Birding Adventures
with the Fledgling Docents

by Jan McGirk

Docent Class of 2013 outdoors with binoncularsStruve Slough is a superb venue for an interpretive walk on birding, as the 2013 class of Docents-in-Training discovered on a bright Saturday morning in early February. Since veteran birder Bob Ramer lugged along his own spotting scope and shared his considerable expertise with the group, our three-hour visit flew by. So did kestrels and kingfishers.

Cindy Scott, an Environmental Educator from the Wetlands of Watsonville Nature Center, led nineteen of us around the pathway from Ohlone Parkway to Struve Slough, where we came to grips with borrowed binoculars and were able to spot, or at least to hear the distinctive calls, of some 55 different species of bird.

The birds ranged in size from a Great Blue Heron, as tall as a Cub Scout and able to skewer a gopher on its bill, to an iridescent Anna’s hummingbird no bigger than a ping pong ball. Joy Zelinski Marquez, a former Navy officer who is unfazed by new technology, had prepped her cameras and tripods, then downloaded new apps on her smartphone in anticipation of stalking the diverse water fowl of the Pacific Flyway; she was not disappointed.

Green Heron
Joy Marquez

Her shots of a green heron in the tules and a cinnamon teal duck were widely shared online. Her birds’ eye view of the fledgling docents, peering through binoculars, was particularly amusing. Now Joy is gearing up to return to the sloughs during the “photographer’s golden hour,” when the sun lies close to the horizon, for her next shooting session. Joy’s docent training pictures may be viewed by clicking here.

A lively lecturer who can mimic the Jacuzzi-like mating ritual of the ruddy duck, Cindy Scott appeared to be utterly tireless. While most of the docent group took off for lunch, she persuaded trainee docents Jeanne Greatorex and Pat Kennedy to venture out on a bridge near the nature center for a last look. “We saw as many birds off the north side of that bridge as I had seen all day,” Jeanne enthused. “The trees were alive with the non-sound of night herons. We got a wonderful view of the brilliant blue feathers under the wing of the cinnamon teal duck.”

Pat Kennedy, the redhead better known as PK, added: “Great outlook, especially if one comes up empty on a regular hike. I had to verify (in a guidebook) what I thought I saw in the early afternoon — a Green Winged Teal. And also a Blue-Winged Teal!” These little dabbling ducks bob upside down in the slough like wind-up toys and are endlessly watchable. Above them, raptors alternately soar and swoop.

Green Heron
Photo of Bob Ramer by Joy Marquez

“I identified many of the so-called songbirds by voice only and didn’t call them out to the group,” confessed Bob Ramer, who frequently leads outings for the Santa Cruz Bird Club. During the February 9th field trip, it became obvious why many hobbyists prefer the term birder to birdwatcher: it takes more than eyes alone to tell the birds apart. For example, the Virginia Rail has an unmistakably gruff call like an old man laughing. Bob elaborated on the challenges of identification. “Trying to find these little brown jobs (or whatever) can be a very frustrating task,” he said, “especially if it was a distant call or a bird that typically hides itself in the vegetation and is very difficult to see. All things considered, it was a very good day for the birds!” Bob’s checklist for this outing can be found by clicking here.

Bob Ramer became involved with the Watsonville Wetlands Watch three years ago through the Watch’s Project Tierra program for Citizen Science Biodiversity Monitoring. Bob and Bernadette, his wife, were instrumental in developing the protocols used for bird monitoring. To learn more about Project Tierra, click here.

Jan McGirk, a journalist now based in Santa Cruz, volunteered for the 2013 docent-in-training class in order to learn more about local ecology. After reporting from Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, she is struck by how Watsonville resolves conflicts over its vital fresh water wetlands.