The American River is quiet once again after one of the wettest winters in 20 years. What wildlife will return to the river this spring?
Tuesday, October 17, 2017 730 am, 49 degrees
By the time I arrived at Fair Oaks Bridge this morning, the glorious orange and pinks of sunrise were already faded. I drove toward the sunrise enjoying its brilliant display by car instead. I listened to the “Fair Oaks Village symphony” informally conducted by at least a dozen chickens. Then I heard even more singing on the bridge.
I gazed into the American River and saw small white patches of clouds reflected from above. Seven Canada Geese flew over the bridge against a backdrop of fluffy white clouds.
Fishermen were in their places, fishing nets hanging off the side of their boats and kayaks. I watched a Great Blue Heron at the boat launch ramp take a careful stroll along the riverbank until it disappeared under the bridge. Its soft blue and gray coloring blended into the landscape from a distance. Staying focused on this majestic bird took constant concentration.
Friday, December 1, 2017, 7 am 39 degrees
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.
Sunday, December 10, 2017, 820 am 37 degrees
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.
Friday, December 22, 2017, 645 am, 37 degrees
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.
Sunday, January 14, 2018 740 am, 47 degrees
As I approach Fair Oaks Bridge this morning, the only sounds I hear are my own footsteps, a few random chicken greetings and songs from birds still hidden from view.
Given the degree of mist hanging in the air and the chilly temperature, I expected to see fog covering all views on the bridge. High clouds and distant fog hung suspended over the hills. The American River was clear and without any of the characteristic mist rolling downstream I have seen so many other mornings.
Two men launch a fishing boat. I hear Canada Geese honking approach from the east. They are invisible until within 20 yards of the bridge. Then they fly over so fast there is no time to capture them in a photo. All four of them land softly in the river on the west side of the bridge at precisely the same moment and glide downstream. Loud honking continues as others join the chorus. The sounds carry half mile in the still air.
On the east side of the bridge, near the boat launch ramp, one duck begins to complain. “Quack! Quack! Quack!” The chatter goes on and on without end. I am barraged by sounds of wildlife as I stand on the bridge. See video below.
Canada Geese are honking on the west side of Fair Oaks Bridge and ducks are quacking at the boat launch ramp on the east side. Morning pandemonium!
I notice two dead salmon lay still in the river. No birds approach to eat them. I walk to the boat launch ramp intent on seeing the very agitated duck. Forty runners training for a marathon cross in front of me on the American River bike trail. Several cyclists quickly approaching from behind followed runners. A busy morning!
Two male Mallards and two females swim in the river near the boat launch ramp. One female is very upset and starts quacking again. She does not stop. Two minutes later, she has not taken a breath. She continues. As she swims, she is close enough that I can watch her beak open and close, open and close. The three males swimming nearby pay no attention. I wonder what could have upset her to prompt such a one-sided conversation?
I stay and listen and watch. She continues her casual swim and squawks for another 10 minutes without stopping for more than a few seconds. I still hear the distant call of Canada Geese. As the four Mallards swim away, the only visible duck left is a Bufflehead in the center of the river, diving for breakfast. Staying underwater for a half minute before surfacing – and then doing it all again.
Today is a bitter cold, wet and very noisy morning!
Sunday, January 21, 2018 710 am 36 degrees
It’s freezing out here. This morning’s chill is not the day for being curious, even though I can find so many things to imagine and wonder about at the river.
Two chickens are awake in Fair Oaks Village calling “Good Morning” to anyone who will listen. Clouds reflecting the pinks of sunrise scatter across the sky as the sun slowly rises in the east. Today thick fog on the American River is suspended in midair on both sides of the bridge, reminding me of thin strands of pink cotton candy. I watched from Fair Oaks Bridge as the mist gradually moved along the surface of the river under the bridge to its western side.
The bridge deck is solid white with frost and slippery. My shoes leave footprints on the deck. Several people dressed in jackets, gloves and hats brave the cold to walk, run and cycle. Two Canada Geese fly over in silence. One Bufflehead swims in the frigid water searching for breakfast in the river – preferring the deepest section in the center. It dives underwater and floats back up like a buoy several times over and over.
