California Against the Sea is a Way to Think Forward

If there’s one takeaway from the Deer Creek Watershed study project, it is that all watersheds are interconnected parts of Earth’s circulatory system.

In her book, California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline, Rosanna Xia travels along California’s coastal towns interviewing city, county, and state land policy managers, as well as Native People, Black communities, activists, and private homeowners as she investigates how people think about coastal erosion and property defense tactics.

This subject applies to all places where people live. Do we adapt to change or fight it?

How do we develop governing policies that encourage desired behaviors?

So many people still seem to be estranged from nature – unaware, or unwilling to see, how much we’re holding onto land meant to burn or drown. ‘We love what we have, and we always want it to be the same forever, but it’s just not going to be.’

As I read about high-priced sea walls, diminishing sand, and underserved communities, I couldn’t help but think about home insurers pulling out of California, ongoing Nevada County fire-hardening work, and our Nisenan Tribe.

“I exist because my ancestors resisted multiple and sustained sate and church sponsored efforts to eradicate us physically, culturally, and spiritually,” she said. “They resisted, and they continued – continued to love, laugh, speak their language, sing their songs, build and sustain their communities through all the violence.”

The book takes a while to get through; it is information-dense. It might seem like the subject would be depressing, but it’s not. Xia leaves readers feeling hopeful.

The sooner we arrive at a consensus about ecosystem-specific environmental adaptation, and set plans in motion for forward movement, the less loss of life, housing, commerce, and investment there will be.

Rosanna Xia is an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where she specializes in stories about the coast and ocean. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2020 for explanatory reporting, and her work has been anthologized in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series.

Deer Creek Film & the January Circle

We’re approaching mid-January, the time of year when the Following Deer Creek (FDC) Project first came into being (2017).  Like the Earth circling around the Sun and the planetary water cycle, we’ve completed a journey.

I set out to tell the story of the Deer Creek watershed from its tectonic and cultural origins to the people and animals who live in it today. Working backward, I posted blog articles as I researched in preparation to compile the film.

Aerial Views & History
of the Deer Creek Watershed:
Journey from Headwaters to Confluence 
a thirty-minute fly-over film

In early January of 2021, the film was complete. Like the FDC blog posts, it’s a birds-eye view of the watershed that hints at depths.

I smile when I think back to the initial idea seed. Of course, there is no one story, there are more than can ever be told.

FDC and the Aerial Views film is a decent outline, but it also illustrates how much more remains for investigation and study.

I hope this journey inspires yours!





River Otters – Holt Hiding, Wiggly Weasel Cousin

River Otters are apex predators like mountain lions, coyotes, sharks, and killer whales. In healthy ecosystems, they maintain balance.

Habitat & History

Before North America’s European colonization and the fur trade (that continued until 1961), River Otters inhabited every fresh waterway on the continent.

For a species greatly impacted by human behavior, they have become a beacon of hope for nature’s resilience. With clean water and air laws, resulting in healthier environments, River Otters are repopulating on their own.


Unlike their sea-faring relatives, River Otters function both on land and in water.

They are crepuscular – active in the early morning and twilight hours – and busy year-round. While River Otters don’t migrate with seasons, they will travel up to 25 miles to search for food sources. Areas, where otters have taken up residence, are those that have all the right ingredients for the good life; plenty of cover vegetation, rock piles, logs, clean water, and an adequate supply of food.

Adults weigh between 10-30 pounds. They can remain underwater for up to 4 minutes, swim up to 7 miles per hour, and dive to 60-foot depths.

They live in social groups, most consist of a mother and her offspring. Males also live together in ‘bachelor pods.’

River Otters hunt and travel together. They share the same den, latrines and groom each other.

Special Adaptations

  • Nictitating membranea third eyelid (like Bald Eagles) covers the eyes when swimming underwater
  • Ears and nostrils close underwater
  • Thick, water-repellant layer of fur
  • Powerful tail for swimming
  • Clawed, flipper feet – able to climb trees

Play Behavior

Known for play, River Otter behavior is similar to teenage cats. Games of chase, wrestling, and pretend fighting are common as young learn hunting skills.


