As I arrive on my bike at the Fair Oaks Bridge, I see a flock of 50 seagulls gather on the north side of the river. More fly in to join them.
Seagulls gather at two prime locations along the river waiting for their chance to nibble on remnants of salmon after spawning. Turkey vultures circle overhead. All looking for salmon.
The river’s resident egret flies in, squawks and lands on the smooth riverbank searching for food. The wildlife living at the American River are left alone with no fishing allowed. A few salmon jump and splash down. A warm day for riding, despite the cloud cover.
I wonder is the fish ladder open yet? I ride to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery to find out. Yes! Salmon have returned home. Salmon are leaping into the ladder from the open gate. A group of salmon all already crowding the holding tank at the top of the fish ladder – the last stop before salmon move into the hatchery for spawning. Crowds of people line the fish ladder to watch each salmon leap each one level upward and capture the moments in photos.Read more
Today I ride along the bike trail to watch the salmon traveling upstream. I stand watching them for half an hour, seeing a series of splashes beginning 100 yards away and getting closer. This shallow part of the river presents the richest experience for watching salmon, seagulls and turkey vultures overhead. As I stop to watch a dozen other cyclists and walkers also stop to enjoy the salmon navigating the river and the seagulls looking for their next meals.
Hundreds of seagulls line the river, some walk into the rapids, stand, shout and wait. Thirty turkey vultures fly overhead – more than I have ever seen in one place at one time. I watch as a dozen salmon leap, swim, gather, rest and move on through the rapids to still water.
One dead salmon rests on rocks in the center of the rapids. One at a time, a seagull approaches. It pokes his beak around, pondering what to do and then nibbles on parts of salmon’s underside. One seagull sits in the water near the shore where I stand, open its beak wide and calls to the others, whoever will listen. I watch and I listen as the seagulls stretch their wings before returning to settle in the water. A few ducks swim in the quiet pool of water, apparently unconcerned about the activity.
This narrow section of the river is the same where I watched ducks station themselves to search for food in the water a few weeks ago. Now this is dominated by the salmon and the gulls. The coming of the salmon quickly changed the interaction of wildlife at the river.
I ride east to another overlook where hundreds more gulls line up and wait. This section of the river is far wider and the only sound is the water moving downstream. Seagulls are silent. No turkey vultures fly overhead. The only clue that this river winds through a suburban community is the houses located on the Fair Oaks Bluffs above.
The tip of the thin island where the fisherman used to stand is now even smaller because with increased river flows, the island is thin enough to almost disappear. The gulls have overtaken this space as they wait.
A warm afternoon and ideal weather for a bike ride.
One of the best viewing spots to see seagulls waiting and salmon jumping is about a mile east of Fair Oaks Bridge, where the American River Parkway bicycle trail meets a paved road leading to a picnic area overlooking the river. I often visit here to watch the fishermen, the seagulls and ducks at play. As I arrived, I saw a fisherman walked toward me carrying a large salmon laying in his net that I estimated weighed between 25-30 pounds.
Thirty seagulls were gathered on the island in the center of the river. All waiting and watching for a tasty salmon meal. Last year when I visited this spot during prime season, I counted 100 seagulls gathered at the island. Today a dozen turkey vultures circle over my head. I only see vultures flying overhead during the fall run of salmon.
Suddenly all of them flapped their wings and lifted into the sky. The seagulls flew so high, they looked like glittering white stars, blended in with a few black dots that were the vultures.
The seagulls flew in circles for two minutes until the entire flock flew west and vanished from sight. A dozen of them returned minutes later. A dozen Canada Geese flew in, honking loudly as they arrived and landed with a loud splash all at once close to the north shore.
A single fishing boat floats leisurely in the water. Men periodically check their lines Occasionally, I hear a “plop” as a stray salmon lifts is head above the water and quickly falls back down. More seagulls arrive at the island.
I rode back towards home looking for more gulls flying around the river. Salmon remain hiding underwater.
When I arrive on the bridge, I see seven boats lined up on the American River (running from east to west). I find it curious the boats are always in a straight line on the eastern side of Fair Oaks Bridge. Boats always stay on the north side of the river. I am guessing the water level is deeper to support the boats. The south side where the boat launch ramp is located tends to be shallow almost half way out.
Two walkers pass. An older man calls out to me, “It is cheaper to buy salmon at the store than to go fishing in the cold. It is freezing out there on the water.” I turned and replied, “Then you miss the experience. You cannot buy the experience.”
I rarely have the opportunity to ask fishermen why they venture into the cold river before dawn to catch salmon. For devoted fishermen, catching a wild salmon, watching it jump and wriggle and try in vain to escape is the culmination of both joyful anticipation and planning. Some salmon get away. Their struggle to escape is stronger than the fishing line. At the final moment when the salmon is caught, skillful hands cannot hold on. The salmon wins the game to fight another day. Watching the sunrise, eating breakfast on portable grills on the boat are experiences no one can buy in a store.
I watch the fishermen as they find the best spot, cast their lines and share fish stories between boats. I come outside to experience the chill in morning air, listen for a distant, yet unseen “quack, quack, quack,” and honks from Canada Geese, the graceful flight of seagulls and their calls to each other from the river.
Even after visiting this bridge more than 100 times, I continue to marvel at the beauty of this place.
Arriving at Fair Oaks Bridge, I always do a spider web check. This morning I marvel at two empty spider webs. These webs are meticulously attached to the Truss frame of the bridge. I watch the ripples in the water as ducks swim past me. Next I watch a circle of pigeons flying above the bridge. Canada Geese swim under the bridge. An egret flies and lands on the boat launch ramp. Ducks are busy finding breakfast on the boat launch ramp and under the water. I remain in awe how various species of birds take flight and land, using their wings and feet in different, yet very precise ways. Many waterfowl gather to feed on salmon. I don’t smell the scent of their decaying bodies as much as I have in the past. Two dead salmon lay at the river bottom below the bridge.
I stand and watch a series of circles in the water created by Canada Geese who rise and flap their wings in the air for 20 yards before ever lifting out of the water and rise into the sky. I listen to the sound of a tiny bird, “Ti Too. Ti too.” These birds return regularly to rest on the overhead truss of the bridge.
After this the salmon are protected from fisherman and so they can continue to swim undisturbed up the American River to their spawning grounds. All of them will stop when they reach the weir at Nimbus Fish Hatchery. Some will lay eggs in the river. Many will climb the fish ladder into the hatchery for spawning.
It is late in the day, so the morning fisherman have long ago left the river. Only two boaters are sitting in the river. Seagulls patrol the sky. I see a dead salmon laying the shallow bottom of the river. I am surprised to see a Great Blue Heron walking along the riverbank on the west side of the bridge. Usually 630 am is the prime time to search for nibbles.
I walk along the American River Parkway to a shallow, rocky area and see a seagull eating his catch. Twenty seagulls sit and wait.
I wonder, why are so few salmon jumping? Were there more salmon a year ago?
I struggled to observe so many things happening at once – writing, observing, photographing. Four turkey vultures circle, dozens of seagulls call, and other waterfowl swim peacefully. I see so few salmon jumping. As I stand watching the water, I see two salmon swim and then another. The easiest way to spot them is to watch for the flip of their tails as they propel themselves forward.
Water splashes and one salmon surfaces; barely visible because the colors blend into the water. Each one that passes navigates the surface of the water for only a second before its swims down below again to continue on this last part of its long journey from the Pacific Ocean. I see a third salmon flipping its tail and disappear. This pattern continues. In 45 minutes, I see at least six salmon swim past and likely many more that I missed.
An Egret stands tall in the distance making serious efforts to swallow a whole salmon.
Using its beak to shake it and break up the salmon into pieces is not working, so the Egret throws the salmon to the ground to dunk it under the water. It remains intact. The next strategy is to shake it apart and that does not work either. Finally the Egret stands and decides to chew on it a little more. After a few minutes, the Egret tires of tearing up the dead salmon flies to the opposite shore to escape the crowds.
I notice each day when I visit the river that all the larger birds – Egret, Great Blue Heron and even the Turkey Vultures tend to stay in the background, waiting their turn. They go on patrol individually. The Turkey Vultures cast off their competition with a spreading of their wings, warning others of their kind this is their territory and/or their catch, “Get outta here!”
