One of the many delightful and unexpected pieces of birding advice I got this last weekend was to ‘walk like a vegetarian’. I haven’t tried it yet, but next time I see a bird that I really don’t want to scare away, I will bend down slowly and at least pretend to nibble on a leaf. Jeff Caplan, who led the delightful workshop on bird language that I attended, says he has tried it and it works, even with groups of people who nibble their way past a bird who decides they aren’t a threat and doesn’t fly away.
This was the second time I had attended this class on bird language, and it just gets better. Not only has Jeff studied for many years with Jon Young, the Native American-trained author of What the Robin Knows, but he is himself a sensitive observer of nature and an engaging teacher of both young and old. He immediately gets people sharing their stories, imitating bird language, acting like birds, coming up with their own theories about what birds are feeling and thinking, and evoking lots of laughs with his sense of humor. The class isnot only fun, but models the best kind of participatory and discovery approach to teaching. Amidst all buzz, Jeff managed to teach us how to identify the five types of bird language, ie. songs, contact calls, begging, alarm and aggression. After the indoors portion of the class, Jeff took us up on the river levee to practice our new skills, and then back to India Joze for a delicious feast, included in the low price of the workshop. Jeff is recently returned from Ecuador where he teaches bird language to young people who live in the rain forest, a way to help them learn to love and protect their environment.
As a result of Jeff’s class, I am quickly turning into a lazy birder. Jeff encourages birders to find a sit spot and just sit! According to Jeff, we are more likely to connect on a gut level with the birds around us if we can sit non-threateningly, watch and listen attentively, and stay curious. You are the great exemplar of that, Jane, and the depth of your connection with birds is a striking testimony to this approach to birding.
I strongly encourage anyone who wants to spend a lovely morning with a lovely man to sign up for a workshop. Go to Jeff’s Facebook page and see if there is a local workshop coming up. Click here if you want to see the one academic part of the workshop, a quite technical but fun video on bird language.
Inspired by Jeff, I decided to confine my walk this week to the nearby Chinatown Bridge where I stood in just a few spots for more than an hour. I broke my camera so my words will have to carry the story today.
The first thing I saw was an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD, mysteriously foraging along the steel railing of the bridge. I let my curiosity lead me to take a closer look. What could a hummingbird want along the railing? Spiderwebs! Nesting materials! When I got home I went back to Paul Erlich’s The Birders’ Handbook (every birder must absolutely own this amazing resource book) and found the following under Anna’s Hummingbird: Nests are “loosely made of plant down, forb leaves, bud scales, flowers, bark strips, bound with spider’s silk, lined with plant down.” So the little hummer was collecting the sticky spiderwebs to glue the rest of its nest together.” Thanks, Jeff.
Later, on the mowed grassy area at the east end of the bridge I watched with curiosity a very discerning DARK-EYED JUNCO picking up a piece of dry grass, then dropping it, then picking up another. After a good bit of quality control work, it flew off with with its chosen blade of nesting material.
I posted both these observations on eBird as breeding information, and sent a copy to Alex Rinkert, the Bird Breeding Atlas leader in our area. He wrote back, confirming my observations and adding that this is probably the second or third brood for both these species. It reminded me that I’d recently seen an Anna’s doing mating displays not far from the bridge. Maybe the mating was successful and now the happy couple has moved onto nesting.
My happiest moment was seeing my third WOOD DUCK family on the river this season, this time a mama with one little wood duckling, both slipping into view from the safety of the overhanging willows along the bank into a quiet backwater, separated from the force of the main channel by a sandbar. The water along the edge of the sandbar was filled with small brown rocks, providing perfect cover to the little brownish puff of life that was the baby wood duck.
I also saw from the bridge both an adult and a first summer GREEN HERON, A GREAT BLUE HERON and 4 COMMON MERGANSERS. As usual, the Mergansers were swimming along together at a business-like clip, their half-submerged heads and bodies elongated like the fish they chase. All of a sudden, I saw them all lift up out of the water as if with one mind, practically flying forward while their feet paddled the air, then diving and stirring up a sizable wake behind them. My guess is that they had spied a large, tasty and now frightened fish and their empty stomachs and early-morning predator instincts were hugely excited. Later I saw them all resting on a sand bank, looking quite satiated!
Click here for the checklist of the 17 species I saw from my ‘standing spot’ along the Chinatown Bridge.
As for the suggested name change of the bridge, it is still being pondered by the City. Here’s the story I’ve heard. The last remnants of Santa Cruz Chinatown occupied the piece of land where the old Riverfront Theatre was located. When the area was destroyed in the flood of 1955, it was never rebuilt. George Ow, well-known local businessman and philanthropist, remembers when the garden of his grandmother (with whom he lived in his early years) was located on the current theatre spot. Then, just a year ago, in June 2018, Ow sent a letter to the City Council urging that the city officially adopt the name Chinatown Bridge for the footbridge that is across the street from the theatre and extends to San Lorenzo Park. The idea was provisionally approved by the Council, and has been winding its way for a year through various City Commissions, including the Arts Commission, the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Historical Commission before it hopefully returns to the current Council for final approval. I love the new name and hope our City will honor and commemorate the rather tragic history of the Chinese in our community by adopting this name for the bridge and perhaps creating some relevant art. I plan to continue using it whether or not it gets approved. I especially love it because of my history with China and because it may be a new ‘sit spot’ for me. If you want to read a little bit more, check out this Sentinel article from a couple of weeks ago.
This will be my last blog post for two months. I am hoping to do some personal writing in July and August, as well as visit friends and family out of town. I will be back on September 3rd with my next post.
I hope you all have a good summer with lots of time in gardens and wild habitats. Don’t forget to nibble on a hopefully edible leaf if you want to study a special bird.