Highly communicative, otter families (aka bevy, lodge, or romp) use scent and sound to convey meaning. Scent can be in the form of urine, feces, anal jelly, and musk from glands located in their back feet. Low-frequency chuckling, bird-like chirps, snorts, purring grunts, and shrill whistles are some of the sounds they make when alarmed, looking for family members, playing, or frightened.

Life Span

In the wild, the North American River Otter life span is between 8 to 12 years. In captivity, they’ve been known to live up to 25 years.

Holt & Reproduction

River Otters are opportunistic home finders like Western Bluebirds. A holt or couch is also known as a den. It must have enough underground interior room for family raising, be near clean water and food sources, above flood level, and have multiple entrances and exitssome above and below water level, often near Beaver dams, in embankments, or under logs.

Mature otters can mate any time between December and April. Unlike their European counterparts, North American River Otters have the ability to delay implantation for up to eight months.

Gestation lasts about two months.

In early spring, pregnant mothers find and prepare holts. This is where they will give birth from one to six kits who will remain with her for up to a year. At birth, otter pups are toothless, fully furred and they weigh about the same as a medium-sized apple. At around a month-and-a-half old, kits open their eyes and begin playing.

At around two-months-old, thick water fur fills in and the mothers begin teaching pups to swim. To do this, she holds them by the scruff, drags them into the water, and dives with them.


Adult River Otters eat between 2 to 3 food per day. Being busy balls of energy with thick coats to maintain, they eat often and prefer protein in the form of fish. Other items river otters consume include;

  • Salamanders
  • Frogs
  • Freshwater clams & mussels
  • Snails
  • Turtles
  • Crayfish
  • Small birds
  • Squirrel 
  • Mice

Elimination Notes

Similar to raccoons, River Otters use latrines (common defecation areas). Latrines are away from living spaces and, in addition to a site for expelling body waste, they serve a function as a location to leave powerful territorial scent markings.

Field biologists search for otter latrines. Scat and anal jelly—a black mucus coating that protects the digestive tract from sharp objects—yield DNA that can be used to track otter movement as well as clues to what the animals are eating.


In the water river otters are generally safe from predation. On land, they are vulnerable to;

Diseases to which River Otters are Susceptible

  • Hepatitis
  • Jaundice
  • Pneumonia
  • Rabies
  • Canine distemper
  • Feline panleukopenia
  • Also susceptible to diseases carried by parasites such as ticks, lice, and fleas

Humans & Otters

River otters were nearly wiped out in the early fur trade era on the North American continent. In recent years, habitat destruction and fragmentation, with dams, roads, and expanding housing developments, as well as water pollution have impacted River Otter populations.

When humans create monocultures such as fish hatcheries and ponds, River Otters are only too happy to take advantage of them. So-much-so that they become pests. Sadly, nuisance otters pay the price for their ‘misbehavior’ with relocation and death.

An unexpected but encouraging result of the US EPA Clean Water Act (1972) shows evidence of River Otters repopulating fresh waterways on their own. Visit the River Ecology Project Map to watch an ever-growing list of otter sightings throughout California (Zoom in on Nevada County). Or visit the project on iNaturalist.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Sierra Newt – Powerful Water Drive

click image to purchase or view more Life on the Creek art
click image to download a FREE coloring sheet

A Conclusion

For the writer and editor, this post signifies a conclusion to the multi-year watershed study project. River otters, like Western Bluebirds represent hope. Hope that, collectively, humanity learns to reprioritize its values. No longer can we thoughtlessly sprawl and use up resources. Space for nature and wild animals as well as keeping a clean house (air and water quality) are needed to maintain balance in every ecosystem….and they are all connected.

If anything, 2020 has held before us a harsh microbial mirror that we must spend time examing. The halt in business-as-usual created an opportunity for a significant pivot. I hope we can. And I hope we do!

While I plan to write a few more FDC articles here-and-there, my focus has turned to complete the editing process on a 30-minute Deer Creek centered film – Aerial Views and History of the Deer Creek Watershed.

Thank you for joining along on the Deer Creek journey! I hope you take away information to love and share about your watershed.

