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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Bon appétit, Monsieur Mouette.