Sometimes I have to defer to some topnotch birders to bring you the hottest bird news from the levee.
As I was preparing to write this blog piece, I checked out eBird to see if there were any interesting reports out there. I admit I turned just slightly green with envy when I read Gary Kittleson’s late May posts. As most of you probably know, Gary is the professional biologist the City calls on to check out the bird situation when there is a City-planned disturbance to the levee habitat. I was very surprised to read that he had found an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, as well as 6 PURPLE FINCH fledglings between the Water St. and Laurel St. Bridges.
I went right out this morning to see if I could find any of them. Happily, I found not only one, but two of the flycatchers – hopping about very visibly in the huge cottonwood tree just above the Mimi de Marta Park! I think this is a life bird for me, or at least the first I’ve seen on the river. This summer visitor doesn’t venture much further than the northern part of our state from their wintering grounds in the deserts of western Mexico. Here’s an interesting fact that I learned about this desert-dwelling species. Like the kangaroo rat and a few other animals that live in dry conditions, Ash-throated Flycatchers don’t need to drink any water at all, meeting all their water needs from the insects and spiders that they consume – a kind of flying cactus! I guess that is one reason that they feel at home in our summer drought conditions.
PURPLE FINCHES are also a species that have eluded me over the years. I’m sure I have unknowingly seen these year-round residents on the river and even in my backyard, especially in the winter.
But I still haven’t learned to positively distinguish them from the much more common and similar looking House Finch. During breeding season they tend to hang out in forests and woods beyond the urban and suburban areas. During the winter they are more likely to venture downtown, especially if we put out seeds. But I admit I have never been sure of an identification and so don’t have them on my list of river birds.
Gary also reported on lots more evidence of breeding – recently-fledged BUSHTITS, HOUSE FINCHES and BLACK PHOEBES – as well as a LESSER GOLDFINCH carrying nesting material as well as singing male YELLOW WARBLERS and SONG SPARROWS – a possible indicator of courtship behavior.
Thanks to Gary for all the bird information. Click here to see Gary’s full list for May 22.
The breeding birds that you can’t miss these days are the highly visible CANADA GEESE. There is a tribe of three families (made up of 16 birds) that hang together wherever they go – with 5, 3 and 2 goslings respectively, 16 birds in all. One day last week I saw all sixteen of them swimming together on the river, then the next day all sixteen snoozing beside the Duck Pond, and then later the same group of sixteen grazing together on the grassy knoll next to the pond. All of us goose watchers dotingly share notes on these remarkably family-centered birds. Their social cohesion seems to pay off in reproductive success as they appear to be expanding southwards into Santa Cruz. We may not be so doting in the future. They have covered the grassy areas and sidewalks with astonishingly large droppings.
Rumors have circulated for some time now about the Duck Pond’s future being in danger of elimination. The Duck Pond attracts a surprising number of waterfowl besides the ever present MALLARDS, including GREEN HERON, COMMON MERGANSERS, COOTS, EGRETS, and even an occasional RING-NECKED DUCK. And the endangered WESTERN POND TURTLE has been spotted in this sweet oasis. It is also beloved by many people who love the beauty and calm of that little spot. So when I looked at the consent agenda for today’s City Council meeting, I got worried all over again. The Department of Parks and Recreation is asking for the go-ahead from the City to apply for newly available money from the state whose purpose is “to create new parks, and rehabilitate and expand recreational opportunities” in “critically underserved communities.” It sounds good! But when you read a description of the specific project the City wants funded, it requires a second critical look. The City’s proposal is the “rehabilitation of aging infrastructure on the Santa Cruz Riverwalk and upgrades to certain recreational areas and parklands with access to the Riverwalk.” The application is not only being submitted by Parks and Recreation but also by Economic Development, the Department that is focused on downtown development. I’m planning to ask for more specific information at the City Council meeting this afternoon. Stay tuned.
In the category of a small step forward for birdlife on the river, I saw a crew on Soquel Bridge removing the long string of wavy blue lights put up for the Ebb and Flow Festival last year. I was told by one of the guys that the City did not renew its contract for the coming year. So down came the lights after this weekend’s festival. Jane and I both expressed concern to the City’s Economic Development Department last year about the effect of the lights on wildlife. Maybe somebody was listening.
And in the category of activities that disturb both humans and wildlife on the river, there has been an ongoing racket behind the Bank of America where the Army Corps of Engineers has been carrying out some major reconstruction on the levee. The word from an engineer at the site is that the wrong kind of dirt was originally used at the site, a dirt that turns to mud if it gets wet, threatening the stability of the levee in the event of a flood. The bad dirt is all being removed and replaced with “engineered soil”, soil that has finely ground up rock in it. Unfortunately the engineers decided that three trees had to be removed to make this possible.
Hope you are all getting out to see some wildlife on these summer days. It may not be the best time of year for birding, but it sure is nice to stroll along the river in warm weather.
Dear Jane and Other Good Friends of Killdeers, Falcons and Ospreys,
What wonderful stories you told last week, Jane. I loved the rooftop romance of the Killdeers. And the drama only built after that! Significant that the trestle gets congested no matter how wide it is built – just like Highway 1. “When will they ever learn….”
There was a rumor circulating this last week that the fenced off stretch of the Riverwalk between Highway 1 and Water St. was because the City was doing some kind of ground squirrel eradication. Of course, all my fears about pesticides were triggered. So I packed my weapons of pen and paper and sallied forth this morning to confront the enemy, only to learn from a worker that the City was just repairing the sidewalks. Oh! In the meantime, I did a little research on Otospermophilus beecheyi, fondly known to rodent scientists as Beechies.
