations to nature lovers Gillian Green and Dawn Schott-Morris, who – thanks to the new Council Majority – were appointed yesterday as members of the Parks and Recreation Commission.  So glad you will have their support, Jane, in protecting the natural treasures of Santa Cruz.

Adelante,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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