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.

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.

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

Russian River Estuary, February 28, 2016

Although it was rather cold and gray out at the Sonoma County coast this morning, it was refreshing to slip the kayak back into the relatively clean, clear, and healthy waters of the Russian River Estuary at Jenner.

The mouth of the river is open. There is still enough downstream flow that during a flooding tide the river is flowing out, emptying into the Pacific. Later in the year, the river carries almost no runoff—just a trickle of waters released from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. In summer the river runs both ways when its mouth is open: upstream on flooding tides and downstream on ebbing tides.

Mouth & Gull

I was paddling solo today, solo with plenty of company from birds and marine mammals.

Gulls, cormorants, and harbor seals gathered near the mouth.  Everyone was trying to absorb what meager warmth the sun provided as it shone weakly through a layer of coastal overcast.

Lounging Seal

As I paddled along the shore straight across from the river’s mouth, a turkey vulture landed surprisingly close by. At first he or she seemed to be looking with great interest at me—or rather the bow of my kayak. The vulture’s interest in my kayak’s bow allowed me to get many close-range photos.

Vulture studying shore

After drifting to within about eight feet of this bird, I remembered that vultures are capable of spewing their vomit at whoever might dare to venture too close. I put the camera down and began to move away. I was started to see what actually had been capturing the vulture’s keen interest: a seal’s carcass hidden (in plain sight) among the driftwood.

Seal Carcass

Hoping that river otters might be active in the fishing hole near Paddy’s Rock, I made my way up the narrow channel along the south side of Penny Island and upstream along the left bank.

An osprey called from somewhere further upstream, hidden somewhere among the trees. I followed its call, paddling slowly and quietly to avoid spooking it. Something stirred in a tree high above me and there it was: the osprey watching me pass. In the moment it takes to get the camera out of its case—and before I could frame it in the viewfinder— the bird decided to fly.

Osprey Taking OffI set down the camera and picked up the binoculars and followed its flight some distance upstream where it landed in a cypress tree. Fifteen minutes later, we repeated our little dance, but this time I was able to get a picture of it perching overhead.

Osprey in Cypress

At lunch the wind began to blow. The layer of overcast thickened. It turned colder as the afternoon arrived, or it seemed to. I rummaged through the front hatch of the kayak, retrieved a windbreaker from a dry bag and donned it.

The birds seemed to take to their homes in the trees or rocks along the shore. The time to call it a day and return to the Jenner launch ramp had come. I paddled in.

Today’s map;


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.