First, do you remember the excitement a year ago when someone reported spotting a BURROWING OWL on the east bank of the river between Water St. and Highway 1? Well – it turns out that these odd owls do like to make their homes in the abandoned burrows of Beechies. Not only that, but I ran across a scientific study, click here, that said that the Beechies actually protect the underground-dwelling owls from predators by sounding alarms before the owls themselves can pipe up. It’s too bad that we don’t have more Burrowing Owls on the levee to take advantage of all the cozy and safe burrows that lace the levee. These animals had their intra-species systems so well worked out before we came along.
I found another study, click here, that explores the kind of levee vegetation that might discourage Beechies from building their labyrinths underneath levees. The conclusion of the study was that grass and low shrubs are no good, but trees might possibly work. Do you think we could we use this study to encourage the City to plant more trees on the levee? I picked up the interesting statistic that the average ground squirrel burrow in California is 27 feet long and 30 inches deep. These numbers, according to the authors, are not long enough to completely ‘transect’ and ‘perforate’ a levee, the biggest fear. But the authors also point out that beechie burrows have been known to be as long as 872 feet (!) and as deep as 27 feet! Collapsing, water “piping” and erosion seem to be the three main problems created by all this homebuilding – not too different from the effects of our human homebuilding along the river. It is quite understandable that the City is concerned. I heard someone suggest that installing owl boxes might help. Now that’s a solution I could really get behind.
The CLIFF SWALLOWS have moved back en masse to the Water St. Bridge this year, to reclaim their old somewhat worse-for-wear nests that they abandoned in the last couple of years. Who knows what brings them back. I am glad to say that this year I have seen only one HOUSE SPARROW squatting in the swallow nests, perched brazenly in the doorway of its stolen site while the original builders dash frenetically back and forth, busily patching their broken nests. The lazy year-round House Sparrow will probably claim one of these newly patched nests next year. Harrumph! The river was swollen by rains that day, covering the muddy banks where the swallows usually gather their mud. So the resourceful creatures moved their mud-gathering operation up to little pools along the Riverwalk itself.
I have also seen quite a few NORTHERN ROUGH –WINGED SWALLOWS flying about, a few of them flying into the vents under the bridge where they nest. I’ve never actually seen the nest of a VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW, although theses birds are so common on the river in the summer. I caught this one actually sitting still for a moment on the corner of an apartment building. I wonder if it was guarding a nest. I’ve read that they normally nest in cavities in old trees, five feet high or more. In our tree-denuded levee bank, there are unfortunately no such trees. Was this swallow forced to to settle for a rooftop nest?
I wandered down to the Tannery area, as I am wont to do these days, hungry for the woodland feeling that exists just steps from my door. I caught a glimpse of this eye-catching new art work in the process of construction – almost ready for the Ebb and Flow Festival in two weeks.
The artist is Jayson Fann and the sculpture is created entirely out of driftwood collected on the Main Beach during this year’s winter storms. Pretty wild. I like it – like that it’s a nest.
Still – nothing comes close to nature’s creations. I sat by the river for a long time this week, staring at all the natural sculptures, like this piece of stream wood. Later I stopped to relish this willow catkin, so beautifully designed to flirt with the wind and so propagate it’s kind. Nature’s art.
Incidentally, Kristin Kittleson, the champion of stream wood that I talked about in my last blog, sent me a gentle note reminding me that Wood Ducks can use stream wood for protection, but not for nesting. For nesting, the ducks need a dry cavity in a living tree that is standing – for protection from the elements and predators. Silly me. Thank you Kristin.
May you all have many good nature walks this week!
My favorite bird moment on the river this last week was the sight of 2 GULLS flying with 6 AMERICAN CROWS in a joint attack on a long-suffering RED-TAILED HAWK! The action took place very high up in the sky so at first I didn’t see the two white streaks among the black ones. Then I did a double take. Were those really gulls joining forces with the crows? It sure looked that way as the gulls wove in and out among the crows But it made sense when I thought about it. The Red-tailed Hawks are predators on the nests of both. As I left the levee, grinning from ear to ear, I ran across my friend, Marilyn Strayer, who was also looking heavenward with a big smile on her face. A new and unlikely political alliance was being born in front of our eyes.
I am so happy to follow up my report in my last blog with photos of another WOOD DUCK family! This time with seven (7) little ones. I was also really grateful to get an e-mail from Alex Rinkert, head of the Breeding Bird Atlas II project, pointing out the historical significance of some of my sightings:
…all those are valuable to the Atlas, especially the Canada Goose and Wood Duck. The former was not nesting in Santa Cruz during Atlas 1 (1987-1993) so your observation documents range expansion. The latter is one of few breeding records we have for Wood Duck and adds more support for their nesting along the lower San Lorenzo, where there is very little nesting habitat for them.
I love this kind of historical perspective on the movement of populations, especially important now when so many species face imminent extinction . Thanks to Alex and to Atlasers all over the country for their painstaking attention to detail. (I have still not figured out how to enter my data correctly on the Atlas Excel sheets and Alex was trying to help me! )
Wood Ducks use the cavities in old fallen logs for their nests. Maybe the County’s noble effort to educate us all on the greatness of old logs paid off with those seven little fluffy Wood Ducks. I feel silly to be so excited about fallen logs. But I am not alone. At the recent conference on the river I picked up a glossy brochure called ‘Stream Wood’ and I’ve been reading and re-reading it. I suspect it was written at least in part by that amazing woman Kristin Kittleson, who I believe works in the Water Resources Program of the County. I know for sure that she is a lover of fallen logs and I have heard her speak quite eloquently about how important they are – how they can control water flow, enhance water quality, protect fish and fish eggs and offer habitat for a wide range of animal species. Plus they are so beautiful as water spills over and around them. No longer will Kristin allow us to cut them up and haul them away. They are a key part of the ecology of a river. And can provide a nesting spot for Wood Ducks!
