Of Bushtits and Blankets

Dear Jane and Nature Lovers,

As I fall back on my yearly strategies to stay warm during these cold days – pea soup, more blankets, fleecy slippers –  I am once again sobered by the  determination of the small songbirds who have to work so much harder than me to keep warm.

Pretty bushtit
Bushtit, San Lorenzo River, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I learned recently that one of the reasons that tiny Bushtits like the one  pictured here are almost always seen in flocks of 6 to 30 is because they also roost together at night, huddled in tight masses to prevent heat loss.  Judging from this photo, they are also very good at fluffing up their feathers to make a neat little down jacket for themselves when they aren’t huddling.

And please take a look at these pleasingly plump birds, a CALIFORNIA TOWHEE and ROCK DOVE (Feral Pigeon) with their inflatable down jackets –a better evolutionary strategy, it seems, than depending on Patagonia or, in my case, Good Will.

Puffed up Cal towhee
California Towhee, San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Puffed up pigeon
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon), San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

House Finch glelaning in Curly Willow
House Finch, San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Of course, the most important heat protection strategy of a bird is finding enough food on which to survive. Here’s a HOUSE FINCH I saw this week exploring the vegan riches along a beautiful branch of curly willow.  House finches eat almost no high-protein insects, but seem to do well on their plant-based diet. Of course, I like to hear this.

I shiver when I see songbirds taking baths in this cold weather. When I saw this GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW and House Finch staring at each other so seriously  from the roof of a home near the River, I thought they might be exchanging their

Golden-crowned and House Finch discuss bath house
Golden-crowned Sparrow and House Finch, San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

unique insights on how to stay warm.  Or maybe they are conversing about how titillating it is to take a cold bath on a cold day!

Click here to see my last eBird posting of the 24 species I saw in little more than an hour on the river just two days ago.

 

There is so much bad news on the environmental front that I was very happy to receive an article forwarded to me by Patricia Matejcek titled ‘Terrific Win for California Birds”.

Audubons's Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, December 9, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

It was about California’s  strong message to the federal government stating  its intent to continue protecting migratory birds in spite of federal legislation that would roll back the longtime legal protections of the Migratory Bird Act. As I spotted this YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER as well as the migrant RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS that are now  now flitting everywhere in the trees along the urban stretch of the river, I wanted to let them know that California is on their side in spite of Trump.

Last week I Levee certification Projectsaw the first concrete signs of the enormous flood control project that is slowly ratcheting up, possibly leading to what I now call the ‘dreaded dredging’ project. Employees of the engineering contractor MBK were out with their surveying instruments, recording and measuring everything from the placement of lampposts to topographical details of the levee.  If their results show that the levee will not provide protection against a 100- year flood, then the City is in trouble – flood-wise, financially, and environmentally.  Let’s hope these guys can find the evidence to convince FEMA that we are ready for the big flood.   Or – I’ll say it again – maybe we should just start packing our bags in readiness to leave the flood plain to the floods, and to all the habitat and wildlife that this departure of ours would support.

And coming full circle back to where this blog began four years ago – i.e. resisting recreational boating on the river – I chatted with these two Water Department employees as they were out measuring water quality.

Testing Water Qualityu
Water Department employees testing water quality, December 90, 2018

They were paddling along slowly but still managed to startle and flush out a GREAT BLUE HERON who screeched raucously and non-stop as she indignantly flew up river, finally finding respite at the top of a big pine tree.  Yes, even a single boat on the river for very good purposes, can dramatically disturb the avian wildlife of the river, even the usually unflappable Great Blue!

 

FGBH in retreat from Water Department canoe
Great Blue Heron retreating from boat, San Lorenzo River between Water and Soquel, December 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I hope some of you get to the Council Chambers tonight when our new Council is officially seated. Just imagine!  The top vote getter in the election was Justin Cummings, who has a PHD in eolutionary biology!   Am I dreaming?

Muir quote of the week:

“ After witnessing the bad effect of homelessness, developed to so destructive an extent in Califonia, it would assure every lover of their race to see the hearty home-building going on here and the blessed contentment that naturally follows it.”

