Jenner with Jono

It is pleasant to contemplate a day of paddling on the river, especially when the weather is forecast to be warm and sunny. Such contemplations are sweetened further when plans include a paddling companion. This morning as I readied my kayak, the day’s plans promised all these pleasures in full measure.

Last Saturday, Jono Hale and I had visited the Laguna Foundation Headquarters in Sebastopol, California to attend a lecture/slideshow presentation about River Otters by Megan Isadore, Executive Director of the River Otter Ecology Project.

Jono and I decided to go out to the Russian River in hopes of spotting and otter.

We got an early start today, a good thing as the Jenner launch ramp was very busy on this President’s holiday weekend.

Jono at Jenner 2:15

Jono paddling towards the mouth

Jono, for those who don’t know, is a paddler’s paddler. He has paddled his way into the record books. Among his many achievements is one of the first (the first?) kayak trip out to the Farallon Islands which lie about 30 treacherous miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Jono accomplished this the honest way—without chase boats.

He’s also a fine paddling companion, full of stories ranging across a wide assortment topics.

We got down to the mouth in a few minutes. A group of mergansers had collected near the mouth which was crowded with harbor seals and cormorants.

Merganser at the Mouth 2:15

Merganser near the mouth of the river

Near the mouth, we passed a cypress tree that held a great blue heron. Somehow, herons seem too big to perch and nest in trees. But they don’t think so, apparently.

Heron in Cypress Tree 2:15

Heron in cypress

An osprey perched at the top of another tall cypress tree nearby. Osprey have recently returned to the Russian River Estuary. Their whistling call was like music announcing the arrival of spring. This individual took a good long look back at the camera.

Osprey in Cypress

Ospreys have binocular vision, as this photo shows. Their vision must be much better than anything we humans can see, even with the help of our best Zeiss units.

We paused briefly before heading up the south channel on the back side of Penny Island in hope of seeing an otter.

Jono to Penny 2:15

Jono heading for Penny Island

The otters were not in any of their usual haunts along the south bank of the river so we continued up under the Highway One bridge towards Willow Creek. No otters were around, but we had plenty of company from the harbor seals and even some sea lions, who, I think, were looking for a midmorning steelhead brunch.

Sea Lions near Willow Creek 2:15

Sea lions swimming near Willow Creek

As we approached the shoreline of Willow Creek Environmental camp, a great blue heron posed at the edge of the water, almost in silhouette.

Heron on Shore 2:15

There’s something dignified, almost regal in that posture.

We paddled almost to the end of Freezeout Road and were starting to get hungry. I was disappointed to have come almost four miles upriver without seeeing an otter.

Then Jono said, “Dan look! An otter is swimming right at you.”

Sure enough, a single river otter swam close by my kayak and climbed out of the water. It spent a few minutes grooming itself, much as a cat would do, preening its fur with its tongue. The auto focus on the camera was acting up. Out of scores of photos, here’s the best.

Otter on River Bank 2:15

The otter finished gussying himself up and got back in the water, heading upriver. Jono and I followed the otter for a little while before deciding it was time for us to have a break. We pulled our boats up on a rocky shore and enjoyed a lunch made even more pleasant by warm sun and conversation.

Bob, Jono, Dan 2:15

Bob and Jono, each legendary in their own right

On the way back we encountered Russian River’s resident wildlife expert Bob Noble, who paddles in this estuary more than just about anyone else. I was pleased to introduce these two fellow estuarians to each other. We enjoyed a brief conversation. Bob told us to be watching for more cormorants, now that the hatchery has released smolts into the river. Sure enough, we saw plenty of cormorants. One of the groups assembled on the gravel bar in the lee of Paddy’s Rock:

Cormorants 2:15

Hatchery fish make for an easy meal because they were raised in the relative safety of a hatchery and aren’t as wary as they need to be to escape predation by the cormorants.

Jono and I got back to the launch area which was jammed with visitors and cars. We got our boat on our cars and went out for some tea and coffee at Cafe Aquatica. We talked mostly about sailing, a shared interest.

It was a fine day on the estuary.

Laguna Foundation

River Otter Ecology Project


Harbor Seal Voices

At 11:00 this morning the wind was up from the east. Ray and his daughter Anna got to the launch ramp a couple of minutes after I did, but slow is me—they launched ahead and headed down to the mouth of the river. Anna is a mountain climber, so I reckon kayaking is a pretty tame activity for her.

Ray and Anna 2:9:16

Ray and Anna

It was high tide and the waves outside the mouth looked pretty intimidating.

Waves at the Mouth

A strong offshore wind was blowing off the tops of the waves.

We were at the mouth for only for a few minutes before heading upwind and upstream. Along the shore of the cow pasture above Jenner, a snowy egret was actively catching small animals (probably small fish) in the water.

Snowy Egret 2:9:16

The yellow feet are underwater here. This one intermittently ran along the shore, wings out, in pursuit of lunch.

Upriver from the bridge I heard a distant and strange growling noise, something I’d never heard before. I had no idea what it was, but the sound was clearly coming from from upriver. Looking through binoculars I could see that the “logs” about 1/4 mile upriver were actually seals hauled out on a shoal. I paddled towards them until I was as near as I could get without disturbing them, about 150′ away. Using the zoom lens to the max. I started taking pictures.

drooling seal 2:9:16

Both animals vocalized. The one on the right of this picture (with the drool) was doing most of the talking.

The spotted one had quite a lot of drool running out of its mouth. Was it sick? Does anyone know if harbor seals make more noise when they’re sick?

Drool Closeup 2:9:16

Unlike their sea lion cousins, harbor seals don’t use their voices often. But harbor seals do have vocal chords and they can use them. Here’s what their growling sounded like today.

The growling was louder than you might imagine from watching this video. The camera’s microphone really isn’t optimized for long-distance sound recording like this.

Farther upstream by the Willow Creek Campground the wind that had been blowing so hard at the mouth an hour before turned off and the river went calm

Up by Willow Creek Camp 2:9:16

There is a gravel bar on the right bank of the river across from Willow Creek that makes a good place to get out for lunch, thus avoiding muddy boots mucking up the inside of the kayak on the way home.

Time for Lunch 2:9:16


On the way home the same family of otters that have been hanging out in the river near Paddy’s Rock were at it again, playing and fishing and looking like they were having fun. There were three in this group today. I watched them for a little while, but—alas!—they spooked as I began fumbling with my camera and they turned tail and climbed up into the wooded river bank.

Otter Tail 2:9:16

See ya later, estuarian!

The otter’s tail ends today’s estuarian tale.

A map of this paddle:


Rain, Rain, Come I Say

Weather forecasts called for rain on the Sonoma County coast late this afternoon, and they were right.

That meant a whole morning and the first part of the afternoon for paddling. A forecast for rain is tantamount to a forecast for fewer people—and more wildlife—on the river. So today it’s off to the Russian River!

I started with a tour towards the mouth of the river, but it didn’t turn up much to see, so it was time to head upstream.

A young deer was on Penny Island this morning. It foraged near a large redwood tree stump washed up on the southern shore.

Deer on Penny Island 2:3:16

Deer must have to swim to reach Penny Island.

An immature bald eagle had been perched on Paddy’s Rock, but it quickly took to the skies.

Immature Bald Eagle 2:3:16

Longer, slower wing beats make it easy to tell an eagle from a hawk in flight.

Farther upstream, near the grotto on the southern shore, a group of vultures gathered on a rocky shoreline.

TV's near the Grotto 2:3:16

They were eating something small, too small to identify even with binoculars.

Lunch was on the gravel bar in the lee of Paddy’s Rock. Unbeknownst to me as I was enjoying my sandwich and hot tea, a trio of river otters had gathered on the far side of Paddy’s Rock.

Russian River Otters 2:3:16

The tail in the foreground belongs to another otter. That tail is about 1/3 the length of the whole animal.

They were surprised to see me—the surprise was mutual—but they went about their business of catching small fish and bringing them to the surface to eat. River otters have few predators in the water. On land, however, they need to watch out for large breeds of domesticated dogs, coyotes, and mountain lions all of which are known to prey on river otters. Humans are their biggest threat.

About halfway between Paddy’s Rock and Penny Island a western grebe surfaced right in front of my kayak.

Western Grebe 2:3:16

Such a red eye!

A great blue heron walked along the northern shore of Penny Island.

GBH 2:3:16


To complete the day’s paddle, I returned to the mouth area. Rain began to fall, gently at first and then increasing in intensity.

I came across a sea lion holding one flipper out of the water. That flipper held high like that has an uncanny resemblance to the dorsal fin of a shark.

Because of the rain, the camera was stowed safe beneath the splash deck. There’s no photo of the sea lion to share—sorry.

The rain came in on a southerly wind. Along with the rain came the warm and friendly aroma of coffee beans roasting at Cafe Aquatica.

Rain 2:3:16

If you’ve never kayaked in the rain, add it to your bucket list. It’s a pleasure.

Turkey Vultures in the Estuary

I gave my son photos of estuarine scenes that I printed and framed for him as a Christmas gift.

He liked them.

TV Left Bank 12:27:15

Later, when I showed him other estuarine photos on my computer, he told me that he particularly likes the photos of turkey vultures—most of which have never appeared here.

He told me he’d like me to take more pictures of turkey vultures and print them for him. So, on today’s paddle I had my eye out for turkey vultures. I hoped to get a good photo or two.

Waves in the Mouth

It was quite cold and a little bit windy on the coast today. Because of this I was the sole paddler at Jenner, at least while I was there. Being the only human on the water enhances the chances of getting a good photograph. I donned my warmest paddling clothing and went out.

To begin, I paddled out to the Russian River’s mouth to pay my respects to its power. Recently, on December 23, a paddler lost his life here. He’d been swept out into rough ocean waves in a current strengthened by run off from recent rains and a strongly ebbing tide. Though he was wearing a life jacket, he did not survive his plunge into the cold water.

Rivermouth Open 12:27:15

As I looked out of mouth and into the ocean beyond, ocean waves were surging into the river. The waves, though smaller than the waves on December 23, were still large enough send furrows of water into the river, gently rocking my kayak. Aware that here on the coast of Northern California, sneaker waves are often seen, I found this rocking of my boat discomforting. I kept a wary eye on the waves.

