uniting & healing river magic…

Good Morning Barbara and fellow Nature Celebrators,

‘my’ RED-throated LOON arrived…

In my last post I was lamenting that I hadn’t seen ‘my’ RED-throated LOON on the river. One of our readers responded right away, mentioning that she saw a LOON a day prior to my post. She also brought up that the recent Christmas bird count reported a 30% decline of birds recorded, which mirrors my observation of the low migratory waterfowl presence. The day after my post I met up with my levee compadre, and I was so happy to hear that a RED-throated LOON was waiting for me upriver. We booth just about jumped up and down like excited kids. I rushed to find ‘my’ bird and sure enough there it was: preening the beautiful feathers, taking a few dips to put them in place. Once in awhile the healthy looking bird checked on me and continue its absorbing morning beautifications, resulting in a great success. Watching the RED-throated LOON I mused how remarkable it was how we are weaving this rich river community network with our readers.

RED-tailed Hawk gliding over the San Lorenzo River…

The day after my Sierra Club Executive Commission election defeat I let the river magic wash over loss wound and greeted Nature’s healing powers. And yes, the election campaign was a hurtful experience, which didn’t surprise, but was unpleasant to go through. So it was soothing to see the SPOTTED SANDPIPER at its favorite rock and it was exciting to see an other one close by, announcing the early phase of potential mate selection. The AMERICAN COOTS flotillas decorated the water surface and a few COMMON GOLDENEYES moseyed along the cliff edge, exploring the rocks for breakfast choices. I let the slow, easy life pursuit of the wildlife spread a calming, peaceful blanket over my turbulent soul and surrendered to the moment. I want to thank all of you Sierra Club members, who honored me with your vote. Your voice matters a lot to me, because it encourages and supports me to continue standing up for the environment.

AMERICAN COOT nibbling on kelp…

It was a pleasure to take a walk with Sandi, who had been introduced to me by her nephew, the prior Project Manager of the Santa Cruz Downtown Street Team(DST). He took the brilliant introduction step, because he had read my blog post that referred to his aunt’s FB report about the Seabright dog that had audaciously chased the poor SNOWY PLOVERS, which was hard for Sandi to watch since she is a dog trainer. We had wonderful, quirk filled walk that was packed with river life: the various birds, showing her the restoration work the DST members had achieved, the guy who threw his bike in the waterline bushes and flushed birds and who took kindly to my educational talk, even considering coming to the Estuary Project work day. Sandi and I even managed to find time to exchange great brainstorming ideas for the river.

OSPREY checking out fish lunch…

What is it with life that hands me a battery dead camera when I observe something astounding? I faced that dilemma as I was coming around the Crescent bridge bend where a beautiful, healthy RED-shouldered HAWK was having an AMERICAN COOT breakfast right by the waterline. As always I felt sorry for the feast victim and as usual I bridged that pity with knowing that bird hunters don’t kill for hoarding sake, but everyday survival. Satisfied I didn’t show any interest in sharing the meal, the gorgeous HAWK kept filled its empty belly, only occasionally eyeing me until I gave the RED-shouldered HAWK its eating privacy.

Tony Elliot, our Park & Rec. Director, stopping by our work site…

It will be so exciting to introduce the Estuary Project volunteer crew to the new, working tools that were donated by a river compadre, who we have impressed with our Estuary Project efforts. My compadre thoroughly, deeply enjoys the river and birds, so I can’t wait to work with the volunteers and new tools to improve the habitat further for thriving critters, who will be lovingly celebrated by the donator and all of us. And I like to assure the reader, who saw the beautiful CEDAR WAXWING at the river that more of their food sources are on the planting menu horizon.
Here is to the river that unites us with its magic!!
Cheers & chirps, jane

Of Sleepy Herons and Invisible Wood Elves

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Huggers,

Sunday afternoon the sky was a soft gray, the air was chilly and I was inclined to take a nap.  But I also wanted to take a last look at the river before I sat down to write this blog.   As soon as I arrived at the levee, I spied a half-dozing GREAT BLUE HERON, reflecting my mood exactly.  Her royal shagginess was sleepy but also watchful. Maybe she was engaged in what is called “unihemispheric” sleep, an ability of some birds to keep one eye open while resting the other side of their brain with that eye closed. But this behavior seemed more like my behavior, opening my eyes a little,  then closing them, not really ready to wake up.  In any case,  I caught the heron with eyes closed, then half-open, then all the way open. Not wanting to disturb her further, I quickly took these photos, then pocketed my camera and  went on my way.

