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The Long-tailed Kingbird of Davenport

While Grasshopper and I were birding Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon, a rare flycatcher for the West Coast was found on a barbed wire fence just north of Cement Plant Road in Davenport. I wasn’t going to able to look for it until the following Friday, that is, if it hung around.

This is arguably one of the most beautiful flycatchers in North America. This is Tyrannus forticatus, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. The flycatcher looks like a kingbird (it is actually related to the western kingbird) with a forked tailed that is twice the length of it’s body. In the book 100 Bird to See Before You Die by David Chandler & Dominic Couzens, the authors rank the scissor- tailed on the list at number 79, ahead of vermillion flycatcher, magnificent frigatebird, angel tern, paradise tanager, tufted puffin, and greater flamingo (all birds I have seen in the wild.)

The adult scissor-tailed was not where it was supposed to be (something all birders love). The bird summers and breeds in the southern middle of the United States, in Texas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western Louisiana. But all this kingbird needs is an open pasture, some cows, lots of hunting perches( like a barbed wire fence), and a sky full of flying insects.

I got off work early because of a buy back day to pay us back for the extra hours of open house and I headed to the coast on Highway 92 and then south on Highway 1 toward Davenport.

Some birds are extremely hard to add to your life or county list such as rails, wayward warblers, and some thrashers but it is always nice to have a bird handed to you on a plate (a live bird of course!). This was the case with the “Long-tailed Kingbird of Davenport”. As I rolled up, five birders where already peering into the cow pasture along Cement Plant Road. The flycatcher was perched on barbed wire about 30 yards out. This was much closer than it had been seen by others over the past six days!

This is not only a beautiful flycatcher but it is also a pleasure to watch as it is in motion for most of the time, pursuing flying insects from it’s fence perch. It would also fly down to the grass to catch insects on the ground.

This was a wonderful and unexpected Santa Cruz County bird!

You don’t see this combo everyday: California quail and scissor-tailed flycatcher.
The anchor for my sketch was a field sketch of the cow pasture where I first spotted the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Full disclosure: while there were many more cows in the pasture, I only drew two. I try to follow a whole foods, plant-based diet after all! And don’t get me started about cow farts.

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End of the Line: Davenport

In these times of social isolation, I headed north out of Santa Cruz on Highway One. My destination was the small town of Davenport.

A branch line runs from the coast mainline at Watsonville Junction to Santa Cruz, north along the coast to the Davenport Cement Plant. The plant was built in 1907 by the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company. This cement plant became one of the largest producers of cement. At the height of it’s production, during World War II, the plant shipped out 700,000 barrel of cement a year. Cement from this plant helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire and also supplied cement for such major construction projects as Pearl Harbor and the Panama Canal.

The cement plant was later acquired in 2005 by Mexico’s CEMEX. The plant was closed for good, in 2010 and now the rails stand rusted, overgrown and the end of the line disappears into vegetation.

The Davenport railroad to nowhere sums up the plight of America’s railroads. At it’s height, in 1916, the United States Railroad network consisted of 254,000 miles of track, the largest rail network in the world. From 1916 to the present day, 160,000 miles of track have been closed down and abandoned. The current rail network stands at about 94,000 miles of trackage.

Railroad companies saw passenger service as a losing hand, as trains were competing with the automobile and the increasing use of passenger air travel. The railroads were in dire straights in the 1960’s and passenger service was saved by the creation of AMTRAK in 1971 (the year of my birth). This service is a government subsidized and controlled service which now serves an average of 30 million passengers annually.

Railroads companies still exist to this day but they earn their profits from freight and not passenger service. They keep America moving and most Americans are unaware both of their legacy in creating the United States and there present impact in moving goods around the county. As Christian Wolmar notes in his excellent book, The Great Railroad Revolution, “America needs to relearn the joys of railroads that have served them so well in the past and, indeed, continue to do so today, albeit invisibly.”

The American railroad stands at a crossroads as the plight of high speed rail in California seems like a far off dream.