My observations of CANADA GOOSE that Alex Rinkert referred to were further downstream. I found one handsome family with the five fluffy juveniles cuddled up together on the edge of the Duck Pond, then later foraging with their ever-watchful parents on the grassy area nearby. Shortly after that I spotted another family with just two juveniles below the Water St. Bridge, pictured below. I also saw a family with two goslings behind the Tannery on another day, but it could have been the same family.
Just past the Duck Pond, I ran across what at first I thought were five Juncos. But when I looked more closely the coloring was all off. I went into my panicky photo snapping mode, thinking I had just discovered a new species on the river. I could hardly wait to get home, download them, and identify my new find. It turned out they were, after all, DARK-EYED JUNCOS. But juveniles! That explained the strange markings. This was my first look at Junco juveniles. They were foraging in leaf litter underneath the redwoods close to the Children’s Park in San Lorenzo Park, apparently unperturbed by my excessive camera clicking.
I have been noticing that a lot of Mallards are back in pair formation, after a month or so of absent females (presumably on their nests) and packs of idle drakes lolllng about on the banks. But that has changed. These last weeks I have seen agitated male and female chases as well as cuddling pairs. It seems like they are working on second families.
.In addition to the waterfowl above, I have seen other evidence of breeding to report to eBird and Alex – KILLDEER (pair flying and calling together), NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW (carrying nesting material and also dipping briefly into mud banks), and, thrillingly, a pair of YELLOW WARBLERS (in chasing pattern, across from Trader Joe’s). Here are my two eBird checklists, click here and here, if you want to check out all the species I saw these last two weeks.
I know all of you, like me, were shocked and disheartened by the May 6th report from the United Nations announcing that one million species are threatened with extinction, “many within decades”. It’s hard to think about for even a moment.
But if we don’t try our best to stop it, who will? I want to take time here to acknowledge the truly excellent work that you, Jane, do in both loving nature deeply and immersing yourself in the hard but necessary organizational work of protecting the natural world. Since we met just about five years ago (working to stop recreational paddling on the river), you have taken on leadership roles of all kinds– as Conservation Chair of the Bird Club, as Executive Committee member of the Sierra Club, as appointed member of the City Parks and Recreation Commission, and as lead person in the Lagoon Re-vegetation Project. I am in awe! Organizing on that scale is hard but so important to success. And, of course, you write your amazingly observant and delightful stories on our blog. Thank you for all of this!
The rest of this blog is a brief follow up to my last post on Ross Camp – for those of you who are interested.
On May 6, the illegal Ross Camp was closed for good. Sixty people from the camp of 200 residents signed up for the legal camp at 1220 River St. and were taken there by bus along with each camper’s two bins of belongings, all that was allowed. They had been warned that they would again be evicted from that temporary spot in two months with no assured shelter after that. (But as I understand it, the intention of the City is to try and connect these campers with services during these two months.) A few others were moved into empty beds in previously existing housed programs. Most have, understandably, once again dispersed into the parks, doorways, woods, and sidewalks of Santa Cruz. Some opportunists have probably left town. So far the City is not publicizing the numbers. Since camping arrests are no longer legal (Boise v. Martin), trespassing arrests in the last week have been way up according to the statistics just published this week by the Police Department.
On Monday, May 9, the day that the Ross Camp was sealed off for good, I went to pay my last sad respects to what had suddenly become an eery ghost town, devoid of people and filled only with abandoned tents and the roar of bulldozers. Outside were two women, one sobbing and cradling a bicycle like a young child and one woman named Hope shaking her fist and cursing loudly at the milling police rangers and First Alarm employees. I couldn’t bear to linger and crossed the Felker St. Bridge. That was the moment when I discovered the seven baby Wood Ducks, cosmically positioned to lift my spirits!
I fell into a very dark emotional place the next day. It wasn’t that I loved that place. No one really loved it, including the residents. One homeless man told me on the last day that he wouldn’t “wish this on his worst enemy.” I had spent a good amount of time there, and in many ways it did include exactly what critics described – drugs, crime, and trash (though I personally, in five prolonged visits, never saw a single needle and I did see beautifully kept tents and even artistic embellishments. The main pathways were usually kept clear of trash by the residents.) There was also despair, rage and grief. And because it was so visible, it attracted occasionally vicious harrassment from some drive-by oppponents. I guess the sign carried by one homeless woman expressed my overriding feeling about it all – ‘If you don’t have a better solution, please don’t take away our solution. It’s the best we have”. What homeless people did have at the Ross Camp that they lacked before was more community, more protection, and some growing awareness and even empathy from the Santa Cruz community of their desperate situation.
I expect we are all deeply sobered by this very visible eruption of the physical pain, mental suffering and social failing that is normally hidden in the the shadows of our fair City. Can we now reflect on this failure/success and come up with a better answer?
After leaving the sealed off camp on Monday, and letting the Wood Duck babies heal my bruised soul, Brent Adams happened along and invited me to take a short tour of his Storage Program, just across the footbridge from the closed Camp. Brent is a controversial figure in our town, someone who is very warm-hearted and hard-working but who can be harshly critical at times of both homeless advocates as well as City officials. He says he wants to create constructive solutions to homelessness, not just protest. He almost single-handedly raised the funds for a small but beautifully organized and much-needed storage center for the homeless. He proudly showed me 483 large plastic tubs, each labelled with the name of a homeless individual. There was another room filled with medical supplies, clothes organized by size and gender , as well as a lobby/meeting space/reception area. Brent took time off from my ‘tour’ to bring out, one by one, 6 pairs of women’s pants, size 4 to 6, for a very thin, pale and dishevelled young woman. She finally found a pair that she liked. I was impressed by Brent’s kindness. He told me that sometimes a homeless individual will stop by to simply spend time with the contents of his or her bin, often just to pore over family photos. Brent always makes the bins available. Unfortunately, the building that now houses the program is about to be sold to a developer and Brent will have to find a new place. Brent lives in a van.
