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


Breakfast with the Birds

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Watchers,

For five years I’ve been writing about what I see when I go bird-visiting on the San Lorenzo River.  But this week I will tell you a little about the many birds that visit me during the winter months – all regulars on the river that I have managed to   lure to my mobile home by the river with a steady supply of black oil sunflower seeds, millet, suet and water.

Dominant golden-crowned sparrow and expert seed cracker. Note distinct gold cap and thick black eyebrows.   December 9, 2019. Backyard. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I love starting my day by having breakfast with my flying friends.  Before I eat I always first clean out and refill the birdbath, then sweep away the discarded sunflower shells from the patio and front steps, then carefully wash away the inevitable poop.  As I work , I see the birds flitting impatiently from branch to branch above my small patio.  Oh dear, have they been waiting very long?  If I am later than usuals, I feel guilty.  I busily refill my tube feeder, sprinkle seeds on my front steps and on the squirrel chair, and settle down on my couch with green tea and muesli to see the show.  I am hungry, too. The birds and my squirrel  now quite accustomed to my routine, immediately swoop down to have their breakfast with me.   It’s such a satisfying way to start a new day.

Same golden-crowned sparrow, side view, December 9, 2019. Backyard. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Almost always, the birds that descend first are the migrant GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS. When they hop onto my front steps, right outside my glass doors, I get a good chance to study their crowns – some with very noticable gold caps and some with only the slightest hint of gold.  A researcher at the UCSC Arboretum gathered a lot of data about the hierarchical behavior of golden-crowned sparrows. finding  that it correlates with the size and intensity of the gold patch on the tops of their heads..  I have now also become someone who is  fascinated with watching who chases whom. What I see definitely confirms the pattern the researcher describes.  The birds with bright yellow caps  drive off the ones with less colorful caps.  (The gold cap, or lack of, is not associated with gender.)

I have been very happy to have a SONG SPARROW visit me for the first time this year.  This brave little soul also flew right onto the landing of my front steps and looked me directly in the eye.  I love the insouciance of its foot placement.

Song Sparrow. in casual pose.outside my glass door.   December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman


And of course I welcome the non-native but handsome HOUSE SPARROWS in spite of their questionable nesting habits.

One male and four female house sparrows. Females have wide buffy eyebrows.Backyard, December 10, 2019. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Curiously, I have observed only one WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW in my patio so far this winter. I wonder if they feel too confined on the narrow patio between my house and the fence?  They are much more plentiful on the wilder and more open spaces on the river, usually outnumbering  the golden-crowned sparrows.

Scrub Jay, Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

It’s fun to watch the different behaviors of different species at the feeders. The large SCRUB JAY prefers to pick up his meal from the ground, but will sometimes attempt to grab a seed from the tube feeder and  then fly down to the ground to  break it open – or sometimes to swallow  whole.

The sparrows are also ground foragers,  much preferring to find  their food on the ground or bushes, rather than trees and feeders.   But if they are hungry they will all try their luck at the tube feeder .

The HOUSE FINCHES, for whose size, feet and beaks the feeders are perfectly designed, sit for long periods on the feeder rungs, expertly manipulating the sunflower seeds until the shells break loose and are shoved  out of their mouths.   The finches  stay perched on the small tube rungs until driven off by another bird.


Chickadee, Backyard, December 10, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Tree-feeding CHICKADEES and OAK TITMICE visit me much less frequently.  When they do, they  sail in for just long enough to grab a seed from the feeder,  then find cover at a safe distance to hammer away at the shell and  extract the tasty meat from inside.

The BEWICK’S WREN, whose long, thin curved beak is not at all suited to cracking open a sunflower seed still visits the tube feeder to pick out the millet seeds, usually consuming them while standing on the thin rung which suits her small size.   She has been visiting much more often since the cold weather hit and I put up the suet feeder.

 Bewick’s Wren, m,..,.,../ Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The CALIFORNIA TOWHEE,  a ground forager like other birds in the sparrow family, is too large and chunky to ever attempt feeding from the tube feeder.