As the sun rises, the clouds scatter even farther apart, revealing a pale blue sky beneath. The sun peeks over the horizon and casts a bright light on the bridge. Ice crystals on the bridge’s side rails and deck sparkle like diamonds reflecting the sunlight.
The air is still cold! Before leaving the bridge I watch a seagull preening its feathers sitting on a tree branch bent so far down, it nearly touches the water — this is the same branch where turtles sunbathe during the summer.
Saturday, January 27, 2018, 655 am 44 degrees
I continue to be amazed at how each day’s sunrise can display such a diverse palette of vibrant colors. Some sunrises dazzle the sky for 45 minutes as the spectacle of light spreads through layers of scattered clouds. On dense gray cloudy days, the brilliant colors of sunrise hide in 10 minutes.
Thursday morning’s sunrise was a palette of pinks. Clouds held shades of pink from the early morning sunrise and reflected them like a mirror in the stillness of the American River. The colors are magnificent and well worth an early morning visit.
Today I arrived at Fair Oaks Bridge too late to catch the vibrant colors of sunrise. Morning air is still with no breeze and smells damp. This is not the fresh, clean smell after a refreshing rain. This air smells like wet and stale carpet. Where could that scent be coming from? I hear the sound of a foghorn (once again) and wonder where is it coming from?
I quickly learned the morning wake up patterns of Fair Oaks Village chickens and wildlife of the river during my morning visits. At least two or three chickens are always awake by 6:30 am – all still tucked away in their sleeping posts in trees and shrubs. Some mornings, so many chickens wake early, I hear a symphony across the Village and neighboring streets. When I walk on to Fair Oaks Bridge, I always spot the Buffleheads diving in the middle of the river first. They come out in all weather to dive and search in the center of the river channel. A few resident Mallards emerge from hiding next. As morning temperatures grow warmer, pairs of Canada Geese fly over me standing on Fair Oaks Bridge, honking and giving directions.
Today’s stay is brief – long enough to see the sun peek over the horizon and begin to warm the bridge. With a parting glance at the sparkling water, I walk off the bridge to return home.
Saturday, October 13, 2018 730 am 56 degrees
Fourteen fishing boats line the American River near the Fair Oaks Bridge. Twelve boats extend all the way around the river bend. The other two sit on the west side of the bridge. The deep green water is so still, there is hardly a ripple. In this cloudless deep blue sky, the sun glows like a brilliant yellow ball. I smell a faint, yet pungent odor.
So many fishermen and I have not seen any salmon jumping yet. Only two more weeks before fishing is banned until the end of the year. Have the salmon arrived yet? I see one small fish floating next to the boat launch ramp this morning.
Birds are busy greeting the morning from their station at the highest point of the bridge. “Ti Too! Ti Too!” From another direction, I hear a bird singing like a calliope in short, shrill bursts. I hear only one duck quack yet this morning. Where is everyone?
A dozen ducks were busy with their morning rituals in the river alongside the boat ramp. One was splashing itself to take a bath, another bobbing for breakfast. The others gathered in a morning meeting to quack, confer and squabble. “Where to eat?” I imagined them asking. A single seagull landed in the water alongside the Mallard. The gull looked frustrated “So where is the food hiding this year?”
A dabbling duck works hard for its breakfast.
Friday November 9, 2018 930 am
The Great Blue Heron poses like a statue in the American River. It stood on the stub of a branch before I arrived and continued to pose and study the river long after I walked off Fair Oaks Bridge. Water is still. The sky pale blue and clear. Not a wisp of a cloud. A dozen ducks swim by, creating their own wake. Pigeons fly in dancing over the bridge and quickly depart.
I walk to the boat launch ramp and see the ducks gather at the end of the ramp, looking at me with curiosity. They are likely wondering, Do you have food for us? I have no food to share. I hear an unseen woodpecker softly drumming on a nearby tree.
This peaceful place is an escape from other crises of the day. As I stand here and enjoy its beauty, catastrophic wildfires consume other areas of California – places of peace, joy and beauty where people and wildlife have lived and loved for years.