Quick Trip on Lake Sebastopol

Yesterday morning, as I checked the weather forecast an intense downpour fell. Fat raindrops beat an angry and loud drumroll on our skylight.

Despite this, the forecast called for a brief respite from the rains that had fallen overnight. It promised a brief window of sunshine that would begin in an hour. So I donned a raincoat and loaded my kayak on the car. I drove, windshield wipers slapping away the last of the rain shower to “Lake Sebastopol,” our seasonally flooded pastureland along our eastern border.

Launch at Occidental Road

The sun came out, just as forecast, but so suddenly it seemed like magic. Our lake refilled.

Muddy waters

Paddling away from Occidental Road I could hear a group of about eight Acorn Woodpeckers working the oak trees standing in the lake. They had a lot to say to one another. They seemed unconcerned by the guy in the orange boat on the water below them.

The holes in the trunk serve as acorn storage spots

Acorn Woodpeckers have a complex social systems. The Acorn Woodpecker story is beautifully told by Kate Marianchild in her book, Secrets of the Oak Woodlands.

Not sure why, but several birds took this pose, with their backs to sun—perhaps to warm themselves? Note acorns in storage.

Farther south, towards Sebastopol, waters had flooded the dairy pastures.

Also flooded was the field east of the Laguna’s main channel. A favorite walking trail, open most of the year, lays beneath these waters.

Laguna Park’s pasture

This is the gate through which hikers pass from the pasture to the main trail.

Please close the gate behind you….

At the southern end of this trail is a gap in the fence leading to Sebastopol’s Meadowlark field. You have to be careful not to touch the poison oak vines that grow on both sides of this portal. At this time of year the poison oak has no leaves or even buds, just the bare vines wrapping themselves on the tree trunk. Hard to see in this photo, (unless you click on the photo to enlarge the image) but those vines are there. If you don’t know what poison oak looks like without leaves and you’re as allergic to it as I am, maybe clicking on the photo below is worth doing. 🙂

South entrance to the County pedestrian trail

Clouds gathered and dispersed.

Thunderheads make you think about… lightning.

The Laguna Foundation’s headquarters were visible from the Laguna.

The new building is mostly hidden beneath the palm trees and between the original farmhouse and the rusty-roofed barn building at the right of this photo

Laguna shoreline.

Toward the end of the paddle a Great Egret stood on the western shore of Lake Sebastopol.

These are the birds whose beautiful feathers were coveted by hat wearers back in the day. The Great Egret’s survival was threatened. Efforts to save these birds (and other waders like them) led to the founding of the Audubon Society in 1896.

So I’m thankful to the people who organized themselves to protect these birds so that 121 years later I can enjoy seeing them enjoy a day out on the Laguna. May their example inspire us to do our part to protect wildlife now and in the coming years.

A map of the trip:

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.

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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.

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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:

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.

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.

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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.