Great Blue Heron, San Lorenzo River near Water St. Bridge, January 19, 2020,  3 photos by B. Riverwoman









Just a few steps downstream I could see four or five campers moving slowly around their tents under the Water St. Bridge.  I stopped to chat with a soulful looking man named Paul Magdaleno.  After repairing a scavenged and tattered tent,  digging a  little drainage ditch alongside the tent, and adding a small garbage can, he and the

Paul Magdaleno, drummer, grower, camper under Water St. Bridge. January 19, 2020 Photo by B. Riverwoman

others had been told in the morning that they would all have to leave by sundown. He seemed resigned to his fate, tidying up but not yet breaking camp.   I learned that he was a drummer, grew up in a hippie family that loved the Grateful Dead, had made a living for years growing marijuana and dreamed of forming a band called the Invisible School Bus. I also learned from him that the Water St. Bridge attracts quite a community of musicians that gather and play together. He identified Lito in the next tent as an excellent drummer.

Drums belonging to Lito, drummer and guitarist. Water St. Bridge, January 19, 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman

So I went over to meet Lito who let me take a picture of his drums.  I can’t imagine how he manages these drums as an unsheltered person.  I gave him my blog card and we talked about the name River Mysteries.

Then a kind of magical thing happened.. Another nearby camper overheard our conversation and said,  “River mysteries? What kind of river mysteries?”  I told him about how you and I, Jane, started this blog as a way of protecting the river from recreational and commercial “development”.  We thought if we could help others see what we were slowly learning to see – all the hidden mysteries of the birds and plants and water – we might persuade the city to go slow on  “development”.

This man, Guy, told me he had been curious about the name of our blog  since he had spent twenty years doing research on crypto-hominids, or “crptids”.  He said he could show me where they lived along the river if I showed him the photos on my camera.  I handed him my camera and he scrolled back,  then zoomed in to a photo with a lot of trees and undergrowth. That, he said, is where they lived and could be seen – if people had the eyes to see.  He had seen them and communicated with them.  He said that people thought he was crazy.  I said I totally understood what he was saying.  I have been reading Tolkien lately. And had I not just been zooming in on the Great Blue Heron  15 minutes earlier, looking for more understanding of what is hidden.  He didn’t want his photo taken but said that he was a carpenter and a fly fisherman.  I gave him my card, told him to call me if he wanted to discuss river mysteries some more, and we shook hands.

Santa Cruz City park rangers under Water St. Bridge getting ready to help campers move their belongings. January 19, 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Just then two park rangers pulled up under the Bridge. I  talked to one of them, a very friendly man who was happy to explain to  me what was happening.  He and his fellow rangers had been there earlier in the day and let the campers know that they would have to clean up their camps by sundown and would not be allowed to return for 24 hours – until the area had been inspected and cleaned. The two rangers good-naturedly pitched in, helping the campers load unwanted stuff into trashbags and throwing it all in the back of the truck.  Campers and rangers alike seemed to carry out the process with as much mutual respect as possible under the conditions.  I felt sad and grateful at the same time.  I felt oddly connected to both the campers and the  rangers.  This terrible thing is happening to all of us, bringing out the best – and sometimes the worst – in people.

We have a lot to be grateful for in the way our police and rangers are struggling to deal with a really insoluble problem.  Unfortunately, while we all  obsess and argue about this and that band-aid solution,  our country drags its feet about  addressing the root causes of poverty, homelessness and high rents.  Until that time, let’s hope our little Santa Cruz community has the patience and kindness to keep applying temporary band-aids  until that  revolution (hopefully peaceful) arrives.

Andy Mills, Santa Cruz police chief, google image

I heard that Andy Mills, our police chief, spent all day this last Friday with his officers, slowly negotiating with a man who had kidnapped a one-year-old child.  At the end of the day, the man finally released the child in exchange for some cigarettes.  Andy is getting a lot of criticism right now from Keith McHenry and others about another new set of  homeless policies, supposedly harsher than Newsom’s new standards.  But I want to at least give credit to Police Chief Mills and his team  for this possibly life-saving accomplishment.

