Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017, 9 am 57 degrees
People of all ages enjoy a morning outdoors on Fair Oaks Bridge.
Families are out walking, joggers shake the bridge as they pass and I hear cyclists on the American River Parkway less than 100 yards away. The air is warm, with no breeze, yet filled with the calls of birds hidden in trees that hug the riverbanks. With heavy cloud cover, the sun barely shines through.
People climb the Fair Oaks Bluffs to enjoy the panoramic views, cross the bridge, stop to enjoy the river and see the wildlife at play and at work.
Seagulls call as they fly over the river, some landing in the water to call again. One bird song reminds me of a calliope with its high pitched whoop. Buffleheads skirt the water, leaving ripples as they rise out of the water and fly low across the river. Watching the river all year long, I only see these daring little ducks in fall and early winter. I presume they live somewhere else during other parts of the year.
Do birds know today is a holiday for people because we show up in larger numbers than other days?
This looks like one more workday for them in their ongoing search to find breakfast. A woman arrives on the boat launch ramp to throw seeds. Nearly 20 birds and waterfowl rush to get their share. Seagulls call out to each other. One gull lands in the river to nibble at a dead salmon floating slowly downriver. A very busy day on the American River.
As I gaze into the sky today standing on the bridge, I wonder about the clouds, their constant motion and beautiful palettes of color. Clouds continue to fascinate me. How exactly do they move and change shape?
Are clouds held in the sky by currents of air in the same way an airplane flies?
What is the air temperature inside a cloud? I have often heard, “Cloudy skies today, so our air temperature is low.” Or, “The clouds held in the heat overnight to keep away the frost.” Are clouds one of nature’s mysteries?
I stand in awe at how the shape and density of clouds create the brilliant colored lights and shadows of sunrise. The golden glows of deep orange, and varying shades of pinks and grays filter the sunlight. I have seen long strips of clouds and barely visible wisps. They look like unraveled skeins of yarn, finely woven baskets, and rounded puffs reminding me of spun cotton or cotton candy.
Each cloud formation changes every minute. Everyday brings a new landscape and new shapes in the sky. We see rainbows after a rain storm. We can find animals, dragons, giants and scenes playing in the sky.
Each cloud formation changes every minute. Everyday brings a new landscape and new shapes in the sky. We see rainbows after a rain storm. and can find animals, dragons, giants and scenes featured in the sky. What about the days when there are no clouds in the morning and by evening the sky is covered by a heavy blanket of white?
How do we know if clouds move as the earth moves, stay in one place or move on their own at the mercy of the winds?
Yesterday morning the ground was covered in mist. The sun never shined through the clouds until the evening. The sunset was a single strip of pink lasting five minutes and then faded into gray. Besides learning their different names – cumulus, nimbus, stratus – to describe a cloud’s characteristic shape, moisture content and elevation, what else can we learn about them?
Mist on the river slowly rolls over the still water as I stand and watch.
The soft orange glow of morning sun reflects through dense clouds. The colors appear only for a few moments, then muted and fade to gray in the company of heavy clouds. Fifteen minutes later, I look again to see a fiery orange strip peeking behind trees in the east.
Only three birds overhead are awake this early. Not a gull or a duck have come into view yet. One lone chicken calls “good morning.” Suddenly dozens of birds in groups of six, nine and twelve soar through the foggy sky and disappear. One seagull patrols the boat launch ramp looking for salmon to nibble on. The turkey vultures, the seagulls and the Canada Geese are all flying west away from salmon spawning habitat. Is the salmon run over so soon?
Everyone has their role and place at the river. Those that don’t belong are quickly told off with a series of loud quacks and chased away.
I approach the boat launch ramp and discover air filled with the scent of dead salmon. Seagulls sit in the water calling to anyone who will listen. Two dead salmon float in the river at the end of the boat ramp. Ducks ignore this treat and paddle over their bodies. A male and female duck swim together and bob their heads in unison as they paddle through the river.
Fog on Fair Oaks Bridge. Fog lays on the water. Fog hovers in the air. Fog hugs the riverbanks and hides the boat launch ramp.
The sun is just now emerging on the horizon, seen as golden ball in the sky. Fog surrounds the trees, as a soft white light fills the background. A circle of light shines down through the trees as if it were a spotlight on stage. Long, thin trees stand erect in dense fog.
I continue my walk to the boat launch ramp and see the bridge surrounded by dense fog and reflected shadows the water. My hands are chilled, feeling the cool, moist air against my skin. A few ducks swim to the boat ramp. One seagull swims alone. Even in the fog, these birds engage in their morning rituals – seeking crumbs, seeds, bugs or worms for breakfast.
All wildlife swim quietly through the fog as if they did not notice the dew settled everywhere.
A quack breaks the silence from a distance, followed by the shrill call of birds. A Mallard arrives with a series of quacks. It swims and dives, swims and dives again, speaking of the experience in between dunks. A seagull lets out a desperate call to any creature who is listening.
