Nuptial Plumes,Wounded Grebe and Early Warbler

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Lovers,

The shifting seasons, the  wild weather, and the whims of fate continued to shake up the normal behaviors of our winged friends these last two weeks.

A lone PELAGIC CORMORANT  seems to have chosen to temporarily abandon its normal habitat along the ocean cliffs in order to try  its luck fishing  away from the high waves.

Breeding Pelagic

Pelagic Cormorant in new breeding plumage, San Lorenzo River near Riverside Bridge, February 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

While other regular residents moved off the fast-flowing river, the cormorant moved in. As an ocean fisher, I guess it is better adapted than the regular river residents to taking on the challenge of a river moving at a clip of 750 cubit feet per second.  I was excited to see this shiny black creature all decked out in its fresh new breeding plumage, especially since I have never seen its delightfully named white ‘nuptial plumes’.   I imagine they function somewhat like runway lights.  If you look closely, you can see the red spot that is also part of the breeding plumage.  I think the green iridescence on the long, slender throat is present year round, but it can’t hurt this sleek beauty’s chances of a successful conquest.  I learned that in spite of its name it is not a true pelagic bird since the word pelagic signifies that the bird spends most of its time over the open sea.  Instead, Pelagic Cormorants do most of their fishing close to the ocean cliffs  where they also breed and roost.  Alarm flags went up for me when I read in Birds of North America that ocean kayaks and other human traffic increasingly pose a serious threat to the nests of this cormorant, for whom the Central Coast is about as far south as it breeds.  While our City is busy ‘keeping Santa Cruz safe,’ I hope it does not forget our smallest cormorant.

Another bird that is primarily an ocean-dweller, a WESTERN GREBE,  seems to have paddled upriver for a sadder reason.

Western Grebe

Western Grebe, with wounded leg, on bank of San Lorenzo River near Laurel St. Bridge, February 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Can you see the foot splayed out at an awkward angle underneath her body.  At first I wondered why she was resting on a sandbank underneath the Laurel St. Bridge.  Then I saw  her stand and lurch towards the river, one leg trailing behind her, wings flapping wildly to keep her balance.  I was happy to see her diving once she reached the river, but wonder if she will be able to chase down the fish she needs with only one strong leg to propel and direct her.

If the cormorant’s behavior  was informed by the search for quieter waters than the Bay, and the grebe’s by the search for a place to heal, this pint-sized YELLOW WARBLER was an early harbinger of the seasonal  flow of migratory warblers.  The bright yellow insect lover arrived far earlier than the normal date of early April when Santa Cruz sees it highest number of this  species passing through our area on its nocturnal passage to as far north as Alaska.  Since it is so early in the season, eBird

Yellow warbler

Yellow Warbler, Google Image

challenged me on this one, but my friends Michael Levy and Batya Kagan excitedly reported to me a week ago that they had seen this same bird, so I studied it carefully and made my best case to the Cornell experts.  Unfortunately, the tiny bird was flitting so rapidly through the willow thickets that my camera was never able to catch up with it. This Google image captures exactly what I saw.

And then there are those birds just being playful and eccentric.  I counted 56 MALLARDS on my walk two days ago,  44 of them hunkering down in the Duck Pond to escape the rapid current and all but one hugging the banks.   But not this one!

Mallard paddling nowhere

Adventuresome mallard, midstream, San Lorenzo River between Laurel St. and Riverside Bridges, , 750 cubic feet/second water flow, Photo by B. Riverwoman,

He was the only one in midstream, paddling his little orange-webbed feet as fast as he could and going absolutely nowhere.  Was he trying to figure out how hard he needed to paddle to go absolutely nowhere. Or maybe he was being much more utilitarian, using the river as a  treadmill to build female-chasing muscles. It is, after all,  the beginning of the mallard mating season.

I have never seen so many CANADA GEESE on the river in past years – 16 by my count.  8 of

Canada Goose Profile

Canada Goose, San Lorenzo River, Feb. 17, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

them were lolling about at the Duck Pond, while others were playing along the edges of the river where the water was  pretty slow-moving. This fellow on the right with the white chin strap  is looking a bit skeptical.  Will they decide to stay and breed?  Or will they move on.  Last year the Bird Breeding Study was particularly interested following this species’ breeding habits on the river.

Strangely, right next to the Grebe with the wounded leg was this goose standing on one leg, shifting his weight far to one side to keep from toppling.  But no worry, his other leg was fine.  Birds often conserve heat by tucking one leg underneath their feathers.  But might this goose have also been standing in solidarity with the Grebe?  Who knows.