I was excited this last week to see two female WESTERN BLUEBIRDS on the river for the first time in my five years of watching this area.   These two members of the thrush family were busily  foraging for insects in the new grass.  This species didn’t make it onto Steve Gerow’s list of 122 regular residents of the levee stretch.    I read that Western Bluebirds are expanding their range in southern California.  Maybe here too?

Western Bluebird foraging for insects, San Lorenzo River, riverine reach, January 13, 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman

According to eBird, this sighting  brings my new  total to 112 species seen on the levee..  I’m pleased that eBird keeps track for me.  Readers should know that Jane is way ahead of me with a total of 148!  She would be too modest to say so. And the person who has the highest total for this patch is our beloved teacher, now deceased, Steve Gerow.  During his too short a life, he recorded a total of 177 species on the downtown stretch, from Highway 1 to the river mouth.  But Jane and I don’t spend much time thinking about numbers of species seen.  We are both too obsessed in getting to know and understand all the quirky life experiences of even one species.

Since there are so many GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS on the river and at my feeders,  since they come so far to hang out with us in the winter, and since they are limited to such a narrow strip along the west coast and up into Canada and Alaska, I feel like they are very special birds and friends.  I was therefore  excited to stumble across a research session up at the Arboretum last week where Professor Bruce Lyon, along with PhD graduate student Theadora Block,  have been carrying out research on the social behaviors of this species for close to 20 years now.  I have always wanted to know more about  how the research was actually carried out.  Luckily,  I spied the team sitting at a picnic table and was invited to watch.   The research team worked quickly.  Two students were tasked with

Banded golden-crowned sparrow in cage awaiting measurements.  UCSC January 9, 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman

collecting the birds. one at a time,  from about a dozen traps  concealed in  a dozen separate places  not far away. A bird would be delivered to Block, after which  she would skillfully take their measurements,  draw blood with a tiny needle for later DNA testing, then gently release the small creature back into the wild.  Block would call out the numbers, and Lyon would record the data.  Of course I felt squeamish, wondering whether the data collected was worth the effect on the birds. But the birds themselves seemed peaceful,

Theodora Block, taking measurements of Golden -crowned Sparrow at Arboretum, Jan. 10, 2020  Photo by B. Riverwoman

Theadora was extremely gentle and experienced, and it was all over very quickly.   Hopefully, as we learn more about birds’ health, migration patterns, population numbers, social behaviors, etc., we will be better able to respect our fellow inhabitants of this planet.  For a very interesting article on the research project, click here. 

May you all see something new and magical this week.



















missing & discovering…

Good Morning Barbara and all you other Nature Snugglers,

I didn’t read that article you were referring to in your last post, Barbara, therefore I appreciated your grant updates and insights. We all learned a lot thanks to you. The fish most certainly don’t need more lights shining into the river. It sounds like we’ll be busy at the public meetings for the plan design should the City receive the grant.


Has anybody else noticed the absence of our usual river winter migrants? I keep hoping to see more petit-ish HORNED and EARED GREBES performing their rapid dives, that drive any photographer out of their minds. This season we have a record of 1 EARED GREBE, who stayed for a short while. And were are the elegant, well sized WESTERN and CLARK’S GREBES? Have you been missing their royal float-by as they watch you on the levee? So far I haven’t had that thrill of catching sight of the slender RED-throated LOON moseying on the river.

No RED-throated Loon on the river this year…

Thinking that I just happened to be at the river at the wrong time, I checked the e-bird Hotspot for the San Lorenzo River to see if other birders recorded better winter migrant results. Looking at the reports it became obvious that the other birders didn’t have any better luck then me. The BUFFLEHEAD and GOLDENEYE count is way down as well. Frankly I have never seen so few winter migratory species visit our river. It’s time to find out if they are lollygagging on other waterbodies or if they just didn’t arrive this winter season.
I love that “Wait!~ what is that?” moment when I scan the river landscape. That odd shape among the rocks on the other side. That flicker of light catching in the bird’s feathers in the tule. The quick leaf movement in the bush as a bird nibbles on the delicious bugs. These moments of discovering that the rock is actually a GREAT BLUE HERON preening its feathers and that the light flicker was caused by a GREEN HERON are magic micro reminders of Nature’s abundance, ready to be enjoyed at any time.

