Mergansers Steal the Show

3 Merganser babies
Red-breasted Merganser, San Lorenzo River, between Laurel and Broadway, May 15,2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Dear Jane and All Bird Lovers,

RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS have been stealing the show these last two weeks, partly because their babies are so darn cute and partly because they aren’t even supposed to be breeding here. Their normal breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, and even northern and Eastern Canada at that.  Red-breasted are a separate species from the COMMON MERGANSERS, the Mergansers that are our normal year-round resident and the ones that usually produce some families during breeding season.   Red-breasteds are a surprise as local breeders!   When I posted my citing to e-Bird, I got an automatic message pointing out that this is a rare sighting and that I needed to give more details.  Fortunately, two leading birders in our area, Kumaran Arul and Alexander Gaguine had also  reported them earlier this week, so I think I’m not going out too far on a limb.  The Red-breasteds can sometimes be hard to distinguish from the COMMON MERGANSERS – but the female Red-breasteds can display a wildly shaggy crest that the Commons can’t equal. I hope these mops are shaggy enough for e-Bird!   I was just done oohing and aahing about the little family of four when not much later along came another family of 7 fledglings.  I could hardly believe my eyes.  Two families within minutes of each other on one stretch of the river!  The babies are so little but they must have powerful legs. When they pick up speed to keep up with their mother,  they lift right up out of the water and seem to be flying rather than swimming.. Watching 7 tiny babies flying over the surface of the water has got to be one of life’s finest experiences.

RBM with 7 babies
A second family of Red-breasted Mergansers,same area on the river, May 15,2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Coming in a close second this week for drama are the rambunctious CLIFF SWALLOWS.  Today I counted about 75, dipping and darting with wild abandon around the Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  I also counted about 120 old mud nests in various states of repair on just these two bridges.  The swallows have their work cut out for them, for sure!  Quite a few of of the nests at the Laurel Bridge had one Swallow seeming to hold down the fort while another went out gathering mud and catching insects. The Cliff Swallows have been here now for quite a few weeks, but according to BNA, the males tend to arrive first, and only begin pair formation and nest building when the females arrive.  Did you know that the famous swallows of Capistrano are Cliff Swallows!  I had to wait 80 years to learn that.

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Cliff Swallows holding down the fort as partners forage and gather mud to repair these old nests.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

People that I meet on the River are always interested that we have not just one but two species of white egrets on the River – the larger and less commonly seen GREAT EGRET (37” long) and the smaller SNOWY EGRET (27” long).  And of course that doesn’t count the other member of the family, our iconic GREAT BLUE HERON (46” long).  What treasures our river holds.  ( I caught this photo of the Great and Snowy next to each other for comparison. ) These are all colony-nesting birds, usually high up in trees.  I would love to know where our birds are nesting these days.

Great and Snowys
Great Egret and two Snowy Egrets out in the middle of the river. The water is so shallow that they appear to be walking on the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

Two lovely KILLDEERS were hanging out on the sandbars between Laurel and Riverside this week, a very probable habitat for their nests.  I felt horrible when I saw a young woman throwing a ball for her dog right where the the birds might be nesting.  We have got to get the City to put up signs letting people know that it is illegal to be anywhere on the levee banks or next to the river.

Killdeer drinking
Killdeer taking a drink from the river.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwomannter a caption

My strangest sight this week was a GREEN HERON squawking loudly while dive-bombing a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK.  What do you think that was about??  I hope not nest robbing. The heron quickly flew off and this elegant fiend settled down on a pole above my head, pretending that nothing had happened.

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“Who, me??”  Red-shouldered Hawk  after being chased by Green Heron.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

So far this summer I’ve seen only one MALLARD family with babies, and not a single WOOD DUCK or PIED-BILLED GREBE family.  I don’t know whether the one grebe I’ve seen on the river is a bachelor or is one of a pair. Grebes tend not to hang out with each other, and they look almost exactly the same. I’m hoping our grebe has a partner tucked away somewhere on a well-concealed floating nest, incubating some eggs and waiting his or her turn to leave the nest and catch some delectable crawfish.  I saw two male Mallards chasing a female Mallard this week, so maybe some second families are in the making.

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One of the few Mallard couples still on the river, perhaps planning a second family.  May 15, 2018, photo by B. Riverwoman

I got a fund-raising letter from the UCSC Arboretum this week pointing out that anxiety will be the leading health problem by 2020, replaceing diabetes.  The point being made was that nature is one of our great resources to provide respite from an over-stimulating and too often distressing society.  I feel so grateful that there are so many people in our community dedicated to protecting the nature we already have and trying to create even more places where people can benefit from the healing effects of a tree or a flower or a river.

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Flowers between Laurel and Riverside Bridges.  May 15, 2018 photo by B. Riverwoman

The riverside flowers these days may not be natives – but they delight my eyes.   I like to believe that Wordsworth was right when he suggested that nature and birds and trees all experience joy – and that this joy is contagious.   It is certainly true that I always feel more joyful after walking along the river.

“Through primrose tufts in that green bower

The periwinkle trails its wreathes,

And t’is my faith that every flower,

Enjoys the air it breathes”.

William Wordsworth

May we all  breathe in some anxiety-reducing joy from the birds and flowers and trees.

Barbara

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Fertile Dreams

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

As far as I know, the first baby waterfowl of the season appeared this last week on the urban stretch of our river.  On April 27,  standing on the Felker St. Bridge, I spied four teensy MALLARD chicks, busily foraging for themselves in a quiet backwater just north of the bridge.