As we move closer to winter, morning temperatures are low enough each day to bring a heavy layer of fog into our neighborhoods and watch the mist as it rolls across the American River.
Yet, the boat launch ramp and the riverbanks are clear today. A single seagull circles the bridge and flies west. The salmon run is nearly over and soon all the seagulls will be leaving for the season.
I will miss the morning calls of seagulls and the joy of watching them circle slowly and gracefully over the American River.
My fingers are chilled from the breeze. I wear gloves and a heavy jacket to stay warm on this frigid morning! Ripples in the river trace where ducks swim through the center of the channel. Low laying fog rolls slowly along the river, moving underneath Fair Oaks Bridge. Fog continues to roll under the bridge as if they were billows of steam rising and falling in a huge simmering pot.
On one October day when visiting wildlife at the boat launch ramp, a fisherman who was preparing to drive away with his boat saw me walking towards him. He paused long enough to call out from inside his vehicle, “The best things in life are those that you do slowly.” I smiled back and thanked him. How else can we truly be “in the moment of experience”?
His words keep coming back to me during the past few weeks. Setting aside dancing and running, I cannot think of anything else I want to do in fast motion. Pausing to observe morning wildlife rituals, their focused efforts to search for a meal, seeing how they relate to their own kind and other wildlife, and the waiting game to catch a single fish needs time and patience.
I am amazed to see resident ducks and Canada Geese come out from their evening hiding places to swim in the river, even in the coolest, wettest weather. They seem to talk less in colder temperatures. Today, as every morning, I hear a soft quack of at least one duck, swimming out in the unseen distance. One swims alone, dunking for breakfast and speaks to no one when it comes back up. (See video below) Fair Oaks Bridge rumbles as a dozen cyclists race across the bridge on their way uphill to Fair Oaks Village.
Two walkers stroll by and ask, “How is your journaling going?” We have met several times on the bridge. Depending on the day, I meet the same walkers and the same cyclists. Walking down to the boat launch ramp, resident waterfowl come to greet me – especially if they think I might have a quick snack.
The Egret stands in its usual place on the north side of the river away from all other wildlife, to enjoy morning breakfast without company or interruption. When the Great Blue Heron shows up 10 yards downstream, the Egret flies away to escape the intruder. As the sun rises well above the horizon, the magic of morning at Fair Oaks Bridge lingers on for a few precious moments longer.
Sunrise glows a soft orange through heavy fog and a blanket of white clouds.
Streets are empty and quiet. The American River is nearly still. A few random leaves float lazily down river. I hear a splash to my left standing on Fair Oaks Bridge. I look over too late and see nothing. My hands are chilled, even in gloves and shake them out to get warm. As the sun rises at the horizon, the sky resembles a tapestry woven of grays, blues and a brush of the palest orange. Air streams from airplanes cross a wisp of dry gray clouds resembling a skein of unspun yarn. The orange at the horizon grows deeper as the sun begins to emerge.
A single gull flies west and disappears into dense fog. A jet stream crosses the sky. Two walkers emerge out of the fog on the bridge. A single jogger passes.
More gulls fly west. Their elevation is so high, I wonder if their bounty of salmon meals is coming to an end? The salmon run typically ends by mid-December.
Two Buffleheads huddle along the north riverbank, not ready for their morning swim. A few ducks are braving this chilly morning to swim in the center of the river channel. Canada Geese swim in a line swim toward the bridge. I have not seen geese in a few weeks here. I hear the distant call of one chicken living on Bridge Street, calling to anyone who can hear.
The day is peaceful and quiet. I sit alone on the boat launch ramp with the seagull, the Canada Geese and ducks paddling around the river on this sparkling, clear and cloudless blue sky.
One very unhappy seagull calls out over and over again while standing one the end of the boat launch ramp. Fifteen ducks swim and fly in shortly after I appear on the boat ramp thinking I have food. I throw a mandarin orange segment on the ground that was quickly rejected by several ducks. Pigeons and seagulls arrive waiting for their handouts.
While the ducks are busy scavenging the boat ramp, the seagull bends its head backward and screams out in frustration. I can only imagine the meaning of its calls, “Where is everyone? Where is the food? Why am I alone out here?” A few more gulls fly in to swim all looking for a meal.
Pigeons fly off the ramp and circle overhead before returning to boat ramp three separate times before they finally settle again. Ducks waddle down the ramp, returning to the river. The gulls make a quick exit, soaring through the air with wings extended to catch air currents. The lonely gull stays standing on the ramp, contemplating and calls out again. Two Canada Geese arrive and wander the boat ramp looking for something to eat.
Of the many dead and discarded salmon I have seen floating in the river or left at the riverbank, this is the first salmon skull I have seen. Finding this on the boat ramp, I wonder what creatures feasted on this and how did it get here?
In their customary morning ritual, chickens wake early to call from the trees where they hide and sleep at night. As morning temperature warms up, chickens fly down to patrol the streets and park.
