Estero Americano Now Open

As I was packing my lunch and thermos of hot tea into my kayak I noticed the water in the Estero Americano running urgently toward the sea. Little eddies swirled quickly past the launch. A fallen Poplar tree had been pushed by the current up against the bridge. The current held it tight against the bridge pilings. The trunk almost blocked the channel.

I had never seen water flow so quickly through the Estero. I expected to find its mouth open when I got out to Bodega Bay.

The winds were calm. The sun shone strongly enough to take the chill out of the morning air. Without much effort I floated down the channel through the pastures and out beyond the dairy. Soon I found myself surrounded by Estero Americano’s calm beauty.

Estero Americano Serenity

Bufflehead ducks, one of the smallest ducks we see, spend winter all across the southern United States. They winter as far south as Mexico and spend summers in Canada. In January they are a common wintertime sight in Northern California. Yesterday was no exception. They were everywhere in couples or small flocks, often groups of two to four couples.

Bufflehead Duck Couple

As I paddled past the hanging gardens I was cheered to see Barney and Betty Barn Owl watching over the middle reach of the Estero.

We see each other regularly.

When paddling solo I usually see River Otters in the Estero. They often seem curious about a quiet human in a bright orange boat.

Who’s that?

This otter had a long look before deciding to vamoose. The camera scared him.

Had I not been upwind of this fellow, I think I’d have gotten closer. I could hear it sniffing me.

Rounding the final bend in the Estero, I could hear the roaring ocean. By now the current carried my boat at a good clip toward the breakers. It would be a bad time to lose my paddle! This is why I tie my paddle to my boat. Otherwise I would risk losing it while handling my camera.

This scene put some butterflies in the stomach.

The Estero’s mouth was open.

A beach swept clean by storm waves

The beach had been washed clean by huge waves from the recent storms. My bootprints were the only human footprints in the sand.

Looking south, toward Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore

I had lunch and tea in the dunes. A peaceful interlude.

Lunch spot in the dunes.

Here is a 24-second video of the water running out of the Estero.

At least two harbor seals were working the mouth of the Estero. Having seen Steelhead Trout in the Estero last year, my hunch is that at least a few Steelheads try their luck at spawning in the Estero watershed. That would explain the Harbor Seals, who don’t often come into the Estero these days. This one seems to have already enjoyed a midday meal.

I could be reading too much into that facial expression.

A curious River Otter visited my kayak while I was exploring the beach. He or she left muddy footprints on the foredeck. Perhaps it was the same one that I saw on the way out.

Foredeck footprints of a curious otter

The way home against the current was a real slog. The current strengthened in the afternoon, perhaps with the falling tide at the ocean. I got a workout bigger than I bargained for.

Despite my weary arms I saw things I had not noticed on the way out.

Nine deer.

Deer? What deer?

Zoomed in, you can see them.

They kept their distance from me.

A picnic table belonging to Sonoma Land Trust lodged high in the rocks. (I’ll call to let them know where it is—I’m guessing they don’t know what had happened to it.) The Land Trust has preserved 547 acres of land near the mouth. These acres will eventually be open it to the public.

Sonoma Land Trust’s picnic table

A Turkey Vulture sunned itself on a fencepost.

TV worth watching!

The paddle back to the launch against the current took nearly three hours. I estimate that the current added the equivalent almost three miles’ worth of distance to the already five-and-a-half mile long return journey.

Note fallen poplar tree in channel under bridge

It felt good to get home, tuckered out, hungry, and thirsty for a big cuppa hot black tea.

Estero Americano Dec 5, 2016

The rains have added enough water to the Estero Americano to swell the channel near its banks.

high-water-ea-dec-5

Being able to see over the banks of the channel allows for a much more pleasant trip away from the parking lot through the dairy pasturelands.

I saw a number of birds and otters on the way out, but I couldn’t approach them as closely as usual. The wild animals scattered before they came within the reach of my camera.

I did manage to get this photo a couple of dogs who were out on an unsupervised romp through the Estero.

two-dogs-ea-dec-5

The beagle brayed.

Squeaky neoprene cold-weather gloves were the reason why wildlife was so elusive. They squawked with each paddle stroke.

squeaky-gloves-ea-dec-5

Once I took them off I was able to do get better photos. Here’s a Great Blue Heron.

gbhe-ea-dec-5

All the usual residents were in attendance and accounted for today, among them: Cormorants, Buffleheads, Coots, River Otters, Barn Owls, Vultures,Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, smaller hawks I could not identify and, in the surf near the beach, California Sea Lions.

A map of the outing:

A Trip to Estero Americano, Part One, Owls

Last Saturday I volunteered at the Laguna Foundation’s presentation by the Hungry Owl Project, “Owls Rule the Night” and it whetted my appetite to visit a pair of Barn Owls who nest in the Hanging Gardens on Estero Americano.

I visited them today. Some internet sources will tell you that Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal, I had a hunch that that ain’t so. Get an early enough start, and there’s a good chance of seeing one.

Before 8:00 I had paddled out to their cave in the cliff. Sure enough, one of them was up in his (I’ll call it a he, but I’m not sure of that) looking out at the world.

Chez Barn Owl, EA 7:11:16

Look, the owl is up there.

Zooming in, he looks like he’s been out all night and has just finished his day’s-ending meal—supper for him—and ready to snooze the day away.

Dozing Owl 7:11:16

Barn Owls like to live in cavities. They line their cavity homes with torn-apart owl pellets, which are the regurgitated balls fur and bones of their prey, mostly small rodents which they usually swallow whole.

It’s fun to pick apart an owl pellet should you ever come across one. They’re little balls of fur about the size of a ping pong ball. As you pull apart the fur, little rodent bones are revealed.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, females are more colorful than the males, so this one is probably the female of the pair.

Barn Owl, Leggy 7:11:16

How do you like those legs? All the better to catch mice in long grass at night!

The two of them flew out of their nest cavity and watched me from perches on the cliff.

Barn Owl on Cliff 7:11:16

Barn Owls are small and light birds with a lot of wing area and a light weight body. Light wing loading along with special soft-edged feathers make for buoyant, nearly silent flight. As they flew nearby I listened to see if I could hear their wing beats—to no avail. (Many other birds make quite a lot of noise as they fly. Hummingbirds are famous for that!)

Here’s a video by the BBC that shows Barn Owls flying over sensitive microphones, and making almost no sound at all.

In this video by the Barn Owl Trust they make the point that Barn Owls are an indicator species, meaning that the presence of Barn Owls indicates the overall health of the ecosystem.

Another encouraging sign of the health of the Estero is the fact that it’s got a lot of fish in it this year. That’s the subject of a future post.

 

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.