Russian River Estuary, February 28, 2016

Although it was rather cold and gray out at the Sonoma County coast this morning, it was refreshing to slip the kayak back into the relatively clean, clear, and healthy waters of the Russian River Estuary at Jenner.

The mouth of the river is open. There is still enough downstream flow that during a flooding tide the river is flowing out, emptying into the Pacific. Later in the year, the river carries almost no runoff—just a trickle of waters released from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. In summer the river runs both ways when its mouth is open: upstream on flooding tides and downstream on ebbing tides.

Mouth & Gull

I was paddling solo today, solo with plenty of company from birds and marine mammals.

Gulls, cormorants, and harbor seals gathered near the mouth.  Everyone was trying to absorb what meager warmth the sun provided as it shone weakly through a layer of coastal overcast.

Lounging Seal

As I paddled along the shore straight across from the river’s mouth, a turkey vulture landed surprisingly close by. At first he or she seemed to be looking with great interest at me—or rather the bow of my kayak. The vulture’s interest in my kayak’s bow allowed me to get many close-range photos.

Vulture studying shore

After drifting to within about eight feet of this bird, I remembered that vultures are capable of spewing their vomit at whoever might dare to venture too close. I put the camera down and began to move away. I was started to see what actually had been capturing the vulture’s keen interest: a seal’s carcass hidden (in plain sight) among the driftwood.

Seal Carcass

Hoping that river otters might be active in the fishing hole near Paddy’s Rock, I made my way up the narrow channel along the south side of Penny Island and upstream along the left bank.

An osprey called from somewhere further upstream, hidden somewhere among the trees. I followed its call, paddling slowly and quietly to avoid spooking it. Something stirred in a tree high above me and there it was: the osprey watching me pass. In the moment it takes to get the camera out of its case—and before I could frame it in the viewfinder— the bird decided to fly.

Osprey Taking OffI set down the camera and picked up the binoculars and followed its flight some distance upstream where it landed in a cypress tree. Fifteen minutes later, we repeated our little dance, but this time I was able to get a picture of it perching overhead.

Osprey in Cypress

At lunch the wind began to blow. The layer of overcast thickened. It turned colder as the afternoon arrived, or it seemed to. I rummaged through the front hatch of the kayak, retrieved a windbreaker from a dry bag and donned it.

The birds seemed to take to their homes in the trees or rocks along the shore. The time to call it a day and return to the Jenner launch ramp had come. I paddled in.

Today’s map;


Estero Americano February 25, 2016

With the Cow Patty Pageant just around the corner, Jono and I decided to paddle Estero Americano at an unhurried pace today.

Jono at EA 2:25:16

Warm sun and almost no wind made for placid paddling. Just past halfway to the beach we passed the low cliffs along the southern shore, pausing to look at the ferns and trees growing on the north-face of the cliff.

Hanging Gardens EA 2:25:16

Right at the edge of the water at the foot of the cliff we found the body of a raptor that had died recently.

Dead Raptor 2:25:16

Trying to identify a dead bird is surprisingly difficult. Yes, it is easier to get close and take detailed pictures. But pictures are only part of the story. The way birds animate themselves is often what distinguishes them. It’s much harder to identify a bird without seeing its behavior, hearing its voice, watching it fly.

Talons 2:25:16

The Sibley Field Guide shows that most raptors have yellow feet and hooked bills that are yellow at the base and dark at the tip. This one had a white breast, and died in open marshland, perhaps a Northern Harrier?

Though we had hoped to see lots of birds and maybe a river otter or two, there was not a lot a wildlife activity in the Estero today. A few snowy egrets.

Snowy Egret EA 2:25:16

A solitary deer ranged along the south shore.

Deer 2:25:16

Up near the launching area a cow relaxed on the bank.


Large herds of dairy cows graze right up to the edge of the Estero. Because of them, the water smells.

Makes me wonder…. are the dairying operations (and nearby poultry farms) adjacent to the Estero polluting it to the point that wildlife avoids the area?

San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge

If you’ve ever driven California State Highway 37 between Novato and Vallejo, you’ve been by the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It is run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and they are making efforts to restore this area to a vibrant wetland it once was. They’ve put up interpretive signs at the entrance that provide a good introduction to the area.

It’s wonderful to imagine the abundant bird and animal life that once called this area home.

Interprative Sign SPBBWR 2:20:16

Click on this picture to read the display.

