Slowed down by a “slippery and wiry” pulse this week (I’m intrigued by the language of acupuncture), my birding has been mostly confined to a few sunny hours in my backyard. Fortunately, my backyard is immediately adjacent to the levee and river, just upsteam from the Water St. Bridge. A pretty wide array of birds fly in from the river for their steady stream of dependable treats.
This last Saturday, my neighbor Batya, who serves as my good-luck charm in birding, appeared with her binoculars, declaring that she was looking for a Savannah Sparrow, hopefully hidden among the four other species of sparrows that hang out here. I told her that I was longing to see a LINCOLN’S SPARROW, and that I would happily join her far-fetched effort. I had never seen a Lincoln’s Sparrow on the river, much less my backyard.
Within two minutes of sitting down, we noticed a movement in a nearby Japanese maple tree. A bird hopped out onto a branch, making itself very visible. It was cautiously eyeing the hopper bird feeder filled with millet. At first glance, It looked like another SONG SPARROW, pretty common in my backyard these days. But wait! It had
those telltale crisp stripes on its breast. . Batya and I didn’t move a muscle, not wanting this prize to fly away. We carefully went over every detail. The heads of the two species are almost exactly the same – same crown, same eyebrow, same auricular, same whisker. But then you get to the throat and the breast. The cosmic designer of this close, but more delicate, cousin of a song sparrow must have used a long, thin and finely bristled brush to paint the more delicate streaks on the throat and the buffy breast. Convinced that we were looking at a Lincoln’s, I risked taking a photo. Batya went for the books. We triumphantly confirmed the identity. Yes, it was! A LINCOLN’S SPARROW. My first! And in my backyard! Unlike the ubiquitous Song Sparrow, whose year-round range covers almost the entire United States, this far less common cousin breeds in the Sierras, Canada, and Alaska, and turns up here in Santa Cruz only in winter. Furthermore, it’s winter range is very limited – mostly along the California, Oregon and Washington coast in the U.S. and then south of the border. A special visitor! Next time you see a “song sparrow” look again. It may be a Lincoln’s. Or if you are in a grassy field, you could be looking at a Savannah’s, also a winter guest. Be sure to tell Batya. She was a good sport about the Lincoln’s, in fact as excited as I was. But I’m sure she is still dreaming of a Savannah’s.
The day after our sparrow success, I was bundling door hangers for the election and talking about birds with Sandra and Peter Nichols, two other bird enthusiasts and river walkers. I told them about the Lincoln’s and Sandra got a smile on her face and told me a somewhat similar story of prescience that happened quite recently. Here’s the story as I remember Sandra telling it:
“I especially love the BELTED KINGFISHER, the Wood Ducks and the Hooded Mergansers. I can’t stand it if I don’t see these birds at least once a year. Recently, Peter and I were walking along the river and thnking that we hadn’t seen our special kingfisher perched on her special spot on a wire just upstream from the Riverside Bridge. I began to worry that the City had for some reason removed the wire and inadvertently gotten rid of one of the kingfishers’ favorite fishing perches. We had passed the spot when I thought about this so I wanted to make sure to check it on the way back. I had a really positive attitude, feeling somehow that I was going to see the kingfisher. And, yes, it was there, perched on the wire that we had been looking for and missed. The wire was there, the female kingfisher was there, and we were happy.”
Sandra’s face was wreathed in smiles as she told me this story and described how beautiful the Belted Kingfisher is, especially the female. She said mischievously, “the female has two beautiful necklaces, not just one like the male. And one of the necklaces is a beautiful russet color. I just love this bird.”
And I just love hearing stories like this. How did Sandra know she was going to see this bird? They are not that common on the river. My only photo dates back to 2015 and doesn’t do this handsome bird justice. I agree that it is a magical bird and in fact have a watercolor painting of a female kingfisher in my living room.
It is almost equinox so I was not surprised to get an e-mail this week from Alex Rinkert saying that, “Spring is just around the corner so the time has come to begin Year 4 of the Santa Cruz County Breeding Bird Atlas II…this will be the penultimate year of field work. Nearly 100 atlasers have contributed observations to the project over the years. We have maintained a large contingent of regulars but are still hoping to attract new atlasers and re-interest former atlasers.”
If you are a birder but have never done atlasing before, there will be two trainings this year, March 22nd and 28th from 9-11. Please contact Alex at email@example.com to register for the free training. I took it two years ago and learned a lot about how to look for evidence of breeding that I had never really thought of. CLICK HERE to go to the Santa Cruz Bird Club website for more information on the project. I especially recommend opening the document called “ Breeding Codes” which will give you a clearer sense of what the training includes.
Just after writing this, I looked out my window and saw a SCRUB JAY with the temerity to
actually break off a small branch of my Japanese maple and fly away with it. I guess that will be the first entry in my breeding bird report this year, i.e. CN-carrying nest material. I may report my indignation but also my sincere hope that she nests nearby and that her family flourish
I created a little altar for my mail-in ballot this year. May people who love our natural environment be elected to office, up and down the ballot.
Hello Jane and Fellow Celebrants of the Natural World,
In spite of the heart-breaking destruction of the natural world, there is still so much to see and love. Perhaps the ghosts of extinct insects that I never learned to celebrate will feel some bitterness at that remark. But we all live in our severely blinkered worlds and do our best to celebrate what comes our way.