GREAT BLUE HERON blending in with the rocks…

The rain has been taking care of the Estuary Project plants we have put in at the path by the Trestle bridge. The area is doing nicely and the rice straw is behaving well: it’s staying in place in spite of the strong winds we have had. We are experimenting with straw as mulch, because it allows the ground insects, such as ground bees, easy access to the soil. We decided to try this approach in the hope of supporting the declining insect population, which deserves all the help we can offer. After all insects play a vital part in the ecosystems and feed many critters. We have been ‘liberating’ the established Toyon bushes from encroaching branches of neighbor bushes and trees. That pruning resulted in more winter berries for the CEDAR WAXWINGS, who cleaned the red Toyon fruit off their stems within a week. This year there was an increase of CEDAR WAXWINGS sightings along the river, so it looks like our Estuary Project efforts are literally and successfully bearing fruit. This coming Saturday is our fun work day and we love to have you join us. For more info.: click here
May Nature’s gifts expand your heart, jane

Cedar Waxwings resting after stripping Toyon berries off the stems…

$8.5 Million for What?

Dear Jane and Other Lovers of Birds and Wildlife,

Recently paired mallards preening behind the Tannery on the San Lorenzo River, January 5, 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I was very pleased with this lucky image of a  MALLARD couple that I took behind the Tannery.  Don’t you all agree that this newly formed pair seems likely to enjoy a harmonious future together, engaged as they are in a moment of perfectly synchronized head scratching!  I love this time of year when these common but beautiful waterfowl are in full breeding plumage,  pairing up all along the river as they begin to claim their separate nesting territories.

As I walked upstream towards the Tannery, passing  underneath the Highway One Bridge, I was impressed once again at how much the wildlife scene changes once you cross that boundary.  Suddenly, dramatically, you find yourself in a much more natural area   –– without a levee; with large stands of native trees (redwoods, sycamores, alders, willows); with fallen logs;  with native shrubs and with far more birds!

Almost immediately I saw a lot of movement in the canopy of a huge Arroyo Willow just a stone’s throw from the noisy highway.  These trees can grow up

 An arroyo willow just north of Highway 1, behind the Tannery, January 5, 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Townsend’s Warbler in Arroyo Willow behind Tannery, January 5, 2020, photo by B. Riverwoman

to 35 feet  in moist and rich riverside soil and I think this willow was  at least that high. As I stood there craning my head upward, I saw seven bird species busily harvesting a buggy lunch from that one tree. RUBY CROWNED KINGLETS flitted from branch to branch in their usual frenzied way. Two gorgeous TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS took a slightly more leisurely approach to their insect search, allowing me a moment to take a photo.  Several CHICKADEES bustled from branch to branch, perhaps signaling to each other their raspy contentment at a juicy bug.  ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS flashed their metallic green colors as they also feasted on the protein-rich insects that they need in addition to nectar.  A lone SONG SPARROW bared its crisply brown-striped white breast as it indulged in the insects that it also needs in addition to its more regular diet of seeds.   A YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER made a brief appearance, gleaning a few bites before she pushed on.  Later the same tree was filled with BUSHTITS, hanging upside down to reach their small protein bars..

What a rich source of food and cover this one willow provided to a diversity of species.  What a pity to think that most of its siblings just a few blocks downstream are hacked to the ground each year during the annual flood control work.  These poor saplings  never get the chance to welcome all the insects that attract all the birds and butterflies and bees to this ecologically important native tree.  This is why I strongly support the  restoration of  the Benchlands to its natural riparian woodland state, increasing rather than decreasing the amount of green space and habitat in our urban landscape..  I would love for the city to  develop policies for the protection and enhancement of our natural resources rather than policies that potentially threaten these resources?

