Turkey Vultures in the Estuary

I gave my son photos of estuarine scenes that I printed and framed for him as a Christmas gift.

He liked them.

TV Left Bank 12:27:15

Later, when I showed him other estuarine photos on my computer, he told me that he particularly likes the photos of turkey vultures—most of which have never appeared here.

He told me he’d like me to take more pictures of turkey vultures and print them for him. So, on today’s paddle I had my eye out for turkey vultures. I hoped to get a good photo or two.

Waves in the Mouth

It was quite cold and a little bit windy on the coast today. Because of this I was the sole paddler at Jenner, at least while I was there. Being the only human on the water enhances the chances of getting a good photograph. I donned my warmest paddling clothing and went out.

To begin, I paddled out to the Russian River’s mouth to pay my respects to its power. Recently, on December 23, a paddler lost his life here. He’d been swept out into rough ocean waves in a current strengthened by run off from recent rains and a strongly ebbing tide. Though he was wearing a life jacket, he did not survive his plunge into the cold water.

Rivermouth Open 12:27:15

As I looked out of mouth and into the ocean beyond, ocean waves were surging into the river. The waves, though smaller than the waves on December 23, were still large enough send furrows of water into the river, gently rocking my kayak. Aware that here on the coast of Northern California, sneaker waves are often seen, I found this rocking of my boat discomforting. I kept a wary eye on the waves.

Harbor seals and sea lions swam in these waters. When the mouth is open fish make the journey from river to ocean or ocean to river; sea lions and seals dine on them. Knowing that they can be territorial on their feeding grounds, I kept near the shore and out of their way.

After a half hour or so, it was time to move upstream to Penny Island. Last time I was here I saw several turkey vultures gather on the island. Sure enough, there was a pair vultures at the western end of the island. I paddled to the south side of the island and beached my kayak, intending to approach them on foot from the south with the sun behind me. Unfortunately, the pair of vultures did not like my approach and they flew off.

TV OverheadI decided to persist. I pulled my kayak into tall grass several feet above the flooding tide and walked slowly toward the place where the vultures had roosted. I settled in at distance and waited. In twenty minutes or so, they flew back, soaring over me and then wheeling around to land near to the northern shore of the island. They alighted on a snag and were joined by two others.

4 TV's 12:27:15

Vultures lack vocal chords.

A closer look revealed the heads of several other vultures in tall grass below the snag. Making my way gradually across the island, one step at a time, I got closer. I saw more than a dozen vultures standing in the tall grass close to one another, all looking toward one individual whose head bobbed up and down.

I moved in as slowly as I could until I was too close. In groups of two and three all but the head-bobber flew off.

TV's Seal of Approval 12:27:15

This diner stood upon the carcass of a furry mammal he was dismembering. His meal was about the size of a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, enough, perhaps, to feed the other vultures who had been waiting their turn at the table until my approach had scared them away.

Head-bobber was intent on its meal and allowed me to approach quite near.

TV Lookin' At Me 12:27:15

I was able to get within a few feet before it flew away. It was eating a young harbor seal.


The vulture had been eating neck tissues at the base of the skull. Perhaps it was hoping to eat the brain? Remarkable how much like a dog’s teeth the harbor seal’s are.

With a good collection of photos in my camera, I realized that I was hungry. It was almost noon. I made my way back to my boat, got in, and paddled to the east end of the island where a large stand of eucalyptus trees form a windbreak from the strengthening cold northwesterly breeze. There, I pulled my kayak onto the shore and retrieved my lunch from the aft hatch. I got out my stool and sat, warming my bones in the sun.Estuarian at Lunch

The thermos of hot tea was just the thing to wash down the sandwich I had packed.

As often happens on coastal lunches, a seagull came by not so much to keep me company, as to beg  for a taste of my croissant sandwich.

Lunch Gull 12:27:15

He was a good-looking gull. I did not disappoint him.

Bon appétit, Monsieur Mouette.



