At the Mouth—Whales!

Canoe on Penny Island

The Russian River Estuary is an excellent place for anyone interested in seeing a variety of wildlife. Today’s canoe outing started out slowly, but finished spectacularly.

A lone Great Egret waded along the north shore of Penny Island catching small fish to eat for a midday meal.

Great Egret 1130  4:20:16

About a half dozen harbor seals swam just inside the mouth where more than 200 seals were hauled out on the sand and resting. Among them were many pups. Some were nursing.

Nursing Harbor Seal Pup

Mama seal nursing her pup. I took this picture from the overlook after the paddle. I saw similar scenes from the boat, but to avoid disturbing them, I didn’t approach close enough for a good photo.

Among the harbor seal colony there was a group of about a dozen Cormorants and several times that many gulls. A couple of sea lions barked in the surf zone just outside the mouth.

Paddling back towards Penny Island, a pair of Common Goldeneyes took note of my boat’s approach. They swam off to keep a comfortable distance away.

Goldeneye Couple 4:20:16

When lunchtime came, I pulled the canoe out onto the gravel bar along the eastern (upstream) shore of Penny Island. A group of Buffleheads didn’t notice me right away and came close enough for me to make a move for my camera. My movement caught their attention and they started to swim away.

Better Buffleheads 4:20:16

The one furthest from the camera is an adult male. Not sure if the others are his harem or what.

There were only a few other paddlers out today. When the river’s practically empty of boats, the deer feel it’s safe to come out to browse on the grasses along the shore of the island. This deer didn’t hear the very slow and quiet approach of my canoe. There was time to take its picture. As soon as it saw me it tip toed back into the brush and out of sight.

Deer on Penny Island

Along the way I also saw gulls, Crows, Turkey Vultures, Mallards, and Red-winged Blackbirds, but didn’t get photos of any of them worthy sharing here.

At about 3:00 I decided to return to the launch ramp and rack the canoe on the car. As an afterthought, I decided to drive up to the Highway One turn-out that overlooks the mouth. From that vantage point, using binoculars, I could accurately count the harbor seals in the colony. There were 234 seals, not including the dozen (or more) in the river and ocean.

Ken Sund drove into the turnout and we talked a little bit when he saw a Gray Whale spout in the waves just outside the mouth of the river. There was a mother and her calf, I think perhaps more: two mothers and two calves, perhaps?

Ken explained that the Russian River’s outflow is significantly warmer than the ocean water. Calves enjoy lingering in these warm Russian bath waters, a bit of wine country luxury on their 8,000 kilometer journey to their feeding grounds in the frigid Arctic seas.

Gray Whales at the Mouth

These whales were right along the beach, the closest to shore I’ve ever seen Grays approach.

 

Ken and I told others visitors who had stopped at this overlook about the whales. Most people stopped there to look at the seal colony. A few had stopped simply for the view of the ocean.

Everyone was pleased to see the whales who put on a good show, spouting and holding up an occasional pectoral fin. A calf spy hopped, but, alas, this photographer wasn’t quick enough to get pixels on the memory chip.

Gray Whale Spouting Off

Eventually Ken took off to launch his kayak, paddle to the beach at my feet and then walk out on to the beach for a closer look.

Ken on Beach

Ken photographing a marine mammal in the waves. Not sure if its a seal, sea lion, or whale.

I stayed up on the overlook for 90 minutes. I told everyone who came to look for the whales and pretty soon quite a crowd gathered, intently watching the whales.

 

Roving Docent 2 Roving Docent Work

It was fun acting as a Roving Docent.

Female Goldeneye

Yesterday I took this photo of the Western Grebe, a bird I know, the larger of the two in the image. The other bird, the little one with the brown hood was photo-bombing the picture as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know what it was.

Barrow's Goldeneye 1:27:16

Not a great photo, but a first for this beginner.

That’s her on the left, a female in breeding plumage, swimming behind the larger Western Grebe. A look in the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America got me to thinking it was a Barrow’s Goldeneye.  I got excited thinking this was a new member of the estuarine community. Now, thanks to the vast readership of Estuarian.org, I’ve amended my initial identification.*

Common Goldeneyes are long-lived for ducks. The oldest known goldeneye reached an age of 20 years, 5 months. It’s not uncommon for them to reach the age of 15 years. They eat small animals: fish, insects, mollusks, and other invertebrates. They nest in cavities and take well to homes made of wood by people. They are not endangered and range all over North America in winter.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning about birds online, Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology called AllAboutBirds.org  is a very good resource. It’s where the material in the paragraph above came from.

*In the comments, Ray, says it’s more likely a female common golden eye in breeding plumage, due to the yellow tip on the bill. He’s right.