The river has offered us some exciting new sightings this last week, none of them discovered by me due to a few ill advised moves that provoked my back into rebellion. But thanks to friends and eBird I still managed to keep abreast of some of the mysterious comings and goings on the river.
The biggest news in terms of a rarity was Alex Rinkert’s sighting February 17 of a female BARROW’S GOLDENEYE just upstream of the trestle bridge near
the mouth of the river.. According to Alex, the Barrow’s Goldeneye has not been seen in the entire County since winter 2009-10. a full decade. Only a birding expert like Alex could have made the identification since it is almost indistinguishable from the Common Goldeneye that we see all the time at this time of year. Below is a photo of a female COMMON GOLDENEYE for comparison:
: The discovery has stirred up quite a bit of excitement among local bird aficionados as they confirm the identifiation. Here is Alex’ amazing description, providing an illuminating peek into the world of birding experts using all their skills to observe and record every obscure detail of a bird’s anatomy and plumage to assure correct identification of a rare sighting. Can you tell them apart, especially the head shape and the size of the beak? I think you have a better future as a serious birder than I do. Below is the description that Alex made in eBird.
Alex Rinkert Feb. 17, 2020, 9:40 a.m. “Female actively diving and preening just upstream of the trestle. Head and bill shape were typical of Barrow’s. The head was peaked at the forehead when loafing (i.e., not preening or diving). The bill was noticeably curved up at the base and toward the tip, and the contrasting dark nail at the tip of the bill seemed wide. The bill color and pattern was not the typical bright orange often associated with Barrow’s but is apparently within the range of variability in this species. The basal third or half of the bill was blackish and the distal end was a pale flesh-orange. The amount of color visible on the bill depended on the direction the bird was facing. Often the bill looked almost entirely dark but when in a profile view or straight on, the color was evident as it is in many of the photos. During our long observation we were able to directly compare the body size of this bird to numerous female Commons and this bird appeared slightly larger, but the difference in size was not noticeable except when they were side by side. Photos reveal six fully white secondaries and possibly a seventh that is partially white, as well as no white bar on the lesser covs. The pale yellow iris and the scattered white feathers on the lesser coverts suggest this is an adult female.”
“Common Goldeneyes can have an extensively yellow bill, but these aberrant individuals tend to have a completely yellow bill instead of a broad flesh-orange tip with a dark nail, and the bill and head shape is unlike Common. A hybrid was carefully considered in light of the somewhat darker bill color, but the bill shape and head (especially for an ad female) was typical of Barrow’s, as was the wing pattern.”
Here are two responses from Monterey Bay Birds listserv where rarities are often reported.
Liam Murphy February 17, 2020 7:37 pm “I refound the Barrow’s this evening about 1 hour before sunset. It had moved upstream a bit, just above the first sweeping bend, but still below the Riverside Ave Bridge. Alex’s notes are spot on. The color in the bill is not obvious from a distance. There is more color on the bill than on some of the Commons, but it’s a duller orange with a hint of pink (some of the Commons have a limited bright orange bill tip). The small size of the bill is really what stands out from a distance.”
Alexander Gauguine Feb. 18 5:19 pm Female Barrow’s Goldeneye now present just downstream of Trestle Bridge San Lorenzo with 4 female Commons. (Many more Common’s further upstream.)
It’s quite a blessing to have so much birding expertise in our community.
I did a little research and found out that the Common Goldeneye can be found during the winter in all 48 lower states and Alaska, but breeds almost solely in Canada and Alaska. Much less common, the Barrows are only found along the west coast from southern California up to Alaska during the winter. During breeding season, this species leaves the states almost entirely and moves inland in Canada and Alaska.
The discovery of the Barrow’s upstaged another wonderful discovery on February 15 by friends Michael Levy and Batya Kagan. They saw a pair of
HOODED MERGANSERS swimming just upstream of Highway 1 Bridge behind the Tannery. Above is Batya’s photo of the male Hooded Merganser with his elegant crest extended in full breeding display. I was thrilled to hear about this. I have been waiting for another glimpse of these gorgeous winter migrants for five years now. Below are three photos I caught five years ago in 2015 at almost the same time of year, and in the exact same area. I was lucky enough to catch the male in both full display mode and with his crest pulled in, and the female with her beautiful chestnut hairdo fully poofed out. I wonder if they take turns displaying their charms to each other. They don’t breed here but they clearly start courting early and before they reach their breeding site. I think I would also stretch out the courting season if I were this beautiful.
I liked learning on the Cornell website that baby Hooded Mergansers leap from their nests, when they are only one day old. Bold babies! Or pushy moms? “Their mother checks the area around the nest, then calls to the nestlings from ground level. From inside the nest, the little fluffballs scramble up to the entrance hole and then flutter to the ground, which may be 50 feet or more below them. In some cases they have to walk half a mile or more with their mother to the nearest body of water.”
And as another gift to me in my semi-homebound state, Batya also found a RING-NECKED DUCK in the same area behind the Tannery. I’ve seen this duck only occasionally in the Duck Pond and never behind the Tannery in a natural setting. Thanks again, Batya! .