California Towhee, Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman


Both the towhees and the MOURNING DOVES.  tend to wait until the first round of birds have left and then humbly peck away at all the leftover seed on the ground or steps.  . The doves  seem the most timid, never  venturing

Mourning Dove, Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

onto my steps. The golden-crowned sparrow is the pluckiest, flying right onto the post by my glass door and sometimes singing its three-note song while looking straight at me.  Is it saying ‘thank you’.  Is it saying ‘more please’.  Is it reminding that this is its established territory?  Whatever it is saying, I’m sure it is aimed very personally at me!


Squirrel waiting its chance. Backyard, December 9, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Squirrel, hiding behind my glorious Bloodgood Japnese maple, Backyard, December 10, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I have a special chair where I leave seeds for a very cute and mischievous squirrel who is intensely interested in the seed I put on my front steps for birds  only..  Unfortunately, if I let the squirrel onto the steps, she will chase the birds away and then schnarf up half the seeds in short order, at least 10 seeds at a time, half of which seem to fall out of her mouth as she stuffs the rest in with her tiny little hands.  As a result,  I have become a quite strict squirrel trainer.  I chase the squirrel back to her seed-filled chair, while the birds stay on the landing of the steps.  When my breakfast is over, I sweep the seeds from the steps onto the ground for all to eat.  I like to believe that I am thus slowly training the squirrels never to eat on the steps.  Whether my efforts at behavior modification for squirrels is successful is dubious. But once chased off, she does return to her chair – though I often see her peeking at me from behind something, maybe waiting for her chance to test a few limits.

Other birds who have  visited my home this winter are BUSHTITS, ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS, and my beautiful  HERMIT THRUSH, who feasts  on the red berries on my native cotoneaster bush, far from the other birds.  She has  spent about a month here, single-handedly eating every single berry down to the very last one – which disappeared yesterday.  I’m sad to say I probably won’t see her again until next year.

Such a wealth of visitors.  How can I feel lonely? As I approach my 82nd birthday,   I expect I may do more backyard birding and fewer excursions down the river.  When I was in 6th grade, my mother, who taught me to love birds, had a library book called Birds at my Window, about an old woman who watched birds.  For some reason, even at that young age, I was thrilled with the book.  I was shy and  hated giving oral book reports in class, but I remember forgetting my self-consciousness as I reported enthusiastically on my love of this particular book.  Maybe I am coming full circle on this theme in my life.

Some of you will be glad to know that Lucero Luna, whom I wrote about in my last blog piece, has found temporary housing for the winter.  Thanks to all of you who wrote me expressing your appreciation for that article.  My life has taught me that we are all connected   – people, animals, plants. When we start to live that way –and why not now – most of our problems will disappear.

If you are a Sierra Club Member, please support our ardent lover of nature and river blogger, Jane Mio, for the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club. I also highly recommend Erica Stanojevic and Bob Morgan for the other two open seats on the  Committee.  Votes are due January 1, but please mail your ballot early.

May this holiday season be a time of warm connections for all of you with all forms of life.












busy river scrutiny…

Good Morning Barbara & all you Fellow Nature Admirers,

seal dreaming of annoying the OSPREY…

As you recall our Estuary Project had achieved finding new homes for native plants by the Trestle path. For the past 12 days I have been hand-watering them, tying them over until the expected rain could soak their roots better thoroughly. I was inspecting the plants when I the hovering shape appeared above me, which I wrote off as a gull, seeking river shelter from the arriving storm. Then the flash raced through my head that gulls don’t hover flapping their wings, so a closer look turned the gull into an OSPREY, scrutinizing something in the water. I assumed that it was hunting, getting ready for his lighting fast plunge to catch a fish, but he kept flying off, circle back and hover over the same spot. I was curious what was holding the OSPREY’s attention and so edged closer to the river bank. And there was a seal, watching the bird angler in the air. I figured neither one was excited sharing the fish breakfast table with the other one. The staring contest continued for a while until the seal slowly descended under the water surface and the OSPREY flew upriver.

the cause of my roller coaster emotions…

A few days later I was down at the Mike Fox Skatepark, frustrating myself with examining the damage the tent campers had done to the vegetation in that area. I am dealing with a situation that has taken me on a roller coaster ride of a wide range of emotions. The reason for my quandary is: community volunteers and houseless members of the Downtown Street Team have restored that site for months with native plants and liberated some of the overgrown, neglected naive plant survivors. We were all happy and proud of the plants for responding so well with new growth. Then the campers moved in and either cut down the plants to make a smoother sleeping surface or crushed the plants by storing their belongings on them. I have asked them to please not damage the vegetation, with the result that my request was ignored and more vegetation was damaged. Asking Rangers to help explain to the campers that they were damaging public property got me nowhere and resulted in the appearance of 2 additional tents. Now I was looking at 5 tents, the bare banks, which are eroding quickly due to lost vegetation, heavy foot traffic and the current rains. The financial $1000 loss of the plant expenses is hard to take, but what sends me through the roof is the waste of all our volunteer work, which were many hours of dedicated restoration efforts. Your last post was a heartwarming report about the dilemma of the houseless population, which is, without question, intensely horrible. I am well aware that houseless people vary just like family and neighbors: some are great to get along with and some hear a different drum. These campers hear a drum that hurts the environment, which I find hard to deal with.

migratory YELLOW-rumped WARBLER keeping an eye on me…

Yesterday there was a short rain break, which allowed for a dry river visit and watching the birds eagerly dashing around for food. The shy YELLOW-rumped WARBLER dared to come out into the open, pecking at some goodies on the path while keeping an attentive eye on me.

rain soaked PEREGRINE…

The wet PEREGRINE and RED-tailed HAWK were sitting in the Trestle trees, ignoring each other, because preening their soaked plumage took up all their beak time. 5 DOUBLE-crested CORMORANTS were taking advantage of the rain break. Perched on a cliff rock, they were spreading their wings wide open in the hope to dry them out. The river level is high and the water flows rapidly, making the AMERICAN COOTS swim sideways when they attempt to cross the river. The rain started again, sending me home enriched with river observations that feed my soul.

proposed Front St Project…

You might be interested in the public scoping/content meeting for the Front St. project, which is the 7 story high development adjacent to the river, current location of Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, India Joze’s, University Copy Service businesses. The meeting will address the environmental information to be included in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The development has received little community attention since it’s not affecting any residential neighborhood. Yet this project will impact the character of Santa Cruz as well as the river habitats.
The meeting takes place:
Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 5:30p.m. at the Louden Nelson Center, Multi-purpose Room, at 301 Center Street in Santa Cruz.

Sending you river love greetings, jane

Phoenix Rising

Dear Jane and Fellow Nature Lovers,

Mythological phoenix, image from Google

An unusual  flaming bird was cited on the San Lorenzo River on November 10. It was witnessed by  the heads of both the Santa Cruz Police Department and Fire Department as well as by many unhoused members of our community.  Six days later, by order of the City of Santa Cruz, the bird was deliberately flushed from an enclosed area at the corner of Highway 1 and River St.

By now you may have guessed that I am slyly speaking of the mythological PHOENIX – and of Camp Phoenix, the short-lived homeless  encampment located on the site of the former Ross Camp , next to the River and Felker St. Bridge. The encampment,  organized by the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union,   managed to provide a safe space to live for at least 50 unsheltered people in our community – until residents  were awakened at 6 a.m November 16th and told that they were “trespassing” and had 10 minutes to leave.  Take Back Santa Cruz is the group that,  among others, is accused by many of putting pressure on the City to do this.

Lucero Luna, unsheltered resident of Santa Cruz and activist with California Homeless Union. Photo by B. Riverwoman

Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to witness or help with the  encampment during its short life.  But walking downtown last week, I saw a small, older woman trudging along the Mall, holding up a large banner commemorating Desiree Quintero.   (Desiree was  one of the women leaders at Ross Camp who was killed October 27 by a falling tree in the Pogonip while  visiting a friend and former resident of the Ross Camp. ) I introduced myself and asked the woman about Desiree and Camp Phoenix.  I learned that the woman’s name was Lucero Luna and that she had just been released from jail after peacefully refusing to leave Camp Phoenix in an intentional act of civil disobedience. I told her I wrote a blog about birds and people on the river and asked her if I could interview her for my blog.  She happily agreed to talk to me.

