Not even the racket made by hundreds of nesting birds this week on a short stretch of Santa Rosa’s West Ninth Street could drown out the excited exclamations of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School students.
Gazing through borrowed wildlife magnifying scopes trained on egret and black-crowned night-heron nests, some of the kids were just too delighted to hold their feelings inside.
“Oh! I see the baby,” said one petite fourth-grader, Jazmine Avalos, 9, her face beaming. “It has long legs. It has a big beak.”
Others remarked on the chicks’ fuzzy heads, or some of the birds’ orange-tinged feathers, or the way certain offspring, apparently hungry, grabbed the adults’ bills in their own.
One group of youngsters watched in amazement as 2-week-old night-heron chicks hopped around several branches, one suddenly jumping onto a nearby adult and harassing it for food, until it flew away.
More than 220 nests, each with two adults and many with chicks, have been counted this year.
“It’s cool,” said Itzel Rodriguez, 10, also in fourth grade. “It’s amazing to watch birds and how they build their nests and feed their chicks.”
They were among scores of students in kindergarten and grades two and four who visited the rookery Wednesday as part of the school’s seventh annual Bird Festival, in which all 360 or so Lincoln students participated.
The event, first held in 2009, was created to celebrate the nearby nursery, where three species of egret and related black-crowned night-herons hatch their young each year despite the surrounding urban landscape.
Beginning in late February, the birds arrive by the hundreds to nest primarily in two large eucalyptus trees growing in the center median strip of West Ninth Street, west of Simpson Lane, densely filling the trees with woven twig nests and spilling over into several nearby trees, as well. In addition to the black-crowned night-herons, distinguished by black and gray markings, the birds include elegant long-legged great egrets; snowy egrets, set apart by their smaller size and bright yellow feet; and thick-necked cattle egrets, which have yellow-orange plumage on their heads and other parts of their bodies.
Each nesting pair lays two to four eggs, typically around late March, said Scott Jennings, an avian ecologist with Audubon Canyon Ranch. The chicks usually hatch in April, taking five or six weeks before beginning to fledge. By about 9 weeks old they are ready to be on their own, he said. But the timing is not entirely consistent among species, and the colony’s residency lasts several months, making for a strange and glorious sight amid apartment complexes in the largely residential neighborhood west of downtown.
The trees are packed with nests and nattering birds, whose squawking, chirping, warbling and clucking are a riot of sound. There’s also the acrid odor of bird droppings, though only a few kids seemed to mind.
Though many, maybe most, of the nests already have hungry chicks inside, graceful adult birds still fly to and fro carrying building materials, perhaps late to the game because they’re still learning the craft, Jennings said.
Orange construction fencing circles each of the trees to keep people back. A blanket of straw laid beneath — courtesy of the Madrone Audubon Society — offers hope of survival to several hundred chicks rescued each year after falling or being pushed by stronger siblings from the nests, a natural brood reduction process, according to Emiko Condeso, an ecologist with Audubon Canyon Ranch.