I happily accepted your invitation, Jane, to visit our newly arrived and elegant friends, the BUFFLEHEADS and GOLDENEYES, at your end of the river. I never fail to be amazed that they find their way back each year from their breeding grounds in Canada. I have to admit that it has taken me too many years to figure out that many waterbirds assume their breeding plumage in the fall while songbirds and shorebirds wait until spring to dress up in their courting finery. I don’t know why. After all, they all give birth in the spring. Here is the handsome male Bufflehead I saw yesterday with his glamorous iridescent neck and forehead. It took me at least thirty shots to catch this elusive guy above water. They barely catch their breath before diving in search of another fish..
Like you I also saw the poor Buffleheads pushed out of their area, this time by a flock of about 200 gulls, all splashing and squawking. They are an unruly bunch, these gulls, especially when they spot a cousin who has found an especially desirable treat. I saw this peaceful scene near the Riverside Bridge suddenly erupt into a a wild and noisy chase with the whole family demanding a share of the treat. A small group of five Buffleheads, busily fishing nearby, were forced to beat a quick retreat once the uproar began. They huddled about 30 yards from the good fishing spot they had thought was theirs – losing precious fishing time until things settled down again.
I was also glad, Jane, that you pointed out that the male Goldeneye lingers behind while the female arrives here first. There was no male visible on yesterday’s walk either, although I saw 12 females (and perhaps juveniles) with their distinctive pointy heads and bright golden eyes.
I was happy to catch sight of maybe the first two fall arrivals of EARED GREBES on the river. These little brown waterbirds seem quite nondescript compared to Buffleheads and Golden-eyes – until one gets a close-up look at their fluffy crinolines peeking out from behind, quite enticing don’t you think! As you know, I am quite partial to grebes.
And like you, Jane, I am always pleased to see the now familiar OSPREY and DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS hanging out on those tenacious eucalyptus trees, In spite of the bad rap these non-native trees get, there is no denying that they provide great habitat for our fishing friends like the ospreys and cormorants. .
I had seen a Double-crested Cormorant a little earlier in my walk, drying her wings after a fishing expedition. This spot was upstream from the trestle on a fallen snag, another favorite place for her. I never tire of watching cormorants do this.
And now in the opposite category of creatures occupying unusual spots. I was a little surprised to see this lordly GREAT BLUE HERON high in a tree, instead of on the more usual river bank or open field.
In the same vein, I was quite amused to see the little peon GROUND SQUIRREL below, also perched somewhat perilously, and unusually high up, in a shrub. I imagined that the little fellow was a bit surprised to find himself so high, maybe contemplating how to get down. I wonder if something chased him up there? I have rarely seen a ground squirrel sit still for so long in such a visible place.
Click here to see my eBird list of the 22 bird species I saw yesterday.
Quote of the Day.
“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”
Henry David Thoreau
May we all enjoy some close up looks at the natural wonders around us, even in the middle of a City.
Dear Jane and Other Heartsick Lovers of our Vanishing Birds,
Did you see the just released cover of the 2019 autumn edition of Living Bird? It was shocking. Instead of the usual gorgeous photo of a gorgeous bird, the cover was almost solid black, with one lone feather way down in the right hand corner, and the words “3 Billion Birds Lost” in the other corner.
The lead story, based on a study from the top scientific journal Science, reported that in just the past 50 years, more than 1 in 4 birds has disappeared across North America. That is catastrophic! According to the lead author of the Report,
“These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife, and that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.“
Many of the bird families that have lost the most ground, according to the study, are the common ones. The hardest hit are the blackbird family, finch family, lark family, sparrow family and warbler family. Some of our common birds on the river were singled out as suffering the biggest losses.
According to the study, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS have lost 30% of their populations, SONG SPARROWS (this is the one that choked me up) have lost 20% of their populations, and DARK-EYED JUNCOS have lost a third of their population. I know that from now on, every time I hear the whistle-buzz-trill of the song sparrow singing its heart out every spring, it will be like a tiny dagger in my heart. I have come to love these plain little songsters.
According to Steve Gerow, red-winged blackbirds used to breed along the riverine reach of the urban river. But I don’t think I’ve even seen a red-winged blackbird since I took this photo in 2015, much less seen any sign of breeding.
A consolation is that I know that there were breeding song sparrows and breeding juncos this year during breeding season. This little junco was hopping around with brothers and sisters in San Lorenzo Park this summer, not the safest habitat, but they seemed to be surviving.
The author reminds us of the extinction of passenger pigeons, the complete loss of which no one would have have believed possible. But they are gone forever.