Mallard BAbies FOS
Four Mallard fledglings, April 27, 2018, North of Highway 1 Bridge, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I guess that means the eggs were laid sometime towards the end of March  (a 28 day incubation period).  I originally saw four babies,  and then, sadly, only three babies remained a day later.  I’m pretty sure there were more eggs in the original clutch. According to BNA there is usually an average of 10 eggs per Mallard nest in an early season nest.  Raccoons, rats, crows, hawks, coyotes?  Lots of hungry critters out there with their own babies, all struggling to stay alive.

 

According to a friend, CHICKADEE babies have been heard begging from this box attached to a tree on the city side of the west levee near Water St. Bridge.

Chickadee Box
Chickadee nestbox near Water St. Bridge, April 27, 2018. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I saw parents flying back and forth but so far I haven’t seen or heard the babies.  If readers are interested in building nestboxes, you can go to to NestWatch (click here) and get detailed specifications from the Cornell Lab for Ornithology for boxes specifically designed for more than 50 different species.  Is anyone with carpentry skills interested in helping me build a Tree Swallow box?  I have also seen a Kestrel box along the river, but so far no Kestrels.

 

While birding on the river this week I ran into Phil Brown, a keen-eyed local birder, who is working hard during this season trying to keep track of breeding birds in the area.  He is officially in charge of monitoring not only the San Lorenzo River but Neary Lagoon, Schwann Lake, Arana Gulch and a few more key breeding areas in Santa Cruz County.  It’s a big responsibility that he generously performs before and after his paying job.

He told me that he has seen NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS carrying nesting materials into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge, where this species has been nesting for quite a while.  He also reports seeing HOUSE FINCHES and SONG SPARROWS carrying nesting materials and HOUSE SPARROWS carrying food.  We were both keeping our eyes on the CANADA GEESE, COMMON MERGANSERS, PIED-BILLED GREBES AND KILLDEERS –hoping for signs of breeding between Water St. and the Highway 1 Bridge, or perhaps further upstream behind the Tannery for the Grebes and Mergansers.. All these species have been present in ‘suitable habitat’ – using the language of the Breeding Bird Bird Project.  Phil was interested in the Chickadee box which he didn’t know about, and also pleased to hear about the baby Mallards. It’s so nice to meet a birder on the river and share sightings. I can honestly say that in the four years that I have been birding on the San Lorenzo I have only once run into a birder that I didn’t already know through the Bird Club.  As far as pure joy goes, this has got to be one of the best kept secrets in Santa Cruz.

While we were staring at two landing Killdeer, Phil also spied a migratory TREE SWALLOW, rarely seen on the urban river.

Tree swallow
Tree Swallow, Google Image

We know that these swallows nest at Neary Lagoon where they seem well adapted to the human-made nest boxes that are available there. Would they like a box on the San Lorenzo?  Are there any readers with carpentry skills that would like to help me build a Tree Swallow nest on the San Lorenzo River?  According to BNA, Tree Swallows readily accept these artifical nests  and indeed are thought to arrive early in the season in order to find the rare tree cavities (or nest boxes) that are in high demand by other cavity nesting birds.

 

Another curious phenomena of this season is the brotherhood of male Mallards, most of them hanging out together in pairs or small groups after doing their bit by inseminating the female.  One rarely sees females at this time of year. The mother scrapes a depression in the ground by herself, pulls downy feathers from her breast to line the shallow ground nest, lays the eggs, and incubates the eggs for an average of 22 hours a day, for an average of 28 days – all by herself.  She takes time off in early morning and  late afternoon to forage and preen. No food delivery by that elegant Lothario with the shimmering green head feathers and bright orange feet.  Nor does the drake appear once the babies are born. The young are ‘precocial’, able to take care of themselves as soon as they hatch.  You can imagine how I work to suppress my feminist judgments!  Who knows – considering how aggressive Mallard drakes are, perhaps the mom is glad to have some quiet time away from the early season onslaught of ardent suitors.

two drakes
Two male Mallards.  Are they bonding with each other in absence of females?  April 27, 2018, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The levees are beautiful these days, ablaze with broad drifts of wildflowers – orange California poppies,  pink, white and purple Wild Radish, pink Scabiosa, and a new flower for me, bright lavender Salsify.

Purple needle grass
Native Purple Needle Grass, San Lorenzo River Levee, April 28, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My environmental educator friend, Batya Kagan, also helped me learn a little about all the lovely grasses that were trying to get my attention by waving to me in the breeze!  Thanks to Batya, I pulled my attention away from the birds for a moment and stopped and made the acquaintance of the delicate native Purple Needle Grass and the very similar and also purple non-native Brome. If you rub your fingers against the grain of the Brome, it catches your skin.  Purple Needle Nose doesn’t do that.  Stop, shake hands and introduce yourself to the purple grasses this week.

 

purple flowers
Salsify, San Lorenzo River, April 28, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

Watching and worrying about birds seems to have burrowed down into my unconscious.  Recently I dreamed that three Red-shouldered Hawks were circling above me as I walked along the Riverwalk close to where I live. Suddenly, one of the hawks dropped to the ground right in front of me.  It was still alive when it hit the ground but I watched it slowly close its eyes and die. The other two hawks perched nearby, staring at their dead kin.  I rushed to stop the bicycles on the Riverwalk. People stopped and one man sat down reverently in the lotus position in the middle of the pathway.  The dream ends and I wake up. I am amazed to hear a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from outside.  Does that mean that I am now able to identify a bird call in my sleep?  A little later I go out onto the levee and as soon as I get to the pathway I see a Red-shouldered Hawk circling close by over my head, right where the dream took place!  I think I may be tapping into something beyond my understanding. A new kind of mystery for this blog?