Save yourself the trouble of looking for the ringed neck that gives this bird its name. It’s almost impossible to see. Apparently there is a chestnut collar on the bird’s black neck that 19th century biologists used to describe the species. The speciments were dead which I guess made it easier to see the brown ring. The best field marks are the pointed head and the white ring on the bill. We in Santa Cruz get to see both the Ring-necked Duck and the Hooded Merganser as they over-winter along the west coast of the U.S and Canada. Both species fly north to Canada during breeding season but like the Hooded Mergansers and a lot of our winter water fowl, they are in breeding plumage during most of the time they are with us.
I met Yosi Almog several weeks ago who is building an owl house on his property. The Cornell Lab is encouraging people to create more nesting boxes for local birds as natural nesting sites continue to shrink. CLICK HERE to see expert advice from the Cornell Lab’s website on how to build them. I’d love to hear about any successes you have. Good luck, Yosi.
With best wishes to all our local breeding birds, many of whom are busy scouting out nesting sites, building nests and even incubating (some hummingbirds).
“Teach us to walk the soft earth as relatives to all that live.” from a Sioux prayer
With gratitude for all that is “natural, wild and free” (from Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac)
My apologies to the birds for my title. But I couldn’t resist.
I think I may actually have gotten a glimpse this morning of two RED-TAILED HAWKS in a rare courtship ritual – although I didn’t realize it at the time. I saw two raptors with the telltale bright orange tails circling higher and higher
until I could no longer see them. I thought maybe the strong winds were helping lift them to these unusual heights, and that they were flying around at that altitude for pure joy. But it did seem unusual. I couldn’t remember ever seeing hawks, certainly not a pair, soaring that high. When I looked it up at home, I read that these hawks typically carry out their courtship rituals very high up in the air – up to 1000 feet! And courtship season typically begins in late February through March. Aha! According to the book, the ritual includes circling, touching each other and diving on half-closed wings at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. I didn’t see any tentative touching or daredevil diving, but I did see the hawks circling higher up than I’ve ever seen them. This species is said to mate for life, but when a mate dies, the mateless hawk’s ritual sky-dance courtship must begin again. Or sometimes, according to the book, a pair will engage in the aerial acrobatics in order to strengthen pre-existing pair bonds before going into the breeding. Since they mate for life and the breeding window is small, I may never get to see even this much of their sky dance again in my life.
It’s sweet, isn’t it, that nowadays our walks along the river often include welcoming back old friends like the Red-throated Loon that you so happily reported on last week and this pair of CANADA GEESE that was my first-of-season sighting this year . My neighbor Batya told me that she saw a flock of about 10 a week ago – earlier and more numerous than ever reported on the urban stretch of the river as far as I know. This was confirmed by your park ranger friend. Last year you might recall that Alex Rinkert who leads the Bird Breeding Project in Santa Cruz County asked us to report any breeding behavior of these geese – since their populations seem to be moving south. And sure enough, we saw a second year of three families on the urban river in 2019, an increase from the previous year. It looks like we may see even more this year. I especially love these good parents for their mutually supportive and highly protective parenting.
Have readers read the classic Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold? I love this book. Here’s what Leopold has to say about the spring arrival of Canada Geese in Wisconsin:
“A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Peta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof”
I’m afraid I was once that lady. I’m grateful to local birding guides who have helped me become more aware of all the avian wonders around me. .
And speaking of dear old friends, this morning I saw a dear PIED-BILLED GREBE, hanging out on the cold and windy river with the COMMON GOLDENEYE, above. Since the Grebe is a solitary soul (part of my attraction to it, I suppose) I think the Goldeneye, who is generally more convivial, may have become separated from her flock and decided to find comfort in a new friend. Or was she rejected by her flock for her unusual plumage? For whatever reason, they continued swimming close to each other, almost alone in an otherwise pretty empty river between Soquel and Laurel Streets. I didn’t even notice until I saw the image on my computer that the Grebe’s bill had changed back from its non-breeding drab color to its breeding colors of bright white with a dark black stripe. That’s another winsome aspect of this nondescript bird – it’s modest and unusual breeding display (males and females are indistinguishable and they both sport beautiful bills during breeding season). I’m happy to know that my little grebe is ready and willing again this year.
As for chattiness, this opinionated RAVEN had a lot to say to me this morning, if only I had the ears to hear. Maybe it was saying No to the Recall.
Which – eh –brings me to the Recall – which has been occupying a lot of my time and keeping me from the river. I strongly believe that this recall not only sets a terrible precedent for democratic governance but threatens to upset our new environmentally responsive majority. Our new Mayor, Justin Cummings captured the crux of the matter when he said,
“Recalls are intended to remove elected officials who commit crimes or who abuse their powers in office. Regular elections, not recall elections, are the way that members of the public are supposed to make clear their various policy priorities. What is happening in this recall is an attempt to pre-empt and undermine the normal electoral process, and the voters should reject it.”
Two key points that Justin did not mention are that (1) this recall began immediately after the November 2018 election, long before accusations of misconduct were directed against Drew Glover and Chris Krohn. and (2) that the recall was instigated and funded – to the tune of close to $100,000 (!) – by outside development and real estate interests (using the local anti-rent control group Santa Cruz Together as its funnel). And they had the nerve to call it a “grassroots movement”! Takeover by wealthy, outside interests is what our community should be seriously concerned about, not a regrettable but minor lapse in civility by hard-working and committed civil servants. You can read lots more about the recall if you go to Stopsantacruzrecalls.org.
