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.

Eagles and Ospreys on Lake Sonoma, April 1, 2016

What a difference eight days can make.

Eight days ago when I came to Lake Sonoma, the lake was several feet higher and almost empty of other users. (40,000 acre feet have been released in the past 3 weeks. One wonders why.)

Eight days ago, I had been alone on my way up the Dry Creek arm of the lake. That was on a Thursday and it was cooler.

Today when I returned to explore the Cherry Creek arm of the lake with my wife, it was a Friday and at a little more than 70°F, noticeably warmer.

There were many other people on the lake today—mostly men fishing all by themselves, and some guys fishing with a buddy.

There was plenty for us non-fisherfolk to see.

Near the launch ramp at Yorty Creek is a snag where this pair of Double-crested Cormorants perched 3 meters above the lake.

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants

Soon after entering the Cherry Creek arm, my wife pointed out a Bald Eagle circling high overhead. It gained altitude rapidly in a very strong thermal. In less than two minutes it was beyond the reach of my camera. (I took 5 photos at full zoom of this bird in 100 seconds. It gets discernibly smaller and more pixellated in each photo.)

Bald Eagle 4:1:16

Bald Eagle high in sky and climbing quickly

By far the most abundant bird was the voluble, but elusive Acorn Woodpecker. They prefer to work the back side of a limb or trunk so they can stay out of sight. They also flit from tree to tree often and chasing and scolding one another through the trees. Like Kingfishers, Acorn Woodpeckers are very hard to catch on film, er, in pixels.

Acorn Woodpecker Again 4:1:16

The elusive, garrulous, Acorn Woodpecker

Turtles were plopping into the water, too. A week ago there was much more noise from wind whistling through the trees and from streams tumbling into the lake. Today the calmer conditions allowed the turtles to hear our approach and take cover fast. One guy, though, was either braver than the rest, or, perhaps hard-of-hearing. I got his picture.

Tortuga 4:1:16

Turtle in the Sun

Osprey Sex and Sashimi

A pair of Ospreys provided the best birdwatching of the day.

On our way to our lunch stop we passed this couple. They had spent some time studying a nest from a perch on a tree that was nearby and above it.

Mama Osprey 4:1:16

Mama Osprey overlooking her nest

After we passed by they both flew down into the nest to make sure it will be a suitable place to raise their young.

Osprey Couple 4:1:16

Mr. and Mrs. Osprey, an Amorous Couple

We went on our way to find a place to have our picnic lunch. About an hour later, having finished our own lunch we came upon the nest again. As we paddled by, the male mounted the female and they mated.

It was a quickie. He finished before I could wrest my camera from its case.

That done, he flew off, winging his way down the main arm of Cherry Creek. He returned minutes later with a sashimi lunch.

Papa Osprey 4:1:16

Osprey with fish 4/1/16 He sought more privacy for eating than for sex. And his meal took a lot more time.

This bird caught in a few minutes a fish that weighed, perhaps as much as a quarter of his own weight, a full meal for him and his sweetie. Although every human fisherman I asked told me he’d had a good day fishing today, I don’t think anyone had a better afternoon on the lake than this Osprey.

It will be fun to visit again later this spring to see their nest with hatchlings in it.


 Map of Friday’s Trip:





Rain, Rain, Come I Say

Weather forecasts called for rain on the Sonoma County coast late this afternoon, and they were right.

That meant a whole morning and the first part of the afternoon for paddling. A forecast for rain is tantamount to a forecast for fewer people—and more wildlife—on the river. So today it’s off to the Russian River!

I started with a tour towards the mouth of the river, but it didn’t turn up much to see, so it was time to head upstream.

A young deer was on Penny Island this morning. It foraged near a large redwood tree stump washed up on the southern shore.

Deer on Penny Island 2:3:16

Deer must have to swim to reach Penny Island.

An immature bald eagle had been perched on Paddy’s Rock, but it quickly took to the skies.

Immature Bald Eagle 2:3:16

Longer, slower wing beats make it easy to tell an eagle from a hawk in flight.

Farther upstream, near the grotto on the southern shore, a group of vultures gathered on a rocky shoreline.