In spite of the unique blinders that all of us wear, I believe that everyone– the homeless, the City, the residents, the police, the activists – have done their best. There is no point in castigating each other.
My own hope is that Brent’s vision of a real Transitional Encampment like the ones being experimented with successfully in Seattle, will someday be considered seriously by Santa Cruz. I really don’t see any other solution.. Unfortunately, I don’t think our City government is yet ready to imagine authorized shelter in tents, nor some level of self-governance by the houseless themselves. But emergency conditions require new and creative solutions. Seattle has succeeded in finding a some kind of balance between emergency shelter and human dignity. We can do it, too.
I hope you all get to see some bird babies before they all grow up. Maybe you would even consider Atlasing. It’s made me so much more aware of breeding behavior.
I’m going to take a slight detour this week and focus on the ‘people’ side of our River Mysteries blog. In just two days, the 200 or more homeless campers at Camp Ross will be forced to evacuate with no clear plan from the City on where they are all to go. Many will no doubt return to our river banks, the Pogonip and City Parks – with the inevitable environmental impact. And the campers will lose the community of friends and fellow sufferers that they have built and value, and the safety it affords them.
Part of the reason that you and I have focused on the urban river, and especially birds, is that urban wildlife and habitat is so sorely misunderstood, neglected and mistreated. I feel that, in the same way, the very vulnerable human population of homeless campers is badly understood and treated disrespectfully. Under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings have a right to be treated with dignity.Far end of Camp Ross near the welcome sign. The irony speaks for itself. .
So – for the last couple of weeks I have left my binoculars at home and instead carried a notebook and pen as I headed up river to the crowded Ross Camp wedged into a small space between the Ross Store and the glitzy “Welcome to Santa Cruz’ sign at the main highway entrance to Santa Cruz. I wanted to know who was living there, wanted to know from their own mouths what they were struggling with.
I visited five times, and each time I came away touched and sobered, depressed and impressed, shocked and thrilled. It is that kind of camp! It needs a combination of John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman and Charles Dickens to tell the story, as well as a first rate modern documentary film. This report, long as it is, is extremely superficial. Nonetheless, it was an important experience for me, and I hope others will be interested in the people I met and learned from. I have changed all the names except three who gave me permission to use their full name.
I’ll start with the most important thing that I learned. I used to think that food, water and shelter were the most important elements of meeting our human survival needs, a la Abraham Maslow. But after talking to at least twenty people from the camp, I have begun to revise that belief. In some cases at least, community seems to be as important to survival as water. ALICE, a quiet, beautiful and slightly dishevelled young woman told me, “A lot of people here don’t have family. This is what we have. Don’t take it away unless you can give us something better.” This sentence still brings tears to my eyes as I write it. Can’t the wonderful community of Santa Cruz understand this basic truth and build their programs on this foundation. City workers go home after a hard days work to children, spouses, parents, friends. Will they really deny ‘family’, and the safety this provides, to those who may need it most. It is not enabling to be humane.
One woman I talked to at length was MAGGIE ROCHELLE, not a homeless person but an art instructor in Houston, Texas and a mother who had not heard from her son, Alan, in three years. She had done some serious detective work and had followed her son from Houston to Santa Cruz. As she said, “If he had lived out in the woods, I would never have found him. But he was at the camp here and I found him!” Last week, she drove him to Oakland to help him buy a banjo and he has been playing at the camp ever since. Her son has not yet broken free of his drug habit, but Maggie feels that he seems to be doing better, the two of them are more connected, and she is more hopeful about his future. She has visited Alan in the camp almost every day for a month, even staying with him in his tent for three days to learn more about his life. As I talked to her yesterday, another young man who had been the one to lead her to her son’s tent on the first day strolled by. He had disappeared and she had been worried. But he had been at the Janus drug recovery center for 52 days, had put on 30 pounds, and was neatly dressed and shaven. He was completely out of touch with his own mother and seemed almost as happy to see Maggie as she was to see him. Maggie had tears in her eyes as she gave him a warm embrace.. A little love goes a long ways, especially in a homeless camp.
A man I met on my first visit was KEVIN SCOTT JONES, 57 years old, a wiry, lively man with long curly brown hair tumbling down to his shoulders. He danced around and talked with great animation as he explained a little about his life to me and Councilmember Sandy Brown. He had grown up with an abusive stepfather in Felton, his home had burned to the ground when he was seven years old, he had been living outside since then, except when he had a girlfriend or was in jail. Ironically, he committed his first ‘crime’ when he took some gold coins from under the bed of a housemate who owed him money. He did it in order to keep a promise to a girlfriend that they wouldn’t end up on the streets. Over the course of his life, he ended up spending a total of 20 years behind bars. He said he usually sleeps during the days and only goes out at night when there is less tempation to steal. He has cancer and is in constant pain, bleeding every time he urinates. He said he is impervious to cold after having lived outside so many years. He said his nickname was ‘Nobody’ and proudly showed us the word boldly tattooed in large black letters on his back. He loves the community aspect of Ross Camp and told us that he knows the names of most people in the camp. People know him, too. For me the most significant moment of our talk came when someone from outside the Camp walked up to him in stockinged feet and said he needed a pair of shoes to be allowed to get into court for his own hearing. Kevin asked for his shoe size and then immediately took off his own shoes and gave them to the man. Kevin said he does not need a house, much less a managed shelter. He does not want medical care. He likes the community aspect of the Ross Camp, but would also love just a small piece of land that he can control himself, and on which he might even be able to build a small cabin. Nobody created the land. Why shouldn’t a small but fair share of it belong to Nate? Who is stealing from whom?