As for Chris Krohn and Drew Glover, both are srong environmentalists who are supportive of protecting the San Lorenzo River as a wildlife habitat. If we lose them and get Don Lane and Renee Golder, I believe it will be a setback for a green future in Santa Cruz. Don Lane supported recreational boating on the San Lorenzo River when he was on the Council, the issue that triggered this blog. Renee Golder has been registered as a Republican most of her adult life. Katherine Beiers and Tim Fitzmaurice, on the other hand, oppose the recall and have generously stepped forward as “just in case’ candidates who are committed to upholding the progressive views of Chris and Drew i the event they are recalled Let’s hope not! I urge readers to vote NO on the recall and YES on Katherine and Tim.
When Drew Glover was running for City Council in 2016, he carefully listened to me talk about the importance of protecting the wildlife habitat of the river from commercial and recreational development and memorized the fact about the 122 bird species who depend on the urban river for their survival. He used this information in several campaign forums. Drew is the founder of Project Pollinate, an organization committed to raising public awareness about our threatened ecosystem. Click here for a very interesting video of him describing the work of his five-year old organization.
Chris Krohn has been an active environmentalist long before his first 4 years as a City Council member from 1998 to 2004. He was part of a progressive majority that got the current San Lorenzo Urban River Plan (SLURP) passed in 2003, a plan that offered far more habitat protection than the levee projects of many other cities. Chris Krohn has actively solicited the input of Jane and me and many other local environmentalists in considering the environmental impact of issues before the City Council. He has worked hard to put environmentally aware community members on some of the leading City Commissions.
The following statement in support of Krohn and Glover, and against the recall, was recently released by the Sierra Club:
The Sierra Club is against the recall of Counncilmembers Drew Glover and Chris Krohn in the March 3, 2020 election. Council members Glover and Krohn originally earned the Sierra Club’s endorsement through a rigorous vetting process that identifies candidates who prioritize the world’s climate and our local biodiversity. As elected officials, both have energetically followed through on their commitment to the environment.
Both councilmembers are important to the council majority that protects our local environment. They have taken the lead in providing free bus passes to downtown employees, supporting our City’s urban tree canopy, protecting the site of the downtown Farmer’s Market from development into a $40 million parking structure, managing UCSC growth in the context of finite natural resources, renovating our downtown library at the civic center, requiring that a minimum 20% of new housing be kept affordable to local workers, and protecting our greenbelt from overuse and degradation.
Council members Glover and Krohn have supported Sierra Club priorities, and now we need to suppport their voices on the Council.
We hope you will join with the Sierra Club in voting AGAINST the recalls of Drew Glover and Chris Krohn. For more information on how to help, please visit stopsantacruzrecalls.org.
Please vote NO on the recall. Vote YES for Katherine and Tim.
Click here to see my eBird checklist from Feb. 4, 2020
I hope you have time in your life to to make some new wild friends, or visit some old ones.
Sunday afternoon the sky was a soft gray, the air was chilly and I was inclined to take a nap. But I also wanted to take a last look at the river before I sat down to write this blog. As soon as I arrived at the levee, I spied a half-dozing GREAT BLUE HERON, reflecting my mood exactly. Her royal shagginess was sleepy but also watchful. Maybe she was engaged in what is called “unihemispheric” sleep, an ability of some birds to keep one eye open while resting the other side of their brain with that eye closed. But this behavior seemed more like my behavior, opening my eyes a little, then closing them, not really ready to wake up. In any case, I caught the heron with eyes closed, then half-open, then all the way open. Not wanting to disturb her further, I quickly took these photos, then pocketed my camera and went on my way.
Just a few steps downstream I could see four or five campers moving slowly around their tents under the Water St. Bridge. I stopped to chat with a soulful looking man named Paul Magdaleno. After repairing a scavenged and tattered tent, digging a little drainage ditch alongside the tent, and adding a small garbage can, he and the
others had been told in the morning that they would all have to leave by sundown. He seemed resigned to his fate, tidying up but not yet breaking camp. I learned that he was a drummer, grew up in a hippie family that loved the Grateful Dead, had made a living for years growing marijuana and dreamed of forming a band called the Invisible School Bus. I also learned from him that the Water St. Bridge attracts quite a community of musicians that gather and play together. He identified Lito in the next tent as an excellent drummer.
So I went over to meet Lito who let me take a picture of his drums. I can’t imagine how he manages these drums as an unsheltered person. I gave him my blog card and we talked about the name River Mysteries.
Then a kind of magical thing happened.. Another nearby camper overheard our conversation and said, “River mysteries? What kind of river mysteries?” I told him about how you and I, Jane, started this blog as a way of protecting the river from recreational and commercial “development”. We thought if we could help others see what we were slowly learning to see – all the hidden mysteries of the birds and plants and water – we might persuade the city to go slow on “development”.
This man, Guy, told me he had been curious about the name of our blog since he had spent twenty years doing research on crypto-hominids, or “crptids”. He said he could show me where they lived along the river if I showed him the photos on my camera. I handed him my camera and he scrolled back, then zoomed in to a photo with a lot of trees and undergrowth. That, he said, is where they lived and could be seen – if people had the eyes to see. He had seen them and communicated with them. He said that people thought he was crazy. I said I totally understood what he was saying. I have been reading Tolkien lately. And had I not just been zooming in on the Great Blue Heron 15 minutes earlier, looking for more understanding of what is hidden. He didn’t want his photo taken but said that he was a carpenter and a fly fisherman. I gave him my card, told him to call me if he wanted to discuss river mysteries some more, and we shook hands.