The article in Living Bird didn’t mention our common WESTERN SCRUB-JAY , but it did cite the STELLAR JAY as one of the most heavily affected species, losing 29% of its population. I’ll do more research on the scrub jay and let you know what I find out.
The authors of the study are quick to point out that all is not lost – wood duck populations are up 50%, raptors up 200%. We have both on our river. Their numbers are up because they were identified in the past as threatened and conservation efforts were successful. The other co-author of the study, Adam Smith, offers this message of hope:
“The successes of the past are the candles in the dark that will guide us towards solutions in the future.”
And speaking of bringing hope, I just read in the paper that Desiree Quintero, who I wrote about in my May 1 post this last summer, was killed by a falling tree in a small camp in the Pogonip. She was a strong and compassionate leader at Ross Camp, bringing hope to many other women in the camp. If you missed that blog, you can read about her here. May this brave woman rest in peace.
Let’s make every effort to protect our avian and human species, especially the most threatened.
You can click here for my eBird list of October 12 (22 species) , and here for my October 26th list (26 species) .
In the category of comic relief, I had to laugh out loud as I watched a mischievous AMERICAN CROW teasing a Ground Squirrel by sneaking up behind it and pecking at its tail! I could hardly believe my eyes. And once wasn’t enough. The crow returned again and again, repeating his sneak attack, causing the hapless squirrel to jump in surprise and then run off. But it couldn’t have been too painful since the squirrel also kept coming back for more. It didn’t look that different from kids playing some kind of tag game on the playground.
Twenty-two species graced the River yesterday as I ambled, stopped, peered up into the trees, then down into the river, slowly feeling myself enter that peaceful state that this river almost always confers on me. With the dark shadow of local politics weighing heavily on me these days, I am especially grateful to this eternal flowing presence, restoring some level of sanity to my life.
I had noticed that you, Jane, had posted on eBird a sighting of an EARED GREBE on the 9th, and someone named George Cook posted a Greater Scaup on October 4th – two first-of-season arrivals on the river. I decided to venture into your salty end of the river this week and, if lucky, offer my personal welcome back greeting to these two winter migrants, the first a regular on the winter river, and the second something of a rarity.
I didn’t find the migratory grebe, but I did find the GREATER SCAUP (pronounced sk-awe-p). I almost missed this best bird of the day because some fellow river enthusiast saw my binoculars and, as often happens, stopped to chat about birds. (Carrying binoculars is almost like pushing a stroller or walking a dog. ) I was just telling him the name of the ‘white bird’ (Snowy Egret) when I fortunately glanced back at the river and realized that I was looking at my Scaup – sailing upstream with two MALLARDS. I abruptly ended my conversation.
For you readers who haven’t met this bird yet, she is more likely to be seen at this time of year migrating south in flocks of as many as a thousand, usually seen on the open ocean during migration season, or resting inland on shallow wetlands. Skaups are one of only a very few duck species that are ‘circumpolar’ in their breeding, raising their young around the globe in places like Siberia and Alaska. As a loyal Minnesota girl, I am especially partial to these birds who favor the norther regions. I started wondering how long she had been on the road from her breeding grounds in Alaska, and whether she would be staying here for the winter, or pressing on further south.
I was sad to read in Birds of North America that the Greater Scaup are listed as a “Common Bird in Steep Decline,” which means that they have seen at least a 50% loss of their population in the last 40 years. According to this source, “several factors may be contributing to the Greater Scaup’s decline, including warmer water in Alaska, contaminants, disturbance, habitat degradation, and hunting…. from 2012–2016 hunters took on average 69,366 Greater Scaup per year.” Maybe it is time to forbid hunting birds that are in ‘steep decline’. If not now, when? I dream of reaching the point in our evolutionary history when our deeply engrained predatory instincts yield naturally to choices more in line with conservation goals. But first we have to lose the taste for duck, which I used to love. No more!
One of the treats of birding at your end of the river, Jane, is the chance of seeing an OSPREY. And I wasn’t disappointed. This shaggy, almost mythical creature, with its astonishingly hooked beak that makes a sharp 90 degree turn downward, came roaring out of nowhere, swooping way too close to 9 small KILLDEERS skittering along a sandbank on the edge of the river and shrilling loudly in alarm.