People say that the best way to get people to care about the natural world is to get the public outdoors where they can enjoy and learn about it. To that end, the USFWS have opened hiking trails in the region.

Better still, not too long ago, the Service installed facility for launching canoes and kayaks. It is approximately 3 miles west of the bridge that spans the Napa River. (You can enter the launch area only from the westbound lanes, so if you’re coming from Marin or Sonoma County, you have to drive beyond the facility, travel east all the way to Wilson Ave. exit, and then circle back.)

Jono invited me to explore this area, new to both of us.

We were the first visitors to arrive this morning.

Jono & Dan SPBNWR 2:20:16

9:00 AM in the parking lot

A great egret was working the shallows in the pond west of the parking lot.

Great Egret SPBNWR 2:20:16 Great Egret 2 SPBNWR 2:20:16The new launching facilities are well-designed—with paddlers in mind. The slips are just right for canoes and kayaks. The docks float just above the surface of the water.

Jono gets in 2:20:16

It is easy to get into and out of the boats, even for aging paddlers with bionic body parts and rickety joints.

Dock SPBNWR 2:20:16

Fog made it hard to approach birds with the camera. By the time birds came into view, our nearness spooked them, and they took off. This black-crowned night heron stayed long enough for one through-the-mist picture.

Black Crowned Night Heron 2:20:16

He took off the instant after the shutter closed.

Jono brought his canoe, a good choice for this paddle, as canoes are easier to get into and out of than kayaks.

Jono in Wenonah 2:20:16

The fog lifted by 10:30. Our quiet gray world turned blue.

The Slough 2:20:16

South Slough

With a little bit of searching we found a place to get out of our boats. A short walk across crackly marsh brush led us to a levee thickly covered with luxuriant ice plant. We sat ourselves down and each enjoyed a thermos of hot tea.

Calm waters and wide open spaces provided a good setting for conversation. We had hoped to see a lot more migratory bird life than we actually did, and just at the end of our trip a large murmuration of sandpipers put on quite a show. No pictures, sadly.

For more information about the refuge, visit San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Here’s a map of our visit that makes it appear that we were paddling our boat across dry land, which of course ain’t so.

Jenner with Jono

It is pleasant to contemplate a day of paddling on the river, especially when the weather is forecast to be warm and sunny. Such contemplations are sweetened further when plans include a paddling companion. This morning as I readied my kayak, the day’s plans promised all these pleasures in full measure.

Last Saturday, Jono Hale and I had visited the Laguna Foundation Headquarters in Sebastopol, California to attend a lecture/slideshow presentation about River Otters by Megan Isadore, Executive Director of the River Otter Ecology Project.

Jono and I decided to go out to the Russian River in hopes of spotting and otter.

We got an early start today, a good thing as the Jenner launch ramp was very busy on this President’s holiday weekend.

Jono at Jenner 2:15

Jono paddling towards the mouth

Jono, for those who don’t know, is a paddler’s paddler. He has paddled his way into the record books. Among his many achievements is one of the first (the first?) kayak trip out to the Farallon Islands which lie about 30 treacherous miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Jono accomplished this the honest way—without chase boats.

He’s also a fine paddling companion, full of stories ranging across a wide assortment topics.

We got down to the mouth in a few minutes. A group of mergansers had collected near the mouth which was crowded with harbor seals and cormorants.

Merganser at the Mouth 2:15

Merganser near the mouth of the river

Near the mouth, we passed a cypress tree that held a great blue heron. Somehow, herons seem too big to perch and nest in trees. But they don’t think so, apparently.

Heron in Cypress Tree 2:15

Heron in cypress

An osprey perched at the top of another tall cypress tree nearby. Osprey have recently returned to the Russian River Estuary. Their whistling call was like music announcing the arrival of spring. This individual took a good long look back at the camera.

Osprey in Cypress

Ospreys have binocular vision, as this photo shows. Their vision must be much better than anything we humans can see, even with the help of our best Zeiss units.

We paused briefly before heading up the south channel on the back side of Penny Island in hope of seeing an otter.

Jono to Penny 2:15

Jono heading for Penny Island

The otters were not in any of their usual haunts along the south bank of the river so we continued up under the Highway One bridge towards Willow Creek. No otters were around, but we had plenty of company from the harbor seals and even some sea lions, who, I think, were looking for a midmorning steelhead brunch.

