Canoeing the Estero

My wife and I enjoyed a day out on the Estero Americano today. We paddled canoeful of beach gear and food out to the beach. We enjoyed a tasty lunch and a nice long conversation on a beautiful warm spring day.

We had the beach all to ourselves all day. It was just the two of us. Sorry, no photos.

We saw lots of wonderful wildlife. The highlight was visiting (again!) the pair of the nesting owls at the hanging gardens.

Several Estuarian readers have asked about paddling on the Estero Americano. Here is a map of our outing. It’ll give you enough information to figure out how to take your own trip. Just click on the bolded words EA Paddle with da Mayor in the title of the map below, and you’ll see a map with a lot more detail.

It’s about 11 miles paddling all together and you’ll want to get an early start so as to avoid paddling against the westerlies that blow in off the ocean most afternoons on your way out to the beach. Pack a lunch and let those winds blow you back to your car.

Coyotes & Cows

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 was another splendid day on the Estero Americano.

Starting to Clear 5:25:16

The coastal low clouds spread quite far inland overnight and did not clear along the coast until a little past noon. I got a late start which often results in having to struggle upwind to make it out to the ocean. Luckily, the first four miles of the trip out to the coast were paddled under an overcast sky and in very light westerly winds.

Song birds along the shore on both sides sang loudly, brightening my mood.

Sparrow? 5:25:16

The sun came out just as I approached the beach. By then, I had seen many of the regular denizens of the Estero: cormorants, American White Pelicans, Great Egrets, deer, Red Tailed Hawks, and many Turkey Vultures. I was beginning to feel a little disappointed that I had not seen any unusual animals when I rounded the the last bend before the beach and saw….

Coyote 5:25:16

This Coyote! Last Tuesday, I had seen a coyote as well. This one was on the Sonoma County bank of the Estero and a couple of miles further west of the individual I saw last week. It also appeared to be a larger animal.

Alone at the Beach 5:25:16

Soon I was on the beach enjoying a can of kipper snacks and a thermos of black tea and looking for whales. I saw no whales, but a southbound sailboat passed by a mile or so offshore.

Sailboat 5:25:16

By 1:00 a pleasant breeze came up out the the west.

Sailing Home 5:25:16

I was glad to have my sail along. A refreshing breeze blew me back to Valley Ford.

Deer 5:25:16

Near the end, I furled the sail and paddled. I passed a deer browsing in a wooded spot near the dairy.

Most of the cattle and dairy ranchers allow their livestock direct access to the Estero’s waters.

Cows 5:25:16

This is nice for the cattle. I’m sure they like to get their feet wet and walk in the mud.

But they don’t just come down for drinks. They also urinate and defecate in it. The Estero’s waters, held back by the sandbar at the beach, gradually get more and more funky as California’s dry spring, summer and fall months go by. These waters probably won’t flush until next winter.

Cows Urinating 5:25:16

I’ve talked with Santa Rosa City biologist Denise Cadman about this problem in the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa. She told me that many area ranchers are reluctant to make changes to traditional practices. They don’t welcome outsider’s ideas about how to manage their ranches.

But progress is being made. The Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District has a Estero Americano Dairy Enhancement Program underway.

In June 2010 they published a Nutrient Management Planning Guidance for Small Coastal Dairies, a document running more than 60 pages.

Back in March I toured an exemplary dairy on the Estero, just upstream from the navigable parts of the Estero in Valley Ford, the 1500 acre Leveroni-Moody Dairy, a Clover Organic Dairy. Steve Moody showed us the fencing he’s installed on his dairy to keep his cows away from the Estero’s waters.

Because of his efforts to improve the water quality in the Estero he’s earned loyal customers from this household.



Estero Americano: Owls, Coyotes, Whales

It’s not always necessary to go far from home to see wildlife. The closest paddling venue for me is Estero Americano. 10 miles away, it takes about twenty minutes to drive there.

Few people go there to paddle. If you go solo during the week, you may be the only human out there. Today was just such a day.

The launch site is in agricultural land, mostly dairy, cattle grazing, and poultry operations, several miles inland from the coast. You’re gonna see cows.

Dairy Cows, EA 5:17:16

After a couple of miles of paddling, you begin to see California native wildlife. Cormorants are a common sight.

Cormorant 5:17:16

California Buckeye are in full bloom in mid May.

Blooming Buckeyes 5:17:16

White Pelicans are eating the same small smolts that the Cormorants are eating. There were two groups on the Estero today, one with five birds and another with ten birds.

White Pelicans 5:17:16

Deer come down to the water for a drink.

Deer 5:17:16

Song sparrows sing along the banks for almost the whole five and a half miles out to the coast.

Song Sparrow? 5:17:16

Along the southern shore about two thirds the way out to the coast is a wooded cliffy shore. A barn owl makes its home in the trees the grow there.

Barn Owl 5:17:16

After lunch on the beach, I picked up a kayak full of trash. One piece that had been stuck in the mud was too big to stow under the deck so I put in on the deck. Little invertebrates fell off the trash and came to rest on the deck of the kayak. These are the creatures that sandpipers eat, I think.

Invertebrates 5:17:16

I noticed them last week, too, in the tidal mudflats along Richardson Bay.

Garbage Scow 5:17:16

To keep my hands free to collect trash I had left my camera in the kayak—a mistake,  I realized, when an amazing show of Pacific Gray Whales came up and swam right along the beach. They were playing just outside the waves. Every few minutes they would hold a short pectoral fin in the air—that’s how I knew they were Gray Whales.

I wanted to capture those fins waving hello to the shoreline with my camera. But, alas, by the time I hurried back to my boat to retrieve a camera, the whales had moved north almost out of sight and much farther off. This was the best photo I could manage to get. Still, it was a thrill to see them so close.

