Marin coho salmon and steelhead, do they have value?

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Monitoring, studying and protecting salmon and steelhead are what brought me north to the wild and quirky climes of West Marin. Even before moving here I was observing and recording images of them laying eggs before they die.

Coho eggs from a female likely killed by a river otter.

Steelhead eggs still in the skein, Redwood Creek – Muir Woods.

Coho and Steelhead young of the year – Redwood Creek, Muir Woods.

Since moving here I’ve seen firsthand the friction created when humans and their activities express themselves in an ecosystem in which greed has no meaning. An innkeeper from San Geronimo Valley that has for years been moving fish from Sonoma waters to “his” fish pool on San Geronimo Creek. Environmental groups that move fish within a creek system to save them from certain death in drying pools, and possibly from other waters for the same reason. The same enviro-groups’ leader(s) seemingly flaunt the same construction rules they hold creek-side dwellers to with great fervor. (This sort of hypocrisy I have noticed is common in West Marin environmental committees and clubs)

Humans care about how big their house is and what “value” it will have when they go to sell it or transfer it to their offspring.

I do not know if salmon care. I do know the females expend great effort to find and prepare the right spot to place their future offspring’s embryos. A place whose gravel has not been mined or covered with silt from clear-cut forestry or creek-side development and road-cutting. She seeks a place where the riparian foliage is present and will keep the water cool. The same water that has hopefully not been impounded by a dam, or pumped far and wide to nourish alfalfa or other crops in what historically was a desert. The same water that is, water; not tainted with pesticides, herbicides, plastic softening agents or fire-proofing treatment, for example.

We all live in a watershed. Everywhere the rain soaks into the ground, attempting to find the nearest creek or river so it can return to the sea and someday fall as rain once again. Those that live nearest, or on the creek often complain of the rules being adopted to attempt to slow the decades of damage humans have wrought upon the arteries of the land.

Those closest to the banks most directly enjoy the benefits of a healthy creek. The same that can most directly damage that same creek with ignorant practices. I wonder if the rare and gravid female coho, struggling upstream looking for just the right sized cobbles, the cold, unpolluted water, the woody debris for her and her spawn to hide under, has any sense of what “property values” are?

Put another way, How does the value of property compare to the value of not going extinct?

Surely we can live simply and within the carrying capacity of this fragile planet so that we are not the last to enjoy her diverse beauty.

Coho and Steelhead young of the year

From 2004 through 2010 I assisted the NPS with monitoring of all phases of the salmonid attempt to escape extinction. I learned a great deal about the life-cycle of these gorgeous creatures as I labored alongside a number of gifted and determined professionals.

Coho smolt

Steelhead smolt

Coho smolts

Steelhead from Scott Creek, Santa Cruz county

Below are a variety of video clips I have gathered. The first clip is some of the finest spawning footage I have recorded so far and was shown in a previous post. The rest are from previous years. I also include a clip showing rainbow/golden trout hybrids spawning on a high elevation (~11,000 ft ASL) lake in Kings Canyon National Park.

Steelhead caudal fin – Redwood Creek, Muir Woods

I hope you enjoy the fruits of my years of enjoying these fish firsthand. I also hope after watching them in action you’ll be inspired to contribute to their survival so that those that come after us can see and enjoy the offspring of these fish.

Coho below Peters dam at Leo T. Cronin viewing pools – 9 December, 2012
Coho on Lagunitas Creek, Samuel P. Taylor Park – 10 December, 2010
Coho on Lagunitas Creek, Samuel P. Taylor Park – 10 December, 2010
Coho below Peters dam at Leo T. Cronin viewing pools – 10 December, 2009
Coho on Lagunitas Creek below the inkwells – 14 December, 2009
Coho below Peters dam at Leo T. Cronin viewing pools – 6 December, 2005

Rainbow trout and golden x rainbow hybrids spawning on lake at 11,000ft. in Kings Canyon National Park – 9 July, 2009

Male coho salmon remains – Olema Creek

The end of two species of rare fish

Birds of Tomales Bay

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The bay was flat and the wind was light. A great day to paddle around and see what is going on.

Black-crowned night heron

Most of the birds spook rather easily, even when I am hundreds of feet from them. So I am learning to keep far away from the large groups of what I think are a mix of sea-ducks, else they lift with a great roar and move to a new location.

Black-crowned night heron

A group of grebes took flight, though one remained, committed to finding food. So I tagged along for over an hour watching and making pictures and video. At first I kept back 30-40 feet and kept my paddle noise to a minimum. Over time that distance shrank and shrank. Eventually the tiny bird would paddle right up to my boat, nibbling at my paddle and the boat to see if it was edible. It was fearless as it swam along. Eventually I had to leave this adorable bird and head over across the bay. It would have been easy to spend the rest of the day watching this tiny bird paddle around and dive for food.

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

Horned grebe….well, it was there a moment ago.

A few boats were out and about, as well as many small to medium sized planes. One large, vintage military twin-radial completely dominated the landscape and shut down any idea of gathering video footage. The cold, dense, calm winter air makes for great flying if you are inside the plane. For anyone outside the plane near, or far, not so great.

