Green Herons, Killdeer, Kingfisher, Otter, Osprey & Mergansers

This morning a strong northwesterly wind swept down the Sonoma County coastline and pushed its way into the lower Russian River estuary. Strong winds tend to keep wildlife hunkered down out of sight. I decided to alter the plan to paddle near the mouth in favor of paddling the upper reaches of the estuary near Monte Rio where the wind would be more manageable and the bird life more abundant.

It was a good choice. There was a lot to see.

Green Herons waded along the shore in the water primrose (Ludwigia peploides, an invasive species) which flourishes in the Russian River anywhere the water is fresh, warm, shallow, and slow moving. Whatever those smaller herons were eating was down the hatch before I could see what it was.

Whole Green Heron 6:14:16

When approached Green Herons freeze in place to avoid being noticed, a strategy that works pretty well. This behavior also makes them ideal subjects for the amateur photographer.

Green Heron Face 6:14:16

Many of the birds today were in out pairs. A couple of killdeer patrolled Sheridan Beach where I stopped to quaff a thermos of hot black tea.

Killdeer Couple 6:14:16

A little further down the estuary a female Kingfisher alighted in a tree close by. These birds usually fly off long before they get within range of my kayak-born camera. On this occasion she was paying so much attention to a nearby male that she didn’t mind my close approach.

Kingfisher Female 6:14:16

Kingfisher Pair

Male is on the left, female on the right

A river otter did its best to stay out of sight.

River Otter 6:14:16

I paddled as far as the pole-mounted osprey nest installed on Ryan’s Beach. A pair of Osprey kept watch from above. I saw Ospreys nesting on a trip to Lake Sonoma earlier this spring in March I wondered how long the nesting season is for Osprey.

Nesting Osprey 6:14:16

The paddle back to Monte Rio was both with the wind and against the current. The two fluid currents nearly cancelled themselves out, providing a pleasant journey back to the launch ramp in Monte Rio.

A Mama Merganser was teaching her offspring how to get a midday meal out of the river. I got a little bit of video of it that you can see on Youtube.

Earth Day Eve Litter-Getter

Tomorrow morning at 8:30 I will go to the Jenner Visitor Center to join with other volunteers in a River clean-up in observance of Earth Day 2016.

By way of warming up for tomorrow’s festivities, I canoed today out of Monte Rio, some 13 km (8 miles) upstream from Jenner, in search of recreation, birds, and garbage. There were no other boats out today and little human activity apart from an attractive young couple sunbathing on the Villa Grande beach.

Many birds were out in the 70° F sunny weather: Great Blue Herons, Ospreys, Ravens, Crows, Kingfishers, Turkey Vultures, Stellar’s Jays, Tree Swallows, gulls, sparrows, and many other small birds I’ve yet to learn. A turtle sunned high on a log. A river otter swam quickly upstream.

I picked up the usual assortment of garbage (plastic single-use beverage bottles, aluminum beer cans, lost shoes, tennis balls that got away from the retriever, and, the prize recovery: a ride-on motorized Jeep. That thing weighed more than 50 pounds and made my canoe tippy. Weight wise, it was my biggest clean-up day ever.

Ride-On Jeep 4:15:16

The ride-on motorized Jeep on its way to the recycler.

If you’re interested in joining tomorrow’s event, come on down. Organizers say that they can accommodate walk-ups.

 A map of this outing.

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.

Egret.2 2:2:16

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.

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.)

Day After Thanksgiving Paddle

My friend, David, and I went for an afternoon paddle at the mouth of the Russian River on Friday, November 27. We were hoping to see and photograph the bald eagles that have been visiting the mouth in recent days. We didn’t.

When we arrived the launching area was surprisingly busy. It was hard to find a place to park, even in the 10-minute loading zone. There were ideal conditions for paddling, just a mild breeze blowing in from the ocean and the sun shining brightly. A number of kayaks plied the waters. With crowds of people like this, getting a good photo of a bald eagle seemed unlikely. That turned out to be true; we saw no eagles on this outing.

We paddled out to the mouth of the river, still open from the breaching work that was completed Monday.

Out to the Mouth

When the river’s mouth is open, fish swim back and forth between the river and the ocean through a narrow channel which makes for relatively easy fishing for seals, pelicans, cormorants, and other pescatarians.

A whole bunch of rather well-fed seals gathered at the mouth after feeding to rest. The seals seem to have enjoyed their own fishy version of a Thanksgiving feast.

Resting at the Mouth

You guys shouldn’t have taken seconds of pumpkin pie….

Apart from keeping an eye on human gawkers, the seals will occasionally groom themselves. In the photo below one seal is scratching his mussel with his fore foot. Look at those fingers!

Seal Scratching


We stayed near the mouth for a while being careful not to get too close to the area where the current begins to run swiftly into the ocean.


Almost straight across from the open mouth a kingfisher flew by and alighted on a stick along the right bank. He was a good distance away and flew off before I could approach any nearer.

Kingfisher at Mouth

Kingfisher at the mouth of the Russian River

We paddled down the back channel of Penny Island, hoping to see some birds, but a lot of the wildlife had departed because of the many people who had visitied this part of the river.

We landed on the eastern point of Penny Island, beaching our kayaks on a gravel bar that gets submerged when the mouth is closed.

We opened our hatches and grabbed sandwiches and hot tea in thermoses for our late lunch.



We got back aboard in the last hour of sunlight to paddle upstream in the hope of seeing an eagle, now that most of the other river kayakers had gone in.

No eagles, but a kingfisher tantalized me, flitting in and out of sight at the far edge of my camera’s range.

Kingfisher Upstream

In low lighting conditions, the camera makes the kingfisher appear bluer than it really is.

As darkness began to fall, we paddled back to the launch ramp, loaded our boats in the fading light, and drove back to Sebastopol.