Sonoma County Water Agency Opens the Russian River Estuary

At about 9:00 this morning the Sonoma County Water Agency opened a channel in the sandbar at the mouth of the Russian River Estuary to avoid flooding waterfront properties in the lower Russian River.

Backhoe Closeup 6:27:16

Note the worker in the red PFD. He was part of a surveying crew.

The work was accomplished using this big excavator, called a track hoe, because of the tracks it rides on and the big boom and bucket similar to what is found on a backhoe. (I guess it’s not coincidental that “track hoe” rhymes with “backhoe.”)

A survey crew was on hand to help manage the depth of the channel. The elusive goal is to let just a little of the water out, down to 7 feet as measured at the visitors center in Jenner. By keeping the lagoon almost full they make conditions ideal for young salmonids to feed and grow. The warm lagoon waters are full of little creatures, mostly invertebrates, that the salmonoid fry like to eat.

Last time the water agency excavated a channel in the mouth, the water running out scoured an ever-deeper channel and the level of the river receded down to just above the level at low tide, about two feet or so. The fast-emptying lagoon washed the fish fry out into the ocean before they were ready for the presumably greater challenges of life in the ocean.

Moment of Truth 6:27:16

About two hours before the 0.5′ low tide they opened the channel and water began running gently out of the lagoon making the lagoon an estuary once more. Within 30 minutes harbor seals were using the new channel to transit between estuary and ocean.

Seals Swim Upstream

About a dozen or so of interested onlookers watched from the turnout above the mouth. Several spectators—equipped with expensive camera gear trained on a small group of seals sunning on the beach about 50 meters north of the excavation—watched after the welfare of these pinnipeds. Others observers were from the Water Agency providing oversight to be sure everything would proceed according to plan.

Here’s a video of the first moments of the opening of the mouth.

Here is another video showing the harbor seals swimming through it taken about a half hour later.


Biologists on the Estuary

To celebrate the 2016 summer solstice, I twice paddled the middle reach* of the Russian River Estuary—Tuesday evening at sunset, and, Wednesday morning soon after sunup.

Six biologists from the California State Fish and Wildlife gathered fish population data.

Biologists at Work 6:22:16

June 22, 2016 10:00 AM Approximately halfway between Willow Creek and Duncans Mills (They release the fish back into the river.)

I spoke to them briefly and learned that they were netting fewer fish this morning than usual, especially steelhead trout. Steelhead, an anadromous form of rainbow trout, are of particular interest because they are a game fish and a good measure of the biotic health of the Russian River and Estuary. Steelhead trout are doing much better compared to other anadromous fish who call the Russian River home, Coho and Chinook Salmon.

Steelhead trout begin their lives in the Russian River watershed—some near my home in the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed. After spending one to three years in the river/estuary, they make their way to the ocean, and return to their natal stream beds to spawn, sometimes spawning more than once.

The biologists were netting flounder fry which developed in the estuary before spending the rest of their lives in the ocean.

I thanked them for the work they were doing.

BaEa 6:22:16 Duncans Mills

BaEa June 22, 2016 about 1 kilometer downstream from Duncans Mills on the Russian River

This toward the end of the paddle this morning, a Bald Eagle flew overhead. My wife and I saw perhaps this same individual in this same reach of the estuary on Sunday, June 19 on a Father’s Day paddle. It’s always a treat to see a Bald Eagle in the Estuary because they are still comparatively rare here.


*The Estuary’s middle reach extends from Willow Creek Campground to the Moscow Road bridge at Duncans Mills.

Green Herons, Killdeer, Kingfisher, Otter, Osprey & Mergansers

This morning a strong northwesterly wind swept down the Sonoma County coastline and pushed its way into the lower Russian River estuary. Strong winds tend to keep wildlife hunkered down out of sight. I decided to alter the plan to paddle near the mouth in favor of paddling the upper reaches of the estuary near Monte Rio where the wind would be more manageable and the bird life more abundant.

It was a good choice. There was a lot to see.

Green Herons waded along the shore in the water primrose (Ludwigia peploides, an invasive species) which flourishes in the Russian River anywhere the water is fresh, warm, shallow, and slow moving. Whatever those smaller herons were eating was down the hatch before I could see what it was.

Whole Green Heron 6:14:16

When approached Green Herons freeze in place to avoid being noticed, a strategy that works pretty well. This behavior also makes them ideal subjects for the amateur photographer.