 

Red Shoulder
Red-shouldered Hawk, San Lorenzo River,May 2017, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

Speaking of bird language, enthusiastic bird advocate Jeff Caplan will be giving what looks like  a very interesting workshop on his recent studies with a nationally-known bird aficionado. The Saturday morning event will start at 9 and will include the  presentation on bird language as well as a walk along the river and a brunch at India Joze.  I will be there!  Click here to read about the workshop and sign up if you are interested.  It looks like it may sell out.

I hope everyone turns on Bruce Bratton’s radio program at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, May 8, when  Jane will be talking about her favorite subject – the San Lorenzo River.  Good luck, Jane.   That’s KZSC 88.1 fm.

Click here to see my  eBird checklist for this week.

May everyone’s dreams be filled with the magic of the natural world.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.”  Our feathery friends on the river are singing their hearts out with hope these days – hope for the continuation of their species.   They cheer me on enormously in these crazy times when we sometimes have to wonder about the continuation of our species!

song sparrow
Song Sparrow, San Lorenzo River, watching the flood waters,  2016, photo by B. Riverwoman

I especially love listening to all the SONG SPARROWS at this time of year. Each bird seems to have its own distinct variation on what is usually a three-part song – twee-twee/buzz/chip-chip – or twee-twee-twee/trill/whistled cascade.    As I walk down the river I hear seemingly infinite variations.  I think if I were starting over again I would become a biologist and study the songs of the Song Sparrow.

Well – here is the mystery bird for the month of April.   Don’t peek at the answer (at the end of this blog) until you’ve given it a try.

April Fool's
Mystery Bird, between Water St. Bridge and Highway 1, April 13, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

I am always intrigued to see a bird where I’ve never seen one before.

Nesting Merganser? – Version 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. ,April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

This COMMON MERGANSER, perched on a fallen willow tree in the middle of the river, definitely caught my attention. I wondered if she could possibly be scoping out this tree

Merganswer 2
Common Merganser flattening its body and  extending its head deeper into fallen willow canopy. April 13, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1 Bridge, photo by B. Riverwoman

as a suitable spot for a nest. Mergansers usually use cavities in the trunks of dead trees,  so it would seem unlikely. But I’m keeping an eye on the area just in case. Desperate birds do desperate things. And I would guess that nesting territory is at a premium.

 

 

For about two weeks now I have been seeing NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SPARROWS disappearing into the vents underneath the Water St. Bridge where I finally learned last year that they nest.

Resting Northern-winged
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, April 13, 2018, perched near Water St. Bridge where it is nesting.  Photo by B.Riverwoman

Then, just today, I was happy to see my first CLIFF SPARROWS exploring their old mud nests under the Water St. Bridge. I am wondering if they will reclaim these nests this year. They decided not to last year. I think it was because those pesky

house sparrow copy
Squatting House Sparrow, 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

HOUSE SPARROWS occupied most of their old mud nests before the Cliff Swallows had returned from down south. A willow clump right next to the bridge has been a major headquarters for the aggressive House Sparrows for the four years I’ve been watching birds on the river. I suspect they may have settled there for exactly this purpose. Location, location, location.

 

 

There have been a few VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS around for a while, but not the usual high numbers. I’ve never seen a Violet-green Swallow nest. BNA says they like to nest in cavities in trees or cliffs and will also use human-made boxes.

VGSW-nest_3083-660x522
Violet-green Swallow perched near her nesting cavity hollowed out by another bird like a woodpecker.  Google image.

If any readers see such a nest, especially one near the river, I’d love to know. You can always e-mail me at river@cruzio.com about this or any other interesting things you see on the river. Here’s a cool fact about the Violet-green Swallows. They have been recorded flying at 28 miles per hour— pretty fast when you consider that the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird of prey, averages about 25–35 miles per hour in traveling flight.  A good online resource that I just discovered is nestwatch.org. They have lots of useful information including how to build nest boxes for common birds in our area, especially ones in decline like the Kestrel and Mourning Dove.

 

I caught a glimpse this week of one of my favorite  sights – two ravens circling together very, very high up in the sky. I tried to get photos, but was not up to the challenge – so fell back on a Google image.  But the photo is exactly what I saw.  BNA says there is no solid evidence that paired soaring behavior has any relationship to breeding.

ravens soaring
Two Common Ravens, circling at a high altitude.  Google image.

But it is a beautiful and heart-stopping performance, no matter what their intentions. Such form, such freedom. Two years ago the ravens built a nest on the roof of the courthouse – but not last year and no sign yet of activity this year.  Mating pairs usually stay together throughout the year.

 

In the singing category, the HOUSE FINCHES

5 finches
Five House Finches stirring things up at the El Rio Mobile Home Park garden facing on the river.  April 13, 2018.

continue to outdo themselves at this time of year – warbling irrepressibly up and down and all over the map.   There is also lots of chasing behavior – as there is with so many of the species – as the birds sort out who belongs to whom. I often count three birds in these chasing scenes, suggesting that one of the birds is being chased away rather than pursued.