Even though the book says that 99% of an Osprey’s food comes from live fish, I couldn’t stop worrying about that 1% that includes birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats, and salamanders. Maybe the Osprey was just showing off as it skimmed the sandbank next to the killdeers. In any case, it spurned the killdeer as prey and returned to the sky, grandly circling overhead for a few turns, then returning to take a bath in the river, not too far from the killdeers but far enough so that the small songbirds calmed down and continued bobbing along on their own less dramatic but still predatory journeys .
Happily, Ospreys are a conservation success, their populations growing by 2.5% per year from 1966 to 2015! Killdeer populations declined overall by about 47% between 1966 and 2014, with steeper declines in Canada and the West, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. But they are a common species and not yet on the list of birds of concern. Still….
And in the controversial AMERICAN CROW department, I was impressed at the kitchen tool discovered by this clever crow. The crevice in the rock seemed the perfect device for safely securing whatever this tough orange delicacy was that the crow hammered away at for quite some time. Any guesses as to what the goodie might have been?
And don’t you all love the way that cormorants lift their heads so proudly as they swim along, like this DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT perhaps showing off her beautiful butterscotch-colored pouch.
Check out my eBird list from yesterday – click here – if you want to see what else I saw on my healing walk downriver.
Quote of the Day: “In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
Robert Lynd, Irish poet and nationalist
May you all spend some time this week in a silent space.
Crows are getting on peoples’ nerves these days. My neighbor Alicia told me recently that she got extremely mad at an AMERICAN CROW that she saw eating a songbird this last summer. She said emphatically that she would never like crows again, that in fact she now hated them. I had thought that crows were only scavengers of dead animals, but according to Ehrlich’s major reference, “The Birder’s Handbook,” book, crows will indeed eat not only birds’ eggs but also nestlings. Perhaps Alicia’s songbird was a nestling, prematurely fallen from a tree. Nonetheless, crows are basically scavengers, usually eating what we grow or toss, as evidenced by this crow having his morning croissant dipped in river water.
Is it possible the crows are getting even pushier these days? Recently I saw three AMERICAN CROWS harassing a COOPER’S HAWK who was perched on a telephone line over the river minding his own business. The crows took turns diving at the raptor who, for the moment, was the hapless target of crows rather than the predator of hapless songbirds. The hawk finally flew off, probably deciding
that life was too short to take on this particular group of well-organized ruffians. One of the crows promptly plopped himself down on the spot where the hawk had been and started happily preening, no doubt relishing his recent triumph.
My daughter Kate, visiting from Sacramento, went out on the river for a run this last week. Just as she was approaching the Riverside Bridge, she saw a SNOWY EGRET flying in with her feet out, grawking loudly at two crows, presumably signaling her territorial rights or intentions. The crows were facing her and squawking back, energetically flapping their wings for added effect. Kate said that there was much uproar for a few seconds, then the two crows flew away grumbling and the egret landed. One for the other side – and a delicate egret at that! (The egret photo is from a few years back – with no crows. )
My everpresent curiosity about crows was now piqued, I returned once again to my wonderful book titled “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” by John Marzluff (Yale University Press 2005.) Marzluff has some fascinating stuff about how crows co-evolved with humans ever since earliest history. He goes so far as to say that our social evolution might be partly determined by the need to cooperate in order to protect ourselves from predatory and scavenging crows during the hunting and gathering era, and especially in agricultural times – thus the agricultural term “scarecrow”! He says that in turn, “much of the culture of today’s american crow is a direct response to our ancestors’ agrarian culture.” He then brings it down to the present moment and, interestingly, mentions high-rise buildings. “The roosting culture of many corvids has also responded to the warmth, protection, and vertical structure that our cities provide.” This makes me wonder if we should be using this argument in our challenges to the seven-story luxury buildings being planned for downtown Santa Cruz! Will they attract unwelcome crows as they did in Berlin where, Marzluff says, winter evenings were marked by the arrival of thousands of crows onto the glass skyscrapers to roost communally in a warm, safe location. The main point Marzluff is making, of course, is that we ourselves are responsible for crow behavior since our lives have always been, and still are, so closely intertwined
Yet in our indignation at crows, let’s not forget that not only hawks, falcons and owls eat other birds, but so do our beautiful river friends, the great blue herons and black-crowned night-herons. And crows, for the most part, eat only carrion, not live animals. No matter how we cut it, it’s a hard life for those little songbirds. No wonder they are constantly looking over their shoulders!