John Muir (1838-1914)

This encampment just behind Ross Stores near the Felker St. Bridge is not exactly what John Muir had in mind, I know.   campsiteBut I can’t help but think that the closeness to the river and a few trees, plus the independence, provide at least some healing to those who, like the birds,  have to work harder than most of us to stay warm  during this chilly time of year.   The City provides porta-potties and trash pick-up and otherwise leaves the campers alone.

Stay warm, stay active, stay faithful to our feathered and non-feathered friends.  Happy Holidays to all.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Holiday on the River

Dear Jane and Nature Lovers,

The river was celebrating yesterday.  Filled with the rain offerings from hundreds of small tributaries in the San Lorenzo River watershed, blessed by a perfectly sunny day, and clearly filled with a plenitude of fish, it was the kind of birding day that we all  dream of.  A glorious array of feathered creatures came to the party.

A newly arrived and delicately sculptured EARED GREBE, with her bulging petticoat in full display, came floating along as if slightly bewildered at this annual  change of venue.  “Where am I,” she seemed to be asking.  “And where is my flock?”

P1100448
Eared Grebe, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

 

She was accompanied slightly further downstream by three other migrating waterfowl species, including two sleeping RUDDY DUCKS, with their beaks buried deeply in their feathers and their eyes  opening only occasionally to make sure everything was safe.

 

ruddy duck, female
Sleeping Ruddy Duck, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Walking south just a bit further I finally got to see what I haven’t seen yet this season, the most elegant of all migrants, the handsome black and white male BUFFLEHEADS that you have been reporting now for some time, Jane.  I’m always surprised at how early they don their breeding plumage – sometime in October.  And how beautiful this plumage is!   Seen in the right light, their headdresses give off a shimmering display of iridescent colors.  Quite an evolutionary accomplishment!  They spend so little time between their underwater diving forays that I simply was not fast enough to capture a photo. Their regular migratory sidekicks, the golden-eyed and velvety brown-headed  COMMON GOLDENEYES were diving not far away and almost as hard to catch above water.

fishing escape
What I usually catch, at best, when I try to photograph a Pied-billed Grebe, a Bufflehead, or a Common Goldeneye

In the migrating songbird category, a few flashes of bright yellow brought me my first sight of the returning LESSER GOLDFINCHES while a large flock of migrant WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS foraged industriously on the ground among the grasses, hopefully enjoying what Santa Cruz has to offer in the way of a winter diet.

Year-round residents were also out in force.  I had barely stepped onto the levee walk, when I spied three shining  COMMON MERGANSERS,  sailing swiftly and purposefully upstream, searching for the surface dwelling fish.

Merganswers, Out Swimming
One male and two female Common Mergansers, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Nearby 4 DOUBLED-CRESTED CORMORANTS  and 2 PELAGIC CORMORANTS were busily diving  for their choice of fishy treats from the deeper reaches of the river.

pelagic  cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant with dark black feathers gleaming in the sun. San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Like the Ruddy Ducks, a GREAT BLUE HERON also appeared to be feeling sleepy, perhaps after fishing all night long.  She was tucked weirdly into a fork between two sycamore branches, and like the duck, only opened one eye occasionally to take a peek before settling back into turpitude.

GBH resting
Great Blue Heron wedged into a sycamore tree. San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

I almost missed seeing this nattily outfitted KILLDEER, so small and well camouflaged picking its way carefully between the river and the rocky shore.

killdeer
Killdeer, San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Unlike me, she seem not at all excited when, in quick succession,   two loudly expostulating BELTED KINGFISHERS competed with a cackling GREEN HERON for the honor of noisiest fly-bys on the river.

 

I also got very distracted by my odd little friends, the AMERICAN COOTS.  I watched with amusement as one busy Coot plucked experimentally at a floating piece of vegetation that she had discovered, only to be visited by a perhaps curious or covetous cousin.  They seemed to discuss the situation, then the cousin left and the original Coot gave what I imagined was a big happy splash to think that she had her treat all to herself again.

 

 

6. Splash, it's mine!
Social coot in solitary enterprise. San Lorenzo River, November 26, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was especially happy to count 8 PIED-BILLED GREBES, more than I have ever counted on one day.  Needless to say, they were all fishing quite separately, definitely not a flocking type.  And my wish came true when I found an OSPREY holding court from the top branches of that tall sycamore at your end of the river, Jane, her regular  throne, I believe.

In all I spotted 26 species in my two-hour walk. Click here for the list. What an avian feast.  And unlike my earlier Thanksgiving feast (sans turkey) it didn’t make me fat!  Just very happy!

And speaking of Thanksgiving, I am filled with gratitude that Santa Cruz has chosen Justin Cummings, a person with deep environmental values, as one of the three new city councilperson.  The second top vote-getter, Donna Meyers, also has an impressive record over the years of serving in various  capacities related to the protection of the environment, but  I worry that she may not be able to withstand the powerful pressures of the real estate and development forces in town.  Drew Glover and Greg Larson are now third and fourth for the three available seats, separated by only twenty votes as I write this.  A real nail biter!  Drew will be strong on the environment as well as most social justice issues I care about, and I am rooting for him.  One oddity of the campaign, overlooked by most, is that David Yarnold, the  CEO and president of   the National Audubon Society, was on the long list of endorsers for Greg Larson.  What, I wonder, is that connection?  If Larson is elected, I hope to ask him about that!

I attended an absolutely wonderful Bird Club event two weeks ago that had me sitting on the edge of my seat during the whole brilliant presentation.

GCSP dominatn
Dominant Golden-crowned Sparrow (Google image)

The speaker was Theodora Block, a member of a research team at the UCSC Arboretum who has been studying the behaviors of GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS for the last six years.  She is continuing the work of the lead researcher Bruce Lyons, who has been studying this species for 20 years!  What a wealth of information.

The focus of her talk was how the size and intensity of gold color on the head of this migratory species is a signal of each bird’s place in a dominance hierarchy. A bird with the brightest and largest patch of gold places him or her at the top of the hierarchy.   Just below the top bird in terms of status is the the bird with the strongest side patches of black, a bird who is still not fully established in the chain of command and thus is still quite aggressive.

GCSP lower
Less dominant Golden-crowned Sparrow (Google image)

Below these two top birds are variations of black and gold, fading away to only the slightest wash of pale yellow and dull mottled grey/black coloring for the bird at the bottom of the dominance chain.

As I think I’ve mentioned, the range of the Golden-crowned sparrows is pretty much limited to western Washington, Oregon and California.  I wonder if this species is being studied anywhere else in such depth. They fill my backyard every winter, so I am now busily trying to see if I can detect any signs that my sparrows are following the dominance rules!  Flocks tend to return to the same spot year after year, so I am very unlikely to see one of the tagged Arboretum birds in my back yard, and an now assuming that many of my backyard birds are my friends from past years.

 

I opened my John Muir book in search of a good quote for this week and, in perfect synchronicity, the book fell open to this quote on gold-seeking! I think John Muir would sympathize strongly with Theodora Block’s version of gold seeking.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart, yourself;  and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean from the earth-stains of this sordid, gold-seeking crowd in God’s pure air.  It will help you in your efforts to bring to these people something better than gold.” John Muir

May we all find a way to build a world more deeply centered in Nature and distant from the  accumulation of external wealth.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becalmed

Dear Jane and Santa Cruz nature lovers,

Thanks, Jane, for your ‘breaking’ (and concerning) inside story of the most recent breach of the sand bar.  Good to have your bright eyes, and the bright eyes of your friends, on the river!

I took my first leisurely walk along the River for the first time in many weeks, soaking in the peacefulness of the slow-moving river, and falling into a very dreamy state myself. The sand bar must be back in place since the river is still very high up on my end.  As I walked along, I could feel my body relax into almost perfect resonance with the smooth, gray silence of this becalmed river.  It seemed a perfect emblem of my newly found protection from the roiling waters of the election season.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron, San Lorenzo River, November 12, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

As always, I marveled at the self-control and patience of a GREAT BLUE HERON, standing motionless and utterly concentrated, waiting for the moment to strike.  I wish I could have mustered this kind of contained power during the last few months.

As I ambled south on the River, wondering where all the MALLARDS had gone, I reached the Duck Pond and almost stumbled back as a huge flock of these highly sociable creatures came flapping and honking right in front of me, lowering their landing gear to create a huge splash in a small pond.  They quickly settled into a calmer state, just like me.