 

The WHITE-CROWNED AND GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS, on the other hand, are pretty silent, although I have heard  a few Golden-crowned singing their plaintive descending three-note song lately. I am guessing that this call is for the purpose of gathering the tribe to start the long trip back to their breeding grounds in Canada. It is the same song, as far as I can tell, that they sing when they arrive in the fall and are establishing their territory. Both the White-crowned and Golden-crowned are in full-breeding plumage, the Golden-crowned especially handsome these days compared to their winter drabness. I keep saying good-bye to these backyard birds (I’m right on the river), but some of them still hang around. Or have our winter residents already left and others are passing through from further south? I wonder how we would know this.   Here is the White-crowned Sparrow just coming in for a landing.  Next stop British Columbia?

WC Landing
White-crowned Sparrow, April 13, 2018, El Rio Riverside Garden, Photo by B.Riverwoman

And in the fish department, I recently joined a riverside workshop led by Ben Wasserman, a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department up at UCSC.

stickleback
Ben Wasserman holding fully-grown Three-spined Stickleback taken from river underneath Water St. Bridge. April 14, 2018  Photo by B. Riverwoman

He was introducing about 25 of us, adults and children, to the fascinating THREE-SPINED STICKLEBACK, a fish that he called the ‘lab rat’ of fish biologists around the world. According to Wasserman, the Sticklebacks are not only abundant  in inland coastal waters everywhere on the planet, but they are also easily caught (and released) for research studies. According to Wasserman, this abundance and easy accessibility, added to the fact that they are highly adaptive to changing environmental conditions, make them a workhorse of evolutionary studies

stickleback closeup
Ben Wasserman holding Stickleback, Photo by B. Riverwoman

around the world.  UCSC is doing its part, and Wasserman is part of that, focusing his graduate studies on the Stickleback’s evolution through natural selection. Like coho salmon and steelhead trout, the sticklebacks are ‘anadramous’, meaning they breed in freshwater but can survive in the ocean. But unlike the salmon and steelhead, the stickleback don’t always return to the ocean. This wide range of environmental influences results in an equally broad range of adaptations – giving Wasserman lots to study.    I wonder if  the research surrounding the tiny and obscure stickleback could one day become more important to human survival than all the recreational attention given to the iconic salmon and steelhead.

 

Congratulations, Jane, on being chosen by the City of Santa Cruz as a ‘2018 Outstanding Volunteer’!! You certainly deserve the recognition. I hope some of our readers will be at City Hall on April 24th at 2 pm to help celebrate with you. I know I will be there. I wish I knew how to get all the birds there to express their gratitude for all your advocacy and organizational work on the environment.

Click here to see my latest eBird checklist.

And the mystery bird is…….April Fool’s! What you see is only a clump of leaves left by a high river! There is rarely a bird trip I make when I don’t eagerly lift my binoculars to examine an enticing scrap of white plastic, a suggestive root projection, a falling leaf or some other beguiling and ultimately deceptive phenomenon.

Laughing with the birds,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare on the River

Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Lovers,

I was totally entranced by your description last week of the Romeo and Juliet drama unfolding beween the COOT and the courageous (or confused) female BUFFLEHEAD. It seemed just short of miraculous that  the star-crossed lovers stuck so closely to the Shakespearean script, with the outraged Bufflehead family rushing in to pull the tragic couple apart. What a tale! Coots are such odd creatures! They seem to have unlimited curiosity and very permeable boundaries.  I’m so glad that you captured a photo of the Coot imitating the Bufflehead’s  water-pecking courtship behavior.

Speaking of curiosity, I am very curious about our winter waterfowl who actually build their nests and raise their young elsewhere, but are in full breeding plumage all winter long on our river. Now I learn from your last posting that they even begin their courtship behavior while still here! Do they actually copulate while they’re here or do they leave that step until after they arrive in western Canada and Alaska? How does that work?  I would imagine the timing could get a little tricky.

I have been asked by the Breeding Bird Atlas folks to  pay special attention  to four species on our urban stretch of the river, species who  may either have stopped breeding on the river, or may be beginning to breed here.They are the AMERICAN KESTREL, the RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, the YELLOW WARBLER and the CANADA GOOSE.

In the category of species who may be moving into Santa Cruz County to breed is the CANADA GOOSE. Last week I heard a lot of very loud honking on the river, just south of the Pedestrian Bridge. I hustled there as fast as my 80–year-old legs could carry me.  Although things had settled down somewhat by the time I arrived, I found a pair of Canada Geese on the water, still exhibiting some agitated behavior, and some odd neck elongations.   As soon as I got home, I check my BNA which told me that  ‘copulation generally occurs on water at spring staging areas, or on breeding grounds, before and after nest-site selection. Copulation is preceded by pre-copulatory Head-Dipping, after which both birds stretch necks and lift chins and call; displays serve as sexual releasers that function to bring about synchronization of sexual activities in members of the pair.” I seem to have made it at least in time to see the neck stretching part.

Canada Geese mating2
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
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Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 13
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory,  wing-flapping behavior, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Canada Geese mating 1
Canada Goose pair, probably post-copulatory, calmly swimming, San Lorenzo River near pedestrian bridge, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

According to the range map of the BNA, Canada Geese do not breed south of the Oregon/California border.   But in 2014, Gerow reported a few that bred in the area nearby the urban river. And last summer we had a sweet family of five young ones and two very solicitous parents.  The parents bond for life. This spring there have been two pairs of Canada Geese hanging out in the grassy mounds near the Duck Pond and on the nearby river. Obviously, the BNA hasn’t quite caught up with what is happening here on the ground in Santa Cruz County.  But it’s true that we do not yet have a confirmed nesting on the urban river itself.