On my walk up to the Camp I met TOM, a young man in his 20’s with a sensitive face and gentle demeanor. He was traveling the coast, working on organic farms, interested in permaculture and justice, and clearly trying to come to grips with the terrible injustices in the world. He was circling around the Ross Camp, trying to make sense of it, but not able to enter that world so much tougher than the world he came from. He had stayed briefly at the Veterans shelter and was searching for a sanctioned place where he could simply hang a hammock in exchange for some kind of service, a tent being too heavy to carry everywhere. He said he became delusional when he didn’t get good food to eat. He was very understanding of both sides in the conflict between the housed and unhoused, pointing out how isolated many housed people were, how many of those people are working hard and are still close to homelessness themselves. He talked about communal land trusts as a good answer, but said that the banks control the market and they are stopping positive social change. He also longed for a ‘festival culture’ of dancing and gardening. Would it be so hard to find some land and put up some hooks where the lovely Toms of this world could hang their hammocks as they search for peace and justice for all of us?
I met DANE, in his sixties, not at the Ross Camp but just outside the only entrance to a spanking new Benchlands campground in a large grassy area that stretches along the river in San Lorenzo Park. A middle-aged white man, well-dressed and clean shaven, Dane was re-visiting his history by visiting this tightly-managed camp, much like the River St. Shelter where Dane had stayed last year period of homelessness. “The River St. Shelter saved my life. It gave me a stable place to get over a temporary setback and find housing again”. Dane and I learned from the four guards at the one entrance to the Benchlands Campground that campers are offered free tents on platforms, free sleeping bags, clean water. The City also promises transitional services to help people find medical treatment, drug treatment, housing, jobs. It seems like it might be a camper’s dream come true. But very few are biting. Why?
Because the Benchlands Campground is scheduled to be open for only 7 days, and was never intended as anything more than a place to temporarily ease the evacuation of the Ross Camp. Nor is the City’s promise of two months at the River St. Shelter after the Benchlands close an enticement to most of the Ross campers. Why did the City think that the Ross campers would choose this option – forsaking their community and their freedom for five days at the chain-link fence surrounded Benchlands and then two months in a dusk to dawn only camp. Is it any wonder that the homeless lose their faith in the City. I don’t think the City has met or or really listened to most of the people I talked to at the Ross Camp.
DESIREE QUINTERO (her real name) is a 54-year-old woman with thyroid cancer and the political and moral strength of a bulldog. She is intelligent and articulate, a determined leader of the camp, a former firefighter and the the first-named plaintiff on the lawsuit Quintero v. the City of Santa Cruz, which challenged the legality of closing the Ross Camp. (The lawsuit lost in the local court, was temporarily overruled in the federal district court in San Jose but was finally sustained in federal court on Monday, April 29.. All residents at the Ross Camp will be forcibly evicted this Friday, May 3.. The word is that the campers are planning to occupy another ‘illegal’ site.
Desiree flinches slightly when I ask her about her childhood, but says matter-of-factly “My mother beat the hell out of me. I still suffer from PTSD as a result.” She is proud that she never physically hurt her own four children, and visibly thrilled about the good careers they have made for themselves. She shakes her head when she tells me that she tried to get into the Page Smith program for three years. “I was never bad enough’ to get accepted – no drug problem, no CPS, no bad driving record. Just homeless.” She would love to love to get into subsidized senior housing, since market rate housing is far beyond what she can afford. She uses CBD’s, the non-high marijuana for the pain associated with her cancer. She loves the community that has grown up at the Ross Camp, seems to know almost everyone by name, and talks to everyone. “I’m especially interested in protecting women. Any female can come here to the Ross Camp and nobody is going to mess with them. I am fighting for the women more than anything.” She shakes her head again when she hears that the Benchlands camp will check for weapons at the gate. “We all carry weapons” she said, showing me her buck knife in a belt pouch. “We carry them to protect ourselves, cut rope, etc. Every homeless person needs a knife. How can we move to the Benchlands?”
“I would love a round-the-clock Homeless Center with storage and showers and kind people. It’s all about being respectful and kind.” She believes the homeless can govern themselves and has worked hard to make that a reality at the Ross Camp. .She would like a non-profit like Food Not Bombs to be the official manager, not the City.
Desiree introduced me to CHERYL(50’s) a slightly beaten down looking middle-aged woman with what looked like a permanently damaged, probably blind eye. She does not live in the Ross Camp but visits friends there while camping on the nearby tracks. I asked her if she felt safe there. “I’ve got a boyfriend, my knife and an attitude”, she responded with humor and barely concealed pride. Her voice was surprisingly strong.
MICHAEL SWEATT is a tall, handsome, black man, probably in his thirties, articulate, a leader in the camp and one of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit against the City. He grew up in Kentucky where he admits he suffered a lot of violence both at home and from other kids in the neighborhood. “I never had a childhood, I’m jealous of those who got that, I always have to be the adult,” he says. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 23 years. His campsite is completely shipshape, and he has Michael Sweatt
put a lot of effort into keeping the whole camp clear of as much trash as possible. But when others, especially “outsider party kids”, trash the Camp he becomes enraged. He knows that a lot of people in Santa Cruz stereotype all campers as trashing the camp and he hates it when a few campers feed that image.
MELANIE is a young, healthy looking pregnant woman from Watsonville who is due to deliver in June. She told me that she is homeless because of ‘unhealthy relationships and drugs’. “I have relapsed several times, but I really want to be clean again. I am much happier when I am.”
EUGENIA isa very thin, fine-boned. well dressed Hispanic looking woman who had just gotten out of jail. “I thought my boyfriend would be at the Camp, butI found out yesterday that he was sentenced to nine more years in prison. I just can’t stand it. The whole thing has been so bogus, so unfair”
There is no point concealing the lives of suffering, humiliation and hopelessness that lie close to the surface of so many of the people at the Camp. The pain has led to criminal behavior, drug addiction, and mental health problems. The campers are poor and so they may steal. They are in physical and mental pain, sometimes excruciating, and so they may self-soothe with drugs. They are living in unjust and discriminatory world that leaves many of them enraged. They are victims since childhood of racism and rape, poverty and prison, bad homes and bad schools.
There is commonality, but, as I’ve tried to show, each person’s story is different, and the needs are different. Dane needed a structured shelter with a lot of rules that the City feels comfortable in providing. Tom needs a place where he can hang his hammock, eat healthy organic food, and work on social justice issues. Desiree needs subsidized senior housing, but also a community of people that she can serve, especially women. Nate needs a small plot of land on which to build a small house. Many of them would welcome drug rehab programs or mental health programs where they felt respected and where they had a voice in their own lives and treatment. Many have already tried to make it, again and again, in such programs but something hasn’t worked.
Many of the people I talked to have not experienced the kind of respect from the people in power that they deserve, nor have they been encouraged to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Until the City can adopt an attitude, as well as policies and programs, that clearly recognize the intrinsic dignity of every person in our community, how can we not support the movement of the homeless to build their own world as best they can, with at least a decent campground, clean drinking water, the right to govern themselves, and the right to occupy a piece of public land.
It is, of course, not the fault of our City or County leaders that homelessness exists. The problem is rooted in something much deeper, namely an economic system that valorizes greed and undercuts human connections. But some cities are doing better than we. I hope we will also step up to the plate.
Here is my quote of the day, which can refer to non-human species as well as humans. The earth, after all, belongs to all kinds of species.
“The equal right of all men to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air. It is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence. For we cannot suppose that some men have a right to be in this world, and others no right.” Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879
I’m so happy to report that I found my first WOOD DUCK family up behind the Tannery last week.
May we guarantee safe habitats for all living creatures. especially the most vulnerable. May the Ross Camp morph into something that works well for both the campers, all other humans in our City, and the non-human creatures that populate our river.
Feeling tired and a little sick lately, I haven’t taken my usual walks from Water to Laurel and back again. Instead, this week, I took a fold-up chair and settled myself in a sunny spot next to the river behind the Tannery, staying for two hours, dozing off at least half the time. That’s birding when you get to be eighty. Of course, the great birder, Jon Young (What the Robin Knows), says that choosing a regular ‘sit spot’ makes for the best birding.
Even at 11 o’clock in the morning there were birds all around me, singing their hearts out.
Most insistent were the quick staccato songs of the JUNCOS, and the complex and irrepressible warbling of many SONG SPARROWS.
After a while I heard the distinctive buzz of a SPOTTED TOWHEE in the nearby underbrush, the squawk of a STELLAR’S JAY from a tall eucalyptus and the hammering of a WOODPECKER from a distance. But I felt far too lazy to set out in search of any of them. Their songs, the light-filled river and the shadowy complexities of the storied canopy graced me with more than enough magic.
I was awake long enough to see a COMMON MERGANSER shoot by on the surface of the swiftly flowing river, its triple-jointed rubbery body stretched out flat to what seemed twice its length, intent on its hunting. But, again, I was far too slowed down to even attempt a photo.
Finally, I heard something stir below me, turned just slightly and caught a short glimpse of the intense metallic blue and deep russet colors given off by the feathers of the GREEN HERON in just the right light. (In some lights the cap and wing feathers have a mossy green appearance, and in other lights the feathers appear to be all slate gray). Almost immediately the Green Heron took flight, no doubt disturbed by my slight motion. I thought of you, Jane, and made my apologies. I find myself so drawn to that lovely patch of urban woods behind the Tannery. Maybe I’m trying to dream into being a similarly rich environment on the Benchlands.
When I got home, I decided to take a little walk down memory lane. I was wondering what we had seen in earlier years during this month. (It’s great that, without any effort on our part, Word Press keeps our more than four years worth of blogs neatly categorized according to months.)
It made me a little sad to see this WOOD DUCK family from April 15, 2016. I haven’t seen even one Wood Duck on the river this spring, much less a whole family.
I was impressed once again at this amazing photo you took, Jane, of a HORNED GREBE (below) in full breeding plumage in April 2017 , a rarity since they usually leave for their breeding grounds before they reach this stage of glory. As far as I know, we didn’t get to see even one of the drabber versions of this species this winter. much less this bird in full regalia.
As I was poring my way through these old blogs, I came across this April 2016 photo of the Mallard mama who stayed with her nest in the Benchlands even after City mowers cut
down her high grass hide-away in preparation for Earth Day. Yes, very ironic! For Earth Day! As some of you readers may remember, I had a little dust up with one of the city employees as I tried my best to let her know that it was breeding season and there could well be ground nesters, especially mallards, in those ‘ugly’ weeds. But this doughty and determined weeder was very resistant to turning off her weed whipper. I immediately called the City but they simply ordered the employee to continue. Several days later my friend Batya told me about the exposed nest and the faithful mom- and I took this photo. The two eggs never hatched. Of course, I spilled out the whole story in my blog that week.
Of course, running across this photo also reminded me that Earth Day was less than a week away. I hastily sent the photo, as well as a link to the blog, to Tony Eliot, the new director of Parks and Rec, asking him to please not mow the area this year. But I was too late.