Mallard
Mallard in Duck Pond, November 12, 2018

I had wondered whether I would see any difference in bird life because of the terrible fires up north. I saw nothing that might be suspicious. The familiar birds were all there.  I did a Google search and found an interesting article on the Audubon Society website about the effect of wildfires on birds.  Not so surprising, birds are also susceptible to lung damage from smoke inhalation or polluted air as well as exhaustion while trying to escape. But they clearly are not as vulnerable as humans – with all our physical encumbrances and our major flaw,  the inability to fly away.   Indeed, many new feeding possibilities open up for some birds after a fire.   Click here  if you are interested in reading more.

Which brings me to the possible discovery of a protected snake species next door to my house.    I found my friend and neighbor, Batya, anxiously protecting a small snake from two troublesome cats, and waiting for another neighbor to bring a container.

Unknown
San Francisco Garter Snake, federally endangered, google image

After scooping the terrified and frozen snake into a can and hurriedly returning it to the levee, she consulted a reptile field guide and realized belatedly that the patterning was much closer to the federally endangered San Francisco Garter Snake than the more common Red-sided Garter Snake she had imagined before releasing it.  We ran out to the levee to try to get a photo, but it had moved on.  So no photo documentation of what could have been a big find. But here is the Google image in case you are looking for snakes as you walk the River.  I almost never see snakes except after a major disturbance like the vegetation removal each year.  The San Francisco Garter Snake’s normal habitat is limited almost entirely to San Mateo County so it would be very unusual to find it in Santa Cruz.

It’s sad to walk through San Lorenzo Park these days.  Chain link fences surround almost all the green areas where Santa Cruzans, including the homeless, used to find temporary respite.

Fence
New fencing just south of the Chinatown Bridge, river on the right, November 12, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The erection of the fences happened simultaneously with the closing of the Homeless River Street Camp on October 30th, turning 50 campers back onto the City streets with nowhere to go. It was especially maddening to have the City tell us that the fences were coincidental, and that they are simply there to allow for routine maintenance.  I scratch my head when I read the words ‘focused maintenance’ on the signs!  What, pray tell, is that.  C’mon folks! Let’s at least call a spade a spade. I have lived in Santa Cruz for 39 years and never seen so much fencing.

Sign
“Focused Maintenance, Public Safety” sign on the Benchlands.  So different from last year when the homeless were offered secure campsites in this spot with portapotties and sinks.  

I did manage to smile when I saw the controversial pump track, the Rotary Club’s solution to homeless camping, itself surrounded by the chain fence.  Ironic, isn’t it?

pump track
Pump Track entrapped by chain link fence

If anyone wants the City to find a better way to address the homeless situation than pump tracks or chain link fences, you can join a protest at the Santa Cruz City Post Office at 4 pm this Thursday, November 15.   Bring tents, sleeping bags, blankets and tarps if you want to spend the night in solidarity with the homeless.

Later on Thursday, starting at 6:30 p.m., there will be a wonderful opportunity to hear a specialist talk about her research on the GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW, a common  winter bird here in Santa Cruz but one that exists only on the west coast.  Theodora Block,a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz who is studying how individual behavior impacts the social structure of these sparrows, will be the speaker at the monthly Bird Club Meeting at the Museum of Natural History. For more information go to the Santa Cruz Bird Club website.  I’m including a link, click here,  to an article written this last summer by the same team of researchers studying dominance patterns among Golden-crowned Sparrows.

And here is my eBird report from two days ago.  Click here

Muir Quote of the Week: “The forests, too, seem kindly familiar, and the lakes and meadow and glad singing streams.  I should like to dwell with them forever.  Here with bread and water I should be content.”

It’s so good to have a river in one’s life.

Barbara

 

Soras: Heard But Not Seen

Hi Jane and Birding Aficionados,

One week left to the election and I am still donning my canvassing hat more often than my birding hat. Hopefully my next blog will be based on some serious birding.