Sea Lions near Willow Creek 2:15

Sea lions swimming near Willow Creek

As we approached the shoreline of Willow Creek Environmental camp, a great blue heron posed at the edge of the water, almost in silhouette.

Heron on Shore 2:15

There’s something dignified, almost regal in that posture.

We paddled almost to the end of Freezeout Road and were starting to get hungry. I was disappointed to have come almost four miles upriver without seeeing an otter.

Then Jono said, “Dan look! An otter is swimming right at you.”

Sure enough, a single river otter swam close by my kayak and climbed out of the water. It spent a few minutes grooming itself, much as a cat would do, preening its fur with its tongue. The auto focus on the camera was acting up. Out of scores of photos, here’s the best.

Otter on River Bank 2:15

The otter finished gussying himself up and got back in the water, heading upriver. Jono and I followed the otter for a little while before deciding it was time for us to have a break. We pulled our boats up on a rocky shore and enjoyed a lunch made even more pleasant by warm sun and conversation.

Bob, Jono, Dan 2:15

Bob and Jono, each legendary in their own right

On the way back we encountered Russian River’s resident wildlife expert Bob Noble, who paddles in this estuary more than just about anyone else. I was pleased to introduce these two fellow estuarians to each other. We enjoyed a brief conversation. Bob told us to be watching for more cormorants, now that the hatchery has released smolts into the river. Sure enough, we saw plenty of cormorants. One of the groups assembled on the gravel bar in the lee of Paddy’s Rock:

Cormorants 2:15

Hatchery fish make for an easy meal because they were raised in the relative safety of a hatchery and aren’t as wary as they need to be to escape predation by the cormorants.

Jono and I got back to the launch area which was jammed with visitors and cars. We got our boat on our cars and went out for some tea and coffee at Cafe Aquatica. We talked mostly about sailing, a shared interest.

It was a fine day on the estuary.

Laguna Foundation

River Otter Ecology Project


Harbor Seal Voices

At 11:00 this morning the wind was up from the east. Ray and his daughter Anna got to the launch ramp a couple of minutes after I did, but slow is me—they launched ahead and headed down to the mouth of the river. Anna is a mountain climber, so I reckon kayaking is a pretty tame activity for her.

Ray and Anna 2:9:16

Ray and Anna

It was high tide and the waves outside the mouth looked pretty intimidating.

Waves at the Mouth

A strong offshore wind was blowing off the tops of the waves.

We were at the mouth for only for a few minutes before heading upwind and upstream. Along the shore of the cow pasture above Jenner, a snowy egret was actively catching small animals (probably small fish) in the water.

Snowy Egret 2:9:16

The yellow feet are underwater here. This one intermittently ran along the shore, wings out, in pursuit of lunch.

Upriver from the bridge I heard a distant and strange growling noise, something I’d never heard before. I had no idea what it was, but the sound was clearly coming from from upriver. Looking through binoculars I could see that the “logs” about 1/4 mile upriver were actually seals hauled out on a shoal. I paddled towards them until I was as near as I could get without disturbing them, about 150′ away. Using the zoom lens to the max. I started taking pictures.

drooling seal 2:9:16

Both animals vocalized. The one on the right of this picture (with the drool) was doing most of the talking.

The spotted one had quite a lot of drool running out of its mouth. Was it sick? Does anyone know if harbor seals make more noise when they’re sick?

Drool Closeup 2:9:16

Unlike their sea lion cousins, harbor seals don’t use their voices often. But harbor seals do have vocal chords and they can use them. Here’s what their growling sounded like today.

The growling was louder than you might imagine from watching this video. The camera’s microphone really isn’t optimized for long-distance sound recording like this.

Farther upstream by the Willow Creek Campground the wind that had been blowing so hard at the mouth an hour before turned off and the river went calm

Up by Willow Creek Camp 2:9:16

There is a gravel bar on the right bank of the river across from Willow Creek that makes a good place to get out for lunch, thus avoiding muddy boots mucking up the inside of the kayak on the way home.

Time for Lunch 2:9:16


On the way home the same family of otters that have been hanging out in the river near Paddy’s Rock were at it again, playing and fishing and looking like they were having fun. There were three in this group today. I watched them for a little while, but—alas!—they spooked as I began fumbling with my camera and they turned tail and climbed up into the wooded river bank.

Otter Tail 2:9:16

See ya later, estuarian!

The otter’s tail ends today’s estuarian tale.

A map of this paddle: