The Familiar and the Strange

Dear Jane and Nature Lovers All,

Male bufflehead, November 11, 2019, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I happily accepted your invitation, Jane, to visit our newly arrived and elegant friends, the BUFFLEHEADS and GOLDENEYES,  at your end of the river.   I never fail to be amazed that they find their way back each year from their breeding grounds in Canada.  I have to admit that it has taken me too many years to figure out that many waterbirds assume their breeding plumage in the fall while songbirds and shorebirds wait until spring to dress up in their courting finery.  I don’t know why. After all, they all give birth in the spring. Here is the handsome male Bufflehead I saw yesterday with his glamorous iridescent neck and forehead.   It took me at least thirty shots to catch this elusive guy above water.  They barely catch their breath before diving in search of another fish..

Mixed flock of gulls, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman


Like you I also saw the poor Buffleheads pushed out of their area, this time by a flock of about 200 gulls, all splashing and squawking.  They are an unruly bunch, these gulls, especially when they spot a cousin who has found an especially desirable treat.  I saw this peaceful scene near the Riverside Bridge  suddenly erupt into a  a wild and noisy chase with the whole family demanding a share of the treat.  A small group of five Buffleheads, busily fishing nearby, were forced to beat a quick retreat once the  uproar began. They huddled  about 30 yards from the good fishing spot they had thought was theirs – losing precious fishing time until things settled down again.

I was also glad, Jane, that you pointed out that the male Goldeneye lingers behind while the female arrives here first. There was no male visible on yesterday’s walk either, although I saw 12 females (and perhaps juveniles) with their distinctive pointy heads and bright golden eyes.

Female Goldeneye, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Eared Grebes, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, near trestle, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was happy to   catch sight of maybe the first two fall arrivals of  EARED GREBES on the river.  These  little brown waterbirds seem quite nondescript compared to Buffleheads and Golden-eyes – until one gets a close-up look at their fluffy crinolines peeking out from behind, quite enticing don’t you think!   As you know, I am quite partial to grebes.

Eared Grebe from four years ago,  San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, 2015, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Double-crested Cormorant on Eucalyptus branch near trestle, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And like you, Jane, I am always pleased to see the  now familiar OSPREY and DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS hanging out on those tenacious eucalyptus trees,   In spite of the bad rap these non-native trees get, there is no denying that they provide great habitat for our  fishing friends like the ospreys and cormorants.  .

Double-crested Cormorant, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, November 11, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I had seen a Double-crested Cormorant a little earlier in my walk,  drying her wings after a fishing expedition.  This spot was  upstream from the trestle on a fallen snag, another favorite place for her.   I never tire of watching cormorants do this.

And now in the opposite category of creatures occupying unusual spots.  I was a little surprised to see this lordly GREAT BLUE HERON high in a tree, instead of on the more usual river bank or open field.

Great Blue Heron, Oct. 26, 2019, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

In the same vein, I was quite amused to see the little peon GROUND SQUIRREL  below,  also perched somewhat perilously, and unusually high up,  in a shrub.  I imagined that the little fellow was a bit surprised to find himself so high, maybe contemplating how to get down. I wonder if something chased him up there?   I have rarely seen a ground squirrel sit still for so long in such a visible place.

 

Ground Squirrel, November 11, 2019, San Lorenzo River, Estuarine Reach, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Click here to see  my eBird list of the 22 bird species I saw yesterday.

Quote of the Day.

“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”

Henry David Thoreau

May we all enjoy some close up looks at the natural wonders around us, even in the middle of a City.

Happy birding to all,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Billion Birds Lost

Dear Jane and Other Heartsick Lovers of our Vanishing Birds,

Did you see the  just released cover of the 2019 autumn edition of Living Bird?  It was shocking. Instead of the usual gorgeous photo of a gorgeous bird, the cover was almost solid black, with one lone feather way down in the right hand corner,  and the words “3 Billion Birds Lost” in the other  corner.

Living Bird Cover, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Autumn 2019, Vol. 38, Issue 4
Living Bird Cover, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Autumn 2019, Vol. 38, Issue 4

The lead story, based on a study  from the top scientific journal Science, reported that in just the past 50 years, more than 1 in 4 birds has disappeared across North America.  That is catastrophic!  According to the lead author of the Report,

These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife, and that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.

Many of the bird families that have lost the most ground, according to the study,  are the common ones.   The hardest hit are the blackbird family, finch family, lark family, sparrow family and warbler family.  Some of our common birds on the river were singled out as suffering the biggest losses.