I can only report that I read with a twinge of jealousy Shantanu Phukan’s eBird report this week about once again hearing (but not seeing) a SORA,  the sound emerging from among the tules down by the  Laurel Street Bridge.  I bustled down there this morning at about the same hour that Shantanu heard this elusive creature – but no luck.

google hi res
Sora, photo by Google

So here I am again – borrowing from Google a photo of this shy and solitary member of the rail family, so different than it’s gregarious and social cousin, the common American Coot who is also reappearing in large numbers on the River these days.  Here’s a photo that I took of a Sora in 2015, in its most typical, hidden-from-view, spot.

Sora hiding
Sora., San Lorenzo River, north of Laurel Bridge, 2015, photo by B. Riverwoman

Soras breed as far north as the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada, then fly back along the California Coast about this time of year on their way to Mexico and points south.  The Central Coast of California is the only spot in the entire U.S. where Soras are reported to also dwell year-round.  I wonder if Shantanu’s Sora is a migrant or a regular.  I suspect the former since she is being reported during the fall migratory season and is rarely seen at other times.

Here, for comparison,  are the Sora’s cousins, the highly visible and gregarious  AMERICAN COOTS .

American coots
Flock of American Coots, San Lorenzo River, 2015, photo by B. Riverwoman

Also in the heard but not seen category was a  GREAT-HORNED OWL heard from the direction of the River last Friday night as I was sitting around a campfire here at El Rio..  So good to know they are out there.

owl
Great Horned Owl, Google image, 

And shortly afterwards we heard the almost nightly cries of coyotes coyotewho are rumored to be parading down the riverwalk and even wandering into the mobile home park.  My friend Batya says she often hears the coyotes responding to the sirens of the ambulances at night.    I love it when nature begins to encroach on civilization.

 

Quote of the Week:

“Contemplating the lace-like fabric of streams outspread over the mountains, we are reminded that everything is flowing, going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Rocks flow from volcanoes like water from springs, while the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood globules in Nature’s warm heart.”  John Muir

May we  vote for those people and measures that we judge best suited to nourish the flow of life on our amazing planet.

Barbara

 

 

 

Measure M for Birds and Humans

Hi Jane and all,

As I think I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been spending most of my time these days trying to protect some habitat for my own species. I’ve saved all of my bird walking energy for canvassing the neighborhoods for Measure M, the rent control ballot measure.  At 80 years old I have to measure out my walking time carefully.

It’s funny how protecting human habitat and bird habitat in Santa Cruz kind of amounts to the same thing. Birds and people in Santa Cruz are being driven out primarily due to commercial and recreational development for financial gain. Some people think, and even say, ‘well, if birds get driven out of the San Lorenzo River (or people out of Santa Cruz),  they can always go somewhere else’.  That’s just plain wrong for animals and just as wrong for humans.  Animals establish their territories for specific reasons (safety, food and water availability,  nesting habitat, etc.  They do this at considerable expense, and depend on that habitat to survive.  With humans, we also move into a place for specific reasons – family, friends, nearby schools, services, quiet, the neighborhood, the cost. We want to stay there for these reasons. Our homes aren’t interchangeable for  homes anywhere.  Measure M would protect the 5500 humans that now live in their rented homes and would be covered by Measure M, but will be vulnerable to eviction the day Measure M loses.   Let’s not let that happen.  Let’s keep birds and humans safe in their homes!

two close crows
Two American Crows, talking things over – perhaps.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

I did take one walk where I captured some photos that made me smile, especially these two crows either schmoozing, begging, or perhaps plotting an assault on a hapless  hawk; and this row of very well behaved pigeons in perfect formation.

pigeons in a row
14 pigeons, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I sometimes think that pigeons would make good candidates for military school. They are impressive in both their flight formations and their battlement line-ups!

 

 

There are many new signs of ongoing efforts  by the Public Works Department to control our River.  Here’s a photo of the surface of the riverbed that has been ploughed into furrows in hopes that a fast flowing stream will carry away some of the excess sediment that will otherwise have to be dredged. I hope it works.

roughing up
Flood Control, San Lorenzo River, October 14, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was surprised to see this unfamiliar little creature which I am guessing is a juvenile CALIFORNIA TOWHEE. Also a late breeder.

towhee juv
Juvenile California Towhee, October 14, 2018, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I also stepped back with surprise at my first sight of a hammock on the Riverwalk, hung skillfully between a redwood tree and the exercise station.  A fashionable new trend for the unhoused?

hammock
Hammocking on the River, October 14, 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman,