Pacific Gray Whale 5:17:16

EDIT: I just learned that Orcas attacked a Gray Whale calf near this location last Saturday. A Gray Whale calf washed up on Salmon Creek beach Monday. Link Press Democrat story here. (There’s a graphic video of the attack in the Press Democrat article. You may not want to see it.)

It’s could be that migrating Gray Whales try to avoid Orcas finding them (by echolocation) by hugging the coastline.

This could explain why I’ve seen so many Gray Whales so near the coast in recent days. (I saw Grays off Angel Island in San Francisco Bay on Sunday, May 8 and just off the beach at the Russian River on Friday, May 13.) And now, on Tuesday, May 17, this sighting.

On the paddle back I passed a young coyote. She didn’t see me until I was quite close.

Coyote 5:17:16

Such a beautiful animal!

Coyote 2 5:17:16

It was such a good day that I think I’ll start another project on iNaturalist focussed on Estero Americano.

Coffee with Congressman Huffman & Dredging the Petaluma Slough

Being a estuarine naturalist implies being an advocate/activist for the environment. And so, this morning, I drove to Petaluma to have coffee with my Congressman, Jared Huffman, (California’s Second Congressional District Representative) at Acre Coffee along with about 40 other members of the public.

He opened by talking about the projects he’s been working on in our Northern California Congressional district—the California coast from Oregon to the Golden Gate. He shared the very good news about progress that has been made towards the removal of four aging hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. This is good news, though not a done deal.

Representative Huffman is doing a good job for our District overall.


Congressman Huffman also talked also about his efforts to secure federal funds to dredge the Petaluma River channel. This body of water is in reality an estuarine slough, not a river. Long ago, the slough was renamed a “river” so that federal money could be allocated to dredge it for navigation. (The feds won’t dredge a slough.)

Dredging began in 1880. In 1930 Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to dredge every four years. Sediments removed from the channel, called “dredge spoils,” were stockpiled and recycled at Shollenberger Park, which, since 1996, is a popular city park and wildlife sanctuary.

The Petaluma Slough has not been dredged for some years. Today siltation has shallowed the channel to the point that it can no longer carry fully-loaded barges. Petaluma’s commercial tonnage has slipped. The less tonnage the slough carries, the less reason to keep it dredged.

Pet River Export

Petaluma Slough today at a 1′ Tide. That old yacht is sitting in mud.

Congressman Huffman wants to dredge the channel again soon—it before it gets so shallow that all it can carry are kayaks, canoes, and recreational boats.

According to an interpretive sign at Shollenberger Park, four private companies use the slough for shipping: Pomeroy Corp., Shamrock Materials, Jerico Products, and Dutra Materials.

A taxpayer-funded Corps of Engineers dredging project amounts to another example of corporate welfare. The beneficiaries of such a project are few: the owners of four privately held companies.

The losers would be many. Tax-paying public. Sonoma County residents who would witness a favorite park and wildlife sanctuary revert to a dredge-spoils wasteland.

Its time to allow the natural flow of water and silt to transform the “river” back into the slough it once was—a place for shore birds, marsh creatures, both vertebrates and invertebrates, and, yes, people paddling canoes and kayaks.

May 3 on the Lower Russian River Estuary

4:26:16 Windy!

Gulls across from Jenner on April 26, 2016

Last week’s windy weather at the Russian River Estuary made many birds seek shelter and kept many paddlers off the water. It was possible to observe Harbor Seals hauled out at the mouth of the river. Pups nursed.

4:23:16 Pup Nursing

April 23, 2016 Pup nursing at Russian River Mouth

Today’s weather, though overcast, proved much more favorable for observing the animals out at the mouth.

5:3:16 Western Grebes

A kayaker passes a pair of Western Grebes

Three groups of Harbor Seals numbering about 200 individuals in all rested onshore at the mouth. The largest group,116 animals, were hauled out just inside the mouth of the river; two smaller groups were a few meters upstream and included most of the pups.

5:3:16 One of 116 HS resting at the Mouth

Some of the 116 seals in the larger group


A pair of Sea Lions frolicked in the current flowing out into the Pacific. These Sea Lions swam with greater vigor than any of their seal cousins.

5:3:16 Sea Lion

Sea Lions have a more pronounced snout than seals.

My friend and fellow naturalist, Bob Noble, saw a single Surf Scoter near the mouth.

5:3:16 Surf Scoter?

Bob and I caught up since the last time we’d been out. We talked about Beavers. Like me, Bob feels that Beavers would do the Russian River watershed a lot of good.

5:3:16 Naturalist Bob Noble

Check out Bob’s blog. (Link on the right of this blog.)

When Bob paddled off I got out to have lunch on the beach. A group of Caspian Terns stood on the sand on the beach just north of the river’s mouth.

5:3:16 Caspian Terns

After lunch it was time to pick up trash on the beach. I’m happy to report that there was not a whole lot of trash to pick up. Still it’s a good bet you’ll find tennis balls to pick up. I found one to bring to my Naturalist class tonight.

I had thought that tennis balls got into the river when people throw them into the river for their dog to retrieve. But paddling upstream I found this tree across from Penny Island. Does anyone know its species name?

5:3:16 Tennis Ball Tree

Going further upstream I saw an assortment of birds.

Canadian Geese,

5:3:16 Canadian Geese

Female Mergansers and Cormorants,

5:3:16 Female Merganser with Cormorant

A male Merganser,

5:3:16 Male Merganser

and even a Great Blue Heron.

5:3:16 GBH at Eagle's Landing

In the sky I saw an Eagle. Large dark feathered raptor with a long, strong neck. I’m pretty sure was immature Bald Eagle. It was too far away to photograph, but it showed up pretty plainly in my binoculars.