Desiree Quintero, homeless activist, died October 27, 2019, photo by B. Riverwoman

Lucero believes, like many in the unhoused community, that Desiree would still be alive if the Ross Camp had not been shut down.  “She would definitely be here with us if the unhoused had been given their rights,”  said Lucero. “But the City decided to shut down Ross Camp and force people back into the parks, alcoves and the Pogonip.  The Pogonip was where Desiree died.”  Lucero’s eyes filled with tears as as she talked about Desiree.


Dignity Village, Portland, Oregon, Google Image

I told Lucero that I was especially interested in the Camp Phoenix concept of a self-managed community of unhoused. Lucero told me that the local organizers had been inspired by Dignity Village in Portland, a self-governing village created by a group of unsheltered persons whose  website says   “we came out of the doorways of Portland’s streets, out from under the bridges, from under the bushes of the public parks… and created a green, self-governing village that has now been in existence for 19 years.”

Camp Phoenix adopted the “Five Rules” of Dignity Village to guide their young encampment. Lucero listed the five for me – no violence; no theft; no alcohol or drugs within a one-block radius; no constant disruptive behavior; and at least 10 hours per week of work for village upkeep. Anyone who breaks any of these rules must leave.

I asked Lucero how the camp had worked for the five days that it existed. “We were so proud of what we were accomplishing, even in the short time that we were there” said Lucero.  “On Sunday, the first day, we had to deal with huge piles of wood chips dumped on the lot since the Ross Camp was closed.  So we decided to have a Wood Chip Raking Party.  Many Santa Cruz people worked together with camp residents to spread the chips evenly. . It was great! We worked really hard.  When we finished, people could set up their tents.”

Lucero told me that Food Not Bombs had donated $2000 for portapotties, handwashing stations and tents.

The first day the encampment was opened, Lucero was one of the organizers who sat at the entrance, welcoming new residents and handing them all a copy of the Five Rules. Judging from what a friendly, open-hearted person Lucero seemed to be, I can imagine that the new residents received a warm welcome from her!

At first, it seemed to the organizers that the City was working with them.  According to Lucero, “ police chief Mills visited and we didn’t get any sense from him that this was illegal.  We thought we were protected by the new federal law, Martin v. Boise.”  (That is the law that guarantees that a City  may not arrest or cite people for sleeping on public property unless the City can provide adequate and relatively accessible indoor accommodations.)  Lucero told me that the fire chief also visited us and told organizers that  the tents  had to be 5 feet from each other and 3 feet from the fence around the camp. The residents also  created  a wide path down the middle for easy fire and police vehicle access.

“We were careful to follow what they told us,” said Lucero. “We  kept someone stationed at the entrance around the clock to welcome new residents.”  Camp hosts rotated hourly health checks throughout the the camp, day and night, in order to make sure that people were safe and that the tents were properly placed.

“We all felt really hopeful,”Lucero told me.  “We were keeping the camp really clean.  Previous residents were happy to be back in their community.  We were planning to have a community garden at the far end of the camp. Someone offered to create a solar charger for our cell phones. Art projects were being thought about.”

Then the City shut down the camp.  “They crushed a lot of peoples’ dreams,” said Lucero.  “They woke us up at 6 a.m and told us we were trespassing and had ten minutes to leave.  I decided to do civil disobedience.  I peacefully refused to leave.  I was arrested and taken to jail. “

I asked Lucero how the City could close down the camp now that the federal case of Martin v. the City of Boise had established that a City could not arrest or cite people for sleeping on public property unless the City could provide adequate and relatively accessible indoor accommodations.  Lucero said that the City is now trying to get around this new federal law by claiming that the Phoenix Camp was occupying a closed-off area. “The City itself closed off the area, and is now using “Trespassing” as the official charge, claiming that “trespassing” isn’t covered under Martin v. Boise.”