Just then two park rangers pulled up under the Bridge. I talked to one of them, a very friendly man who was happy to explain to me what was happening. He and his fellow rangers had been there earlier in the day and let the campers know that they would have to clean up their camps by sundown and would not be allowed to return for 24 hours – until the area had been inspected and cleaned. The two rangers good-naturedly pitched in, helping the campers load unwanted stuff into trashbags and throwing it all in the back of the truck. Campers and rangers alike seemed to carry out the process with as much mutual respect as possible under the conditions. I felt sad and grateful at the same time. I felt oddly connected to both the campers and the rangers. This terrible thing is happening to all of us, bringing out the best – and sometimes the worst – in people.
We have a lot to be grateful for in the way our police and rangers are struggling to deal with a really insoluble problem. Unfortunately, while we all obsess and argue about this and that band-aid solution, our country drags its feet about addressing the root causes of poverty, homelessness and high rents. Until that time, let’s hope our little Santa Cruz community has the patience and kindness to keep applying temporary band-aids until that revolution (hopefully peaceful) arrives.
I heard that Andy Mills, our police chief, spent all day this last Friday with his officers, slowly negotiating with a man who had kidnapped a one-year-old child. At the end of the day, the man finally released the child in exchange for some cigarettes. Andy is getting a lot of criticism right now from Keith McHenry and others about another new set of homeless policies, supposedly harsher than Newsom’s new standards. But I want to at least give credit to Police Chief Mills and his team for this possibly life-saving accomplishment.
I was excited this last week to see two female WESTERN BLUEBIRDS on the river for the first time in my five years of watching this area. These two members of the thrush family were busily foraging for insects in the new grass. This species didn’t make it onto Steve Gerow’s list of 122 regular residents of the levee stretch. I read that Western Bluebirds are expanding their range in southern California. Maybe here too?
According to eBird, this sighting brings my new total to 112 species seen on the levee.. I’m pleased that eBird keeps track for me. Readers should know that Jane is way ahead of me with a total of 148! She would be too modest to say so. And the person who has the highest total for this patch is our beloved teacher, now deceased, Steve Gerow. During his too short a life, he recorded a total of 177 species on the downtown stretch, from Highway 1 to the river mouth. But Jane and I don’t spend much time thinking about numbers of species seen. We are both too obsessed in getting to know and understand all the quirky life experiences of even one species.
Since there are so many GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS on the river and at my feeders, since they come so far to hang out with us in the winter, and since they are limited to such a narrow strip along the west coast and up into Canada and Alaska, I feel like they are very special birds and friends. I was therefore excited to stumble across a research session up at the Arboretum last week where Professor Bruce Lyon, along with PhD graduate student Theadora Block, have been carrying out research on the social behaviors of this species for close to 20 years now. I have always wanted to know more about how the research was actually carried out. Luckily, I spied the team sitting at a picnic table and was invited to watch. The research team worked quickly. Two students were tasked with
collecting the birds. one at a time, from about a dozen traps concealed in a dozen separate places not far away. A bird would be delivered to Block, after which she would skillfully take their measurements, draw blood with a tiny needle for later DNA testing, then gently release the small creature back into the wild. Block would call out the numbers, and Lyon would record the data. Of course I felt squeamish, wondering whether the data collected was worth the effect on the birds. But the birds themselves seemed peaceful,
Theadora was extremely gentle and experienced, and it was all over very quickly. Hopefully, as we learn more about birds’ health, migration patterns, population numbers, social behaviors, etc., we will be better able to respect our fellow inhabitants of this planet. For a very interesting article on the research project, click here.
May you all see something new and magical this week.
I was very pleased with this lucky image of a MALLARD couple that I took behind the Tannery. Don’t you all agree that this newly formed pair seems likely to enjoy a harmonious future together, engaged as they are in a moment of perfectly synchronized head scratching! I love this time of year when these common but beautiful waterfowl are in full breeding plumage, pairing up all along the river as they begin to claim their separate nesting territories.
As I walked upstream towards the Tannery, passing underneath the Highway One Bridge, I was impressed once again at how much the wildlife scene changes once you cross that boundary. Suddenly, dramatically, you find yourself in a much more natural area –– without a levee; with large stands of native trees (redwoods, sycamores, alders, willows); with fallen logs; with native shrubs and with far more birds!
Almost immediately I saw a lot of movement in the canopy of a huge Arroyo Willow just a stone’s throw from the noisy highway. These trees can grow up
to 35 feet in moist and rich riverside soil and I think this willow was at least that high. As I stood there craning my head upward, I saw seven bird species busily harvesting a buggy lunch from that one tree. RUBY CROWNED KINGLETS flitted from branch to branch in their usual frenzied way. Two gorgeous TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS took a slightly more leisurely approach to their insect search, allowing me a moment to take a photo. Several CHICKADEES bustled from branch to branch, perhaps signaling to each other their raspy contentment at a juicy bug. ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS flashed their metallic green colors as they also feasted on the protein-rich insects that they need in addition to nectar. A lone SONG SPARROW bared its crisply brown-striped white breast as it indulged in the insects that it also needs in addition to its more regular diet of seeds. A YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER made a brief appearance, gleaning a few bites before she pushed on. Later the same tree was filled with BUSHTITS, hanging upside down to reach their small protein bars..