Estero Americano December 23, 2015

Recent rains in the Valley Ford region have produced enough run off in the Estero Americano watershed to greatly improve the paddling experience in the Estero. Thanks to the rains, instead of starting out paddling in a bottom of a trench for the first mile or so, the paddler sits high enough to look out on the pastures and enjoy views of the birds, cows, and ranch buildings outside Valley Ford.

View from Boat in EA Channel 12:23:15

Launching is easier, too. Instead of clambering down a steep bank, you can launch your kayak on a level grassy patch under the bridge. Easy.

Easy Launch EA 12:23:15

If more rain falls water in the Estero will rise. The sand bar at the mouth is about four feet above the water level in the Estero.

Sand Dam 12:23:15

The high King Tides we get this time of year combined with large waves are washing over the bar and adding saltwater (and a little bull kelp) into the Estero. You can see how waves washed over the bar on the high tide earlier this morning.

The Only Boat on EA Today

Today I was the only paddler out there. That’s not to say I was alone—many avian friends were out there, too, enjoying the sunshine on a bright day between weather fronts headed for Northern California.

Here are a few of the birds I saw:

Snowy Egret 12:23

Snowy Egret


There were several Great Blue Herons out on the estuary today. They kept their distance. The only GBH willing to pose long enough for a decent photo was this one. He must have thought his camouflage would protect him. From a distance, he was hard to see. Can you see him in this photo?

GBH in Camo

Here he is, zoomed in. He stood absolutely still in this pose as I passed by.

GBH Zoomed In

I think he thought I didn’t see him.

The Bufflehead Ducks were really hard to photograph. Every time I got anywhere near, off they flew. I managed to get only one good photo of one winging away. This one happened to fly near enough to snap his photo.

Bufflehead Taking Off

Male Bufflehead Duck making his exit

There were more than a dozen Cormorants, two or three Brown Pelicans, Western Grebes, and Eared Grebes.

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe

This pelican dove for a fish quite near me, but didn’t stay on the water long enough for me to get a very good picture.

Pelican 12:23:15

Brown Pelican having Lunch

It’s always satisfying to get a photo “first” even if it’s not that great of a picture. I got this picture of a Surf Scoter near the closed mouth of the Estero. He was on his way back to the surf.

Surf Scoter Taking Off

Surf Scoter Heading Back to the Surf

EA Beach, looking south toward Tomales Point

EA Beach, looking south toward Tomales Point

It took about two hours to make it out to the mouth, about a half hour longer than usual because of all the birds to photograph and because there was more headwind than the forecast had called for. I enjoyed a thermos of hot tea and a “Goat Rock” sandwich from the local Whole Foods out at the beach. There was a cool 15 mph northwesterly breeze, so the hot tea felt like a luxurious treat.

Several gulls took an interest in me when I pulled the sandwich out of the lunchbox.

Gulls at Lunch 12:23:15

Gulls At Lunch


Cormy Sunning 12:23:15

Sunning Cormorant

It was a good day’s paddle. Here’s a map of my day. Click on the words “Estero Americano” to see the whole map.






Bald Eagles & Other Birds of the Estuary

Bald Eagles two

Forecasts are calling for Northern California to get some much-needed and very welcome wet weather in the days ahead. Knowing this, yesterday I got out on the Russian River for a full and rewarding day of paddling. There was a lot of wildlife out enjoying the sunny and mild weather with me.

After launching in Jenner I paddled across the river to the shore of Penny Island. A Great Blue Heron was wading and fishing along its shore.

Heron 12:16

Herons don’t mind photographers who approach them very slowly and quietly. This bird walked down the shoreline to keep a comfortable distance away from me.

Heron Walking 12:16


Both the heron and I passed a group of eight or so vultures resting along the shore of the island. My guess is that there was something dead nearby that they were cleaning up, but I didn’t get out to investigate.

Vulture 12:16

Regular readers of this blog know that it’s been my hope to photograph a bald eagle down at the mouth of the River. This day was no exception, though I’ve learned better than to get my hopes too high. The eagles have visited the area several times when I’ve been elsewhere. On this morning I was the only person paddling on the river (Bob and Steve would arrive later) so I hoped that today might be the day.