Speaking of owls, two other neighbors, Batya and Cass, separately reported to me that about 10 p.m. on Thursday last week they saw, independently, two owls circling overhead near the river, their underwings white and one of them at least emitting a screech that could have been the begging call of a juvenile GREAT HORNED OWL, or could have been the similar sound of a BARN OWL. Both Batya and Cass also heard the inimitable hooo-hooo of the Great Horned Owl. It seems kind of unlikely that both species would have been out and about at the same time, but who knows. In any case, we know there was at least one great-horned owl and possibly two barn owls to boot. Ah – I wish I had seen that! Maybe the appearance of both owls presaged the Climate Strike actions the next day which started in more or less the same area. That would be cosmically satisfying. It was more likely, though, that the birds were attracted by all the newly opened-up space created by the flood control work.
On September 24th I began to fret about the GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS who I knew were due back from their summer breeding grounds in British Columbia and Alaska. Where were they? The white-crowned sparrows had already been back a week.
I checked my noteook where I try to keep a list of the arrival and departure dates of migrants. I noticed that the first GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW arrived last year on September 25. Unbelievably, the next day, I heard the plaintive descending whistle of the Golden-crowned in my back yard, returning on exactly the same date as last year! Incredible! I haven’t gotten a photo of a returnee yet, but here’s one from April of this year, just before this Golden-crowned left for the north in her brightest breeding plumage. The males and females of this species are indistinguishable.
May you all have a wonderful experience of wildness this week, either far away or in your backyard. .
Starting this Friday, September 20th, we are all invited to join in a week-long series of hopefully historic Climate Strike events culminating a week later, on Friday, September 27th, in citywide student walk-outs. On that last day, students at colleges,
high schools and middle schools across Santa Cruz will leave their schools in early afternoon, march downtown, converge at Wells Fargo bank on River and Front St. at 2:15 p.m., then march to the future downtown Green Commons at the Farmers Market parking lot for speeches and activities, starting at 4 p.m. Click here to go to the Climate Strike website for information on lists of all the activities, sponsoring organizations, free films, community art projects and more! You can participate in any or all of these, during the week-long build-up to the big day – and on the big day itself.
I personally plan to start out the week as a rabbit, walking down Pacific Garden Mall to my probable doom at the hands of some sinister climate change forces that I’m told will be waiting for us hapless animals somewhere around New Leaf Market. For that fun event you can join me and others at the Town Clock about noon on Monday, the 23rd.
Well – the major flood control work on the levee is now into its second week, and this female HOUSE FINCH seems to epitomize the story. She was clearly relishing
the sweet fruits of the season, her stained beak testimony to many indulgent days of gourmet delights. She was in the same spot not only before the cutting, but a week after the chainsaws entered the picture! I sent this photo to the City Council members and council member Cynthia Mathews wrote me back saying this reminded her that she also liked to go out gathering wild berries at this time of year and that she still hoped to make some blackberry pies this season. I was pleased to get that note.
The crew this year is taking pains to protect the blackberry thickets, the coyote brush, the coastal live oak and a few other natives. And I have to say that the levee banks look more park-like this year, getting closer to achieving that sweet point between protecting non-threatening habitat and still complying with the Army Corps flood control prescriptions. A big shout-out to Public Works staff , who are definitely on board this year in terms of compliance with the City’s governing documents and also more interested in protecting some of the understory native plants that don’t pose a threat in terms of flood control. I sympathize with their situation. It’s a heavy burden to be responsible for protecting a City against a potentially devastating flood, especially in this time of increasing consciousness about sea-level rising.
I was particularly thrilled to see the crew chief, Randy Clayton, on Monday, the 9th, the first day of the mowing. There he was, loping down the Riverwalk towards us in his wide-brimmed leather cowboy hat, hailing me with a “Hi, Grandma!” and giving me a big hug. It was a far cry from two or three years ago when he was so peeved at me for my constant complaints and interference that he threatened to ‘throw me in the chipper’. I knew he’d been really sick last year and in the hospital with major heart surgery. I thought he might have died. Instead, there he was, totally resurrected, with his new heart and broad grin, ready to take on the grueling job of vegetation removal once again. He’s gotten this city contract for years, going back to when he used to drive a team of draft horses to power the mower!
Over the years, Randy has come to know the names and nesting places of some of the birds, as well as the names of many of the native trees and shrubs. And he knows by heart the Army Corps and City specifications as to which trees can be cut and which ones must be spared. I’m so glad the City continues to contract with him. (I can name at least one contractor the City sometimes uses who couldn’t care less about protecting a blackberry patch or an innocent young willow with a narrow trunk.) The Public Works folks, the mowing contactors, and I have been squabbling for so many years that this year it almost felt like a love-fest by comparison.