What a rich source of food and cover this one willow provided to a diversity of species. What a pity to think that most of its siblings just a few blocks downstream are hacked to the ground each year during the annual flood control work. These poor saplings never get the chance to welcome all the insects that attract all the birds and butterflies and bees to this ecologically important native tree. This is why I strongly support the restoration of the Benchlands to its natural riparian woodland state, increasing rather than decreasing the amount of green space and habitat in our urban landscape.. I would love for the city to develop policies for the protection and enhancement of our natural resources rather than policies that potentially threaten these resources?
I bring this up because of the possibility of the City’s receiving an $8.5 million state grant to improve the Riverwalk. This dramatic case in point, featured in the December 25th issue of the Good Times, was enthusiastically hailed by the newspaper as an exciting vision for the future of the river. The application submitted by the City proposes to transform the current Riverwalk into a safer, more beautiful, and more functional river parkway with an emphasis on serving low income communities with less access to parks. That formulation complies on the surface with the stated purpose of the grant which is funded through Proposition 68, a $4 billion state initiative, approved by voters in 2018, aimed largely at supporting equitable access to parks throughout the state. But is our City’s application for these funds seriously focused on providing equity? And will it promote more green space in the City? The main focus of the grant seems to be on improved bikeways ( more asphalt), more lights for people (counter-indicated for birds and other wildlife), lots of ceramic art that celebrates nature (why not encourage the community to look at the real wildlife before them) and river-facing restaurants and coffee houses whose customers can enjoy the river as a scenic backdrop (but probably not a wildlife habitat). Will the low-income communities be able to afford these river-facing eating establishments?
Judging from some of the people pushing this vision, namely Greg Pepping, chair of the Planning Commission and Claire Galloglly, Transportation Planner for the City, I can’t help but wonder if downtown economic development isn’t the silent driver behind this plan “for the poor”. Greg Pepping, who is widely quoted in the Good Times article, is also executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council, an agency whose goals and values often seem more aligned with Chamber of Commerce goals than with environmental goals..
The application for the river parkway was submitted jointly by the Economic Development Department, the Public Works Department and the Parks and Recreation Department, listed in that order. The leading environmental groups in our community, the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society, have not yet, as far as I know, been consulted in planning for the transformation of this major wildlife habitat within our City’s boundaries. According to a conversation I had with Noah Downing of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, grant writers have already met with representatives, including children, of the Beach Flats area. According to Downing, more conversations with low-income communities and with environmental groups will happen if the grant is received.
Still, I worry that all this money might end up serving the residents of future luxury apartments as well as the many spandex-suited bicyclists who I suspect do not live on the river but currently dominate the pathway. If the pathway is improved, will it not attract even more speeding bicyclists? Apparently if the proposed Park “touches” a low-income area, it qualifies for the grant. Will the residents of the low-income neighborhoods that do exist along the Riverwalk really use the area as a park area? How does the City plan to attract this population? Right now its kind of scary out there for pedestrians like me, not because of the homeless but because of speeding bicyclists. Will low-income neighborhoods along the river even survive as the City gentrifies?
I’d like to thank Council member Drew Glover who, when this matter first came before the City Council last summer, asked the City staff some of these same searching questions regarding equity and protection of wildlife habitat. I am so distressed that there is an attempt to recall this passionate, intelligent and articulate advocate for the poor and for the environment. I hope Santa Cruz voters will not be misled by developers and real estate interests who are pouring lots of money into removing the important voices of Drew and Chris Krohn from our Council. I hope all our readers will vote No on the Recall, and at the same time cast a “Just in case” vote for Katherine Beiers and Tim Fitzmaurice. Both of these former mayors are strongly opposed to the recall but have nobly stepped out of retirement to protect the progressive majority on the Council – just in case the recall of either Glover or Krohn succeeds. For the sake of the environment, and for the sake of low-income members of our community, let’s make sure the recall of two staunch environmentalists, and advocates for the poor, fails.
I will probably be writing more about this in the future if the Department of Economic Development et al receive the grant money.
Click here to see my eBird list for my short visit to the Tannery this week.
Did anyone get a chance to read John Muir’s essay on the AMERICAN DIPPER? I hear that one was spotted in Santa Cruz County for the first time in several years – somewhere in Mt. Herman. I’m very motivated to go in search of it.
More and more tents are going up along the river and on the bridges. It is comforting to me to see that at least the homeless will have reclaimed a small measure of safety, dignity and warmth after being summarily booted from the Ross and Phoenix camps. I am very grateful for the recent decision of the Supreme Court to let the ruling of the lower court stand, the ruling that requires that outside sleepers not be legally cited if other shelter is not available. This last Sunday I saw one man raking his “front lawn”, a serious effort to keep the place tidy. I hope portapotties will soon be provided, for the sake of both the people and the river. Until our society is ready to provide better alternatives, I hope the City can work with the homeless to find humane and environmentally responsible solutions that meet everyone’s needs.
May the inequity between the rich and the poor, and between human and non-human species, be gradually remedied. That is my ardent wish for the day!