Song Sparrow in flood waters, January 22, 2017, Riverine Reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

According to the study, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS have lost 30% of their populations, SONG SPARROWS  (this is the one that choked me up) have lost 20% of their populations,  and DARK-EYED JUNCOS have lost a third of their population.  I know that from now on,  every time I hear the whistle-buzz-trill  of the song sparrow singing its heart out every spring,  it will be like a tiny dagger in my heart. I have come to love these plain little songsters.

According to Steve Gerow,  red-winged blackbirds used to breed along the riverine reach of the urban river. But I don’t think I’ve  even seen a red-winged blackbird since I took this photo in 2015, much less seen any sign of breeding.

Red-winged Blackbird, March 9, 2015, Riverine Reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

A consolation is that I know that there were breeding song sparrows and breeding juncos this year during breeding season.  This little junco was hopping around with brothers and sisters in San Lorenzo Park this summer, not the safest habitat, but they seemed to be surviving.

Junco juvenile 3 (best)
Juvenile Dark-eyed Junco, Summer 2019, San Lorenzo Park, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The author reminds us of the extinction  of passenger pigeons, the complete loss of which no one would have have believed possible. But they are gone forever.

The article in Living Bird didn’t mention our common WESTERN SCRUB-JAY , but it did cite the STELLAR JAY  as one of the most heavily affected species, losing 29% of its population.  I’ll do more research on the scrub jay and let you know what I find out.

Srub Jay
Western Scrub-jay, October 26, 2019, Riverine Reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

Stellar Jay
Stellar’s Jay , May 19, 2017, behind Tannery, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The authors of the study are quick to point out that all is not lost – wood duck populations are up 50%, raptors up 200%.  We have both on our river. Their numbers are up because they were identified in the past as threatened and conservation efforts were successful.  The other co-author of the study, Adam Smith, offers this  message of hope:

“The successes of the past are the candles in the dark that will guide us towards solutions in the future.”   

And speaking of bringing hope, I just read in the paper that Desiree Quintero, who I wrote about in my May 1 post this last summer, was killed by a falling tree in a small camp in the Pogonip.  She was a strong and compassionate leader at Ross Camp, bringing hope to many other women in the camp.   If you missed that blog, you can read about her here.  May this brave woman rest in peace.

Let’s make every effort to protect our avian and  human species, especially the most threatened.  

You can  click here for my eBird list of  October 12 (22 species) , and here  for my October 26th list (26 species) . 

In the category of comic relief, I had to laugh out loud as I watched a mischievous AMERICAN CROW teasing a Ground Squirrel by sneaking up behind it and pecking at its tail!  I could hardly believe my eyes.  And once wasn’t enough.  The crow returned again and again, repeating his sneak attack, causing the  hapless squirrel to jump in surprise  and then run off.  But it couldn’t have been too painful since the squirrel also kept coming back for more.  It didn’t look that different from kids playing some kind of tag game on the playground.

Planning Mischief
American Crow pestering ground squirrel, October 22, 2019, riverine reach, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Good birding to all,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silence, then Shrilling, then Silence

Dear Jane and All Nature Lovers,

Twenty-two species graced the River yesterday as I ambled, stopped, peered up into the trees, then down into the river,  slowly feeling myself enter that peaceful state that this river almost always confers on me.   With the dark shadow of local politics weighing heavily on me these days, I am especially grateful to this eternal flowing presence, restoring some level of sanity to my life.

I had noticed that you, Jane, had posted on eBird a sighting of an EARED GREBE on the 9th, and someone named  George Cook posted a Greater Scaup on October 4th – two first-of-season arrivals on the river. I decided to venture into your salty end of the river this week and, if lucky, offer my personal welcome back greeting  to these two winter migrants, the first a regular on the winter river, and the second something of a rarity.

I didn’t find the migratory grebe, but I did find the GREATER SCAUP (pronounced sk-awe-p).   I almost missed this best bird of the day because some fellow river enthusiast saw my binoculars and, as often happens,  stopped to chat about birds.  (Carrying binoculars is almost like pushing a stroller or walking a dog. ) I was just telling him the name of the ‘white bird’ (Snowy Egret) when I fortunately glanced  back at the river and realized that I was looking at my Scaup – sailing upstream with two MALLARDS. I abruptly ended my conversation.

 

GREATER SCAUP, San Lorenzo River near Riverside Bridge, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

For you readers who haven’t met this bird yet, she is more likely to be seen at this time of year migrating south in flocks of as many as a thousand, usually seen on the open ocean during migration season, or resting inland on shallow wetlands. Skaups are one of only a very few duck species that are ‘circumpolar’ in their breeding, raising their young around the globe in places like Siberia and Alaska.  As a loyal Minnesota girl, I am especially partial to these birds who favor the norther regions.    I started wondering how long she had been on the road from her breeding grounds in Alaska,  and whether she would be staying here for the winter,  or pressing on further south.