Where should we look for a nest? According to the BNA, this species typically nests on drier, slightly elevated sites near water, more frequently on islands with good visibility. They can nest near ponds (Duck Pond?), near taller willows, even in trees and on human-made structures. Let’s all keep our eyes open.

The other three species I was asked to look for are KESTRELS, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS AND YELLOW WARBLERS. Kestrels were reported (2014) by the late Steve Gerow as breeding near the river up through 2012 or 13. Since then there have been no reported nests. RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS breed in weeds, marsh and willows in the river channel and, according to Gerow, may be increasing. They would be especially vulnerable to any human or animal activity on the levee banks.  I was also told to keep an eye out for possible YELLOW WARBLER nesting activity.

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Male Yellow Warbler, Google image

According to Gerow’s 2014 report, this migrant species “is declining as a breeder in Central California; probably the closest current nesting is in the Felton area. ” Gerow adds, “these birds could breed in the lower river area if there were somewhat more natural habitat conditions.” I was told that we might be more likely to see them nesting just upstream from the Highway 1 Bridge , behind the Tannery, where there is no levee and a more natural riparian habitat. Unfortunately, a lot of the displaced Benchland campers seem to have moved upstream to the cemetary side of the river, making that riparian habitat much less attractive for nesting birds. Anyway, please let me know if any of you see any nesting behavior of this possible river breeder. I would so like to see the Benchlands behind the Courthouse returned to its original habitat and then see my first nesting Yellow Warbler lured there by the perfect tree.   Is this another ‘impossible dream’.

 

Last week I was watching the typical behavior of four crows bedeviling a perched RED-TAILED HAWK. After some especially close swipes by the persistent crows, the long-suffering hawk was practically toppled from his perch in a very graceless take off.   Red-tailed hawks are major predators of crow nests, and crows don’t easily forget a grudge. I wouldn’t either if a hawk got my baby, no matter how majestic the hawk.

crow harrassing
Perched Red-tailed Hawk assailed by American Crow, one of four, San Lorenzo River between Water St. and Highway 1, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Red-tailed Hawk in Eucalyptus
Red-tailed Hawk, disturbed take-off, San Lorenzo River, March 24, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here’s my list of other species that I posted on eBird this last week. https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S43966158

Happy trails to all.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science First, Management Second

Dear Jane and Lovers of Nature,

I loved your BALD EAGLE sighting, Jane, and your description of the bitter feelings this evoked in the displaced Peregrine Falcon. I’m on tenterhooks to know whether Perry managed to chase off Baldy for good – or not. Imagine if we had a Bald Eagle as a regular resident at the mouth of our river!

I have been so pleased to welcome an  OSPREY as a regular visitor to those of us upsteam folks. I am wondering if our visitor is the same bird as your downstream friend –just expanding her territory? Probably. Anyway, Ozzie perches almost every day on the very tip of the twin redwoods across the river from my house, surveying the world for fish and then more fish.   For the first time in my life, I finally saw her do her spectacular foot-first plunge into the river, emerging with quite a large fish. Was it a Coho? I hope so. I ran into Jon Jankovitz, one of the local representatives of California Department of Fish and Wildlife, at the State of the San Lorenzo River Symposium this last Saturday. I asked him what was his favorite bird and he said ‘the Osprey’. He added that there are not many of them around these days. I told him about yours and mine, maybe the same one. He seemed slightly jealous. It’s pretty special to have one of these glorious and rare birds in our backyards.

Osprey
Osprey, San Lorenzo River, east bank, just north of Water St. Bridge, March 19, 2018 photo by B. Riverwoman

I thought the Symposium was really good this year. Chris Berry of the Santa Cruz Water District opened the event by saying that this year’s symposium was focusing on the science of the San Lorenzo River Watershed. He said,

“We need to get good science before we try to figure out how to best manage our watershed.”

I loved hearing him say that. State Assembly member,  Mark Stone,  followed with a really solid keynote address. I especially leaned in when he said he felt that Sacramento was too focused on climate change legislation, saying that we have already passed the tipping point on climate change and now need to re-direct at least some of our money and energy into planning what to do in response to the inevitability of sea level rise and other grim results of climate change. Dark news, indeed. I don’t think he meant that we should give up on all the good anti-climate change work that people are doing.   But I thought his big picture warning constituted a pretty direct challenge to our downtown city planners who seem a bit too complacent about the spectre of sea level rise. Do we really want to build hotels, restaurants, and housing in the flood plain? Why not keep Old Town Santa Cruz as it is for as long as we can, but plan all new development further south on Soquel? I looked at some of the pro-downtown development folks in the room, trying to detect whether they were getting the same message as I was. But they remained stoic. I hope they were listening.