Goose on one leg

Canada Goose, San Lorenzo River, February 17,  2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Although a relatively common bird, I don’t think I have ever recorded an AMERICAN ROBIN on the river.


American Robin

This should bring my total number of birds seen on the urban river stretch to 109.  Thank you eBird for keeping track!   True, this falls significantly short of the 147 species seen by my awesome co-blogger!  But we both have quite a ways to go, Jane,  to catch up with Steve Gerow who peaked at 177 birds on this same urban stretch !  With all this documented bird life, it should be kind of hard for the City to make a case, as they have in the past,  that the river has no wildlife value and therefore should be opened to all kinds of recreational and commercial activity.StarlingHere is the non-native but handsome STARLING relishing the same berries as the robin, just inches away.  Click HERE to see my complete list of 32 species seen during my last outing.

John Muir quote of the week:

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can”.  

High waters or low, in honor of all Yosemite lovers, including John Muir and Sherry Conable, keep flying, keep singing.




Secure Housing for All Creatures of the Earth

Dear Jane and other lovers of the hilarious in nature,

Your photo and story, Jane, on Captain Coot, proudly sweeping by the astonished Mallards while sailing his cardboad ship down the river, was one of your funniest of the year!

I’ve been busy working on the Yes on M campaign (rent control), specializing it seems, in trying to save the homes of human as well as avian creatures.   I am perhaps unreasonably partial to the idea of a world where every sentient being  has secure housing!  Anyway, for this reason, as well as having a cold, I haven’t been out on the River this week .   Fortunately the river has come to me in the form of many new  riparian dwellers visiting my overgrown native garden, separated from the river by a single fence.  My sunflower seed feeder is a major attraction, as well as a rotting log I introduce a while back.  I hope the native plants factor in the equation somewhere.  I really don’t have the vaguest understanding of the ecology that I am blindly trying to create.  But I think it is working.

I have not been lucky enough in the past to catch many glimpses of our colorful

Grosbeakon fence

Female or first year male Black-headed Grosbeak, near river in a backyard garden, August, 2018, Photo by B Riverwoman 

summer visitors, the BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS, so you  can imagine how happy I’ve been to have one of these showy creatures appear as a regular visitor in my backyard for the last two weeks.  She (or he?) seems to love my sunflower seeds.  I don’t know if my backyard Grosbeak is a male or female, since in their first year they often look the same.  All I know is that it was not a second year male whose solidly black head and deep orange breast identify it as a breeding male.  Unfortunately, one of those hasn’t visited yet.

I also read that this species loves to feast on  Monarch butterflies, one of the few bird species that can successfully process the toxins in Monarchs that would kill or sicken another bird. Both Monarchs and Black-headed Grosbeaks return to the mountains of central Mexico in the winter – unfortunately for the Monarchs.

curious grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak, August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

But I forgive the Grosbeaks since they are one of those lovable birds that share the duties of incubating and feeding their young. Here is a good website connected with Cornell University  that I use to collect some of these interesting tidbits of information – All About Birds. 


I’ve heard that HOUSE FINCHES tend to be late breeders and the recent mobbing of my tube feeder by all kinds of fluffy and scruffy young finches seems to prove the truth of this.

House finch juvenile

Juvenile House Finch on feeder, August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

The tube is absolutely cleaned out by evening each day.   I also wonder if some of them might be molting adults. I wonder where they nest.

House Finch juv male

Somewhat  older juvenile male House finch on feeder near river, August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here is a video of house finches feeding their young – slightly overproduced for my taste, but a nice intro to my sightings of them after they are out of the nest.

Adult male House Finch

Adult male House Finch, August 2018, Photo by B.Riverwoman

Parent finches regurgitate food for the young, making it possible as we see in the film to feed many for quite a while.   Click here.

I saw a juvenile COWBIRD perched near my house for the first time that I remember.  A parasitic brooder, often leaving an egg in the nests of  House Finches, I wonder if this juvenile was inadvertently raised as a sibling of one of my finches above..  He looks a bit bewildered and stranded, don’t you think?

Cowbird juvenile

Juvenile Cowbird, August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Passing the 80 milestone has kept me from getting down to the  estuary end of the river very much – so I much appreciate first hand news and photos of the breaching.   What did you think of the Sentinel coverage of this phenomena?  It cleared up some questions that I have had. For readers who didn’t see the article, click here for the link.