Lucero said that the City has just crafted a new ordinance that they will present at the Tuesday, November 25th City Council meeting, The new ordinance will  propose new ways to circumvent Martin v. Boise.   The City chambers was packed.   I attended  as did Lucero and other homeless men, women and children..  I saw roughly 40 housed and unhoused community members speak out strongly against the  new ordinance. Speakers included a member of the ACLU as well as a lawyer for the California Homeless Union who warned the Council that they could easily open themselves to a lawsuit if they pursued this course.  Community activist Scott Graham pointed out that the spirit of Martin v. Boise was being violated by the new ordinance.  The whole point of that  case, he said,  was to protect the homeless from citation or arrest if there was no other place for them to sleep. The new ordinance, according to him, tries to get around that.   As a result of overwhelming community unhappiness with the proposed ordinance, the Council voted unanimously to return the ordinance for reconsideration to the Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness (CACH), made up of a broad spectrum of community members, including currently homeless representatives. But it remained unclear to me (I left towards the end when it was past 11 pm.) how the unsheltered were to manage in a City with even fewer spaces than last year and continuing unclarity about their legal rights.

Still,  it was a great meeting.  I love it when we see democracy alive and well in Santa Cruz – covered by Community Television.  Stay tuned.

I always want to know more about the lives of the people who are currently unsheltered in Santa Cruz. What landed them on the streets?   I asked Lucero if she would be willing to tell me about her life.  She was somewhat reluctant, not wanting to dwell on the hardships.  But she said she knew that this was part of what the community needed to know in order to contradict the stereotypes. So she talked to me quite openly.  She grew up in extreme poverty in Mexico, part of a family of 11 people, all living in one large room that was used for storage of harvested food as well as for sleeping and eating. She remembers sleeping on a lumpy dirt floor that she would try to make more level each night.    She remembers that from age 4 she was expected to help with the planting each year.  She remembers the little cloth bag called a morales, filled with corn,  bean and squash seeds, and planting first a corn seed, then a  bean seed, then the third sister, the squash seed.

She was sent to a one-room school for a short time, but because of the crowded and chaotic conditions of the “school” and because she suffered from undiagnosed auditory processing disorder, she was declared “unteachable” and forced to leave the school . At age 9, she tried to defend her mother against physical abuse by her father, was raped by a relative, and was also forced to leave home in order to help with family finances. She worked five days a week as a live-in nanny and a domestic, returning on weekends to “work even harder” she said with her sunny smile.  At 11 years she left her home state in Zacatecas to get domestic work in Jalisco, and at 14 years old was brought to the U.S. by her grandmother to get work in the U.S. It wasn’t until she reached the age of 18  that she finally had a chance to return to school.

Somehow she managed to rise above all these challenges, got a degree in Early Childhood Education, even became a family daycare trainer with West Ed, one of the best early childhood consulting agencies in the state of California.  As a former childcare worker, I bonded with Lucero around this!

Lucero  eventually  managed to get her own home, but was eventually pushed out onto the streets by a combination of  domestic violence, foreclosure, chronic hospitalization and post-surgical complications. Since 2001 she has been on the streets, first as what she calls “a vehicle dweller”  and since July of this year sleeping  at night in a protected area on the Pacific Garden Mall. She is 55 years old.  She has become a soft-spoken but ardent and seemingly tireless advocate for the what she calls the “unsheltered” or “houseless”.

In some ways, Lucero never forgot her childhood..  She told me that even when she was housed in Ventura, she felt guilty about enjoying such luxury while the homeless were being dumped along the river bottom.

A young man named Cloud that I met while talking to Lucero at the Food Not Bombs dinner on Sunday night praised Lucero, describing how Lucero gently cared for an incontinent man whom Cloud had found helplessly lying in front of the Bank of America, unable to stand up or walk.   Cloud called Food Not Bombs who transported the man to the only place available which was Camp Phoenix.  “Lucero was the one who welcomed the man to the Camp, gently cleaned him, found him new pants, and helped him get a tarp, a mat, and some cushioning cardboard. The next day she also found him a wheelchair.”

Cloud told me that he “lives in hope that people will open their minds and understand that the defining sign of a  culture is how we treat the most vunerable.”   He is a quiet, gentle man – dressed in a long skirt, and a longtime member of the Rainbow Tribe  He had wanted help Camp Phoenix create truly democratic meetings like the ones in the Rainbow Tribe. . He never had the chance.  The first meeting was scheduled for the day that the Camp was shut down.