Randy also seems to have assembled a sensitive crew. I had a sweet conversation just yesterday morning with Randy’s foreman. I commented to him that I really appreciated how much protected flora had been left this year and how much better this was for the wildlife as well as the humans. . He grinned and said “I tried to trim up the trees so they looked nice. That’s what I do at my house and it makes things look like a park.” I had to agree. The crew has also created little groves of willows along the bank, as prescribed in the governing document, making it possible to catch occasional glimpses of the sparkling water shining through the Arroyo willows. I didn’t go down to the river this year with my 15-foot measuring pole, but I feel more confident than I did in the past that we’re all on the same page. I think we’re all doing the best we can with an ever-changing and complex river habitat.
Next year I’m hoping to recruit some California Native Plant Society folks to help me collect a little more data about some of the understory natives like the grasses and
small plants that have established themselves on the levee bank and that provide habitat for butterflies, bees and other creatures tinier than birds, creatures I’m slowly becoming more aware of myself, thanks to some of your posts, Jane.
After that, I hope to talk to Public Works about jointly coming up with a plan to save more of these plants that pose no threat to flood control objectives. It might require extra funds to carry out this kind of more labor-intensive selective plant removal. But maybe some of the money could come from Parks and Rec. I have to say I was disappointed that Public Works did not invite the contracting biologist or the city arborist to mark the natives this year. But it appears that Randy pretty much handled much of it on his own. Each year gets a little better. And I’m getting a little more patient.
For the first time this year I learned about the scary Yellow Jacket drama – scary for the yellow jackets, and scary for the humans. Just yesterday, as I was about to leave the levee, I saw a big white truck pull up on the Riverwalk with Santa Cruz County Mosquito and Vector Control written on it. I went over and introduced myself to Steve, gave him my card with the Pied-billed Grebe on it, and asked him what was going on. He was very friendly and took enough time to briefly explain that the mowers had found twelve large nests of yellow jackets in the short stretch along the westside of the levee banks between Water St. and Highway 1, and that several of the guys cutting willows had been stung.
He told me that the male worker wasps get especially aggressive at this time of year, just before they all die off for the winter. He told me that only the fattened up and inseminated queens survive the winter months, often going into complete hibernation until they start new tribes in the spring. I asked him what chemicals the County used and he showed me the bottle of Drione that he said they inject into the hole in the ground where the nests are. I later did a little google investigating and hope to find out more about possible side effects of this chemical on other wildlife. The yellow jackets are native insects, and according to Wikipedia, “ are important predators of pest insects”.
Steve apologized for having to get back to work, then donned a full white bodysuit with protective headgear and descended the levee bank with a crew member who showed him the location of a remaining willow thicket on the levee toe. The crew hadn’t been able to cut it down because of an especially aggressive wasp attack the day before. Several hours later I got a phone call from Steve, apologizing again for not being able to take more time to answer my questions and asking if there was anything else I needed to know. Wow! That is really government accountability in action. Sadly, he told me that while he was removing the wasps, the unprotected crew member, had been badly stung.
Checking the levee both before and after the mowing, I have been struck this year by how many of the water fowl continue to hang around. They may have no choice, other territories being taken. Not only before, but almost immediately after the mowing I have seen a GREAT BLUE HERON, a SNOWY EGRET, a BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON, a GREEN HERON, COMMON MERGANSERS, PIED BILLED GREBES, and a BELTED KINGFISHER. I also saw three first-of-season AMERICAN COOTS under the Water St. Bridge, waterfowl who who are ubiquitous during the winter months but breed elsewhere in the area during the summer. This Great Blue Heron, particularly unflappable, was calmly foraging in the disturbed soil while the chainsaws whined loudly from the other side of the river.
I haven’t really come to any hard and fast conclusions about the long term effects on the songbirds, who depend on the willows and other riparian trees for cover, food and rest. (At least we haven’t had to worry about late nesters this year since the mowing started more than a month later than usual.) I went out three times the week before the cutting (Sept. 1,2,8) and found 22, 19 and 19 species, respectively, on the pre-cutting days. On my first trip out after the cutting I saw a total of 15 species, including songbirds. I saw some Wilson’s Warblers before the mowing and a pair of chasing YELLOW WARBLERS after the mowing. Both of these species could be migrants or year-round residents. The CALIFORNIA TOWHEES, like the Great Blue Herons, appreciate the disturbed soil so are doing fine. And of course the BLACK PHOEBE keeps on singing and chasing airborne insects through it all. I haven’t seen any SONG SPARROWS this week but there weren’t that many in the week before the mowing. Best of all was my first-of-season sighting of two WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS on September 14th,
one an adult and one a first winter, busily exploring the east bank after their long flight south from Alaska. Readers can go to eBird and study my five pre- and post-cutting lists for other conclusions.