I was sad to read in  Birds of North America that the  Greater Scaup are listed as a “Common Bird in Steep Decline,” which means that they have seen at least a 50% loss of their population in the last 40 years. According to this source, “several factors may be contributing to the Greater Scaup’s decline, including warmer water in Alaska, contaminants, disturbance, habitat degradation, and hunting…. from 2012–2016 hunters took on average 69,366 Greater Scaup per year.”  Maybe it is time to forbid hunting birds that are in ‘steep decline’.  If not now, when?  I dream of reaching the point in our evolutionary history when our deeply engrained predatory instincts yield naturally to  choices more in line with conservation goals.  But first we have to lose the taste for duck, which I used to love.  No more!

Osprey bathing ex
Osprey bathing in the river , San Lorenzo River near skateboard park, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

One of the treats of birding at your end of the river, Jane,  is the chance of seeing an OSPREY.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  This shaggy, almost mythical creature, with its astonishingly hooked beak that makes a sharp 90 degree turn downward,  came roaring out of nowhere, swooping way too close to 9 small KILLDEERS skittering along a sandbank on the edge of the river and shrilling loudly in alarm.

Killdeers 4 best
Four of seven killdeer, San Lorenzo River, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Even though the book says that 99% of an Osprey’s food comes from live fish, I couldn’t stop worrying about that 1% that includes birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats, and salamanders.  Maybe the Osprey was just showing off as it skimmed the sandbank next to the killdeers. In any case, it spurned the killdeer as prey and returned to the sky, grandly circling overhead for a few turns, then returning to take a bath in the river, not too far from the killdeers but far enough so that the small songbirds calmed down and continued bobbing along on their own less dramatic but still predatory journeys .

Happily, Ospreys are a conservation success, their populations growing by 2.5% per year from 1966 to 2015!  Killdeer populations declined overall by about 47% between 1966 and 2014, with steeper declines in Canada and the West, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.  But they are a common species and not yet on the list of birds of concern.  Still….

crow with red cany best
Crow hammering mysterious orange edible, San Lorenzo River, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

And in the controversial AMERICAN CROW department, I was impressed at the kitchen tool discovered by this clever crow.  The crevice in the rock seemed the perfect device for safely securing whatever this tough orange delicacy was that the crow hammered away at for quite some time.  Any guesses as to what the goodie might have been?

And don’t you all love the way that cormorants lift their heads so proudly as they swim along, like  this DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT  perhaps showing off her beautiful butterscotch-colored pouch.

Double-crested Cormorant, San Lorenzo River between Riverside and Trestle, October 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Check out my eBird list from yesterday – click here – if you want to see what else I saw on my healing walk downriver.

Quote of the Day: “In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
Robert Lynd, Irish poet and nationalist

May you all spend some time this week in a silent space.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Crows and Owls

Dear Jane and Fellow Friends of the Wild,

Crows are getting on peoples’ nerves these days. My neighbor Alicia told me recently that she got  extremely mad at an AMERICAN CROW that she saw eating a songbird this last summer. She said emphatically that she would never like crows again, that in fact she now hated them.  I had thought that crows were only scavengers of dead animals, but according to Ehrlich’s major reference, “The Birder’s Handbook,”  book,  crows will indeed eat not only birds’ eggs but also nestlings.   Perhaps Alicia’s songbird was a nestling, prematurely fallen from a tree.  Nonetheless, crows are basically scavengers,  usually eating what we grow or toss, as evidenced by  this crow having his morning croissant dipped in river water.

Crow dipping his croissant, San Lorenzo River, May 14, 2017, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Cooper’s Hawk, Jan. 1, 2019 San Lorenzo River, riverine reach, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Is it possible the crows are getting even pushier these days? Recently I saw three  AMERICAN CROWS harassing  a COOPER’S HAWK who was perched on a telephone line over the river minding his own business.  The crows took turns diving at the   raptor who, for the moment, was the hapless target of crows rather than the predator of hapless songbirds.  The hawk finally flew off,  probably deciding

Attacked Cooper’s Hawk with 3 other crows. Preening afterwards. September. 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

that life was too short to take on this particular group of well-organized  ruffians.  One of the crows promptly plopped himself down on the spot where the hawk had been and started happily preening, no doubt relishing his recent triumph.