I bring this up because of the possibility of the City’s receiving an $8.5 million state grant to improve the Riverwalk.  This  dramatic case in point, featured in the  December 25th issue of the Good Times,  was enthusiastically hailed by the newspaper as an exciting vision for the future of the river. The application submitted by the City proposes to transform the current Riverwalk into a safer, more beautiful, and more functional river parkway with an emphasis on serving low income communities with less access to parks.  That formulation complies on the surface with the stated purpose of the grant which is  funded through Proposition 68, a $4 billion state initiative, approved by voters in 2018,  aimed largely at supporting equitable access to parks throughout the state.  But is our City’s application for these funds seriously focused on providing equity?  And will it promote more green space in the City?  The main focus of the grant seems to be on  improved bikeways ( more  asphalt),  more lights for people (counter-indicated for birds and other wildlife), lots of ceramic art that celebrates nature (why not encourage the community to look at the real wildlife before them) and river-facing restaurants and coffee houses whose customers can enjoy the river as a scenic backdrop (but probably not a wildlife habitat). Will the low-income communities be able to afford these river-facing eating establishments?

Judging from some of the people pushing this vision, namely Greg Pepping, chair of the Planning Commission and Claire Galloglly, Transportation Planner for the City, I can’t help but wonder if downtown economic development isn’t the silent driver behind this plan “for the poor”.  Greg Pepping, who is widely quoted in the Good Times article, is also executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council, an agency whose goals and values often seem more aligned with  Chamber of Commerce goals than with environmental goals..

The application  for the river parkway was submitted jointly by the Economic Development Department, the Public Works Department and the Parks and Recreation Department, listed in that order.   The leading environmental groups in our community, the  Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society, have not yet, as far as I know,  been  consulted in planning for the transformation of this major wildlife habitat within our City’s boundaries. According to a conversation I had with Noah Downing of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, grant writers have already met with representatives, including children, of the Beach Flats area.  According to Downing, more conversations with low-income communities and with environmental groups will happen if the grant is received.

Still, I worry that all this money might end up serving the residents of future luxury apartments as well as the many spandex-suited bicyclists who I suspect do not live on the river but currently dominate the pathway.  If the pathway is improved, will it not attract even more speeding bicyclists? Apparently if the proposed Park “touches” a low-income area, it qualifies for the grant. Will the residents of the low-income neighborhoods that do exist along the Riverwalk really use the area as a park area? How does the City plan to attract this population?  Right now its kind of scary out there for pedestrians like me, not because of the homeless but because of speeding bicyclists. Will low-income  neighborhoods along the river even survive as the City gentrifies?

I’d like to thank Council member Drew Glover who, when this matter first came before the City Council last summer, asked the City staff some of these same searching questions regarding equity and protection of wildlife habitat. I am so distressed that there is an attempt to recall this passionate, intelligent and articulate advocate for the poor and for the environment.  I hope Santa Cruz voters  will not be misled by developers and real estate interests who are pouring lots of money into removing  the important voices of Drew and Chris Krohn from our Council. I hope all our readers will vote No on the Recall, and at the same time cast a “Just in case” vote for Katherine Beiers and Tim Fitzmaurice.  Both of these former mayors are strongly opposed to the recall but have nobly stepped out of retirement to protect the progressive majority on the Council – just in case the recall of either Glover or Krohn succeeds.  For the sake of the environment, and for the sake of low-income members of our community, let’s make sure the recall of two staunch environmentalists, and advocates for the poor,  fails.

I will probably be  writing more about this in the future if the Department of Economic Development et al receive the grant money.

Click here to see my eBird list for my short visit to the Tannery this week.

Did anyone get a chance to read John Muir’s essay on the AMERICAN DIPPER?  I hear that one was spotted in Santa Cruz County for the first time in several years –  somewhere in Mt. Herman.  I’m very motivated to go in search of it.

Campsite just north of the River St. Bridge on the East side of the river. January 5, 2020. Photo by B. Riverwoman

More and more tents are going up along the river and on the bridges.  It is  comforting to me to see that at least the homeless will have reclaimed a small measure of safety,  dignity and warmth after being summarily booted from the Ross and  Phoenix camps.   I am very grateful for the recent decision of the Supreme Court to let the ruling of the lower court stand, the ruling that requires that outside sleepers not be legally cited if other shelter is not available.   This last Sunday I saw one man raking his “front lawn”, a serious effort to keep the place tidy.  I hope portapotties will soon be provided, for the sake of  both the people and the river.  Until our society is ready to provide better alternatives, I hope the City can work with the homeless to find   humane and environmentally responsible solutions that meet everyone’s needs. 