My neighbor, Bob, who has lived at El Rio for three decades, told me he saw a beautiful juvenile Pacific Gopher Snake last week, the first one he said he has seen for years. Mostly we see garter snakes here, but rarely. Was the gopher snake a refugee from the river cutting? Or is new attention to river wildlife helping more creatures survive?
But, let’s face it, if we don’t slow down Climate Change, our small efforts are for naught! So let’s devote next week, if we can, to addressing the big picture.
Warm greetings to the wild life and not-so-wild life, including humans.
Dear Jane and all Friends of the Flora and Fauna of the San Lorenzo River,
One of my favorite Buddhist sayings is “The life of a sage is one mistake after another.” This phrase consoles me as I stumble forward in my life. Today I am going to write about some possible blunders I may have quite innocently been making in regards to the river. I’ll be interested in the opinions of you readers.
But first let me say that it feels really good to be back writing about the river after two months on vacation. A thousand thanks to you, Jane, for holding up more than your half of heaven with a faithful contribution every two weeks. As usual, your posts have been full of delightful observations and insights. I can’t imagine there are many others in the City who have such a keen eye for the unique vagaries of both birds and people on the river, and who can write about the fish and the flora, the insects and the mammals, with more liveliness.
In this blog piece I am going to focus mostly on plant life –not so much on the names and photos of actual plants but on the much-dreaded annual flood control work that is required by both our local and federal (Army Corps of Engineers) governments and which is about to begin in the next weeks. Of course, none of us want our city to be flooded. We can be grateful that our Public Works Department takes very seriously their mission to prevent such a catastrophe. And it is indeed sobering that the El Rio Mobile Home Park where I live, right next to the levee, is the officially designated spillway or ‘levee breakout section’ in case of a levee breach.
Yet it is also not to be forgotten that our City has a proud history of not allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to call all the shots, to exaggerate the dangers. Every year the challenge for us wildlife advocates is to continue this honorable tradition, finding the wiggle room within flood control requirements that will protect as much flora and fauna on the river as is possible within the constraints of local and federal law.
A little history might help here. In cities like Los Angeles, flood control work by the Army Corps of Engineers imprisoned many beautiful rivers inside straight concrete ditches, creating blight rather than beauty, horrors rather than habitat. We can get a small, first-hand taste of that distasteful reality if we look at the concrete ditch hemming in Branciforte Creek that drains into the River just below Soquel Bridge. Los Angeles has only recently begun to dig itself slowly and painfully out of its former mistake.
Here in Santa Cruz, we escaped such a fate only through the combined efforts of a progressive City Council led by Chris Krohn, environmentally committed staff persons like Joe Hall, and many community activists like Bruce Van Allen and, yes, you Jane. In 2003, you and Bruce and many others agreed to serve on a River Task Force that finally succeeded in delivering a win/win agreement where a stubborn ACE and an equally stubborn City came to an agreement that was designed to protect as much riparian wildlife habitat as possible – within the constraints of adequate flood control. The resulting 79–page document, titled the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan (or SLURP), plus its 127-page Appendix A titled the Lower San Lorenzo River and Lagoon Management Plan, was adopted in 2003 and has been the official governing document regarding river management for the last 16 years. (Readers can find online links to both these documents on the ‘Links’ page of this blog. Scroll down to “Important City Documents”.). In my opinion, it is Appendix A (or what I call the Swanson Report), much more than the main document, that is by far the most interesting document from an environmental point of view. It includes a tremendous amount of information about existing native and non-native plants at the time it was adopted in 2002; recommended thinning prescriptions on each of the three reaches; plus sections on flood control constraints, lists of fish and bird species, hydrology and geology, many photos and charts, and much more. It is a treasure trove and would take years to truly digest.It also happens to include Table 8 titled Species List for Revegetation in the Riverine Reach which happens to be the chart that, right this moment, is perplexing me immensely! See the chart and discussion later in this article.
