salamander

Stream Walks

another reprint from my weekly column for Bruce Bratton’s stupendous weekly.

The tinkling, gurgling, and bubbling sounds of local streams are especially relaxing around now, the driest part of our dry season. It is normal that it has been six months since we had any rain at all. It may be another month before storm fronts sweep from the North, drenching the parched ground for several days with an inch or more of rainfall. At present, though, streams are at their annual lowest flows. But, because our community has been generous, creeks remain flowing with clear, clean, cool water. Taking a leisurely and observant stroll along one of our many creeks will help to clear your mind and relaxed observation of streamside life can lead to delightful discoveries.

Fish, amphibians, and birds are easy to encounter with a brief streamside pause. We tend to hustle along trails, distracted in conversation or deep in thought. But you might want to stop, take a few deep breaths, listen for water sounds, smell cooler, moist air…and wait to see what happens. Ripples form where a fish captures a bug from the water’s surface. Focus your eyes down into the water, and you might glimpse a fish. It will probably be a young steelhead or maybe a coho salmon – two very rare fish that live among the stream’s cobbles, riffles and pools eating invertebrates and shining their beautiful scales in the occasional sunbeam-lit water. Creek pools may have newts or salamanders. With their yellow bellies and brown bumpy backs, two newt species (rough skinned or California) use their ‘tail fins’ to swim away if you get too close. Harder to see, the gray-silver and more uncommon California giant salamander is mostly hidden under rocks. After getting big enough, these newts and salamanders crawl out of the stream to wander the rainy winter landscape, gobbling up prey in the leaf litter or deep inside gopher burrows. These amphibians are super toxic – a single newt has enough poison in its skin to kill many people – so the they are brave and easy to find wandering trails or crossing roads near streams and rivers in the early winter. Crowds of newts make nighttime mass migrations after the first couple of rains have moistened the landscape. If you can plan not to drive at night during the second through fourth rainstorms, you’ll be saving gas, contributing to climate change solutions, be physically much safer, and potentially save many salamander lives. Encourage your friends to do the same! Post ‘newt crossing’ signs on your road. Drive slowly and avoid the many difficult to see newts.

My favorite creek birds are kingfishers and dippers (also known as ouzels). Kingfishers use their big sharp bills to spear fish. Ouzels dive into stream pools to eat underwater insects. Kingfishers are noisy, dippers silent…so, non-birders are more likely to see the kingfishers which have distinct flights and calls as well illustrated in this beautifully produced linked video. Kingfishers like to nest in holes in the soil of steep banks – they are burrow-birds! And its not easy to find that kind of habitat, but one roadcut near Elkhorn Slough is a go-to spot to see their nests. Dippers are not common in Santa Cruz County, and are elusive even where you might count on seeing them. I know they are about when there is ‘white wash’ on perching rocks midstream.

At the beginning of the essay, why do you think I said streams flow because of our generosity? Primarily I say that because we are a democracy: from the springs to the ocean, free-flowing water is publicly owned (except in the rare cases where a portion of the flow has been legally ‘allocated’ for human use). At the local level, Santa Cruzans value letting streams flow and have worked hard to protect enough land around streams so that they continue to flow. San Lorenzo Valley Water District and the City of Santa Cruz manage and protect lands to assure drinking water security. Bond funding to protect watersheds purchased the Pogonip Green Belt property near the City. Many places we could put dams to capture more water, we chosen not to. And so, we have many free-flowing streams without dams. These streams recharge groundwater, and not so many wells have run dry as they have elsewhere in the state. More than anything, it seems to me that our community’s conservation of streams and the forests around them has been instinctually generous, a big-heartedness that understands the inherent value of such things. I am so very pleased to be part of a community that acts on those values.

While we have protected many streams, the streams we have need restoration and management. Natural dams were once common- trees fell from old age and trunks floated downstream and occasionally jammed up flow, creating pools and fish and frog habitat. With forestry practices and our habit of keeping things ‘neat,’ there are fewer logs in streams (but, after the CZU fire, it looks like we might get a new wave of logs). So, in a few streams around our area, restorationists have placed big logs and boulders to help restore ‘complexity’ in streams. Also, in the past few years, there’s been a new movement to bring back beavers. Downtown Santa Cruz is built on what was most likely prior beaver ground. Beavers contributed to the creation of the deep, fertile soils of the Pajaro Valley. Wherever they could find a place, beavers would have made ponds along our streams, carefully weaving together branches into logs until they backed up water into a big pool. These pools would have been great habitat for our amphibians and would have helped recharge groundwater. These dams were porous and ephemeral enough to allow occasional salmon migration. But, beaver pelts were worth money, and trappers killed all the beavers a long time ago. When will beavers return- on their own…or with a little help from restorationists? The closest places to see beavers is just north, in Pescadero Creek, or just south, in the Salinas River…neither are that far from us, as the beaver swims. Maybe a generation or two from now will get to experience a ‘tail slap’ somewhere close by.

Getting back to the subject of streamside strolling during this dry fall…I advise taking some time to watch reflected sunlight as it sparkles and shines off of a stream. Under-lit from reflected sunshine, the normally shaded streamside tree trunks glow and rocky outcrops shine with unexpected color. Reflected light from creek ripples makes the otherwise still leaves and needles overhead seem to dance and move in fascinating patterns. If you take some time to gaze into the water, your eyes will relax your mind with the constantly changing liquid patterns: forming and collapsing pillows, effervescence bubbles flow swirling out into pools, slow eddies creating many unfolding patterns, forming and dissipating into one another, making sense, but at the same time fascinatingly unpredictable.

Streams are quieter now that the neotropical migratory songbirds flew south, but their noise will change with the coming rains. Soon, the quietest of streams will make louder sounds. Areas downstream of our pavement, roads and ditches will “flash” with higher flows and become muddy. Creeks protected by the right amount of well-managed uphill lands will rush and roar and, even after big storms, maintain clear water, pulsing after downpours and gradually flowing higher with the progressing rainy season. Through the cool, rainy winter, chickadees will miss their bright yellow and orange warbler friends but will greet and welcome them when they return next spring.

Before the rains come, you might notice branches and debris high above the water along the banks or even hanging many feet above, tangled high in the trees and bushes. That stuff tells you how the water may soon get, having been deposited there in prior years. If you take a photo or a video now of a favorite stretch of stream, think how much fun it will be to compare that with what you might record mid-winter. Creek habitats are the most obviously and dynamically changing of any of our natural areas, helping us to better plug into the changing seasons. At this point in the year, you might find a walk along a stream to be a revitalizing reprieve from the otherwise dusty and dry landscape.