It seemed that the mouth of the river would be a good place to start looking, so that’s where I headed. I proceeded carefully, avoiding the several Sea Lions who joined the resident harbor seals fishing at the open mouth of the river. Much warmer than usual waters off the California coastline have made the fish the sea lions eat harder for them to find. Having been bumped by harbor seals when I’ve gotten too close to their dining table, I was careful not to impose myself on the much larger sea lions.

Sea Lion 12:16

I made my way past the open mouth of the river (the tide was flooding) and down to Haystack Rock at the northern edge of the mouth. Sure enough, perched on the top of that rock, I saw this pair of Bald Eagles.

Eagle Pair 12:16

They mostly ignored me, but in this photo you can see they did keep an eye on me.

I stayed twenty minutes or so admiring these birds. They seemed content to perch there on the rock, so after taking fifty photos of them I headed upstream to see who else was enjoying the day. These Western Grebes were fishing the waters between Penny Island and Paddy’s Rock.

Western Grebe 12:16


I stopped for lunch and a thermos of hot tea on the sand/gravel bar in the lee of Paddy’s Rock.

Lunch Spot

A female kingfisher came by to give me another try at photographing this most elusive of birds.

Female Kingfisher 12:16

After lunch I paddled further upstream and encountered some Goldeneyes.

Goldeneye 12:16

It’s not hard to see how these birds got their name.

Merganser males change colors in breeding season. This is the best picture I’ve gotten of one of these guys.

Merganzer in Breeding Plumage?

Just before I went in I heard some voices on the water. Across the river, in the late afternoon shadows along the southern shore, I could just make out two other kayakers—Bob and Steve—who were out enjoying the fine weather. We rafted up in the middle of the river and talked awhile before I paddled back to the launch ramp area.

It was a great day out on the estuary yesterday.

Russian River’s Mouth Closed; Jenner Visitor Center Flooded

Bar from Highway

The surf Friday, December 11 was very high with waves as much as 20 feet reported. These high waves pushed more sand up on the beach that is blocking the mouth of the Russian River. Together with the runoff from recent rains resulted in flooding in Jenner.


Cormorant on Railing

The river was as high as most everyone could remember. The Visitor Center in Jenner was flooded.

Bob was out there with me and several others to see what the mouth area looked like from a boat. As you can see, the waves outside were impressive. The roar from the larger waves was loud enough that at times it sounded like fighter jets flying overhead.

Bob before the Waves

Waves washed over the bar into the river.

A Great Blue Heron stood along the south shore of Penny Island.

GBH even smaller

Bob and I hung out together for a good part of the day, taking pictures and talking. Bob’s out here almost every day.

Bob from in front

At the bottom of this post is a link to his account and photos of the day.


Flooded houses in Jenner

The river was high enough to flood houses along the shore at Jenner.

This female Kingfisher landed on someone deck and posed for a photo.

Female Kingfisher

Many of the haul outs seals usually use were underwater. This log was still available and these seals and a cormorant rested on it.

Seal on Log

Strange to paddle around the launch ramp and into the parking lot to land the kayak.

Back in Parking Lot

Bob’s Blog

Foggy Day on the River

Today the Russian River is about as high as it gets. With the rains coming in the day after tomorrow, I’m guessing that the sand bar will be breached soon.


It was foggy at Jenner this morning—fog was so thick that it was possible to paddle into the middle of the river and not see either shore.

In fog so thick the world seems bigger, the river wider. Across from Jenner, following the southern shore and paddling upstream I passed trees holding spider webs kissed by the drizzle.

Wet Web

Penny Island hid in the fog.

Penny Island in Fog

Penny Island as seen from mid channel. This is after the fog thinned by mid day.

A female kingfisher posed on a branch overlooking the northern shore.


For more information about kingfishers, here’s a good site:


It was very calm today.

Bob and Ray were there, too; their vehicles in the the parking lot.