 

 

Snowy Egret landing on San Lorenzo River, November 2016, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My daughter Kate, visiting from Sacramento,  went out on the river for a run this last week. Just as she was approaching the Riverside Bridge, she saw a SNOWY EGRET flying in with her feet out, grawking loudly at two crows, presumably signaling her territorial rights or intentions.  The crows were facing her and squawking back, energetically flapping their wings for added effect.  Kate said that there was much uproar for a few seconds, then the two crows flew away grumbling and the egret landed. One for the other side – and a delicate egret at that!  (The egret photo is from a few years back – with no crows. )

 

Crow exploring a plastic bag. November 25, 2015, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My everpresent curiosity about crows was now piqued, I returned once again to my wonderful book titled “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” by John Marzluff (Yale University Press 2005.)  Marzluff has some fascinating stuff about how crows co-evolved with humans ever since earliest history.  He goes so far as to say that our social evolution might be partly determined by the need to cooperate in order to protect ourselves from predatory and scavenging crows during the hunting and gathering era, and especially in agricultural times – thus the  agricultural term “scarecrow”!   He says that in turn, “much of the culture of today’s american crow is a direct response to our ancestors’ agrarian culture.”  He then brings it down to the present moment and, interestingly,  mentions high-rise buildings.  “The roosting culture of many corvids has also responded to the warmth, protection, and vertical structure that our cities provide.”  This makes me wonder if  we should be using this argument in our challenges to the seven-story luxury buildings being planned for downtown Santa Cruz!  Will they attract unwelcome crows as they did in Berlin where, Marzluff says, winter evenings were marked by the arrival of thousands of crows onto the glass skyscrapers to roost communally in a warm, safe location.  The main point Marzluff is making, of course,  is that we ourselves are responsible for crow behavior since our lives have always been, and still are, so closely intertwined

Yet in our indignation at crows, let’s not forget that not only hawks, falcons and owls eat other birds, but so do our beautiful river friends, the great blue herons and  black-crowned night-herons. And crows, for the most part, eat only carrion, not live animals.  No matter how we cut it, it’s a hard life for those little songbirds.  No wonder they are constantly looking over their shoulders!

Great-horned Owl, Google Image

Speaking of owls, two other neighbors, Batya and Cass, separately reported to me that about 10 p.m. on Thursday last week they saw, independently,  two owls circling overhead near the river, their underwings white and one of them at least emitting a screech that could have been the begging call of a juvenile GREAT HORNED OWL, or could have been the similar sound of a BARN OWL.  Both Batya and Cass also heard the inimitable hooo-hooo of the Great Horned Owl.  It seems kind of unlikely that both species would have been out and about at the same time, but who knows.  In any case, we know there was at least one great-horned owl and possibly two barn owls to boot. Ah – I wish I had seen that!  Maybe the appearance of both owls presaged the Climate Strike actions the next day which started in more or less the same area. That would be cosmically satisfying.   It was more likely, though, that the birds were attracted by all the newly opened-up space created by the flood control work.

On September 24th I began to fret about the GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS who I knew were due back from  their summer breeding grounds in British Columbia and Alaska. Where were they?  The white-crowned sparrows had already been back a week.

Golden-crowned Sparrow, April 16, 2019, El Rio MHP backyard near river, in full breeding plumage just before heading north to breeding grounds in Canada or Alaska. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I checked my noteook where I try to keep a list of the arrival and departure dates of migrants.   I noticed that the first GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW arrived last year on September 25. Unbelievably, the next day, I heard the plaintive descending whistle of the Golden-crowned in my back yard, returning on exactly the same date as last year!  Incredible!  I haven’t gotten a photo of a returnee yet, but here’s one from April of this year, just before this Golden-crowned left for the north in her brightest breeding plumage. The males and females of this species are indistinguishable.

May you all have a wonderful experience of wildness this week, either far away or in your backyard. .

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast

Dear Jane and other lovers of wildlife,

Starting this Friday, September 20th,  we are all invited to join in a week-long series of hopefully historic Climate Strike events culminating a week later,  on Friday, September 27th,  in citywide student walk-outs.  On that last day, students at colleges,

 

 

 

 

high schools and middle schools across Santa Cruz will leave their schools in early afternoon, march downtown, converge at Wells Fargo bank on River and Front St. at 2:15 p.m., then march to the future downtown Green Commons at the Farmers Market parking lot for speeches and activities, starting at 4 p.m.  Click here to go to the Climate Strike website for information on lists of all the activities, sponsoring organizations, free films, community art projects and more!  You can participate in any or all of these,  during the week-long build-up to the big day – and on the big day itself.

I personally plan to start out the week as a rabbit, walking down Pacific Garden Mall to my  probable doom at the hands of  some sinister  climate change forces that I’m told will be waiting for us hapless animals somewhere around New Leaf Market. For that fun event you can join me and others at the Town Clock about noon on Monday, the 23rd.