Finally, stealing a moment to take a short walk at twilight, I was happily drawn into the magic of a solitary Pied-billed Grebe outlined against the silky, sunlight-infused  surface of the River.

grebe in sunset
Pied-billed Grebe at sunset, San Lorenzo River, October 12, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here’s a quote from John Muir about why you and I, Jane, go back again and again to the same place – even though the urban river isn’t exactly pure wilderness:

“So abundant and novel are the objects of interest in a pure wilderness …it matters little where you go or how often to the same place.  Wherever you chance to be always seems at the moment of all places the best; and you feel that there can be no happiness in this world, or in any other, for those who may not be happy here.”  John Muir

May we all find happiness wherever we find ourselves.

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cigars All Around!

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Travelers,

It happened!  As I glanced down at the river from the Water St. Bridge, there it was, the sight I had been waiting for all summer.  As I stared with amazement at this very, very late-arriving juvenile,  I felt as if I were back in Bible times, experiencing the avian equivalent of Sarah’s miraculous motherhood.  Just like Sarah, through some combination of sheer determination and blind faith, the modest little grebes hung in through multiple nest failures, finally producing one solitary baby.  I immediately named the young grebe Isaac.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the latest breeding Pied-billed Grebe family  in Santa Cruz County history!  What a will to survive.

best PBG
Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe with parent, still with distinct black and white breeding colors in bill.  September 28, 2018, San Lorenzo River just north of Water St. Bridge.  Photo by B. Riverwoman

I watched the mom for a long time.   She wasn’t diving, presumably  digesting her last fishy meal until she could regurgitate the indigestible bones and spiny parts and begin to fish again.   It was very cute how the juvenile kept pressing up close to the parent as if wanting more food.  Then suddenly there was some unexpected drama.

PBG excited
Pied-billed Grebe rises out of water.  September 28, 2018, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

First, the adult grebe rose up out of the water with an energetic flapping of wings; then a second adult apeared out of nowhere, triggering all three to lift themselves laboriously out of the water (no small feat for a Pied-billed Grebe) and ‘patter-fly’ upstream for a short sprint, half flying, half walking on the water.  This was also a first for me.  I had never seen a PBG try to fly, much less three in a row.    According to BNA, what is referred to as ‘patter-flying’  is typical aggressive behavior for these grebes.  Was Sarah exasperated with Abraham for some reason?  Or vice-versa?

As most of you  know, I have had a special place in my heart for Pied-billed Grebes ever since I discovered a nest in 2015, monitoring the little family anxiously until I saw the lone offspring become independent.  Click here for the full story.

I really appreciated, Jane, your much more thorough discussion last week  of the river dredging project that we may be facing in 2019.  I’ve been doing a little more research and am in a state of shock.  At the City Council meeting I heard Mark Dettle, the Public Works Director, say that the operation will require the removal of  75,000 cubic yards of riverbed soil.  Did I really hear that?  Just now I asked Google to explain to me how much 75,000 cubic yards was.   Unless I got my math wrong, I think it amounts to  6000 dump trucks full!!  Is that possible?   That’s way beyond anything that is tolerable in a wildlife setting.  Will there be any birds or mammals or frogs or insects left after such an operation?.  The more I think about it the more I shudder.  And for what?  To achieve FEMA certification in order to  save the downtown businesses the cost of flood insurance?  Our City planners should be thinking about moving the City off the flood plain, especially now that we are almost definitely assured that sea level rise will push river levels beyond the level acceptable to FEMA– with or without dredging!   I think it is time for us birders to sit down with Public Works and have a heart to heart talk!  I hope my math is wrong.

1
Is this what we can expect in 2019 on the Riverwalk?  6000 dump trucks filled with riverbed dirt?  Google Image. 

Your  bewildered reflections in your last post about the OSPREY and the AMERICAN CROW were very to the point.  This was brought home to me yesterday when my neighbor called to alert me to an OSPREY perched on the tip of the redwood tree directly across the river from my house.  I ran to my back window and, sure enough, there was the Osprey and it was still being pursued by the constant – and unwelcome –companion, an American Crow !  Perhaps the Osprey vainly hoped that it might shake the pesky crow if it just moved upstream from the river mouth.  But a determined crow with a serious grudge apparently doesn’t give up that easily.