I am constantly wondering what our shorebirds and waterfowl are catching as they stalk and dive. So during break time at the Symposium, when I spotted local fish guru Don Alley in the room, I maneuvered my way through the crowd and sidled up to him. He seemed happy to share his vast store of fish knowledge. Here is a little of what he told me. (I know you, Jane, are far better versed on this subject than I am). There are SMELT high up in the water column in the estuary, easy for birds to catch , said Don. PACIFIC STICKLEBACK are also small, easily caught fish. There are SCULPIN at the bottom of the water column, dark fish that are hard to see and not a major food source for birds. HERRING and ANCHOVY come in from the ocean when the sand bars are open, providing a special feast for the birds.

lamprey
Pacific Lamprey in early stage. Google image

He also talked a little about our strange PACIFIC LAMPREY, an eel-like fish that grows up to 31 inches in the ocean where it migrates for a couple of years towards the end of its lifetime. Most of its early life, though, about 7 years, is spent in freshwater, and most of that time as a much smaller larvae buried underneath the sand. It has a bad reputation as a parasitic fish that sucks blood from ocean creatures in its adult ocean stage. But, according to Don, it is pretty harmless in its earlier and much smaller river stage.

I was so happy to get trained recently to be part of the new Santa Cruz County Breeding Bird Atlas II. I am now duly authorized to go out with my official datasheet and record any breeding behaviors I observe. We carry with us a list of 24 separate breeding behaviors that we look for and record. Before I was trained, I think I would have just reported to eBird that I saw a RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD yesterday – while enjoying the private pleasure of hearing its sweet, melodic burbling that I haven’t heard since last summer.

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Red-winged Blackbird, San Lorenzo River, west bank between Hwy 1 and Water St. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Now as an authorized reporter, I will earnestly write down ‘S’ ‘for Singing Male.” And if I see a singing male for 7 or more days , I will notch that observation up 3 rungs and write down S7. What fun to be a part of this kind of citizen science project – good for tracking breeding populations across the nation and a good nudge for birders like me who will begin to pay more attention to signs of breeding behavior. I’ll try to send everyone the link to the website once it is up and running.

Another big change on the River is the return of the VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS, dashing madly about overhead, swallowing as many insects as they can catch. I think I also saw

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First year White-crowned Sparrow.  San Lorenzo River.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

at least one NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW.

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Violet-green Swallow, google image.

Their arrival also signals the the impending departure of my dear bird feeder sparrows. The WHITE-CROWNED AND GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS that arrive each fall are spending their last days with us before they  leave for their breeding grounds in British Columbia and points north. Say your farewells before they leave!

I happened to notice this weekend that the Coastal Watershed Council was offering a willow planting event for children and parents this coming Sunday – very close to where I found the Pied-billed Grebe nest in 2015 and where I saw a PBG exploring along the same tules just a couple of weeks ago. The event was planned for about 25 children and adults and would have taken place just 5 feet from the riverbank. The kids would have been pounding in the willow cuttings with a hammer.   I was really sad to see this scheduled for breeding season – so I called CWC and the City right away on Monday morning. Turns out that the permitting process for these kinds of community-initiated projects do not have a comprehensive environmental component. This failure resulted in the permit being issued without considering that breeding season was well underway. Leslie Keedy, the City’s urban forester, intervened with CWC on our behalf, informing CWC that the area should be visited by a qualified biologist before the event took place. The good news is that just this morning I heard from Alev Bilginsoy, the river scientist at CWC, that she had walked the levee with Gary Kittleson, a certified biologist. Gary had identified a possible MALLARD’S nest in the area, as well as breeding activity of COMMON YELLOWTHROATS AND BUSHTITS.   The event was cancelled!

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Common Yellowthroat, in tules between Soquel and Laurel, east side, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Back to the Symposium. I pricked up my ears when I heard Kristen Kittleson, Fishery Resource Manager at the County of Santa Cruz, talk about the importance of what she calls Stream Wood, ie. trees that fall into the river and are usually labelled ‘debris’. She prefers the term ‘Stream Wood’ because of all the positive ecological and even flood control functions these fallen trees provide when allowed to remain in the river. All these years I have been told by Public Works that fallen trees constitute a flood hazard and therefore cannot be allowed to grow past a certain trunk diameter.   It is this policy, imposed by the Army Corps of Engineers on our City government, that is responsible for the removal of all the native COTTONWOODS, ALDERS, BOX ELDERS and WILLOWS of a certain trunk diameter along the urban stretch of the river. These native riparian species are never allowed to develop their upper canopy, so critical as part of the bird habitat. Literally tons of these trees are trucked away to the landfill each fall.

I was therefore very happy when Kristen explained that fallen trees actually keep sediment from being swept down the river in a storm, preventing the sediment from being deposited along the wider and flatter riverbed downstream.  Indeed, the very significant sediment build-up between Highway 1 and Water St. (‘lowering’ the levee by 2 feet) might have been prevented if woody debris (Stream Wood) had been left in the rivers upstream. The levee ‘lowering’ between Highway 1 and Water St. that is currently of serious concern to Public Works seems to be the major reason that this Department is now asking City Council for more money to carry out some kind of a variant on dredging right around where I live near the Water St. Bridge. I wish the Coastal Watershed Council would use its institutional heft to work on the science behind vegetation removal and see if it is really justified. It would be wonderful if our City could get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to retract the Corp’s requirement for all this cutting. This, I think, would be a more effective restoration project than planting a few more willows! I’m happy to report that the two Cottonwoods and one Alder that I was lucky enough to save from the chainsaw at Riverbend Park are still there, finally getting to grow a large upper canopy.  I’m waiting for the first nest.