Green Heron Face 6:14:16

Many of the birds today were in out pairs. A couple of killdeer patrolled Sheridan Beach where I stopped to quaff a thermos of hot black tea.

Killdeer Couple 6:14:16

A little further down the estuary a female Kingfisher alighted in a tree close by. These birds usually fly off long before they get within range of my kayak-born camera. On this occasion she was paying so much attention to a nearby male that she didn’t mind my close approach.

Kingfisher Female 6:14:16

Kingfisher Pair

Male is on the left, female on the right

A river otter did its best to stay out of sight.

River Otter 6:14:16

I paddled as far as the pole-mounted osprey nest installed on Ryan’s Beach. A pair of Osprey kept watch from above. I saw Ospreys nesting on a trip to Lake Sonoma earlier this spring in March I wondered how long the nesting season is for Osprey.

Nesting Osprey 6:14:16

The paddle back to Monte Rio was both with the wind and against the current. The two fluid currents nearly cancelled themselves out, providing a pleasant journey back to the launch ramp in Monte Rio.

A Mama Merganser was teaching her offspring how to get a midday meal out of the river. I got a little bit of video of it that you can see on Youtube.

Fort Ross Bioblitz

I joined other citizen naturalists in Snapshot Cal Coast in compiling data about who’s living on the California Coast these days.

It was really fun. Today’s effort took place among the tide pools revealed in this morning’s -0.7′ minus tide in Fort Ross State Historical Park. Donning rubber boots, I waded into the pools, and, using my iPhone, spent most of the morning photographing many interesting life forms.

Red Abalone

Red Abalone Bioblitz

Hermit crabs

Bioblitz Crabby

Black Leather Chitons

Black Leather Chiton Bilblitz

Purple Sea Urchins, Ochre Sea Stars, and Giant Sea Anemome,

Ochre Sea Star, Giant Green Anenome, Purple Sea Urchin

The Giant Green Anemones at bottom of photo are withdrawn. They open in a spectacular flowerlike way.

Open Sea Anemones look more like this:

Sea Anemone Open

Gumboot Chitons

Gumboot Chiton Bilblitz

Splendid Iridescent Seaweed

Splendid Iridescent Seweed-Bioblitz

When underwater, this seaweed really lives up to its name.

After taking many pictures, we repaired to the library at the Fort Ross State Park visitor’s center where hot coffee and delectable pastries awaited us. There, our leader, Alison, a naturalist with the California Academy of Sciences, showed us how to upload our observations to iNaturalist, an app that compiles and archives the observations we made for scientists who can use the information to study changes in the ecology of the California Coast.

It was 3:00 before I was ready to go home, the last one to leave. Here’s a photo of me with the people who put on today’s event:

Bioblitz 4 of us

L to R: The Estuarian, Sondra Hunter, Alison Young (naturalist from Calif. Academy of Sciences), and Hank Birnbaum


Ninth Street Rookery

One of the members in the California Certified Naturalist class told us of a rookery on West Ninth Street in Santa Rosa. She said that it was one of her favorite places to watch birds in Santa Rosa.

Early this afternoon I hopped on my trusty bike and pedaled east across the Laguna to West Santa Rosa to have a look.

Biking to the Rookery 6:6:16

One would not expect to see much wildlife in an ordinary, modest suburban neighborhood like this one—particularly not in the median strip of a busier-than-ordinary residential street. But, sure enough, right in the middle of west Santa Rosa were two eucalyptus trees just jammed with nests of large wading birds—Common Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Black-Crowned Night Herons.

Three Egrets 6:6:16

The birds seemed to inhabit a world apart from the human activity below them, and for the most part, humans seemed oblivious to their arboreal activities.

The Egret Has Landed 6:6:16

It was surprisingly easy to get close to the birds, who seemed accustomed to humans. This juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron let me approach within about 15 meters.

Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron 6:6:16

If you happen to be in Santa Rosa, it might be worth a few minutes of your time to stop by. The rookery is on West Ninth Street between Simpson and West Eighth Streets, a short distance west of Lincoln Elementary School. To keep people from venturing under the trees, the two trees where most of the birds nest are cordoned off with orange traffic cones and plastic mesh.

I wonder why the birds use these trees for their rookery. It’s not near any obvious food source (Santa Rosa Creek is not teeming with fish as far as I know) and this site is awfully close to scads of humans. Perhaps one of my readers knows.