Camper rakes the area around his tent next to the Water St. Bridge on the east bank of the river. January 5, 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Lean-to tucked into the small build-out on the Water St. Bridge, January 5 2020, Photo by B. Riverwoman

May the inequity between the rich and the poor, and between  human and non-human species, be gradually remedied.  That is my ardent wish for the day!

Good birding to all.










Nature gifts us her masterpieces…

Good Morning Barbara and all you Nature Celebrators,

early morning CANADA GEESE saunter…

Standing early at the river point, I hear their honking in the distance, knowing that any moment their bodies will be visible in the sky, disclosing their flight intent. From my observation these big birds fly in loose formation when they are out for a fly-saunter such as a new, close by feeding site. The leisure outings seem to require a lot of loud honks. When they are ready to cover greater distance they fall into wing for that famous CANDA GEESE ‘V’ alignment that involves less honks until it comes to the landing when heated honking breaks loose. Listening to their reverberating sound exchange I expected to see a loose arrangement line, which turned out to be case. 10 Canada Geese flew over me, touched down upstream and their loud landing proclamation guided 5 more to the chosen location. 

I bet you all gained great Christmas count insights from Barbara’s report. Peripherally many of you have noticed a change in bird presence and/or their behavior, so the count helps to document these alterations. Any of you are welcome to join us for the next Christmas count.

SNOWY PLOVER warming up in the morning sun…

I want to address a Facebook post that was about a loose, owner less dog racing around on the State Beach chasing SNOWY PLOVERS, who are experiencing a population decline. The Seabright Beach used to filled with SNOWY PLOVERS, cuddling in the early mornings in any sand indentations, waiting for the sun to warm them up. For a long time they disappeared and in the last 2 years, we have recorded the return of a few.

dog chasing SNOWY PLOVERS…

So if any of you know this dog and its owner, please let me know, because I want to tell the owner that any chased bird has to spend a size specific amount of energy to escape, which depletes the bird’s resources, who then has has to feed more to make up for the depletion, reducing its necessary resting and decreasing the already compromised food sources. I plan to have a good interaction, because I know that as residents and beach goers we love and enjoy what Nature gifts us and in return we have to take pride in how we caringly steward our gifts.

not an EAGLE…

I came early to prep for our monthly Estuary Project day, which got waylaid because I just had to check on the birds…big time consuming mistake! There was a large bird high up in the Trestle trees, which looked odd and requiring some deciphering time~ after all it might be an EAGLE visiting the river. After looking at it from various angels, a part of the large bird moved up the branch, disclosing itself as the PEREGRINE and the other, remaining part was its breakfast draped over a branch fork, whose legs dangled down. Prior to the move, both were positioned in a way that they looked like 1 bird. After that discovery, I hustled to catch up on the prep work, leaving the PEREGRINE to its meal. I just love my volunteers!

awesome volunteers taking a Holiday bustle break…

Here 11 amazing volunteers had gathered at 9am on a Saturday morning in the midst of the Holiday bustle, a few days before Christmas, eager to get native plants into the ground, spreading straw and enjoying each others company. For the last 3 years each one of the Estuary Project volunteers has added a special something to the levee habitats and I am grateful to have worked with each one. So here is to the many Estuary Project participants: Humongous Thanks for your time and efforts that resulted in the mighty impressive Estuary Project success!

SPOTTED SANDPIPER on the rock throne…

The ever busy, little SPOTTED SANDPIPER took time out to chase off the other SPOTTED SANDPIPER, who temporally had forgotten that its place was on the downstream cliff boulders from the Trestle bridge. For months the upstream terrain owner had tried to make it crystal clear that no buts and ifs would change that set-up, flying home its point by determined, wild, high speed pursuits. The other SPOTTED SANDPIPER quickly retreated, leaving the satisfied terrain trainer on its rock throne.

OSPERY greeting the morning…

The critters like to remind the Sierra Club members to be sure to send in their ballots before Jan. 12 deadline and thank the members, who voted for Erica and I.