Some seagulls stand alone while others prefer to stay in groups. A rare opportunity to see the Egret, Great Blue Heron and 20 gulls stand together on shallow parts of the river looking for food. Vultures continue their sky patrol. One daring salmon passes quickly in front of the gulls and keeps on going. I wonder what those gulls could be thinking? “Oh darn. Another one got away!”
Soft rain falls on the ground. I see a random pattern of drops on streets, sidewalks and the deck of Fair Oaks Bridge.
All fishing is over until January. No fishermen here to disturb river wildlife. Spawning salmon and other creatures of the American River are left at peace. On this very quiet morning, white clouds blanket the sky, in thick round rolls covering the pale blue early morning sky. A gentle breeze blows as I stand and watch leaves of gold, red and orange fall from nearby trees into the river and lazily float under the bridge.
Mallards gather at the boat launch ramp for a morning meeting. I hear the chortle of a Great Blue Heron from the ramp. It rises up and flies in to sit about 30 yards from me. Although I hear it clearly, the pale blue colors blend in with the landscape and the heron remains unseen. A Turkey Vulture flies over my head, scans the river and continues to fly west. Four more Mallards fly in with fluttering wings and a splash – their legs stretched out straight ready for a “ski in” landing.
Two seagulls call out to each other. I wonder what they are saying. Could it be, “Where is the food?” “Where is the flock?” “I am hungry. Get your breakfast here.” I watch each gull open its mouth wide and tilt their head back. The sound of their voices come from deep down in their throat.
I wish I could speak duck! What do they chatter about? I am sure sometimes one is telling off another, “You don’t belong here, so scram!” Or “Stop taking all the food!”Morning meeting complete, they slowly swim away. Canada Geese stand at the end of the boat ramp, whispering to themselves.
Last night’s rain washed the air clean. I see sharp clear lines on the trees, landscapes and structures.
Even after the rain has come and gone, I still see spider webs clinging to the rails of the bridge. Today is a crisp and warm morning. White billowy clouds cover the sky. River is still and seems empty.
As I stand on Fair Oaks Bridge, the small bird that favors its observation post at the top of the frame calls out a good morning greeting. An usual morning because so far, I see no ducks swimming, no seagulls flying overhead and no Canada Geese honking or approaching from any direction.
By this time of year, I expected to see many salmon jumping out of the water. Instead, see very few.
I imagine them swimming slowly and intently beneath the visible surface. Are they swimming deeper, so I miss them? Salmon are easier to spot at the shallow, rocky area about a mile upriver to the east. I wonder how many salmon stop to spawn in the waters of the American River before they reach Fair Oaks Bridge?
I hear many people remember, as do I, the years when salmon lined the weir at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. So many, they formed their own solid bridge. No more. Their numbers are far fewer these days. It is common to see a handful jumping at the weir (gate on the American River).
Later in the morning, a dozen ducks swim in from about 100 yards away upriver. A few walkers pass and a solo cyclist. I hear one splash down at the river. I walk to the “shallows,” pictured here, where salmon spawn. As many as 30 seagulls float in the water looking for salmon treats to nibble on. Canada Geese fly in here to check status on a variety of tasty food sources.
I wonder why the Egret and the Great Blue Heron always arrive alone and stand apart from other wildlife. They always keep their distance from each other and stand on the opposite side of the river from the gulls, geese and ducks. Both are easily disturbed.
It seems that November is one of the “stillest” months for mornings on the American River. Leaving the wildlife alone to find food at their leisure without boaters getting in their way. During the week, driving down city streets, as seagulls fly overhead, I wonder are they headed to the American River looking for salmon.
Do seagulls carry maps in their head, in a way similar to salmon use their powerful sense of smell to find their home river from hundreds of miles away? I imagine this a seasonal migratory habit leading them to find salmon year after year.
When a dozen ducks finally arrive they “own” the river, swimming down its center of the empty water, leaving a wake behind each of them. Sun has finally risen over the wide cloud cover with a brightness that hurts my eyes. Today I hear a new bird call, in addition to the others I hear regularly each morning visit. This one is a shrill whistle – Whoo – oo—oo. We ee uu.
Every morning a different experience visiting Fair Oaks Bridge.
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.
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.