Well – the major flood control work on the levee is now into its second week, and this female HOUSE FINCH seems to epitomize the story.  She was clearly relishing

House Finch in Blackberry Thicket, San Lorenzo River, riverine reach, September 8, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

the sweet fruits of the season, her stained beak testimony to many indulgent days of gourmet delights.   She was in the same spot not only before the cutting, but a week after the chainsaws entered the picture!  I sent this photo to the City Council members and council member Cynthia Mathews wrote me back saying this reminded her that she also liked to go out gathering wild berries at this time of year and that she still hoped to make some blackberry pies this season.  I was pleased to get that note.

The crew this year is taking pains to protect the blackberry thickets, the coyote brush, the coastal live oak and a few other natives.  And I have to say that the levee banks look more park-like this year, getting closer to achieving that sweet point between protecting non-threatening habitat and  still complying with the Army Corps flood control prescriptions. A big shout-out to Public Works staff , who are definitely on board this year in terms of compliance with the City’s governing documents and also  more interested in protecting some of the understory native plants that don’t pose a threat in terms of flood control.  I sympathize with their situation.  It’s a heavy burden to be responsible for protecting a City against a potentially devastating flood, especially in this time of increasing consciousness about sea-level rising.

I was particularly thrilled to see the crew chief, Randy Clayton, on Monday, the 9th, the first day of the mowing.  There he was, loping down the Riverwalk towards us in his wide-brimmed leather cowboy hat, hailing me with a “Hi, Grandma!” and giving me a big hug.  It was a far cry from two or three years ago when he was so peeved at me for my constant complaints and interference  that he threatened to ‘throw me in the chipper’.  I knew he’d been really sick last year and in the hospital with major heart surgery. I thought he might have died.  Instead, there he was, totally resurrected,  with his new heart and broad grin, ready to take on the grueling job of vegetation removal once again. He’s gotten this city contract for years, going back to when he used to drive a team of draft horses to power the mower!

Firecracker penstemon from which an Anna’s Hummingbird was imbibing just before I took this photo. San Lorenzo River, riverine reach, September 9, 2019.

Over the years, Randy has come to know the names and nesting places of some of the birds,  as well as the names of many of the native trees and shrubs.   And he knows by heart the Army Corps and City specifications as to which trees can be cut and which ones must be spared.  I’m so glad the City continues to contract with him.  (I can name at least one contractor the City sometimes uses who couldn’t care less about protecting a blackberry patch or an innocent  young willow with a narrow trunk.)  The Public Works folks, the mowing contactors, and I have  been squabbling for so many years that this year it almost felt like  a love-fest by comparison.

Randy also seems to have assembled a sensitive crew.  I had a sweet conversation  just yesterday morning with Randy’s foreman.  I commented to him that I really appreciated how much protected flora had been left this year and how much better this was for the wildlife as well as the humans. . He grinned and said “I tried to trim up the trees so they looked nice.  That’s what I do at my house and it makes things look like a park.”  I had to agree.  The crew has also created little groves of willows along the bank, as prescribed in the governing document, making it possible to catch occasional  glimpses of the sparkling water shining through the Arroyo willows.  I didn’t go down to the river this year with my 15-foot measuring pole, but I feel more confident than I did in the past that we’re all on the same page.  I think we’re  all doing the best we can with an ever-changing and complex river habitat.

Next year I’m hoping to recruit some California Native Plant Society folks to help me collect a little more data about some of the understory natives like the grasses and

Umber Skipper (poanes melane) on Valerian flower. East levee bank, riparian reach, September 14, 2019, pre-cutting.

small plants  that have established themselves on the levee bank  and that provide habitat for butterflies, bees and other creatures tinier than birds, creatures I’m slowly becoming more aware of myself, thanks to some of your posts, Jane.

After that,  I hope to talk to Public Works about jointly coming up with a plan to save more of these plants that pose no threat to flood control objectives. It might require extra funds to carry out this kind of more labor-intensive selective plant removal.  But maybe some of the money could come from Parks and Rec.  I have to say I was disappointed that Public Works did not invite the contracting biologist or the city arborist  to mark the natives this year.  But it appears that Randy pretty much handled much of it on his own.  Each year gets a little better.   And I’m getting a little more patient.

For the first time this year I learned about the  scary Yellow Jacket drama –  scary for the yellow jackets, and scary for the humans.   Just yesterday, as I was about to leave the levee, I saw a big white truck pull up on the Riverwalk with Santa Cruz County Mosquito and Vector Control written on it. I went over and introduced myself to Steve, gave him my card with the Pied-billed Grebe on it, and asked him what was going on.  He was very friendly and took enough time to briefly explain that the mowers had found twelve large nests of yellow jackets in the short stretch along the westside of the levee banks between Water St. and Highway 1, and that several of the guys cutting willows had been stung.

