There’s Gold in the River


Dear Jane and Fellow River Lovers,

Yes, I’ve been finding gold in the urban stretch of the San Lorenzo River! But not the same gold as the downtown developers covet. The gold nuggets I’m talking about are eyes – the mysterious golden eyes of river habitants. Walking along the River a few days ago, I was fascinated by the intense gold eyes of a newly arrived migratory bird, the COMMON GOLDENEYE. It is almost as if there is a high-power lamp burning inside that sleek and elegant body. The eyes are eery, like a creature from a different world. I studied these powerful swimmers as they dove, surfaced and immediate dove again, probing the gravelly or sandy bottom of the river in search of crustaceans and mollusks. (Unfortunately, they also like salmon eggs, but I don’t think they will find those between the Soquel and Riverside Bridges.)

Male Common Goldeneye, November 27, 2017, between Laurel St. and Riverside Bridges

When I finally tired of looking at the handsome Goldeneyes, I walked a little further downriver, panning the river for more gold with my precious binoculars. And sure enough, I found some more  gold nuggets, htough much smaller,  imbedded beneath the high forehead of the GREATER SCAUP, my first encounter of the year with this migratory water bird. Pretty good gold prospecting out there on the river these days.

Greater Scaup
Greater Scaups, November 27, 2017,  between Laurel St. and Riverside Bridges, two in back are female, left in front is male, none appear to be in full breeding plumage yet. 

When I got home to my computer, I remembered the photo I took of the fierce gold eyes of a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK that I saw a week ago, and added that to my priceless gold collection for this posting.

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk, November

And of course I should mention the all-too-common and ignored BREWER’S BLACKBIRD, flocks of which can be seen almost anytime and any place in Santa Cruz, somehow finding sustenance as they busily forage along sidewalks and asphalt. The glossy purple-tinted black male has tiny, mean-looking little yellow eyes that always send a bit of a shiver down my spine. The light brown female is kinder looking with dark brown eyes.

I did a little research on bird eye-color and discovered that the eye color of immature birds often changes as they grow older, just as in humans. Both Goldeneyes and Scaups have brown eyes as youngsters which turn yellow as they grow into adulthood. (Red-tailed Hawks reverse this pattern, with their eyes changing from yellow to brown, while the yellow eyes of a young Cooper’s Hawk turns deep red as it reaches maturity.) No one seems to have come up with a functional reason for eye color. Any of you readers have any information or a personal theory?

As I was snooping around for more information on the Common Goldeneye, I learned that this is one of the last waterfowl to leave the northern boreal forest where it breeds (Canada and Alaska). Their arrival in the lower U.S. typically peaks in the third week of November. Ours were right on schedule! I think this completes the gathering of our most common winter waterfowl friends in Santa Cruz – first the Buffleheads , then the EARED GREBES, then the Goldeneyes and Scaups. Who am I missing?

Eared Grebe

As with our resident Mallards, this is the beginning of breeding season for the energetic and somewhat aggressive Goldeneyes. The BNA had some fascinating information on the mating displays of Common Goldeneyes that makes me want to get right out there with my folding chair and watch the gymnastics of these ardent creatures. They carry on their courtships starting in December and, very oddly, they carry the displays out in small groups of three or four males and a few females! How efficient. Sort of like speed dating.

Very interesting was BNA’s description of their “spectacular and complex courtship behavior.” According to the studies quoted, the courtship displays include 13 distinct moves – Head-throw, Slow Head-throw-kick, Fast Head-throw kick, Bowsprit, Head-throw bowsprit, Nodding, Masthead, Ticking, Head-flick, Head-forward, Head-up-pumping, Head-back, and Head-back bowsprit. The BNA describes the details of each of these moves, expressing the opinion that “The most distinctive of these displays is the Head-throw-kick, where the male thrusts his head straight forward, then lowers it to his rump with his bill pointed back past vertical, at which point he utters a single, grating call, thrusting his head rapidly forward while kicking water out with his feet.”

That’s what I call an active river. Robert Singleton and the other civic boosters don’t really need to work so hard to ‘activate the river’. The Goldeneyes are doing it for them. In fact, if we could only schedule the Goldeneyes, we wouldn’t need the Golden State Warriors for excitement. There’s a lot of pretty fast and complex action going on just over the levee from the Arena – right there at Laurel. And it’s free!

The homeless encampment continues on the Benchlands, appearing pretty peaceful and orderly, with lots of police and rangers directing and monitoring the situation. HOMELESS CAMPIt is hard to understand why our ex-police chief, Kevin Vogel, wrote such a condemnatory letter to the editor about the terrible dangers the encampment presents. I walked out the day after the big rain and was so happy to see good strong rain tarps covering most of the 30 or more tents. Under the sponsorship of the new police chief,   , about 40 or 50 people were able to be dry and legal as they got a good night’s sleep. And the housing is cheap. I hope the City supports this new approach until we can provide something at least as good.

Of course, I still dream that the Benchlands can one day be restored to a natural riparian woodland – with a few benches and paths for those weary of the downtown bustle and appreciative of a few moments of peace in an urban setting. But that must wait for the right moment and the right leadership. As a Buddhist teacher said, ‘you can’t push the river’.

Wishing you all many golden days on the river.




One thought on “There’s Gold in the River

  1. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m not sure, though, what you and Brent are suggesting. Does the encampment contribute to more violence? Or does it just make the violence that always attends drug use more visible publicly? Is Brent worried that the City residents and officials will explode at the first incidence of violence? If the drug users are screened from the encampment, where do they go? Are they condemned to cold and illegality? Are we enabling them if we allow them to put up a tent? The incident Batya observed suggests that a death was perhaps avoided because of the camp. I have no answers policy wise. Tents seem a reasonable and humane transitional stage for people who belong in drug treatment programs.

    BNA stands for Birds of North America, a compendium of the latest ornithological research available online through a subscription costing $25.


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