Lisa Redfern


Bay Nature Magazine – After Decades Away, River Otters Make a Triumphant Return to the Bay Area (2016)
Bay Nature Magazine – What Do River Otters Do When the River Runs Dry in a Drought?
International Otter Survival Fund – How to build an Otter Holt
National Wildlife Federation – Conservation: An Otterly Amazing Comeback (2011)
North American Nature – How Do Otters Communicate?
Otter Spotter Sigthings Map 2013-2016 – What otter droppings can tell us
River Otter Ecology Project
Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute – North American river otter
UC Santa Cruz – River Otters are Back (2016)
UC Santa Cruz – Science Notes PODCASTRiver Otters return to San Francisco Bay Area 
United States Environmental Protection Agency – Clean Water Act (1972)
USFWS – You Otter Know: The Difference Between River and Sea Otters
Wikipedia – North American River Otter

Rescue Otter Oregon Zoo

River Otters in Yellowstone with Coyote Predators (warning: animal violence)

Happy Cavity Nesting Families – Western Bluebird

Bird of Good Cheer and a Hopeful Spring

Throughout history, and within many cultures, bluebirds symbolize happiness, protection, and hope. People may have first taken notice of the birds because of their unusual coloring, or for their behavior; swooping through meadows and open spaces, cheerful song, or large family units raising young each spring.

When the bluebirds start building nests this spring (2021), it will signal a time when COVID quarantines and isolation may begin lifting. For those with creative inclinations, this cheer inspiring avian may, once again, be used to celebrate hope and authentic community freedom in song, writing, painting, filling in blocks of color on a coloring sheet, or building and distributing nest boxes.

Photo Credit: Julio Mulero

Secondary Housing Shortage

Bluebirds lack beak and skull adaptations to bore their own nesting cavities; therefore, they rely on second-hand holes of a certain circumference.

Like many animals highlighted on Following Deer Creek, human-caused environmental alterations – tree management practices and invasive species – have reduced their numbers.

Providing Bluebird nesting boxes (see Bluebird Nest Box Construction below) and replacing exotic plants with California native plants are two ways that individuals can contribute toward repairing California’s diverse natural ecosystems.

“Bluebird conservation is a shining example of a totally grassroots effort that has been tremendously successful. It illustrates the power of individuals and groups to make a difference.” – Elizabeth Zimmerman Smith 2020, Woodstock, CT at


Nevada County Western Bluebirds are year-round residents.

During spring and summer, bluebirds mostly feed on insects. Their hunting grounds are open grasslands where they perch on branches or fence posts to watch for bugs. When they spot prey, they’ll swoop in for the catch. In addition to insect hunting spaces, bluebirds also need reliable sources of fresh water.

Photo Credit: Becky Matsubara

In the winter, they feed on berries.


Females and juveniles have muted feather colors compared to mature males. Both males and females have straight beaks and rusty-colored chest feathers. Mature males have bright blue heads, wings, and tails.


Female left, male right | Photo Credit: Becky Matsubara

Social Behavior


Life Span

3-5 years

Life cycle

Reproduction & Family Chick Raising

Spring begins with nest building. Bluebirds choose existing cavities in which to nest.

Feb/March/April – males and females pair bond.

Females lay one egg a day for a clutch between 4 – 6 days.

After a fourteen-day incubation, with the male bringing her food and standing guard, all eggs hatch on the same day.

After hatching, both parents feed chicks for approximately two weeks.

Photo Credit: Shirley Binn

Once the young have fledged and begin traveling from the nest box to hearby branches, the female leaves to begin building a second nest while the male finishes caring for the first brood.

Bluebirds remain in family groups. First brood siblings may help raise the second brood. Inexperienced parents with failed nests may participate in helping raise their parents’ subsequent hatchlings.


Spring / Summer

  • grasshoppers
  • caterpillars
  • beetles
  • ants
  • butterflies

Fall / Winter

  • small fruit & berries
  • mistletoe
  • juniper berries
  • elderberry



domestic & wild cats




Nesting Box Chick Predators

  • bees
  • ants
  • earwigs
  • wasps

Undernourished chicks are also susceptible to parasitic infections.

