Turkey Vultures: Don’t Get Too Close

It’s not a good idea to get too close to a turkey vulture in an attempt to get a close-up photo.

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Turkey Vulture on Penny Island

Turkey vultures are good at vomiting. They can project their vomit as far as 3 meters (almost 10 feet) to keep intruders at bay. And their vomit is particularly strong—smelly and highly acidic. Worse, turkey vulture vomit can contain bacteria that can be harmful, even deadly if ingested, to other birds and mammals.

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Almost within range….

In addition to smelling bad and being potentially poisonous, vulture vomit can be corrosive enough to burn skin.

Because of this defensive adaptation, vultures are quite tolerant of people getting near to them. When they’ve got food in their stomachs to vomit, they’ll often let a person walk (or paddle) close. (I’ve gotten pretty close myself slowly, definitely closer than 3 meters.) But it is not a good idea.

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You’re safer seeing them from a distance.

Estero Americano, Jenner, Monte Rio

Recent rainy weather has produced enough runoff to dramatically alter local estuarine paddling venues.

Estero Americano

Estero Americano is as full as it can get. Below is a photo looking back towards Valley Ford from the bridge immediately above the usual launch area.EA Bridge Looking back to VF

Marsh Road is under water. The moisture on the roadway indicates that some high clearance vehicles have been driving through the waters.

Marsh Road, Flooded

Here is a view looking down the driveway to the canoe/kayak put in. It’s underwater, too.

EA Launch Ramp

Soils are saturated right now. The next rains will almost certainly produce enough runoff to raise the Estero’s waters enough to breach the sand dam out at the coast. If the breach doesn’t occur naturally, then Caltrans will need to breach it to keep the Estero from flooding the Coast Highway south of Valley Ford.

More rain is forecast to make landfall tonight. By this time tomorrow things are likely to look quite different here.

The Russian River at Jenner

The Russian River is also swollen with runoff. At the Jenner boat launch, the river was going by at about 4 miles per hour. The overlook above Jenner was crowded with people witnessing the unusually large amount of water sliding into the Pacific.

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The mouth of the Russian River attracted a number of gulls, pelicans, and harbor seals. Some seals swam in the water, presumably dining on steelhead coming through to spawn. Many other seals lay resting on the sand bank near the mouth. The seals formed two groups. Here’s a closer view of the group on the north bank just below the overlook.

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Another group of about the same number of seals rested along the southern shore of the river.

The Russian River at Monte Rio

Upstream, in Monte Rio, the boat launching area was hidden under the flood waters.

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Usually this set of stairs ends on a driveway above a ramp that descends to the river’s shore.

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A male merganser duck swam by the stairway, posing for the camera.

How the Moon Really Causes Tides

Estuaries are strongly influenced by tidal forces. As an Estuarian who spends as much time as possible in landscapes shaped by tides, I pay attention to tides, think about them, and want to learn more.

The standard explanation for why tides occur, the one given in science textbooks and the like, always seemed wrong. As a kid I couldn’t figure out why high tides occur on two the sides of the earth: the side facing the moon and on the side opposite the moon. Later, I understood the standard explanation for this. But I still questioned how the moon’s gravity could possibly produce such powerful tidal forces on earth.

How could the moon’s gravity—something so tiny that I cannot feel its pull on my body—move so much water into and out of, say, Tomales Bay twice daily? Why didn’t tides occur on large lakes?

Turns out that the common explanation of how tides work is wrong.

This video provides a much more satisfying explanation.


Petaluma Marsh Wildlife Area

A dozen Petaluma paddlers in eleven boats left from the Lakeville Marina this morning to paddle through the sloughs that wend their way to the Cabins in the Petaluma Marsh Wildlife Area.

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Bill, Brigitte, Dan, Diana, Don, Geoff, Holly, Joe, Kris, Mike, Ray, and Sue (in alpha order) paddled together today.

Our group left the docks a little before 9:30 AM, about three and a half hours before the 1:00 7.2′ high tide predicted for the day. As we got going, Ray predicted, correctly, that we’d have plenty of water under our boats to navigate the sloughs. After about an hour’s paddling we arrived at the cabins.

These cabins have a storied past. Their most glorious days are behind them now. Many of yesteryear’s cabins have fallen into mouldering disrepair. Only a handful remain.

We were observant of the “NO TRESPASSING” signs prominently posted all over the Marshmellow cabin (yes, that’s how it’s spelled on the sign), the one kept in best repair. We paddled to a berm west of the cabins and beached our boats. A cold breeze made us all don our warmest clothes.

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A short walk along the berm took us to the SMART train track right of way.

SMART train rails, looking south

SMART train right of way, looking south

Rails Up Close

Close up of modern rails. Note the cement railroad ties and plastic clips that fasten the rails to the ties.