After you drew me into the anti-kayaking campaign in 2014, Jane, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in this river, especially the ‘riverine reach’ right behind my house – from the Felker St. Pedestrian Bridge to the Water St. Bridge. Like you, I became very distressed about the ‘scalping’ of the levee each fall by bulldozers and chainsaws. During 2015 and 2016, I tried to understand if there was anything constructive that I could do to protect more habitat – apart from pestering the poor chainsaw crew that I soon realized were just trying to follow what their little SLURP chart said, as best they could. Here’s the chart we were all arguing about:
The foreman of the cutting crew, Randy Clayton, carried this scrap of paper with him at all times, and so did I. I eventually came to realize that the City was cutting much more along the toe of the levee than was allowed by this document – mostly I guessed because the City wanted to remove vegetation that provided hiding places for illegal campers. I pointed this out to Public Works in 2017 and somehow managed to persuade them, after a good deal of back and forth, that if they were going to remove the 10-foot strip that was protected habitat along the toe of the levee, then they needed to make up for that habitat loss by adding it somewhere else, maybe along the required 5-foot swath immediately adjacent to the river. Otherwise, they would be out of compliance with SLURP. It worked! The City agreed to do that in 2017, and continued the practice in 2018. I was, for a brief moment, proud of this achievement.
In addition, in 2018, Public Works began marking some smaller native shrubs (mostly coyote bush) with orange ribbons to declare them off bounds for cutting. And, perhaps even more importantly, they asked the consulting biologist to train the cutting crew in what to cut and what not to cut, based on the SLURP chart modified by our informal agreement the previous year.
But my joy has been short lived. Now I am pulling my hair out about the possible significance of Table 8 , above, a list of the plant species recommended by SLURP for revegetation on the riverine reach, I realized that I may have been too hasty in suggesting the so called win/win solution of moving the 10-foot strip towards the river. I now notice that the trees that were supposedly to be planted along the levee toe were the white alder and the yellow willow, very different from the arroyo willows along the bank of the river. Why had the Native Vegetation Network that had helped write this part of SLURP been that specific about the specific trees at specific points on the levee bank. Had I sacrificed bio-diversity for mathematical equialence? I realize I just don’t know enough about these trees, what habitat they require, how they differ from the other trees in terms of water needs, wildlife value, etc. I have no easy answer today and want to post this piece before midnight. I am also wondering about the direction that red willows and box elders be planted on the upper levee slope, and that the black cottonwoods and California sycamores be planted maybe halfway down. Were these four trees meant to be subjected to the same 6″ trunk limit as the alders and yellow willows at the toe of the levee? Why didn’t the other chart say so? I am thinking we need input from some native plant specialists.
Maybe a few readers will be as obsessed as I am about this matter of trees (and shrubs and grasses) on the levee and will be willing to study these two charts to see how they relate to each other. In any case, I willingly confess to being in a state of confusion. I’m allowing myself to happily follow the path of the blundering sage, the better to learn a few new things.
The main question is how can we protect the maximum amount of wildlife habitat while still respecting the key goal of protecting the City from destructive floods. That’s the challenge. Let’s all work together.
Here are my two most recent eBird lists from earlier this week – 22 bird species on Sunday, click here and 19 bird species yesterday, click here. I’ve been seeing lots of Wilson’s warblers but have no idea if they are some year round residents or migrants on their way south from as far north as Alaska.
Yesterday, near the Water St. Bridge, I also saw this winsome rabbit looking at me very solemnly as if to question my human intentions. She had good reason. Her habitat is especially threatened by the upcoming flood control work. Cross your fingers that she makes it through with her home intact.
Thank you all for caring. And may you all enjoy your own personal and very safe habitat.
One of the many delightful and unexpected pieces of birding advice I got this last weekend was to ‘walk like a vegetarian’. I haven’t tried it yet, but next time I see a bird that I really don’t want to scare away, I will bend down slowly and at least pretend to nibble on a leaf. Jeff Caplan, who led the delightful workshop on bird language that I attended, says he has tried it and it works, even with groups of people who nibble their way past a bird who decides they aren’t a threat and doesn’t fly away.
This was the second time I had attended this class on bird language, and it just gets better. Not only has Jeff studied for many years with Jon Young, the Native American-trained author of What the Robin Knows, but he is himself a sensitive observer of nature and an engaging teacher of both young and old. He immediately gets people sharing their stories, imitating bird language, acting like birds, coming up with their own theories about what birds are feeling and thinking, and evoking lots of laughs with his sense of humor. The class isnot only fun, but models the best kind of participatory and discovery approach to teaching. Amidst all buzz, Jeff managed to teach us how to identify the five types of bird language, ie. songs, contact calls, begging, alarm and aggression. After the indoors portion of the class, Jeff took us up on the river levee to practice our new skills, and then back to India Joze for a delicious feast, included in the low price of the workshop. Jeff is recently returned from Ecuador where he teaches bird language to young people who live in the rain forest, a way to help them learn to love and protect their environment.