While talking to Lucero and Cloud, I  also had a chance for a quick word with Alicia Kuhl, perhaps the major leader and spokesperson for the Santa Cruz chapter of the California Homeless Union which organized Camp Phoenix.   I asked her how she felt when they shut down Camp Phoenix. She said that for several days, she was depressed and stayed in bed.  “They had temporarily killed our hopes and dreams.  But now we will organize and come back with a plan.”

I feel the City must find a way to draw on the vision, energy and experience of people like Lucero, Cloud, Alicia and many more.  If we can support these dedicated people, maybe someday there will be a Phoenix Village in Santa Cruz that the whole community, including the unsheltered, can be proud of.

Buddhist prayers often include words of gratitude and respect for “all living creatures”, including the flora, the fauna and all human beings.

Let’s include similar words in our Thanksgiving celebrations.  Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.







river life styles…

Good Morning Barbara and Fellow Nature Lovers,

OSPREY & CORMORANTS sharing Trestle trees…

That’s so great , Barbara, that you came downriver and got to schmooze with ‘my’ feathered friends. Although there isn’t a great distance between the Estuary and Riverine stretches, their fauna and flora are worlds apart. Your upstream Riverine section is thickly vegetated while downstream is an open area, which makes birdwatching more accessible. Whenever I stroll through your terrain I always suspect that I only see a fraction of the birds and the rest remain little mysteries, hiding in the bushes.

the male COMMON GOLDENEYES are here…

Well, the male COMMON GOLDENEYES arrived and brought with them an electric energy. The females no longer leisurely forage, visit the BUFFLEHEAD flock occasionally, join the AMERICAN COOTS for a little swim-along. That life style went down the river and has been replaced with lots of fast and furious diving by both sexes, raising their bodies out of the water, throwing their heads back, short spurt take offs and splashy landings. The water is literally churning around the COMMON GOLDENEYES flock. The BUFFLEHEADs across the river are hard at work mimicking the COMMON GOLDENEYES. That fascinated me, because they hadn’t exhibited that conduct prior to the male GOLDENEYES’ arrival. Usually the BUFFLEHEADS and GOLDENEYES display this kind of behavior shortly before they migrate back to their northern breeding grounds.
For the last week I have been spending a lot of time down by the Trestle bridge, outlining the work for the Estuary Project day. What a different bird experience that was compared to walking! I became aware of the birds’ life nuances and listened to their varied sounds with which they communicated. I learned that the PEREGRINE rules over the Trestle trees and that the CORMORANTS and OSPREY abide the Falcon’s orders. If the approaching OSPREY received one short, sharp call then she was permitted to land on the lower bare branch, two calls meant landing in the trees was denied and there were no buts and ifs about that. The PEREGRINE would resort to bomb diving the OSPREY until she left. Sometimes she circle, pretending to fly off and return the back way to a tree at the end of the grove. The CORMORANTS would loudly protest the orders, circle the trees and settle for the uncomfortable perches, huddling close together, muttering complaints deep down their throats. There were times when the PEREGRINE could have cared less who was sharing the trees and the OSPREY, RED-shouldered HAWK, CORMORANTS, KINGFISHER took advantage of it, resting peacefully in the sun.

COMMON MERGANSER gliding upstream…

And then there were the two COMMON MERGANSERS, floating around by the Trestle, obviously not interested in each other. One would drift by, heading upstream and a little later the other one would glide downstream. It is surprising to see them hang out separately since they prefer a flock life style.

the mighty Estuary Project volunteer team…

We got a lot done on our Estuary Project Saturday thanks to the Aptos High Girl Soccer Teams, DST Members and Community volunteers, including Robin, who interrupted his morning walk to carry plants for me. The girls tackled all the tasks with vim and vigor and did amazing work. Many of the girls had never done restoration work before and I was impressed how open they were to that new experience. It was a joy to see such a big group of people working together for the benefit of the river habitat, which will make the critters happy.
Cheery chirps to all of you, jane