Dawn Paddle, Russian River: River Otter Attacks Heron

At dawn the usual gray overcast from the coast was absent. Camp was still and quiet. I got dressed and wheeled the canoe down to the river directly—without stopping for coffee.

Dawn Paddle 7:20:16

The River was glassy and warm enough to send mists curling aloft from the surface and toward the sky. Dawn is magical.

A female Mallard was breakfasting in algae growing on near the island downriver not far from camp.

Female Mallard, DMCC 7:20:16

A Great Blue Heron worked the nearby shallows .

Heron in Mist

It was watching me carefully as I took its photo. I got too close, and it flew away downriver. We encountered each other repeatedly—like the Heron, I was making my way downriver, too.

GBH 7:20:16

The Heron posed again and again.

GBH 7:20:16-2

Near the end of Freezeout Road the Heron stood along a heavily wooded section of the river bank. Suddenly, out from the cover of the brushy woods, a River Otter sprang out at the Heron and came within it whisker-length of biting its legs. The Heron leapt straight into the sky, as Herons do, and flew upriver, squawking loudly and repeatedly in its hoarse, raspy voice. It had had enough of me.

The River Otter’s attack happened suddenly and was over so quickly that I was not able to capture it on film.

Cute as they may be, River Otters are ferocious creatures. This was the first time I saw a River Otter attack a bird. I have read that they sometimes hunt together and take Brown Pelicans. There is video from the River Otter Ecology Project of a River Otter in a standoff with a Coyote on Tomales Bay.

As I returned to the beach in late morning, a bird not seen that often flew overhead and landed on the island near camp: a Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle 7:20:16

The rewards of paddling early in the day are well worth the extra effort.

And, after a brisk morning’s paddle on the Russian River, the coffee tasted especially good.

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.

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

Lunchtime

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: