Sonoma County Water Agency Opens the Russian River Estuary

At about 9:00 this morning the Sonoma County Water Agency opened a channel in the sandbar at the mouth of the Russian River Estuary to avoid flooding waterfront properties in the lower Russian River.

Backhoe Closeup 6:27:16

Note the worker in the red PFD. He was part of a surveying crew.

The work was accomplished using this big excavator, called a track hoe, because of the tracks it rides on and the big boom and bucket similar to what is found on a backhoe. (I guess it’s not coincidental that “track hoe” rhymes with “backhoe.”)

A survey crew was on hand to help manage the depth of the channel. The elusive goal is to let just a little of the water out, down to 7 feet as measured at the visitors center in Jenner. By keeping the lagoon almost full they make conditions ideal for young salmonids to feed and grow. The warm lagoon waters are full of little creatures, mostly invertebrates, that the salmonoid fry like to eat.

Last time the water agency excavated a channel in the mouth, the water running out scoured an ever-deeper channel and the level of the river receded down to just above the level at low tide, about two feet or so. The fast-emptying lagoon washed the fish fry out into the ocean before they were ready for the presumably greater challenges of life in the ocean.

Moment of Truth 6:27:16

About two hours before the 0.5′ low tide they opened the channel and water began running gently out of the lagoon making the lagoon an estuary once more. Within 30 minutes harbor seals were using the new channel to transit between estuary and ocean.

Seals Swim Upstream

About a dozen or so of interested onlookers watched from the turnout above the mouth. Several spectators—equipped with expensive camera gear trained on a small group of seals sunning on the beach about 50 meters north of the excavation—watched after the welfare of these pinnipeds. Others observers were from the Water Agency providing oversight to be sure everything would proceed according to plan.

Here’s a video of the first moments of the opening of the mouth.

Here is another video showing the harbor seals swimming through it taken about a half hour later.


Visiting the Russian River Estuary

The Russian River Estuary is filling up now that the mouth has closed. My wife and I got up early this morning to take our canoe out to see the wildlife out there and to pick up whatever garbage we could find.

Jenner 6:3:16

It was calm when we arrived.

We paddled out to the mouth and then upriver stopping at a pasture for a break. We saw about 70 Harbor Seals at the (now closed) mouth, Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Loons, Mallard Ducks, Caspian Terns, Pelicans, Canadian Geese, and Turkey Vultures. Although we hoped to see something a bit more unusual, specifically River Otter or perhaps, a Bald Eagle, none showed themselves to us.

All along the way, we found flotsam and jetsam to pluck out of the river and take to the garbage receptacle at Jenner launch site.

We stopped by the visitor center to buy a gift for our daughter’s best friends newborn baby girl.

A wonderful morning followed by a fantastic creekside lunch we enjoyed on our way home at Fork’s restaurant.

Map of today’s outing:


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.

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.

Russian River’s Mouth, March 30, 2016

Earlier in March heavy rains swelled the Russian River and all its tributaries. A recent spell of dry weather has quieted the flow in the brooks and streams where I live. I wanted to visit to see what the river’s mouth looks like.

The kayak was on the roof of the car, but there was enough wind and current to convince me to have a landlocked look from above at the turnout just north of Jenner on California State Highway One.

The mouth of the river is much narrower, maybe a quarter of the width during its maximum flow earlier this month. Still, there is a plenty of current running into the Pacific. The current accelerates in places where the river narrows as it does here at the mouth.

RiverMouthatJenner3:30:16Though barely visible in the photo above, a large number of harbor seals are hauled out on the sand here, resting between easy meals of hatchery-bred anadromous fish. (Those poor fish swim from the river’s mouth into the seal’s mouth.)

It’s pupping season. Harbor seals give birth and suckle their pups on land. With binoculars it’s easy to spot the little ones from the overlook.

Pup at Jenner 3:30:16

You just want to think, Dad, Mom, and Baby. A better guess: Random guy, Mom, and Baby.

According to Wikipedia, harbor seal courtship and mating occur underwater. They are though to be polygamous, though that’s not certain.

The gestation period for harbor seals lasts nine months, just like humans. And, like humans, they give birth to one pup at a time.

Unlike human babies, harbor seal pups are well developed at birth, weighing in at about 16 km (35 pounds). Hours after being born, pups are in the water swimming and diving.

After only one month of suckling on their mom’s rich milk, pups double their weight to more than 30 kilograms (70 pounds). At that point, mom quits suckling her pups. She’s got other things on her mind….

Pup at Jenner-2 3:30:16

Sunning themselves on the sand next to their moms, they bring to mind corpulent vacationers on Waikiki.

Soon after her milk dries up, Mommy Seal is back in the mating game. Wikipedia is silent about how much time is spent mating—probably because what goes on under the waves stays under the waves.

When mating is done, it’s time for mom’s make-over: she molts. During the molting season, seals like to rest frequently on land. Birthing, suckling, and molting, all done while on land, are the reasons why seals need protection from human disturbances on the California coast from March 1 through June 30.

Here at the beach across from Jenner, the needed protection is provided, hopefully, by a three-strand yellow polypropylene rope. When they can, volunteers from the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods are there to talk to visitors in an effort to keep human disturbance to a minimum.

Still, even on a weekday there are plenty of bipeds about.

Beach Bipeds

Bipeds looking out to sea. Note yellow rope in foreground.

Skillful Aviators

The highway turnout is also a good place to watch soaring birds fly past on the onshore winds that blow up and over the coastal bluff.

Just as I arrived—and before I could extract my camera from its bag—a pair of Ravens gracefully plied the sky before me. A Red-Tailed Hawk hung in the air above the hill behind me, studying the ground below, perhaps looking at a scrumptious rodent? This beautiful bird was almost beyond the reach of my camera’s lens.

Red Tail 3:30:16

Seagulls and Turkey Vultures floated past at regular intervals.Without flapping, they make their way on their coastal journeys north and south, skillfully and without any apparent physical effort. It is difficult to get a photograph that suggests how skillful and beautiful these aviators are.

TV by the Sea 3:30:16

It was hard to leave the overlook, but it was time to get back to Camp Estuarian, 5 miles upriver, in Duncans Mills, for supper.

Camp Estuarian 3:30:16