I wish all of you a Happy New Year and may your 2020 year be sprinkled with many heart warming Nature gifts, jane

Counting the Days, Counting the Birds

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Revelers,

It has been three days since some of us celebrated the darkest day of the year and the beginning of increasing light.  If any of you are looking for a quiet way to celebrate this time of year, I recommend reading John Muir’s chapter on the Water-Ouzel in his book “The Mountains of California”.  It is an astonishing essay written by a wild-nature ecstatic about a bird who –  like Muir himself –  sings joyfully amidst the coldest, snowiest, most blustery surroundings.    I am going to have a traditional family Christmas this year, for which I am very grateful.  But I have loved my quieter holidays reading that revealing essay – which offers the perfect window into Muir’s soul, and into the soul of the  Ouzel. It’s all about singing  hallelujah through the hard times.  Click here to read it online and see a photo of this small and nondescript bird.

One of the best parts of the Christmas season for me is the Annual Christmas Bird Count, a tradition dating back to 1900 when U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman introduced the idea of counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them! What a great idea.  This year as I birded my regular patch on the urban river, I got to see my first BONAPARTE’S GULL, thanks to Jeff Manker, my co-CBC birder.  This gull is a smaller and more graceful version of the larger, much more common  WESTERN AND CALIFORNIA GULLS. Jeff also helped me sort these out.  Thanks Jeff!

Bonaparte’s Gull, San Lorenzo River downstream from Soquel Bridge, December 14 2019 (Christmas Bird Count) Photo by B. Riverwoman

On that first historical count, 27 counters counted 90 species.    Today  thousands of volunteer birders,  from across the country and the world,  fan out into every birdy nook and cranny, doing our best to count every single pigeon and every single gull we lay eyes on during the designated days and hours. Click here  for more info on this wonderful tradition – the earliest and longest running example of citizen science in the country.

Here in Santa Cruz County, those who count owls are up long before dawn, those who count offshore birds hire a boat and set out to sea for the day.  The rest of us try to keep going all day from sunrise to sunset.  Then, at the end of the day, the thirteen tired team leaders of the Santa Cruz County area, plus as many team members as are still awake, gather to share food and report  on this year’s results.  This year we found 161 species,  low for our area.  The lowest counts during the past ten-year period were 161 in 2010 and 163 in 2012.  The highest count for this same period was 174 in 2013 and 2017.

As I mentioned above,  I lucked out this year.  I got paired with Jeff Manker to cover the San Lorenzo River from the trestle up to Highway 1 and then beyond to beind the Tannery.   I didn’t know Jeff before count day, but learned that he was taking over this coming fall as the new President of the Board of the Monterey Birding Festival.  He has also taught an ornithology class at Gilroy High School (kudos to Jeff and to Gilroy) and is currently working on a high school ornithology curriculum for the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory.

Female Purple Finch,, note distinctive broad white eyebrow and white auricular area, very different from female House Finch. Google Image.

It seemed to me that Jeff saw four times as much as I saw in a fraction of the time it took me to find a bird.  I learned a lot from him.  With his finely-honed high school teaching skills, he managed to help me overcome not only my mental block about gull identification, but got me to identify my first female PURPLE FINCH.  I loved my first meetings with the delicate BONIPARTE’S GULL and the sweet-faced MEW GULL two gulls who are here only during the winter month.

After 3 hours I temporarily left to attend a meeting, but Jeff pushed forward, returning to the Laurel St. Bridge area to find the TROPICAL KINGBIRD, a rarity which has been hanging out in the vicinity for several weeks now. I saw the same species in the approximately the same area 3 years ago and took this photo.   Later he went back and found the reclusive SORA near the Soquel bridge, also almost the exact area where I spotted a Sora in 2014.

Tropical Kingbird, San Lorenzo River, downstream from Soquel Bridge, October 2017 Photo by B. Riverwoman
Sora, San Lorenzo River, well concealed in tules on east side of river between Soquel and Laurel St. Bridges, August, 2014, Photo by B. Riverwoman

In the afternoon, it was great to have you, Jane, join our team as we continued upstream from the Tannery.  Approaching the river through Evergreen Cemetary on Ocean St. Extension, I got to see my first flock of BLUEBIRDS of the year.  For the list of species identified in our sub-section of the San Lorenzo River, click here  We found a total of 48 species ( 1147 individuals)  including six species of gulls.