I’m grateful that he or someone forwarded my e-mail to Gary Kittleson, the biologist and amazing birder with whom the city contracts to do all kinds of ecological work. Gary immediately let me know that the City had actually sent him out to survey the area before the mowing this year. That was good news. He had found no visible nests, and the mowing was already done. That was the bad news. Gary expressed surprise that he didn’t find anything, especially considering the fact that the Benchlands have been fenced off since early winter, eliminating almost all human traffic and making it a theoretically safer nesting place. We are left to wonder where all the female mallards that we’ve been seeing over the last months have gone. I’ve seen drakes hanging out in large numbers in recent weeks but practically no females. Let’s hope we begin seeing families soon. In previous years they have already been out and about by this time.
Four GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS were still feeding at my feeder this morning, but the numbers have been diminishing dramatically. I am slowly saying my sad good-byes as they fill their tummies in preparation for the long trip to Alaska and the demands of breeding. It has been such fun watching the dull stripes on the crowns of many of them gradually become intensely gold, outlined on each side by thick black eyebrows. Here is a
photo of one of my Goldens from three weeks ago with splotchy eyebrows and a less regal gold cap, followed by a photo of a later stage molt from a couple of days ago. One of the sparrows got to know me so well that it started peering in through my glass doors and emitting its plaintive two-note whistle if I was late in putting out their expected breakfast of black sunflower seeds. I’ve gotten more dependable over the years and they have gotten more friendly and relaxed around me.
I hope you all know about the new Netflix series called Our Planet, narrated by none other than David Attenborough. It stands out among nature programs by making the powerful climate change connection. The nature footage is the best I’ve ever seen. It’s both heartbreaking and thrilling. Don’t miss it.
Best to you all from an anxious granny waiting for babies to appear,
I just can’t help smiling at the predictable flare-ups between the stolid RED-TAILED HAWKS
and the feisty and vociferous AMERICAN CROWS.
I used to worry a little about the hawks who seemed to be the constant target of the crows indignation. Then, as I’ve written before, I learned that Red-tails are regular predators on crow eggs, and that the intelligent crows never forgive and forget, supposedly carrying their bitter feuds even into the next generation of hawks. So this week when I saw a Red-tailed Hawk fly into the large pine tree above, and then saw it almost immediately attacked by a single crow, I settled back to watch the natural unfolding of this conflict of interests.
And true to form, the stolid hawk maintained its dignity for a few minutes, pretending to ignore the smaller but vehement crow, who squawked and dive-bombed again and again. As usual, the hawk quickly got fed up with the pesky crow and flew off, pursued by the original crow and one more. I continued on my walk, crossed a bridge, and looked back to see whether the hawk had returned or not. Instead, what greeted my eyes were now 15 crows, all sitting in the very area where the hawk had been. Talk about tribal solidarity! I hadn’t seen quite this strong a show of support before. I wonder if this time there is a nest involved? I’m definitely going to keep watch over that tree.
I caught a glimpse of another annual nesting drama playing out under the Water St. Bridge where a HOUSE SPARROW
was peering out from inside an old CLIFF SWALLOW nest. But in this case, there were no Cliff Swallows present to defend their rights. I had to walk downriver a bit, to the Laurel St. Bridge, to see 15 newly arrived Cliff Swallows flying in and out of their old nests from last year, probably assessing their durability for this year’s batch of young swallows. Welcome back cliff swallows!
Thanks, Jane, for your careful monitoring of the river and your capturing of the photo of the well-known local man, and his friend, smiling and paddling on the river in open defiance of our City’s law on that subject. I kind of lost it when I saw that photo and then received a letter from the man, confirming his intention of defying the law. It is especially galling during breeding season when river birds like the Pied-billed Grebes are searching for nesting spots among the downstream tules. The man has read our blog, and still seems unpersuaded that he has no legal or ethical right to use that space. I’ve felt angry all week, uable to compose a civil letter to him.
I do not think this should become a public issue. The City Council is already burdened by social problems of far greater gravity than one pesky pleasure seeker on the river, even during breeding season. But my constant fear is that actions like this could open the door to hundreds of pleasure-seeking boaters on the river. This fear was strengthened by the public comment of a staff person from County Parks during last week’s Symposium on the State of the San Lorenzo River. He said that he hoped access to the Riverwalk and San Lorenzo Park could be extended to the river itself. This has always been the desire of the commercial and recreational interests in Santa Cruz City. I’m afraid it has not gone away.
Let’s hope that environmental awareness grows enough in future years so that this controversial issue will not have to divide the City again. If it does, I hope we can mount another campaign as successful as our small victory in 2015, and as successful as the determined campaign of the crows to protect their nests from certain raptors. I would like to ask readers to e-mail me at email@example.com if you see any recreational boating on the river. We need to document it. Also, please check out the ‘Links’ page on this blog and read the documentation by Jane, myself and others (fourth article down) on the effect of the pilot paddling project in 2014 on our river birds. It is a sad story but needs to be re-told and re-read regularly.
Have any of you ever noticed the large number of cork oaks that line the area just outside the lawn bowling area and the children’s playground in San Lorenzo Park?
Over the years, I’ve taken quite a few photos of these unusual Mediterranean trees since the bark is so exotic and beautiful. But I had no idea of their historical significance until my sister in Baltimore mentioned that she was going to hear a lecture on cork oaks and their relationship to the miliary effort during World War II. I googled it and discovered that 5 million Mediterranean cork oak acorns were planted across the country by children nationwide during the war, only a few of which still survive, most of which are in California! If you are interested in the story, you can read about it here. It would be nice if Parks and Recreation could create a plaque with this interesting story.
Please help protect our river from recreational paddling. We love the safety and peacefulness of our human homes, especially when we have young children at home. Let’s offer the same respect to our wild and breeding friends on the river.