As a result of Jeff’s class, I am quickly turning into a lazy birder. Jeff encourages birders to find a sit spot and just sit! According to Jeff, we are more likely to connect on a gut level with the birds around us if we can sit non-threateningly, watch and listen attentively, and stay curious. You are the great exemplar of that, Jane, and the depth of your connection with birds is a striking testimony to this approach to birding.
I strongly encourage anyone who wants to spend a lovely morning with a lovely man to sign up for a workshop. Go to Jeff’s Facebook page and see if there is a local workshop coming up. Click here if you want to see the one academic part of the workshop, a quite technical but fun video on bird language.
Inspired by Jeff, I decided to confine my walk this week to the nearby Chinatown Bridge where I stood in just a few spots for more than an hour. I broke my camera so my words will have to carry the story today.
The first thing I saw was an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD, mysteriously foraging along the steel railing of the bridge. I let my curiosity lead me to take a closer look. What could a hummingbird want along the railing? Spiderwebs! Nesting materials! When I got home I went back to Paul Erlich’s The Birders’ Handbook (every birder must absolutely own this amazing resource book) and found the following under Anna’s Hummingbird: Nests are “loosely made of plant down, forb leaves, bud scales, flowers, bark strips, bound with spider’s silk, lined with plant down.” So the little hummer was collecting the sticky spiderwebs to glue the rest of its nest together.” Thanks, Jeff.
Later, on the mowed grassy area at the east end of the bridge I watched with curiosity a very discerning DARK-EYED JUNCO picking up a piece of dry grass, then dropping it, then picking up another. After a good bit of quality control work, it flew off with with its chosen blade of nesting material.
I posted both these observations on eBird as breeding information, and sent a copy to Alex Rinkert, the Bird Breeding Atlas leader in our area. He wrote back, confirming my observations and adding that this is probably the second or third brood for both these species. It reminded me that I’d recently seen an Anna’s doing mating displays not far from the bridge. Maybe the mating was successful and now the happy couple has moved onto nesting.
My happiest moment was seeing my third WOOD DUCK family on the river this season, this time a mama with one little wood duckling, both slipping into view from the safety of the overhanging willows along the bank into a quiet backwater, separated from the force of the main channel by a sandbar. The water along the edge of the sandbar was filled with small brown rocks, providing perfect cover to the little brownish puff of life that was the baby wood duck.
I also saw from the bridge both an adult and a first summer GREEN HERON, A GREAT BLUE HERON and 4 COMMON MERGANSERS. As usual, the Mergansers were swimming along together at a business-like clip, their half-submerged heads and bodies elongated like the fish they chase. All of a sudden, I saw them all lift up out of the water as if with one mind, practically flying forward while their feet paddled the air, then diving and stirring up a sizable wake behind them. My guess is that they had spied a large, tasty and now frightened fish and their empty stomachs and early-morning predator instincts were hugely excited. Later I saw them all resting on a sand bank, looking quite satiated!
Click here for the checklist of the 17 species I saw from my ‘standing spot’ along the Chinatown Bridge.
As for the suggested name change of the bridge, it is still being pondered by the City. Here’s the story I’ve heard. The last remnants of Santa Cruz Chinatown occupied the piece of land where the old Riverfront Theatre was located. When the area was destroyed in the flood of 1955, it was never rebuilt. George Ow, well-known local businessman and philanthropist, remembers when the garden of his grandmother (with whom he lived in his early years) was located on the current theatre spot. Then, just a year ago, in June 2018, Ow sent a letter to the City Council urging that the city officially adopt the name Chinatown Bridge for the footbridge that is across the street from the theatre and extends to San Lorenzo Park. The idea was provisionally approved by the Council, and has been winding its way for a year through various City Commissions, including the Arts Commission, the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Historical Commission before it hopefully returns to the current Council for final approval. I love the new name and hope our City will honor and commemorate the rather tragic history of the Chinese in our community by adopting this name for the bridge and perhaps creating some relevant art. I plan to continue using it whether or not it gets approved. I especially love it because of my history with China and because it may be a new ‘sit spot’ for me. If you want to read a little bit more, check out this Sentinel article from a couple of weeks ago.
This will be my last blog post for two months. I am hoping to do some personal writing in July and August, as well as visit friends and family out of town. I will be back on September 3rd with my next post.
I hope you all have a good summer with lots of time in gardens and wild habitats. Don’t forget to nibble on a hopefully edible leaf if you want to study a special bird.