Osprey and crow
Osprey being harassed by an American Crow, October 1, 2018, San Lorenzo River between Water and Felker Bridges, photo by B. Riverwoman

I spotted one of those well–camouflaged  SPOTTED SANDPIPER that eluded me for so long – much further north than I have ever seen one before.  Was the water level too high down on your end of the river to provide sufficient sand bar areas for this solitary shorebird to satisfy his appetite? These inconspicuous little birds keep so busy, excitedly bobbing their heads up and down the entire time they are foraging.

I’m so happy to have the GOLDEN-CROWNED and WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS back from their summer haunts – extending as far north as the Bering Sea.  When they first arrive they sing and sing, making sure that any passer-bys understand that there are no vacancies down below.

WC sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow, San Lorenzo River, September 28, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

After about a month, once they’ve solved their housing problems, the non-stop singing ends and they can concentrate on eating my sunflower seeds.  I just noticed for the first time that although the winter range of the White-crowned Sparrows covers the whole U.S., the Golden-crowned Sparrows inhabit a far more limited range from Washington through California. They are rarities to everyone except those of us lucky to live on the west coast.  Maybe that is why rents are so high in Santa Cruz!

Quote of the Week:

One of my favorite gifts for nature lovers is a very long essay by John Muir, dedicated entirely to his most beloved bird, the Water Ouzel.  I think the bird is a soul-mate of Muir.  This bird is common in the cold rapids of the Sierras, but has actually been reported as well  on some more swiftly flowing rapids further north of the urban San Lorenzo River. Here is a brief quote from Muir’s essay:

“How romantic and beautiful is the life of this brave little singer on the wild mountain streams, building his round bossy nest of moss by the side of a rapid or fall, where it is sprinkled and kept fresh and green by the spray!  No wonder he sings well, since all the air about him is music; every breath he draws is part of a song, and he gets his first music lessons before he is born; for the eggs vibrate in time with the tones of the waterfall. Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong, the bird ever in danger in the midst of the stream’s mad whirlppols, yet seemingly immortal.”

May you all have a wild and songful week!

Barbara

 

 

 

Coopers’ Hawks Arrive, Army Corps Leaves

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Travelers,

It seems that both of us, Jane, have been shuddering a little at the predatory behaviors of the notorious COOPER’S HAWK, the “bird hawk” that prefers small birds over all other foods.  You can tell when a Coopers’ is in the area because there will be an initial wild chorus of alarm calls and then absolute silence.  Just yesterday I experienced this right in my backyard  – one moment a chorus of bright song, and then, as if the birds were of one mind, total silence.  It was eery.   I immediately suspected a Cooper’s Hawk, especially since my neighbor Bob has been reporting to me that one has been hiding in the dense foliage of his Cape Honeysuckle hedge (next to the River) for about two weeks now. Earlier this week Bob came out his front door, only to recoil when he saw an insouciant Cooper’s Hawk feasting on the remains of a dead CALIFORNIA TOWHEE.  It saw Bob but casually consumed the last morsels before it flew off. Bob has had a very hard time forgiving that hawk!

Here are some photos I was lucky enough to capture of their cousins, the SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, taken on the River last November during migration season.  Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller, but equally fond of dining on small birds, and equally clever at catching them.  For all I know, the Coopers’ Hawks that Bob saw, and that I saw, could have been Sharp-shinned Hawks.  They are difficult to tell apart, except for the size.

Sharp shinned adult
Sharp-shinned Hawk, adult, .  November 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B.Riverwoman

 

Sharp-shinned juv copy
 Sharp-shinned Hawk, juvenile, November 2017, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman 

Isn’t it amazing how the special small wing structure and long tail of these hawks allow them to successfully negotiate what seem almost impenetrable tree canopies, canopies that deny entry to our bulkier Red-tailed and Red-Shouldered Hawks.   It continues to amaze me how each species finds it own way of adapting to the environment in order to survive. I can’t help but wonder if some of the many juvenile HOUSE FINCHES that I wrote about, and pictured in my last blog, were the victims of the Cooper’s predations.  I hav been noticing that the numbers of finches at my bird feeder has lessened rather dramatically this last week and I’ve read that these hawks are drawn to backyard bird feeders.  That makes me squirm.  Should I keep feeding my birds?   More power to the KINGFISHER that you saw chase off a Cooper’s last week, and to the AMERICAN CROW that I saw do the same thing this week.  Be it said that the Cooper’s Hawk did not give up without quite an aerial dust-up.