It has been three days since some of us celebrated the darkest day of the year and the beginning of increasing light. If any of you are looking for a quiet way to celebrate this time of year, I recommend reading John Muir’s chapter on the Water-Ouzel in his book “The Mountains of California”. It is an astonishing essay written by a wild-nature ecstatic about a bird who – like Muir himself – sings joyfully amidst the coldest, snowiest, most blustery surroundings. I am going to have a traditional family Christmas this year, for which I am very grateful. But I have loved my quieter holidays reading that revealing essay – which offers the perfect window into Muir’s soul, and into the soul of the Ouzel. It’s all about singing hallelujah through the hard times. Click here to read it online and see a photo of this small and nondescript bird.
One of the best parts of the Christmas season for me is the Annual Christmas Bird Count, a tradition dating back to 1900 when U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman introduced the idea of counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them! What a great idea. This year as I birded my regular patch on the urban river, I got to see my first BONAPARTE’S GULL, thanks to Jeff Manker, my co-CBC birder. This gull is a smaller and more graceful version of the larger, much more common WESTERN AND CALIFORNIA GULLS. Jeff also helped me sort these out. Thanks Jeff!
On that first historical count, 27 counters counted 90 species. Today thousands of volunteer birders, from across the country and the world, fan out into every birdy nook and cranny, doing our best to count every single pigeon and every single gull we lay eyes on during the designated days and hours. Click here for more info on this wonderful tradition – the earliest and longest running example of citizen science in the country.
Here in Santa Cruz County, those who count owls are up long before dawn, those who count offshore birds hire a boat and set out to sea for the day. The rest of us try to keep going all day from sunrise to sunset. Then, at the end of the day, the thirteen tired team leaders of the Santa Cruz County area, plus as many team members as are still awake, gather to share food and report on this year’s results. This year we found 161 species, low for our area. The lowest counts during the past ten-year period were 161 in 2010 and 163 in 2012. The highest count for this same period was 174 in 2013 and 2017.
As I mentioned above, I lucked out this year. I got paired with Jeff Manker to cover the San Lorenzo River from the trestle up to Highway 1 and then beyond to beind the Tannery. I didn’t know Jeff before count day, but learned that he was taking over this coming fall as the new President of the Board of the Monterey Birding Festival. He has also taught an ornithology class at Gilroy High School (kudos to Jeff and to Gilroy) and is currently working on a high school ornithology curriculum for the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory.
It seemed to me that Jeff saw four times as much as I saw in a fraction of the time it took me to find a bird. I learned a lot from him. With his finely-honed high school teaching skills, he managed to help me overcome not only my mental block about gull identification, but got me to identify my first female PURPLE FINCH. I loved my first meetings with the delicate BONIPARTE’S GULL and the sweet-faced MEW GULL two gulls who are here only during the winter month.
After 3 hours I temporarily left to attend a meeting, but Jeff pushed forward, returning to the Laurel St. Bridge area to find the TROPICAL KINGBIRD, a rarity which has been hanging out in the vicinity for several weeks now. I saw the same species in the approximately the same area 3 years ago and took this photo. Later he went back and found the reclusive SORA near the Soquel bridge, also almost the exact area where I spotted a Sora in 2014.
In the afternoon, it was great to have you, Jane, join our team as we continued upstream from the Tannery. Approaching the river through Evergreen Cemetary on Ocean St. Extension, I got to see my first flock of BLUEBIRDS of the year. For the list of species identified in our sub-section of the San Lorenzo River, click here We found a total of 48 species ( 1147 individuals) including six species of gulls.
The dramatic tradition at the evening gathering features the lead organizer reading the name of each species on the “on list”, pausing after each species name to hear if at least one team has identified it. For common birds like sparrows and jays, thirteen voices would ring out ‘yes’. But then, after some names, there was a chilling silence – signifying that there had not been a single sighting. Two species lost their standing – the Willet will continue to be “on list” but will now be listed as uncommon; and the Forster’s Tern, who has been missing for five years, will be removed from the list of those we can expect to see in Santa Cruz County After each silence we were, of course, all wondering if this was just a blip, or a trend. Was this part of the 3 billion bird loss reported several months ago by Cornell in its ground-breaking study that I wrote about recently? The concern was palpable among all these bird counters and bird lovers. I could hear sighs and see folks shaking their heads. .The Water-ouzel is still on the “on list”, having been sighted on river rapids in Henry Cowell State Park within the last ten years. But it hasn’t been sighted for many years. Will it also be removed from the list in the coming years?
I hope some of you readers, including beginning birders, will consider joining us next year. All levels of birding can be helpful in counting large numbers and in watching for movement. The more attention we bring to our birds – and other wildlife, the more we can hope to protect the habitat on which these precious creatures depend for their lives.
For five years I’ve been writing about what I see when I go bird-visiting on the San Lorenzo River. But this week I will tell you a little about the many birds that visit me during the winter months – all regulars on the river that I have managed to lure to my mobile home by the river with a steady supply of black oil sunflower seeds, millet, suet and water.
I love starting my day by having breakfast with my flying friends. Before I eat I always first clean out and refill the birdbath, then sweep away the discarded sunflower shells from the patio and front steps, then carefully wash away the inevitable poop. As I work , I see the birds flitting impatiently from branch to branch above my small patio. Oh dear, have they been waiting very long? If I am later than usuals, I feel guilty. I busily refill my tube feeder, sprinkle seeds on my front steps and on the squirrel chair, and settle down on my couch with green tea and muesli to see the show. I am hungry, too. The birds and my squirrel now quite accustomed to my routine, immediately swoop down to have their breakfast with me. It’s such a satisfying way to start a new day.