Well – here is one event I can really get behind. My friend Jeff Caplan will be leading a Bilingual Bird Walk (Andar con los Aves) this Saturday, March 24, from 10 to 12 a.m. Meet at Beach Flats Park (corner of Leibrant and Raymond Streets in Santa Cruz) You can read more about Jeff and his fine work on behalf of birds on his website.  http://commonlanguageprogram.

I hope we all become more aware of the wonder and blessings of breeding season. What an amazing natural drama is beginning to unfold along the river right now.

Good birding-watching to all.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River Olympics

Dear Jane and Other Devotees of Nature,

As  usual, I missed the Olympics and Oscars , but happily caught a glimpse right here on the San Lorenzo River of some pretty outstanding  performances by the mating COMMON GOLDENEYES – carried out without benefit of celebrities and trophies.  Or I guess you could say that  the gleaming trophies will be the baby Goldeneyes, born sometime this summer in Canada or Alaska. Common Goldeneyes are known to bird lovers as  having the most dramatic courtship displays among all waterfowl.  And it’s all  happening right here, right now,  on the urban stretch of the San Lorenzo River!

I went out walking along the river last Sunday about 3 pm, poking along as usual, hoping to find some mating Goldeneyes which I had never seen in person.  My first sighting was a glorious OSPREY circling high  over the Water St. Bridge where I began my walk.  I was pleased to have see 27 different species (click here)  during the next two hours.    But I hadn’t seen Goldeneyes,  the Olympic performance I was most hoping to see.  Then, just as I was about to leave the river, there   they were, 15 of them– right under the Water St. Bridge.  I was lucky.  I learned only later that dawn and dusk  are the best times of day  to witness this event that takes place every year beginning about this time – in early or mid- march.   There were 2 males and 9 females swimming peacefully off to one side while 2 other males and 2 other females held center stage about 30 feet from their non-active  clan.

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9 females and 2 males, floating peacefully off to the side of the main stage.  
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The four leading actors, two male and two female.   See below.  

I have just been learning a little  about the Goldeneyes for the last couple of weeks, and loved the wonderful photo that you posted last week, Jane.  But this was my first experience of actually seeing them live in HD.  Fortunately, ornithologists have been paying close attention to the complex and dramatic displays of this waterfowl for a long time!   The detailed reports in Birds of North America, the largest compilation of recent research on birds, is always  a huge help in figuring out the complexity of the mysterious behaviors of birds.  The end-of-day lighting was not the greatest for taking photost, but the subject was stellar! I clicked away as fast as I could.  Then I came home and tried to figure out what I had recorded.  The following is my somewhat dubious efforts to put together my photos with all the information in BNA.

BNA identifies fourteen different postures or series of postures of the male Goldeneye, each with a separate name: head-throw, slow head-throw-kick, fast head-throw-kick, bowsprit, head-throw-bowsprit, nodding, masthead, ticking, head–flick, head-forward, head–up, head-up-pumping, head-back, and head back –bowsprit..    Since I only this year became aware of this annual show, I’m not at all sure what I’m seeing in each  of the photos below.  But I’m going to make a wild guess based on some descriptions I found in BNS- and maybe a reader will correct me if I get it wrong.  The rest of my blog piece is all photos, with captions trying to guess at what I am seeing.

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This could be part of ‘Nodding’ where a ‘male stretches and withdraws his head at about a 45 degree angle, tracing an elliptical path with his  bill.”  Normally one doesn’t see any white on the neck of a male Goldeneye. The 2 females seem interested.
Goldeneye Mating 18
Might this have been  part of ‘Masthead’ , a series of postures where the drake first stretches his head parallel to water and then quickly jerks his head upright pointing bill vertically, then snaps his head back down to water lever and holds it there while paddling.’  In any case the female seems disinterested. or perhaps playing  hard to get.  
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Here the male does the famous Head-throw  which seems to appeal to   the two females.  
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The 2 females maybe decide they have a winner and stay close behind?

 

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BNA doesn’t mention lifting oneself high out of the water.  
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A second male doing a Head-throw – to keep up with the competitor?
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BNA says  that in copulation, which averages 8.3 seconds, the “male overlies female, then holds nape of her neck, at which point she is nearly submerged.  I can’t tell what is going on here.  
Goldeneye Mating 5
There was  a lot of diving, kicking and splashing going on – to what end it was unclear. Do they snack while they court?
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Two males and one female.  Clearly I needed a video to watch the sequencing and complexity of all this.
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I was really puzzled by this photo.  Could it be what BNA describes as a ‘copulatory display’ in which the drake ‘turns on one side and stretches out wing and leg” He seems to be holding onto something (a submerged female? )with his leg.  I would be thrilled if I captured this display.  
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BNA describes some ritual female displays during copulation, including ‘ritualized drinking.”   Is the female doing that here?  

 

Well, we wander through life missing so much that is right under our noses.  It took me 3 years to notice the mating Goldeneyes.  What wonders still await?

Happy birding to all, and to all a good night!

Barbara

 

 

Where Have All The Rivers Gone?

Dear Jane and Friends of the River,

I just turned 80! I’m so grateful to have been allowed to hang out on this amazing planet long enough to get to know the San Lorenzo River so much better.  Along with a fine celebration,

Sandra Postel
Sandra Postel on a research trip

I received a very interesting new book (2017) called Replenish, the Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity.  ReplenishAmong a long list of writings and accomplishments, the author, Sandra Postel, won the 2017 Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. Each chapter in the book tells a detail-rich and hopeful story of successful efforts around the world to reverse the ecological, economic and social damage created by the levees, dams, diversions, and other 20th century feats of engineering.  These are inspiring stories and I highly recommend the book.