Well, the good news is that – according to the bar chart in eBird, click here the Coopers’ hit their fall migratory peak from mid-September to mid-October as they return from their breeding grounds further north and in the interior. They are pretty much right on schedule! According to the range maps, they are, for the most part, not  regular residents in coastal California, living mostly inland. So let’s “enjoy” them as best we can during their short visit and then, on behalf of the small birds, wish them a rather grateful farewell.

I hate to admit that I have been wondering lately why I never see male COMMON MERGANSERS  these days, only the brown-headed female. As I watched seven ‘females’ resting on a sandbar this week,  I imagined a matriarchy of female mergansers.  Then I imagined males too proud to hang out with females.  Silly me – always making up anthropocentric stories!

mergansers
Male and/or female Common Mergansers, near Chinatown Bridge, September 14, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I finally, and sensibly.  turned to the Sibley field guide and was reminded that males are almost exactly similar in appearance to females (and juveniles) from July through October, until breeding season begins in November.  We should be able to identify the males as males in a month or so.

 

Like the Mergansers,  male MALLARDS will soon regain their breeding elegance  –  one month earlier than Mergansers,  in October.  It’s so funny to see them now, inelegantly coming into their own, their heads looking as if they were wearing threadbare green velvet bonnets.

As you pointed out, Jane, a few AMERICAN COOTS are also back.  The will soon become the most commonly seen bird on the river, but right now it is special to welcome them back after a cootless summer.  I actually enjoy their shenanigans all winter long.

Four coots
American Coots hang out with one Common Merganser. September 14, 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman, 

I haven’t seen any Golden-crowned Sparrows yet, or Eared Grebes, but I read on the Monterey Bay Bird list that they have alrrived elsewhere in the County.  I’m eagerly awaiting the Golden-crowned’s plaintive whistle, the official beginning of fall in my calendar.  Click here to see my  eBird post this last week.

News from the  City Council meeting last week was sobering, especially what it included about my end of our River. Based on a City study of the heavy rains in 2017, it seems that the levees “may not contain a Corps-projected 100 year flood in certain reaches ot the flood control project (approximately Soquel Ave to Highway 1).”  In its report, the City barely disguises its frustration when it writes in the report, “ The Corps acknowledged a possible change in levee performance but also indicated that their levee performance report finalized in 2014 went through an extensive process to complete and represents the Corps’ best estimate of the project’s performance at this time”.  In other words, the Corps is sticking with an old study in spite of new findings!   The Corps will cut off its contract with the City, returning full oversight and financial responsiility to the Santa Cruz. .  The City must now  go begging for money to implement something they call the Bankfull Project, which I think means some kind of supposedly less environmentally damaging variation on dredging to remove the sediment build-up between Water St. and Highway 1 that has heightened the risk of flooding.  That, not to put too fine a point on it, is precisely where I live. I guess we human and avian residents of this riverine reach can expect a rough ride in a couple of years, as heavy duty machinery rips up the river bed.   How dearly we all pay when we meddle with nature.

I have been so enthralled with the biography and writings of John Muir lately.  He was way ahead of his time, in spite of his lacking academic credentials, in understanding how glaciers (and not a natural catastrophe) carved out the Yosemite Valley.  He loved glaciers and wrote about them to a friend:

Quote of the Week:

“Man, man: you ought to have been with me.  You’ll never make up what you have lost today. I’ve been wandering through a thousand rooms of God’s crystal temple. I’ve been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculptured figures and carved ice-work all about me.  Solomon’s marble and ivory palaces were nothing to it.  Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty!  I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier.  What a great death that would be!”                      John Muir

Muir goes so far beyond any writer I have ever read in his capacity for total ecstasy in nature.

May we all, including our City leaders, channel just a little of Muir’s ecstatic appreciation for the wonders of nature.  Wouldn’t that be easier than grinding out all these Environmental Impact Reports?

Barbara