Almost always, the birds that descend first are the migrant GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS. When they hop onto my front steps, right outside my glass doors, I get a good chance to study their crowns – some with very noticable gold caps and some with only the slightest hint of gold. A researcher at the UCSC Arboretum gathered a lot of data about the hierarchical behavior of golden-crowned sparrows. finding that it correlates with the size and intensity of the gold patch on the tops of their heads.. I have now also become someone who is fascinated with watching who chases whom. What I see definitely confirms the pattern the researcher describes. The birds with bright yellow caps drive off the ones with less colorful caps. (The gold cap, or lack of, is not associated with gender.)
I have been very happy to have a SONG SPARROW visit me for the first time this year. This brave little soul also flew right onto the landing of my front steps and looked me directly in the eye. I love the insouciance of its foot placement.
And of course I welcome the non-native but handsome HOUSE SPARROWS in spite of their questionable nesting habits.
Curiously, I have observed only one WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW in my patio so far this winter. I wonder if they feel too confined on the narrow patio between my house and the fence? They are much more plentiful on the wilder and more open spaces on the river, usually outnumbering the golden-crowned sparrows.
It’s fun to watch the different behaviors of different species at the feeders. The large SCRUB JAY prefers to pick up his meal from the ground, but will sometimes attempt to grab a seed from the tube feeder and then fly down to the ground to break it open – or sometimes to swallow whole.
The sparrows are also ground foragers, much preferring to find their food on the ground or bushes, rather than trees and feeders. But if they are hungry they will all try their luck at the tube feeder .
The HOUSE FINCHES, for whose size, feet and beaks the feeders are perfectly designed, sit for long periods on the feeder rungs, expertly manipulating the sunflower seeds until the shells break loose and are shoved out of their mouths. The finches stay perched on the small tube rungs until driven off by another bird.
Tree-feeding CHICKADEES and OAK TITMICE visit me much less frequently. When they do, they sail in for just long enough to grab a seed from the feeder, then find cover at a safe distance to hammer away at the shell and extract the tasty meat from inside.
The BEWICK’S WREN, whose long, thin curved beak is not at all suited to cracking open a sunflower seed still visits the tube feeder to pick out the millet seeds, usually consuming them while standing on the thin rung which suits her small size. She has been visiting much more often since the cold weather hit and I put up the suet feeder.
The CALIFORNIA TOWHEE, a ground forager like other birds in the sparrow family, is too large and chunky to ever attempt feeding from the tube feeder.
Both the towhees and the MOURNING DOVES. tend to wait until the first round of birds have left and then humbly peck away at all the leftover seed on the ground or steps. . The doves seem the most timid, never venturing
onto my steps. The golden-crowned sparrow is the pluckiest, flying right onto the post by my glass door and sometimes singing its three-note song while looking straight at me. Is it saying ‘thank you’. Is it saying ‘more please’. Is it reminding that this is its established territory? Whatever it is saying, I’m sure it is aimed very personally at me!
I have a special chair where I leave seeds for a very cute and mischievous squirrel who is intensely interested in the seed I put on my front steps for birds only.. Unfortunately, if I let the squirrel onto the steps, she will chase the birds away and then schnarf up half the seeds in short order, at least 10 seeds at a time, half of which seem to fall out of her mouth as she stuffs the rest in with her tiny little hands. As a result, I have become a quite strict squirrel trainer. I chase the squirrel back to her seed-filled chair, while the birds stay on the landing of the steps. When my breakfast is over, I sweep the seeds from the steps onto the ground for all to eat. I like to believe that I am thus slowly training the squirrels never to eat on the steps. Whether my efforts at behavior modification for squirrels is successful is dubious. But once chased off, she does return to her chair – though I often see her peeking at me from behind something, maybe waiting for her chance to test a few limits.
Other birds who have visited my home this winter are BUSHTITS, ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS, and my beautiful HERMIT THRUSH, who feasts on the red berries on my native cotoneaster bush, far from the other birds. She has spent about a month here, single-handedly eating every single berry down to the very last one – which disappeared yesterday. I’m sad to say I probably won’t see her again until next year.
Such a wealth of visitors. How can I feel lonely? As I approach my 82nd birthday, I expect I may do more backyard birding and fewer excursions down the river. When I was in 6th grade, my mother, who taught me to love birds, had a library book called Birds at my Window, about an old woman who watched birds. For some reason, even at that young age, I was thrilled with the book. I was shy and hated giving oral book reports in class, but I remember forgetting my self-consciousness as I reported enthusiastically on my love of this particular book. Maybe I am coming full circle on this theme in my life.
Some of you will be glad to know that Lucero Luna, whom I wrote about in my last blog piece, has found temporary housing for the winter. Thanks to all of you who wrote me expressing your appreciation for that article. My life has taught me that we are all connected – people, animals, plants. When we start to live that way –and why not now – most of our problems will disappear.
If you are a Sierra Club Member, please support our ardent lover of nature and river blogger, Jane Mio, for the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club. I also highly recommend Erica Stanojevic and Bob Morgan for the other two open seats on the Committee. Votes are due January 1, but please mail your ballot early.
May this holiday season be a time of warm connections for all of you with all forms of life.