Harbor seals and sea lions swam in these waters. When the mouth is open fish make the journey from river to ocean or ocean to river; sea lions and seals dine on them. Knowing that they can be territorial on their feeding grounds, I kept near the shore and out of their way.

After a half hour or so, it was time to move upstream to Penny Island. Last time I was here I saw several turkey vultures gather on the island. Sure enough, there was a pair vultures at the western end of the island. I paddled to the south side of the island and beached my kayak, intending to approach them on foot from the south with the sun behind me. Unfortunately, the pair of vultures did not like my approach and they flew off.

TV OverheadI decided to persist. I pulled my kayak into tall grass several feet above the flooding tide and walked slowly toward the place where the vultures had roosted. I settled in at distance and waited. In twenty minutes or so, they flew back, soaring over me and then wheeling around to land near to the northern shore of the island. They alighted on a snag and were joined by two others.

4 TV's 12:27:15

Vultures lack vocal chords.

A closer look revealed the heads of several other vultures in tall grass below the snag. Making my way gradually across the island, one step at a time, I got closer. I saw more than a dozen vultures standing in the tall grass close to one another, all looking toward one individual whose head bobbed up and down.

I moved in as slowly as I could until I was too close. In groups of two and three all but the head-bobber flew off.

TV's Seal of Approval 12:27:15

This diner stood upon the carcass of a furry mammal he was dismembering. His meal was about the size of a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, enough, perhaps, to feed the other vultures who had been waiting their turn at the table until my approach had scared them away.

Head-bobber was intent on its meal and allowed me to approach quite near.

TV Lookin' At Me 12:27:15

I was able to get within a few feet before it flew away. It was eating a young harbor seal.


The vulture had been eating neck tissues at the base of the skull. Perhaps it was hoping to eat the brain? Remarkable how much like a dog’s teeth the harbor seal’s are.

With a good collection of photos in my camera, I realized that I was hungry. It was almost noon. I made my way back to my boat, got in, and paddled to the east end of the island where a large stand of eucalyptus trees form a windbreak from the strengthening cold northwesterly breeze. There, I pulled my kayak onto the shore and retrieved my lunch from the aft hatch. I got out my stool and sat, warming my bones in the sun.Estuarian at Lunch

The thermos of hot tea was just the thing to wash down the sandwich I had packed.

As often happens on coastal lunches, a seagull came by not so much to keep me company, as to beg  for a taste of my croissant sandwich.

Lunch Gull 12:27:15

He was a good-looking gull. I did not disappoint him.

Bon appétit, Monsieur Mouette.



Kingfisher Day!

What a fine morning!

Although the day started with a (welcome) rain shower, the rain clouds parted by mid morning to let the sun shine on the Russian River.

Landscape, Russian River

On the drive down the river to the Jenner launch site, I saw a bald eagle winging his way upstream towards Duncans Mills. That did not bode well for getting photographs of bald eagles today, but I allowed myself to hope for a photograph of a kingfisher.

When I arrived at the launch ramp, Bob and Ray were ready to paddle off toward the mouth. I would follow them, 15 minutes behind. Storms in the Pacific had stirred up some big surf. The waves were so loud I decided to get out of my kayak and walk over the sandbar to have a look. It was just about low tide when I took this picture, so I knew that the waves would come higher up the beach as the day wore on. I did not linger there long.

Surf Scene

Good thing, too. Some of the waves were pretty scary. A sneaker wave would have no trouble sweeping a walker into trouble.

Big Wave

It was time to paddle away from the mouth.

Across from Paddy’s Rock kingfishers were flying from tree to tree staying just out of the reach of my camera lens. Although kingfishers are commonly present on the lower reaches of the Russian River, they can be one of the most difficult birds to photograph from a kayak. They keep a good distance away from most paddlers and, while they perch right along the banks of the river, they tend to go just far enough into the branches of trees to stay hidden from view. It seems as if they watch kayakers lift a camera into position and. as they see a finger get near the shutter, they take off and fly 50 to 100 yards further down the river, mocking the photographer with their their raspy, sassy call.

I followed one kingfisher, a female, upstream toward the highway bridge, trying to keep far enough away to avoid her flying away. Finally she settled into a tree and started fishing. I had never actually seen a kingfisher dive into the river before. This bird dove into the river twice. She got a fish on one of her dives; the other I couldn’t tell because she flew up into the trees far enough to be hidden from view.

Fishing Kingfisher

Female Kingfisher

She was fishing in the shadows of the trees growing along the river. Of the 30+ photos, this one is the best.

Going further upstream, I caught sight of another kingfisher, this one, a male, in full sun.

Perching Kingfisher in Sun

Males do not have the brown markings on their breasts.

Fishing in the same section of the river between the highway bridge and Willowcreek were some loons fishing in a group of four. Here’s a photo of one of them.

Loony Loon

In the next day or two, I’ll post a short movie of the loons fishing.

Here’s a map of my paddle today. (Click on the title words, “Kingfisher Paddle” too see the whole map.)