Standing on the railroad tracks we enjoyed views further west to a marshland dairy and wetlands with flock of birds: widgeons, mute swans, coots, buffleheads and golden eyes. The swans were farther away than they look in this photo.

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The dairy would be a good place to be a cow, I think, with excellent views of the Petaluma Marsh.

Dairy on the Marsh

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After enjoying the views, we found a spot in the lee of the berm to get out of the chilly wind and spread out our picnic cloth. As always, lunch was an enjoyable potluck with plenty of good food and conviviality.

From our lunch spot looking west the sky was filled with dark gray clouds.

Looking east, by contrast, the sky was blue with fluffy white clouds. If you look closely at this view of Marshmellow cabin you can see evidence of  Northbay kayakers meet up group who were out on the Petaluma Marsh today as well. There were six Northbay kayakers. I think they had lunch at the cabins.

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We took a different route to get back to Lakeville Marina, passing Neil’s Island’s southern shore. Picturesque trees grow on it.

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Regrouping at Neil’s Island

A tree on Neil’s Island.

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Note the hawk perched on the highest branch.

We got back to Lakeville Marina after about paddling for about an hour. The one-lane bridge we passed beneath on our way out this morning was now so close to our heads that we had to duck.

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Another fine day’s paddling with the Petaluma Paddling group.

Otters, Egrets, and Grebes in the Estuary on January 7, 2016

After several rainy days, morning broke today with a sunny blue sky, an invitation to go out to the mouth of the Russian River. It would be my first time out there in 2016.

The weather radio carried warnings of big surf on the coast. I drove to the overlook north of Jenner to see the mouth. Sure enough, the river was emptying dramatically into the Pacific.

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The current ran swiftly out the mouth. After tracking several large pieces of driftwood wash into the tumultuous ocean, I had an idea of how close to the mouth I was willing to paddle—not close at all.

When I drove to the launch ramp, Bob was already there, and Ray arrived soon after. There was some talk about bald eagles across the river, visible through binoculars from the launch ramp.

Bob and Ray paddled off towards the mouth. I found the lure of the mouth was irresistible. What is it about danger that is so beckoning?

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Ray and Bob near the mouth

Approaching the mouth, the roar of the waves got louder and louder. The surface of the water was calm, no waves, but the pull of the current was palpable.

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Pacific’s waves were probably 10′ high.

I didn’t stay near the mouth long. Instead, I paddled upriver towards Penny Island, looking for the eagle. This hawk sat on a snag on the west end of the island.

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I think this is a Cooper’s Hawk, but I’m not too sure.

I never did see the eagles from the water, though Bob and Ray did see an eagle that alighted on a tree on Penny Island after I had already paddled by.

Disappointed, I paddled up river looking for other wildlife to photograph. There wasn’t much wildlife within range of my camera; the wildlife I saw was through binoculars.

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Up a Muddy River in the Noonday Sun

I spent the rest of the morning paddling upstream collecting the trash floating on the river swollen with runoff from recent rain. It was my way of consoling myself about seeing so little wildlife.

By one o’clock my boat was full and my stomach was empty. A pasture across from Paddy’s Rock beckoned. In my boat was a thermos of hot tea and a lunch packed at home. I had pretty much given up on getting any good photos of wildlife when I took this selfie at lunch. Little did I know then that I would get near some otters and birds.

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Selfie taken on the iPhone

A family of otters swam by my lunch spot. Unfortunately, my good camera was in the kayak so getting a photograph of them swimming right by me wasn’t going to happen. The otter family swam to Paddy’s rock for a short rest from their swim upstream. While they were on the rock I retrieved my camera and took some photos of them.

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Two of the tree otters

On the way back to the launch ramp I happened upon this snowy egret who was fishing along the shoreline where a small brook that was running from the pasture into the river.

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Snowy Egret This one got one small fish. It was also eating something smaller than little fish, insects I think, but I couldn’t see what exactly.

Snowy egrets are tolerant of people nearby. They’re smaller, less shy, and more common than the greater, aka common egret. Snowy egrets have distinctive yellow feet.

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This fellow let me get within about 20 feet.

Some birds are skittish around people, like these bufflehead ducks.

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Bufflehead duck. He took off seconds after I took this picture.

Getting a good picture of a bufflehead from a kayak is a real challenge. They stay well away from people, I would guess about as far as buckshot travels from a shotgun. Does anyone know, are they hunted?

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Western Grebes

Grebes are also pretty shy. When they decide I’m too close, they quickly dive underwater.

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The First Haul of 2016

Here’s some of the garbage I plucked out of the river today taken about halfway through the day at lunch.

I got more on my way back to the launch ramp.