The dramatic tradition at the evening gathering features the lead organizer reading  the name of each species on the “on list”, pausing after each species name to hear if at least one team has identified it.  For common birds like sparrows and jays, thirteen voices would ring out ‘yes’.  But then, after some names, there was a chilling silence – signifying that there had not been a single sighting.  Two species lost their standing – the Willet will continue to be “on list” but will now be listed as uncommon;  and the Forster’s Tern, who has been missing for five years, will be removed from the list of those we can expect to see in Santa Cruz County  After each silence we were, of course, all wondering if this was just a blip, or a trend.  Was this part of the 3 billion bird loss reported several months ago by Cornell in its ground-breaking study that I wrote about recently?    The concern was palpable among all these bird counters and bird lovers.  I could hear sighs and see folks shaking their heads. .The Water-ouzel is still on the “on list”, having been  sighted on river rapids   in Henry Cowell State Park within the last ten years.   But it  hasn’t been sighted for many years. Will it also be removed from the list in the coming years?

I hope some of you readers, including beginning birders, will consider joining us next year.  All levels of birding can be helpful in counting large numbers and in watching for movement.   The more attention we bring to our birds – and other wildlife, the more we can hope to protect the habitat on which these precious  creatures depend for their lives.

May we all enjoy an enLIGHTening holiday.




tyrants & drift…

Good Morning Barbara and Fellow Nature Cheerleaders,

The other morning I decided to brave the cold, wet morning weather, because I just had to treat my eyes to the ocean and river vista. After a few days of rained out river visits the magnetic call to the water bodies won out. So there I stood, rain soaked pants, wet eyes glasses, wind blown, taking in the wild ocean and river, feeling elated by the view. It was surprising to see very little drift wood on the beaches. Usually the strong storms litter the shoreline with all sizes of wood debris, turning beach-goers into happy driftwood collectors as they fantasize about their future craft projects. Instead there were huge kelp piles lining the sand-line. The gulls were harvesting the kelp for food, protecting their patch with screeching at any other gull intruder.

kelp only on sand-line~no driftwood…

I really appreciated your supportive words for Erica’s and my candidacy for the Sierra Club Executive Committee elections. We are both strong voices for the rights of the environment to be considered for any project’s decision and planning phase. Some see that as obstruction, which I find ironic, because not including the environment concerns into decision making got us into the current environment mess…If you are a Sierra Club member then Erica and I encourage you to read our statements, which hopefully will gain your vote approval for us. You birders might enjoy hearing that the Santa Cruz Bird Club supports voting for me, which is a chirpy honor.

puffed up migrant tyrant…

During a brief rain break I saw the feisty SAY’S PHOEBE perching on a bush twig, all puffed up and motionless, which is uncommon for this little migrant tyrant, who arrived a couple months ago. The resident BLACK PHOEBE fell out of its bushes when the SAY’S PHOEBE showed up in its terrain. It tried to explain that its presence wasn’t welcomed whatsoever by insistently chasing and bomb-diving the SAY’S PHOEBE, who was not deterred by these affronts. Instead it literally took the species family name ‘Tyrant Flycatcher’ to new heights: it would zoom high above the BLACK PHOEBE then plummet itself at its cousin, pursue it relentlessly, not allowing the local tuxedo bird to rest anywhere in its beloved terrain.

BLACK PHOEBE in tuxedo..

Lately I have not seen the BLACK PHOEBE, but the SAY’S PHOEBE is now present all the time. PHOEBES earned their family name by being tremendously territorial, so I imagine the BLACK PHOEBE is counting the days until this intrusive migrant bully flies back to its northern breeding grounds.

heading out to sea…

I was watching a feather navigating the rapid river flow as it was being dragged out to the open sea, when I noticed the male MERGANSER with a female in tow. I was surprised to see him decked out in his breeding outfit. I hope these 2 didn’t get their breeding dates mixed-up!

isn’t this the wrong time of year for the breeding outfit?

I like to invite you to join us at the Estuary Project. It takes place this Saturday- 21st- from 9am-11am at the Trestle bridge by the Boardwalk parking lot. We’ll be planting natives, spreading straw, liberating natives from their dead wood and have a good time hanging out together. Click here for more details.
Wishing you all a peaceful Merry Holiday Season and Happy Nature Bathing, jane