Cavity Competitors

House Sparrows and Starlings are aggressive cavity-nesting competitors that were imported into New York between 1853 and 1890. The first to deal with inchworms and the second to introduce Shakespeare’s play birds into Central Park.

Other Birds that Compete for Cavity Nest Sites

  • Nuthatch
  • Chickadee
  • Swallow
  • House Wren


Detrimental Human Effects on Bluebird Populations

  • Introduction of competitive invasive species – House Sparrow & Starling
  • Tree & Forest Management practices
  • Herbicide & pesticide use
  • Wood fence post replacement with angle iron posts
  • Development of open spaces

The Bluebird Man – One Idaho Man’s Retiremet Conservation Legacy

Bluebird Restoration Project – Near Victoria, British Columbia

Bluebird Nesting Box Construction

click image to purchase
or view more Life on the Creek Art


click image to download FREE coloring sheet

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Audubon – How to Build a Bluebird Nest Box
Audubon – Western Bluebird
BBC – The birds of Shakspeare cause US trouble
Bear Yuba Land Trust – Bird Banding with Allison Nelson
California Bluebird Recovery Program
Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Educators Guide to Next Boxes
Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Nest Watch – national nest monitoring program
Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Western Bluebird
Ebird – Western Bluebird Identification & Call recording
Ebird – Western Bluebird Range Map
The Hatching Cat – 1853: The English House Sparrows Who Took Up House and Hotel in Manhattan
iNaturalist – About Western Bluebird
iNaturalist – Nevada County Western Bluebird Observations
North American Bluebird Society
North American Bluebird Society – Getting Started with Bluebirds PDF
San Diego Tribune – Bluebirds of Happiness keep local resident enchanted – Bluebird Nest Box Style Pros & Cons
Wild Birds Unlimited (Grass Valley, CA)
Wikipedia – Bluebird of Happiness
Wikipedia – Western Bluebird

More Bluebird Videos:

Male Song

Eastern Bluebird – Brain Study – Male/Female Song Area

Making of Bluebirdman

Bluebirds in Popular Culture:

From Red Dead Redemption 2 to the Wizard of Oz, Sesame Street’s Big Bird, Niel Young, and Native American folklore the bluebird makes consistent appearances in American popular culture. It has also shown up in  as well as in ancient Chinese, Japanese, Native American and European folklore, the bluebird has symbolized hope, happiness, protection and change.
The symbol of a bluebird as the harbinger of happiness is found in many cultures and may date back thousands of years.


Hummingbird – High-Speed Nectar Sipper

The hummingbird is one of the world’s smallest, oldest, and most adapted living bird species. Part of the Trochilidae family, hummingbirds are in the Apodiforme subfamily, which means ‘unfooted’. Because their wings move them around so well, they don’t need feet for much more than perching.

Between North and South America, over 800 plant species have evolved to rely on hummingbirds for reproduction! Basically, most trumpet flowers are shaped to fit hummingbird beaks.


European hummingbird fossils have been found that are between 40-50 million years old.

Species You’ll See in  Nevada County

Calliope, Black-Chinned, Rufous, Anna’s

Anna’s hummingbirds can be full-time Nevada County residents.


Hummingbirds currently live in both North and South America, but many of them are mobile, spending spring in the north and winter where it’s warmer, between Alaska and Mexico.

Distinctive Characteristics

  • Smallest living vertebrate
  • Fastest wing beats of any bird
  • Fastest metabolism of almost all animals some species hearts beat 1,000/minute
  • Needs to eat frequently during daylight hours

Special Adaptations

  • Small feet used for perching not walking
  • Long hover times (compared to other birds)
  • 49 mph in flight diving speeds
  • Consumes more than its body weight of nectar each day
  • Frequent urinator – Urinates more than its body weight every day (to keep water weight down)
  • Excellent visual memory – enlarged hippocampus to remember visited flowers
  • Specialized nectar sipping tongues – channels along both sides open and close, acting like an ultra-efficient sponge
  • Sleep time is torpor time  – 105 degree body temperature drops to around 50 degrees, heartbeat slows to 36 beats/minute (it beats over 1,000 beats per minute when active)
  • Torpor can also be entered if food becomes scarce
  • Bright feather coloring is the result of pigmentation and prism-like cells in a layer on top of the color
Click here to order this image.