He told me that the male  worker wasps get especially aggressive at this time of year, just before they all die off for the winter.  He told me that only the fattened up and inseminated queens survive the winter months, often going into complete hibernation until they start new tribes in the spring.    I asked him what chemicals the County used and he showed me the bottle of Drione that he said they inject into the hole in the ground where the nests are.  I later did a little google investigating and hope to find out more about possible side effects of this chemical on other wildlife.  The yellow jackets are native insects, and according to Wikipedia, “ are important predators of pest insects”.

Steve from Santa Cruz County Mosquito and Vector Control, eradicating a nest of Yellow Jackets, Riverine Reach, September 17, 2019, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Steve apologized for having to get back to work, then donned a full white bodysuit with protective headgear and descended  the levee bank with a crew member who showed him the location of a remaining willow thicket on the levee toe. The crew hadn’t been able to cut it down because of an especially aggressive wasp attack the day before.   Several hours later I got a phone call from Steve, apologizing again for not being able to take more time to answer my questions  and asking if there was anything else I needed to know.  Wow!  That is really government accountability in action.  Sadly, he told me that while he was removing the wasps, the unprotected crew member, had been badly stung.

Checking the levee both before and after the mowing, I have been struck this year by how many of the water fowl continue to hang around.  They may have no choice, other territories being taken.  Not only before, but almost immediately after the mowing I  have seen a GREAT BLUE HERON, a SNOWY EGRET, a BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON, a GREEN HERON,  COMMON MERGANSERS,  PIED BILLED GREBES, and a BELTED KINGFISHER.  I also saw  three  first-of-season AMERICAN COOTS under the Water St. Bridge, waterfowl who   who are ubiquitous  during the winter months but breed elsewhere in the area during the summer.  Great Blue Heron, foraging in freshly mown levee floor, September 14, 2019, Photo by B. RiverwomanThis Great Blue Heron, particularly unflappable,  was calmly foraging in the disturbed soil while the chainsaws whined loudly from the other side of the river.

 

I haven’t really come to any hard and fast conclusions about the long term effects on the songbirds, who depend on the willows and other riparian trees for cover, food and rest.  (At least we haven’t had to worry about late nesters this year since the mowing started more than a month later than usual.)  I went out three times the week before the cutting (Sept. 1,2,8) and found 22, 19 and 19 species, respectively,  on the pre-cutting days.  On my first trip out after the cutting I saw a total of 15 species, including songbirds.  I saw some Wilson’s Warblers before the mowing and a pair of chasing YELLOW WARBLERS after the mowing.  Both of these species could be migrants or year-round residents. The CALIFORNIA TOWHEES, like the Great Blue Herons, appreciate the disturbed soil so are doing fine.  And of course the BLACK PHOEBE keeps on singing and chasing airborne insects through it all.  I haven’t seen any SONG SPARROWS this week but there weren’t that many in the week before the mowing.  Best of all was my first-of-season sighting of two WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS on September 14th,

FOS White-crowned Sparrow, September 14, 2019, riverine reach, photo by B. Riverwoman

one an adult and one a first winter, busily exploring the east bank after their long flight south from Alaska.  Readers can go to eBird and study my five pre- and post-cutting lists for other conclusions.

My neighbor, Bob, who has lived at El Rio for three decades, told me he saw a beautiful juvenile Pacific Gopher Snake last week, the first one he said he has seen for years.  Mostly we see garter snakes here, but rarely.  Was the gopher snake a refugee from the river cutting?  Or is new attention to river wildlife helping more creatures survive?

But, let’s face it, if we don’t slow down Climate Change, our small efforts are for naught!  So let’s devote next week, if we can, to addressing the big picture.

Warm greetings to the wild life and not-so-wild life, including humans.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Channels, Charts and Chainsaws

Dear Jane and all Friends of the Flora and Fauna of the San Lorenzo River,

Hooker’s Primrose, native annual, San Lorenzo River, September 2, 2019, , Photo by B. Riverwoman

One of my favorite Buddhist sayings is  “The life of a sage is one mistake after another.”  This phrase consoles me as I stumble forward in my life. Today I am going to write about some  possible  blunders I may have quite innocently been making in regards to the river.  I’ll be interested in the opinions of you readers.

But first let me say that it feels really good to be back writing about the river after two months on vacation.  A thousand thanks to you, Jane, for holding up more than your half of heaven with a faithful contribution every two weeks.  As usual, your posts have been full of delightful observations and insights. I can’t imagine there are many others in the City who have such a keen eye for the unique vagaries of both birds and people on the river, and who can write about the fish and the flora, the insects and the mammals, with more liveliness.