I don’t think I  have mentioned  my concern about the dirt road that the City built along the east side of the river bank on the riverine reach (Water to Highway 1) while they were doing their flood control work a month ago.

New path along East Bank of riverine stretch

Newly created roadway along edge of riverine reach of river .  August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Here is a photo of the road as well as a close-up that shows how close the road comes to the river.  I am worried that rangers and police will begin patrolling the area in their trucks, creating a disturbance to the wildlife and setting a bad precedent for the future in terms of how close humans should get to the river.  I know that there are some commercial and recreational developers that would just love to create more paths right next to the river. I would love to walk there myself,  – but I don’t think it bodes well for habitat protection.  I am likely to hear and see more if I am not disturbing what I want to hear and see.

New road

Closeup of road next to the outer channel of the river, separated from main channel by a stretch of willows.  August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Have you seen this mighty sprinkling can heaving its way down the Riverwalk?

Tree sprinkler

Water tank for irrigation of City plants.  August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

I talked to the driver and he told me that it brings water to thirsty native plants that are newly planted and need a little extra support. If we ever get the river levee re-planted with natives, and they get established, maybe this will become the dinosaur that it resembles.  But I definitely appreciate the restoration work that seems to have taken off on the levee and Riverwalk.

Here is the bonus photo for the day, a mysterious insect that graced my garden for a moment.  I would love to begin to learn the names of these visitors.

Mystery Insect

Mystery Insect in my garden, August 2018, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Quote of the Day

No Sierra landscape that I have seen holds anything truly dead or dull, or any trace of what in manufactories is called rubbish or waste.  Everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons.

John Muir

May we all learn to respect the right of all living creatures to a secured place to live.








It’s Not About Education: An Advanced Placement Student Tells Her Story

Not just students with special needs are negatively affected by standardized testing. Here is a story by a white, middle class student who consistently took Advanced Placement classes in a high school near Stockton, California. For her, standardized tests were not only a burden in themselves, but signaled a more general failure to meet students’ real educational and counseling needs. She writes:

Megan Williamson

Megan Williamson

“I remember feeling so impatient, because every year we would have to take standardized testing. They’d spend an hour telling you where to write your name, be sure to fill in the bubble completely, if you color outside of the bubble your tests will blah blah blah. It would be a whole hour of instruction just about where to write your name. The teachers seemed so stressed. I had teachers who really enjoyed teaching, and standardized testing wasn’t teaching. It was something that they had to do, not something they wanted to do or thought was a valuable use of time in the classroom. But we were required to do it.”

“I wasn’t aware in the beginning of any threat of teachers being fired or schools getting shut down – but I wondered why there was more stress on standardized testing than on the regular tests of material we were learning in class. I learned later that a lot of school websites publish the school ratings on the standardized tests, including all the data on demographics and scores. Bad results could reflect badly on the schools – that’s why there is so much pressure. Teachers and schools are afraid they will look bad. It’s not about education.”   Continue reading

Triple P – Problematic Parenting Program

The desire to be in control is such a common and understandable human tendency that we forget that human progress is generally measured by the gradual giving up of control along with the wise sharing of power.  Political progress, we generally agree, moves from totalitarianism to democracy, from slavery to freedom.


But, sadly, we forget.  We stumble.  Or maybe we just fall into the false belief that the means don’t affect the ends, i.e. that we can use top down decision making to achieve positive ends.  John Dewey, great American philosopher and educator,  wrote many pages on this fundamental fallacy in education.  It’s worth reading.

I’d like to talk here about how this universal drama between hierarchical and horizontal control is being played out in the world of parent education in Santa Cruz County. Continue reading

A Charter Chain in Santa Cruz County? It’s a 501(c)3 But Is It a Public Benefit?

In her new book, Reign of Error, just out last month, Diane Ravitch offers a stinging attack on Education Management Organizations (EMO’s), the charter school chains that are proliferating throughout this country. She compares them to Walmart or McDonalds, education organizations with many of the same goals and tactics as more typical corporations. Some are large chains, like the notorious Rocketship Schools in San Jose (who have recently hit the front pages of local newspapers due to the outrage that teachers and parents are feeling about their takeover of neighborhood schools.) And some, Ravitch says, are just small entrepreneurs, eyeing covetously the large pot of money in the public school system. I had thought that Santa Cruz was free of these chains, but learned from a friend that I was wrong. Santa Cruz County now seems to be hosting one of the small EMO’s. Continue reading