Clouds dust the sky in the same way powdered sugar falls on cookies through a strainer. The bridge deck and rails are heavy with moisture. No spider webs today. A beautiful morning. River is still. Runners, walkers with dogs and cyclists pass by. Everyone dresses in hats, gloves and jackets. Each breath comes out as small clouds forming in front of their faces.
I hear the whistle of a different bird this morning and it reminds me of a circus calliope playing a tune. A seagull calls from a distance. Pigeons circle the bridge in their daily morning dance.
Diving ducks are out searching for breakfast. I watch a Goldeneye dive underwater and disappear four times in rapid succession. It stays underwater 30 seconds before rising back to the surface again.
Several weeks have passed since I last saw turtles sunbathing on their favorite branch at the riverbank. That branch is slowly sinking into the American River.
Arriving at the boat launch ramp, a dozen ducks fly in all at once and approach me thinking I have food. Ducks slowly waddle up the ramp, shaking their tails from left to right. Pigeons arrive. Everyone is frustrated because I brought no food. Pigeons rise up in unison and fly toward Fair Oaks Bridge and circle twice. They settle back down on the ramp, but not for long. Pigeons are collectively so “nervous,” they repeat this morning ritual every time they sense slight movement or a sound. Meanwhile, a seagull out of sight continues its wailing.
I notice a newly installed memorial bench at top of the boat launch ramp – one of many benches along the American River Parkway to celebrate the life of a treasured friend or family member. The ground beneath it is fresh and smooth.
I wonder who was this person and what was their relationship to this place?
Walking farther east on the American River Parkway to a wide and shallow place, I watch salmon as they swim upstream through the current. They rise above the water just long enough to see the gray and white colors of their badly deteriorated bodies. Within ten minutes I see five salmon swishing and splashing through the shallow waters. Their short lives (three to four years) and several month journey from the Pacific Ocean is coming to an end.
A group of salmon circle near the surface of the water. Only their fins and top edge of their bodies are visible. Salmon splash and stir up whirlpools in three separate places. Not a single seagull is waiting here to grab a meal. Some will stop here to spawn. Others will search for another shallow area along the river. Many more will swim another mile until their passage is blocked by huge gates (called a weir) at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. Salmon will spawn along the riverbanks here or climb the fish ladder into the hatchery.
Turkey vultures search a small nearby island for remains of a dead salmon. The vulture pictured guards his salmon and chases another away from the catch.
With flapping wings and a snap of its head, the competing vulture withdraws and leaves to find food somewhere else.
When I return to the boat launch ramp a cyclist has arrived with a bag filled with food for the ducks. The pounce on it and the feeding frenzy begins. I watch two ducks struggle to bite off large chunks of bread. The lone seagull stands at the end of the boat ramp feeling left out. When most of the food is eaten, ducks quack all their way down the boat ramp and swim away. Pigeons are today’s clean up crew, snatching any tiny leftover bites.
I arrive long after the brilliant orange glow of sunrise has faded from the sky. No chickens are up yet to call their good morning songs. So many birds I hear, yet do not see. The bird singing the calliope tune, others chirp and hiccup.
Winter mornings are quiet here. Seagulls stand on the boat launch ramp and call out to others that can hear. I watch several seagulls fly a few feet over my head as they cross the bridge in wide, sweeping circles.
As I hear the calls of seagulls, I wonder if they are asking, when will it be time to leave the river? Or, is there salmon left to eat here?
There is no clue here of the hustle, bustle activities of days before Christmas here. The parking lot behind the boat launch ramp filled with pick up trucks and other vehicles to tow fishing boats is near empty. The sound of a distant quack carries in the gentle breeze. Resident Mallards prepare to mate to produce spring ducklings. I see pairs of ducks bob their heads in unison each time I come signaling their interest in mating. Goldeneyes reside at this spot on the American River during fall and winter.
I see an Egret fly in and land on the riverbank at the foot of Fair Oaks Bluffs. Egret sightings are rare these days of winter. Their search for food takes them away from this part of the river.
Pigeons walk the deck of Fair Oaks Bridge searching for crumbs or seeds or remains of a sandwich, cookies and other food left behind.
I arrive at dawn to catch the sunrise, dressing snugly in my hooded jacket, long pants, long socks and gloves. Today’s icy wind is just enough to keep frost off car windows and grass. Frost coats the bridge deck and I feel its slippery surface beneath my feet. One duck braves the cold for an early swim back and forth across the river.
Why is the sun bright yellow when looking at it in daylight; yet at sunrise and sunset, we see shades of orange from pale pastel to dark and fiery?
Every morning brings a new set of cloud formations and different ways to diffuse and reflect the sun’s brilliance. Today clouds are woven as if they were a heavy gray blanket hanging over the river. Patterns of light change and spread as the sun edges closer to the horizon, painting the sky at dawn with brilliant colored light a full 30-40 minutes before the sun shows itself.