In this blog piece I am going to focus mostly on plant life –not so much on the names and photos of actual plants but on the much-dreaded annual flood control work that is required by both our local and federal (Army Corps of Engineers) governments and which is about to begin in the next weeks.  Of course,  none of us want our city to be flooded.  We can be grateful that our Public Works Department takes very seriously their mission to prevent such a catastrophe. And it is indeed sobering that the El Rio Mobile Home Park where I live, right next to the levee,  is the officially designated spillway or ‘levee breakout section’ in case of a levee breach.

Teasel, a native plant, photo by B. Riverwoman, September 3, 2019

Yet it is also not to be forgotten that our City has a proud history of not allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to call all the shots, to exaggerate the dangers.  Every year the challenge for us wildlife advocates is to continue this honorable tradition, finding the wiggle room within flood control requirements that will protect as much flora and fauna on the river as is possible within the constraints of local and federal law.

A little history might help here.  In cities like Los Angeles, flood control work by the Army Corps of Engineers imprisoned many beautiful rivers inside straight concrete ditches, creating blight rather than beauty, horrors rather than habitat.  We can get a small, first-hand taste of that distasteful reality if we look at the concrete ditch hemming in Branciforte Creek  that drains into the River just below Soquel Bridge.  Los Angeles has only recently begun to dig itself slowly and painfully out of its former mistake.

Here in Santa Cruz,  we escaped such a fate only through the combined efforts of a progressive City Council led by Chris Krohn, environmentally committed staff persons like Joe Hall, and many community activists like Bruce Van Allen and, yes, you Jane.  In 2003, you and Bruce and many others  agreed to serve on a River Task Force that finally succeeded in delivering a  win/win agreement where a  stubborn ACE and an equally stubborn City came to an agreement that was designed  to protect as much riparian wildlife habitat as possible – within the constraints of adequate flood control.  The resulting 79–page document, titled the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan (or SLURP),  plus its 127-page Appendix A titled the Lower San Lorenzo River and Lagoon Management Plan,  was adopted in 2003 and has been the official governing document regarding river management for the last 16 years. (Readers can find online links to both these documents on the ‘Links’ page of this blog. Scroll down to “Important City Documents”.).  In my opinion, it is Appendix A (or what I call the Swanson Report), much more than the main document, that is by far the most interesting document from an environmental point of view. It includes a tremendous amount of information about existing native and non-native plants at the time it was adopted in 2002; recommended thinning prescriptions on each of the three reaches; plus sections on flood control constraints, lists of fish and bird species, hydrology and geology, many photos and charts, and much more.  It is a treasure trove and would take years to truly digest.It also happens to include Table 8  titled Species List for Revegetation in the Riverine Reach which happens to be the  chart that, right this moment, is perplexing me immensely!  See the chart and  discussion later in this article.

 

After you drew me into the anti-kayaking campaign in 2014, Jane, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in this river, especially the ‘riverine reach’ right behind my house – from the Felker St. Pedestrian Bridge to the Water St. Bridge. Like you, I became very distressed about the ‘scalping’ of the levee each fall by bulldozers and chainsaws. During 2015 and 2016, I tried to understand if there was anything constructive that I could do to protect more habitat – apart from pestering the poor chainsaw crew that I soon realized  were just trying to follow what their little SLURP chart said, as best they could.  Here’s the chart we were all arguing about:

The  foreman of the cutting crew, Randy Clayton,  carried this scrap of paper with him at all times, and so did I.  I eventually came to realize that the City was cutting much more  along the toe of the levee than was allowed by this document –  mostly I guessed because the City wanted to remove vegetation that provided hiding places for illegal campers. I pointed this out to Public Works in 2017 and somehow managed to persuade them, after a good deal of back and forth, that if they were going to remove the 10-foot strip that was protected habitat along the toe of the levee, then they needed to make up for that habitat loss by adding it somewhere else, maybe along the required 5-foot swath immediately adjacent to the river. Otherwise, they would be out of compliance with SLURP.   It worked! The City agreed to do that in 2017, and continued the practice in 2018. I was, for a brief moment, proud of this achievement.

In addition, in 2018, Public Works began marking some smaller native shrubs (mostly coyote bush)  with orange ribbons to declare them off bounds for cutting.   And, perhaps even more importantly, they asked the consulting biologist to train the cutting crew in what to cut and what not to cut, based on the SLURP chart modified by our informal agreement the previous year.

But my joy has been short lived.  Now I am pulling my hair out about the possible significance of  Table 8 , above, a list of the plant species recommended by SLURP for revegetation on the riverine reach, I realized that I may have been too hasty in suggesting the so called win/win solution of moving the 10-foot strip towards the river. I now notice that  the trees that were supposedly to be planted along the levee toe were the white alder and the yellow willow, very different from the arroyo willows along the bank of the river.  Why had the Native Vegetation Network that had helped write this part of SLURP been that specific about the specific trees at specific points on the levee bank.  Had I sacrificed bio-diversity for mathematical equialence?  I realize I just don’t know enough about these trees, what habitat they require, how they differ from the other trees in terms of water needs, wildlife value, etc.  I have no easy answer today and want to post this piece before midnight. I am also wondering about the direction that red willows and box elders be planted on the upper levee slope, and that the black cottonwoods and California sycamores be planted maybe halfway down.  Were these four trees meant to be subjected to the same 6″ trunk limit as the alders and yellow willows at the toe of the levee?  Why didn’t the other chart say so?  I am thinking we need input from some native plant specialists.

Maybe a few readers will be as obsessed as I am about this matter of trees (and shrubs and grasses) on the levee and will be willing to study these two charts to see how they relate to each other.  In any case, I willingly confess to being in a state of confusion.    I’m allowing myself to happily  follow the path of the blundering sage, the better to learn a few new things.

Coast Live Oak, Native plant, San Lorenzo River, September 3, 2019, Photo by B Riverwoman

The main question is how can we protect the maximum amount of wildlife habitat while still respecting the key goal of protecting the City from destructive floods. That’s the challenge.  Let’s all work together.

Here are my two most recent eBird lists from earlier this week – 22 bird species on Sunday, click here  and 19 bird species yesterday, click here.  I’ve been seeing lots of Wilson’s warblers but have no idea if they are some year round residents or migrants on their way south from as far north as Alaska.

Yesterday, near the Water St. Bridge, I also saw this  winsome rabbit looking at me very solemnly as if to question my human intentions. She had good reason.   Her habitat is especially threatened by the upcoming flood control work. Cross your fingers that she makes it through with her home intact.

Rabbit, near Water St. Bridge, September 2, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Thank you all for caring. And may you all enjoy your own personal and very safe habitat.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

Walk Like a Vegetarian

 

Dear Jane and All Friends of the Wild,

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.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

Flycatchers, Finches and Fulminations

Dear Jane and Other Nature Lovers,

Sometimes I have to defer to some topnotch birders to bring you the hottest bird news from the levee.

ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER GOGLE
Ash-throated Flycatcher, Google Image

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.

PURPLE FINCHES
Fledgling Purple Finches, Google image

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.

3 families, 16 birds
The tribe of sixteen Canada Geese (three pairs of adults and 10 juveniles)  swimming near the Chinatown Bridge, San Lorenzo Park, June 5, 2019, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman
Geese in Duck pond
The same tribe of sixteen Canada Geese resting and drinking at the Duck Pond, San Lorenzo Park, June 6, 2019, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman
Geese on Knoll
The tribe of sixteen Canada Geese foraging on the knoll  near the Duck pond,, San Lorenzo Park, June 6, 2019, Photo by Barbara Riverwoman

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Dirt and Mud

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.

Cground squirrel 2
California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi, (google image)

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 Cliffies near riverwalk bestyears.  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.

Cliffies in mud Best
Same Cliff Swallows as above.

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?

Violet Green Swallow
Violet-green Swallow near Water St. Bridge, May 20, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Large Tannery Sculpture
Spirit Nest by Jayson Fann,   Tannery Art Center, May 20, 2019.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Log in water
Stream wood in river behind Tannery, May 27, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Willow catkin
Willow Catkin, behind Tannery, May 4, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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!

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Alliances – Avian and Human

Dear Jane and Friends of the Wild,

May 9, 2019, San Lorenzo River, 2 gulls and 6 crows harass a Red-tailed Hawk at bottom left. Two gulls are slightly apart in photo but were flying close by most of the time. Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

May 9, 2019, Wood Duck with one of 7 babies. Just north of Felker St. Footbridge, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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! )

Brochure on Stream Wood produced by the Resource Conservation District (RCD), the County of Santa Cruz Environmental Health Services, the County Santa Cruz Public Works and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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!

Canada Geese family, San Lorenzo Park near Duck Pond, May 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

 May 9, 2019, near Water St. Bridge, San Lorenzo River, two young Canada Geese, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Two  parents of the goslings hovering watchfully  nearby.
Juvenile Dark-eyed Junco, one of five, near Children’s Park, San Lorenzo Park, May 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Mallard pair resting near Duck Pond, May 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

The new legal encampment at 1220 River St. with 60 City provided tents and surrounded by barbed wire.
Tents with storage container at left. Breakfast and lunch are provided and shuttle service 3 times a day.

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!

An artist’s tent home at Camp Ross on May 6, last day of the camp. Thanks to Abbi Samuels, strong homeless advocate, for introducing me to this site. Photo by B. Riverwoman

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?

Entrance to Brent Adam’s Storage Program near Felker St. Bridge Photo by B. Riverwoman

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.

Barbara