Holiday on the River

Dear Jane and Nature Lovers,

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

GCSP dominatn
Dominant Golden-crowned Sparrow (Google image)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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























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