Sadly, Postel’s last chapter asks the question:

On balance, are rivers getting healthier, aquifers being recharged, floodplains being rejuvenated and wetlands being expanded?  Are we becoming more resilient to droughts, floods and fire? Is the water cycle being replenished and repaired?  So far the answer is no.  At best, it’s one step forward, two steps back. “

This book inspires me to redouble our efforts to protect our little corner of the world and not to be part of any ‘two steps back’!   The local Desal Alternatives led a model citizens’ initiative  here in Santa Cruz by successfully blocking the city’s ecologically and economically costly desalinization plant and at the same time providing a far more creative and planet-friendly solution to water security than offered by the City.   The solution promoted by Desal Alternatives was to recharge our county’s depleted aquifers with re-directed San Lorenzo River water that would otherwise just run into the ocean.  After a long struggle, which required a ballot measure, this solution finally won City approval.  Postel unfortunately doesn’t mention our inspiring local story, but she gives high praise to the equivalent David vs. Goliath battle in Rockland County,  New York, where another  local citizens’ coalition was able to fend off a multinational  corporation from building a desalting plant.

There are powerful  commercial and recreational interests in Santa Cruz that exert undue pressures on our local government and that do not take into account the protection of our natural resources.  We need to stay alert to any efforts that discount the ecological importance of areas like the San Lorenzo River and its overbuilt delta, Jessie St. Marsh – as well as Pogonip, DeLaveaga Park, Lighthouse Field, and other natural treasures.

Jessie St. Marsh
Jessie St. Marsh dried up and cut down.  The City reports that it has plans to restore the freshwater portion of the original saltwater lagoon.  Let’s strongly support this positive direction! September 22, 2014.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

I haven’t spent much time outside in the last 20 days because of a skin condition on my face – it’s being treated and the doctor has forbidden me to be in the sun for thirty days.  I’m so eager to get back on the River. In the meantime, I have had  to rely on other lovers of the San Lorenzo River birdlife for this week’s river news.

My neighbor and good bird scout, Batya Kagan, keeps a special eye out for my good friends, including the PIED-BILLED GREBES.  I mentioned in my last post that I hadn’t seen any Pied-billed Grebes with the telltale bright black ring on bright white bills, a sign that they are ready to mate.  But the most recent news flash from Batya is that the birds, both sexes (!), are now decked out and ready to start their families.  They are late starters, and also tend to be the last nesters of breeding season on the river.  Good luck to them!

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PIed-billed Grebe, August 1, 2015, San Lorenzo River, photo by B. Riverwoman

And speaking of mating, a faithful observer of birds  on the San Lorenzo River, Shantanu Phukan, reported on eBird on February 12 that he saw “two pairs of  COMMON GOLDENEYES with the males repeatedly displaying with the head flexed back.”

common goldeneye
Displaying male Common Goldeneye, Google image

Did it look like this photo from Google Images, Shantanu? I have never seen this.  I wonder if  the Goldeneyes mate here before they travel north in March and April to nest in Canada and Alaska?  Come to think of it –   depending on the gestation period – that might make sense.  The timing could be tricky, though.

Did I already mention in one of my earlier posts that local birder Randy Wardle publishes a monthly list on the Monterey Bay Birds website letting us know what to watch for in the upcoming month.  Here’s what he says about the birds that will likely appear in Santa Cruz in the month of February, birds we are likely to find on the river:

“ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS and BUSHTITS are nesting now, and the first DARK-EYED JUNCO and other cavity-nesters may begin nest building this month as well.  ALLEN’S HUMMINGBIRD numbers continue to grow and RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS begin to arrive toward the end of the month….  TREE SWALLOWS are the first migrant swallows to appear, joining the wintering population.  VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS start coming mid-February, followed by NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOWS and then CLIFF SWALLOWS and BARN SWALLOWS.  Among warblers…, in February ….YELLOW-RUMPED and TOWNSEND’S are still common, ORANGE-CROWNEDS will continue to be sparse in the lowlands until numbers start swelling toward the end of the month with the arrival of spring migrants.  And finally, “February can sometimes be a stormy month, so continue to watch the weather forecast and be ready to search for any rarities that might get blown ashore.  This is also a good time to clean your feeders to help prevent the spread of diseases among bird species.

BUSHTIT NEST
Bushtit nest,Google image

I remember several years ago joining a bird walk with Steve Gerow when one of our group sadly found a Bushtit’s nest like this one that had fallen onto the ground.  It was empty by the time we found it.

According to a staff report at the last City Council meeting on February 13, the Benchlands homeless campground will be shut down on February 28th and moved to 1220 River St.  The City Council unanimously approved a three-phase plan to replace the current encampment with a more structured program with more services.  It’s been tried here before –  and failed, says homeless activist Brent Adams.

Campers
Benchlands Encampment, February 6, 2018 Photo by B. Riverwoman

Let’s hope it will work this time. I have actually enjoyed the brightly colored and orderly cluster of tents along the river, knowing that at least 50 or more people had minimal shelter and the comfort of sleeping legally.  I think the provision of porta-potties and washing stations has provided better protection for the river than campers hiding much closer to  the river without any services.

Quote of the day: “The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land” Luna Leopold

Wishing you all lots of bird friends and happy walks in nature.

Barbara