TV's near the Grotto 2:3:16

They were eating something small, too small to identify even with binoculars.

Lunch was on the gravel bar in the lee of Paddy’s Rock. Unbeknownst to me as I was enjoying my sandwich and hot tea, a trio of river otters had gathered on the far side of Paddy’s Rock.

Russian River Otters 2:3:16

The tail in the foreground belongs to another otter. That tail is about 1/3 the length of the whole animal.

They were surprised to see me—the surprise was mutual—but they went about their business of catching small fish and bringing them to the surface to eat. River otters have few predators in the water. On land, however, they need to watch out for large breeds of domesticated dogs, coyotes, and mountain lions all of which are known to prey on river otters. Humans are their biggest threat.

About halfway between Paddy’s Rock and Penny Island a western grebe surfaced right in front of my kayak.

Western Grebe 2:3:16

Such a red eye!

A great blue heron walked along the northern shore of Penny Island.

GBH 2:3:16


To complete the day’s paddle, I returned to the mouth area. Rain began to fall, gently at first and then increasing in intensity.

I came across a sea lion holding one flipper out of the water. That flipper held high like that has an uncanny resemblance to the dorsal fin of a shark.

Because of the rain, the camera was stowed safe beneath the splash deck. There’s no photo of the sea lion to share—sorry.

The rain came in on a southerly wind. Along with the rain came the warm and friendly aroma of coffee beans roasting at Cafe Aquatica.

Rain 2:3:16

If you’ve never kayaked in the rain, add it to your bucket list. It’s a pleasure.

Celebrating World Wetlands Day

Nineteen people met at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation Headquarters to celebrate World Wetlands Day by paddling on the Laguna de Santa Rosa on February 2, 2016.

Anita 2:2:16

Anita Smith led the group that paddled north, usually downstream, toward the Russian River.

Led by Laguna Foundation staff including Anita Smith, Wendy Trowbridge, Hattie Brown and Maggie Hart we paddled out on the seasonal lake that floods over agricultural fields adjacent to the Laguna’s main channel just north of Sebastopol.

The 22 mile long Laguna de Santa Rosa is the Russian River’s largest tributary. The Laguna, as locals call it, is the main artery of a 254 square mile watershed that encompasses most of the cities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Cotati, Rohnert Park, and Windsor.

Laguna Map

For people who live in Sonoma County, the Laguna is an important region of “nearby nature.” Sadly, most of the Laguna is held in private ownership instead of the public commons, where, frankly, it belongs.

Public access points to the Laguna are hard to find. Even public views of it are scarce. For these reasons far too few people are aware of its rich diversity of plant and animal life. The mission of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation is to to restore and conserve the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and to inspire public appreciation of this Wetland of International Importance.

Usually, the best way to see wildlife is to go solo, slowly, and quietly (the Estuarian’s usual way) so I was surprised by how much we saw and pleased to share a few of the photographs taken that morning.

On this trip, however, our group was joined by dignitaries including the Mayor of Sebastopol, several Sebastopol City Planning Commissioners, and other people of note.

Sarah. Laguna, 2:2:16

The Mayor of Sebastopol, Sarah Gurney

Among the first notable birds we saw was a highlight, albeit distant. Although we were quite far away, Anita spotted this lone bald eagle perched atop an oak tree along the southern edge of Delta Pond. We got a  better look at it when, a few moments later, it flew off to the northwest towards the Russian River.

Bald Eagle 2:2:16

Bald Eagles are returning to Sebastopol’s Laguna!

Swimming in the water below the eagle was a lone white pelican. Several paddlers noted that it’s not common to see a white pelican by itself. They’re usually seen in groups and they fish cooperatively.

Solo White Pelican

Solo White Pelican

We paddled north towards the Russian River into the narrowing main channel. With the water level at approximately 57 feet above sea level willows crowded the banks of the channel forcing us to thread our boats between low overhanging branches.

We passed by almost a dozen vultures assembled in a tree awaiting their turn at whatever it was they were eating on the ground below.

TV 2:2:16

Ever patient, always quiet, and happy to clean up the messes it finds. An admirable bird.

