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.

Oh, Deer!

Lots of deer are in the Estero Americano watershed in early November. The hunter and I had seen a number of deer running to escape coyotes. A couple of deer plunged into the water to swim to the other shore.

Looking through binoculars I spotted deer throughout the whole of Wednesday’s paddle. Most of the deer were outside handheld camera range.

But on the paddle back I got close enough to this pair of deer to pull out my camera and take some pictures.

oh-deerHere’s the buck, zoomed in a bit.

mr-buck

These two stood stock still, as if they weren’t real deer at all, but as if they were made of fiberglass. Except for their heads and necks, which turned in perfect harmony to follow the passage of my boat.

Tomorrow, Bobcats!

 

A Trip to Estero Americano, Part Three, Birds & a Baby Deer

Part Two, I talked a bit about the fish I saw in the Estero Americano on the most recent trip.

With fish you’ll usually see critters that eat them, especially birds:

Great Blue Herons,

GBH @ EA 7:11:16

White Pelicans,

White Pelicans EA

Several Osprey (which have recently been absent from Estero Americano as far as I know)

Osprey with Lunch 7:11:16

One of the medium sized fish about to become an early lunch.

Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, and Great Egrets as well, none of which posed close enough for a good photo.

A Black-necked Stilt was hanging out with White Pelicans near Whale’s Tail. This one was a solo operator.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilts have long pink legs to allow wading in estuaries. They eat invertebrates living in the muddy/sandy bottom

A Red-Tailed Hawk landed on a bush on the Sonoma County shore a little more than halfway to the coast.

Red Tailed Hawk

As I took this photo I wasn’t sure of what it was, so I leaned on the experts at iNaturalist to help with the bird ID.

A young deer got separated from its mother and ran back and forth along the Marin County shore making plaintive cries to call her back.

Deer, EA, 7:11:16

With all the fish in the Estero, I had hoped to see a River Otter or two or three, but none showed themselves that day.

 

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.

 

 

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.