  • Nectar – in the wild, hummingbirds visit flowers for food, extracting nectar, which is 55% sucrose, 24% glucose, and 21% fructose 
  • Insects
  • Aphids
  • Gnats
  • Fruit Flies
  • Mosquitoes
  • Spiders


With such a high-speed metabolism, these tiny birds generate a lot of heat! Instead of sweating, hummingbirds evaporate moisture a and heat on featherless body structures such as around their eyes, feet, and under the wings. Their exhales also expel heat and moisture. 

Hummingbirds are territorial. They’ll defend flower patches and feeders aggressively. Some studies show aggressive behavior increasing with an increased sugar content of feeder water.


Beyond vocalizations, and their unusual ability to remember songs,  hummingbirds also make vibration sounds with their feathers. Some males, such as the Anna’s,  make whistle /chirping noises with outermost tail feathers during courtship displays.

The Male Tail Trill;

  • Announces the sex and presence of a male bird
  • Provides audible aggressive defense of a feeding territory
  • Is an intrusion tactic
  • Enhances threat communication
  • Helps with mate attraction and courtship


The Rufous hummingbird is the most common species you’ll see in Nevada County. Of all the varieties, it makes the longest migration – 3,900 miles – between Mexico and Alaska. Because it spends time in harsher weather conditions, it can survive below-freezing temperatures.

Click on image to visit live migration map (during migrations)

Life Span

While chicks have very high mortality rates, the birds that reach adulthood live between 3-5 years. However, some banded birds were observed living for up to twelve years.


For males, reproduction is about flashy color displays and elaborate dances.

Females are nest builders and egg sitters. A mother will lay two eggs at a time, incubating them between two weeks to 23 days.

In order to sit long enough to keep eggs warm, females go into torpor. Once hatched, newborns hide, hunkering down deep in the nest only reaching out when they feel the breeze from their mother’s wings.

Fledglings remain in the nest for just over two weeks.

Mother’s feed young a nutrient-dense mash of insects, pollen, and nectar.


How Human Activity Affects Hummingbirds

  • Pesticides in the garden and on crops poison the birds directly or indirectly through the food supply
  • Habitat loss – reduces the native plant food supply
  • Feeders reduce plant pollination activities
  • Feeders near windows increase bird into glass collisions
  • Some sweeteners contain iron or bacteria that adversely affect hummingbird health

 Sweeteners NOT to Use in Feeders

  • Brown sugar
  • Agave
  • Molasses
  • Stevia 
  • Splenda
  • Equal
  • Any diabetic sweetener
  • Raw sugar
  • Honey
  • Any packaged hummingbird mix that contains red die, artificial flavors, dietary supplements, or vitamins (native flowers provide everything they need!)

If You Do Feed Wild Hummingbirds

Use this mixture – 1 cup of white sugar to 4 cups water

Hummingbird with pollen on beak. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons Kpts44

Rewild Your Garden

The BEST way to attract and support hummingbirds is with native plants.

“Flowers should be chosen for their ability to produce nectar, to grow well in your particular region, and to be in bloom when the hummingbirds need them.”  – Redbud Chapter California Native Plant Society

Click here for a Redbud Chapter CNPS hummingbird attracting plant list PDF

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Creek Art

If you live outside Nevada County California, click here for a list of North American Native Plant Societies.

If you liked this post, you may also like Lichen: Exploring Microecosystems in Your Backyard

Click image to download a FREE coloring sheet

Resource Videos:


BBC News – Oldest Hummingbird Fossils Found (Germany) 

Hummingbird Central – Migration maps

iNaturalist – Hummingbirds

Independent – Found in France, A 30 million-year-old hummingbird fossil

Nature – Behind the Scenes of Hummingbirds

Popular Mechanics – Hummingbirds Can See Colors We Humans Can’t

Redbud Chapter California Native Plant Society – Native Plants for Landscaping (Pollinators)

Science Alert – Hummingbirds Can See Colors We Can’t Even Imagine, Experiment Reveals

Scientific American – Fossils Reveal Hummingbirds Once Flew Farther Afield

Wikipedia – Hummingbirds
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