A little farther downstream, a kingfisher perched nearby in the tangle of branches.

King Fisher 2:2:16

As usual, this little bird almost eludes my camera!

We had hoped to paddle to the confluence of Santa Rosa Creek, but Anita determined it would be too difficult on this day. We paddled south, back upstream through the channel and back into the “lake” where we started. We made our return trip along the western shore of this seasonal lake near Sebastopol. A group of great egrets were walking along the shore near the Gallo Wetlands area, presumably feeding on small land animals (worms, insects, isopods) displaced by the floodwaters.

Egret.2 2:2:16

The Great Egret is the symbol of the Audubon Society

Some of the first laws to protect birds were enacted to protect the Great Egret which had been hunted nearly to extinction more than 100 years ago. People killed them for their white feathers which in the nineteenth century were popular adornments for hats.

Egret 2:2:16

Yankee Doodle’s macaroni was often a white feather taken from these noble birds.

No trip on wetlands would be complete without a seeing a heron or two. This great blue heron obligingly posed for the camera.

GBH 2:2:16 Laguna Wetlands

A black crowned night heron was a lot less obliging. In fact he or she was so hard to see that I don’t know for sure it was, in fact, a black crowned night heron.

As the excursion came near an end, an interesting sky appeared overhead.

Wetlands Group on Laguna 2:2:16

The rain forecast to fall on our wetlands outing never materialized.

Two hours passed quickly on the water. A little before noon we paddled back to the field from which we launched our splendid trip.

Pull out 2:2:16 Laguna WWD

100% returned!

Link for more information about the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation

Link to photos & video on Facebook taken by Anita Smith

Link to water gauge that indicates: How much water is in the Laguna for paddling. A reading of more than 60 feet is ideal.

Day After Thanksgiving Paddle

My friend, David, and I went for an afternoon paddle at the mouth of the Russian River on Friday, November 27. We were hoping to see and photograph the bald eagles that have been visiting the mouth in recent days. We didn’t.

When we arrived the launching area was surprisingly busy. It was hard to find a place to park, even in the 10-minute loading zone. There were ideal conditions for paddling, just a mild breeze blowing in from the ocean and the sun shining brightly. A number of kayaks plied the waters. With crowds of people like this, getting a good photo of a bald eagle seemed unlikely. That turned out to be true; we saw no eagles on this outing.

We paddled out to the mouth of the river, still open from the breaching work that was completed Monday.

Out to the Mouth

When the river’s mouth is open, fish swim back and forth between the river and the ocean through a narrow channel which makes for relatively easy fishing for seals, pelicans, cormorants, and other pescatarians.

A whole bunch of rather well-fed seals gathered at the mouth after feeding to rest. The seals seem to have enjoyed their own fishy version of a Thanksgiving feast.

Resting at the Mouth

You guys shouldn’t have taken seconds of pumpkin pie….

Apart from keeping an eye on human gawkers, the seals will occasionally groom themselves. In the photo below one seal is scratching his mussel with his fore foot. Look at those fingers!

Seal Scratching


We stayed near the mouth for a while being careful not to get too close to the area where the current begins to run swiftly into the ocean.


Almost straight across from the open mouth a kingfisher flew by and alighted on a stick along the right bank. He was a good distance away and flew off before I could approach any nearer.

Kingfisher at Mouth

Kingfisher at the mouth of the Russian River

We paddled down the back channel of Penny Island, hoping to see some birds, but a lot of the wildlife had departed because of the many people who had visitied this part of the river.

We landed on the eastern point of Penny Island, beaching our kayaks on a gravel bar that gets submerged when the mouth is closed.

We opened our hatches and grabbed sandwiches and hot tea in thermoses for our late lunch.



We got back aboard in the last hour of sunlight to paddle upstream in the hope of seeing an eagle, now that most of the other river kayakers had gone in.

No eagles, but a kingfisher tantalized me, flitting in and out of sight at the far edge of my camera’s range.

Kingfisher Upstream

In low lighting conditions, the camera makes the kingfisher appear bluer than it really is.

As darkness began to fall, we paddled back to the launch ramp, loaded our boats in the fading light, and drove back to Sebastopol.