Brown pelicans in flight

I came upon a large water-logged log, perhaps eighteen feet long, bobbing in the water smack dab in the middle of the bay. Surely not a good thing to hit with a small Boston Whaler at 30 MPH. Having never towed anything with my kayak yet, I tied a rope to it and tried to pull it out of the shipping lanes. I may as well have tied my boat to a living tree, firmly rooted in the ground. After 2-3 minutes of pulling hard and going essentially nowhere, I untied my rope and wished the log, and all boats venturing near it a good day.

Here is a one minute video of some of the bouncy footage I recorded from my boat.

Pelican yoga, moment of silence for Sandy Hook

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Pelican yoga on Tomales Bay – ©Richard James

This pelican had been sitting on a dock for some time when I floated near and disturbed it. It eyed me for a while before it stood up, defecated, then proceeded to do the amazing stretches you see.

Even pelicans get stiff necks.

Teach your children well

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I worked in the computer industry for too long, in a variety capacities.

Most every year I would head to San Francisco to the MacWorld trade show to learn of the latest gadgets my customers might want.

The last year I attended as my interest in the technology sector continued to wane, I witnessed something that I think is at the heart of what happened last week in a small school back east.

As I walked the many aisles of Moscone Hall visiting vendors, I was stopped by a horde of people that had spilled out into the aisle from within one company’s display area, or “booth”. Unable to easily walk through the densely packed, all male road-block, I stopped to see what they were all looking at.

Besides the throng of men and boys of all ages staring towards the presenter, the overwhelming sense was the very loud sound of gunshots and squealing tires.

The company was selling video games. First-person-shooter video games that enable the “player” to assume the role of an assassin and venture out into the virtual world created within the confines of the flat screen, and shoot people.

As the assistant was effortlessly blasting, running, blasting and reloading a variety of weapons, the speaker was extolling the virtues of this new version of a very popular game.

This new version had a faster processor, more memory, more weapons and a brand new graphics engine. This graphics engine could render scenes quicker and so realisticly he said, you’d be pulled right into the environment and forget where you were.

The line that sticks with me to this day, as his assistant, the assassin, shot person after person on-screen, the line that reverberated in my mind today as I watched coho spawning, coho soon to be dead after using their last bit of energy to create and deposit the next generation of a species likely to soon go extinct in California, delivered with such pride and enthusiasm, you’d have thought he was explaining a cure for cancer, so proud of his new and improved graphics engine – “Look at that blood! It’s so realistic.”


If you have children, please regularly spend time with them away from anything that requires electricity or batteries or has a screen.

And now that you have read this, turn off your computer, send some love, strength  and compassion to those grieving families back east, hug your children and take them outside somewhere to look at the stars, smell a damp bay tree, listen to a free flowing river, or a croaking frog or the wings of an owl overhead.


For those in Sandy Hook

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I went for a short walk on this beach this evening, thinking of those families grieving their losses. I can think of no greater pain that that of losing a child.

Beauty ushers forth from between a rock and a hard place. Lewisia is one of my favorite flowers of the sierra. Found up high where few dare visit.

Even when the landscape is stark, beauty can be found. In the foreground is Polemonium, also known as sky pilot, the name given to a chaplain in the military. It is one of my favorite flowers of the sierra, found only in the highest of places where bighorn sheep, eagles, pika and fools roam free.

May the families in pain tonight find solace in the beauty of nature while we all share in their sorrow.

King tides – video of the highest tide of the year in Tomales Bay

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13 December was the highest tide of the year and I was out recording it.

NOAA predicted that a 6.58 foot tide would reach Inverness at 11:13am.

Below you will see a 5 3/4 minute video I shot at 6 different locations along Tomales Bay from Chicken Ranch Beach south to the Inverness Store.

While not as exciting as watching endangered coho salmon spawning (see that here), these high tides are, or should be a very sobering event for us all.

If the earth continues responding to humans as it has been, the ocean will continue to rise and what you see on the video will be the normal everyday tide in just a few years.

As I setup my equipment and recorded I spoke with several people, mentioning the king tide and how this was to be the new normal in a few years. Virtually no one I spoke with had any idea of this. Some of these people have homes on the shore, or over (under) the water.

You can learn more about king tides here.

PLEASE NOTE: All of the images and video on this website are copyrighted works, belonging to Richard James. If you do not have explicit permission to use them from Richard James, do NOT use them. Please ask me about licensing them.

Near kayak rental and The Golden Hinde
38.107713° N -122.863002° W WGS84

Near the Inverness Yacht Club – I wonder if that building has a bilge pump?
38.103156° N -122.857720° W WGS84

Near the dacha, the owner was there and had no boots. He waited til after noon to gain access
38.101382° N -122.856399° W WGS84

Launch for hire, aka The boat house
38.100113° N -122.854925° W WGS84

Behind Inverness Store
38.097681° N -122.850816° W WGS84

Get your water-wings on and enjoy. Mostly it is rather quiet, the clip at the store has loud sirens in the background, so watch your volume.

If you have high speed internet, click the full screen icon at lower right, this is HD video.
If you do not have high speed internet, watch it small or go for a long walk while the video loads.

Coho salmon spawning, wheel of life turning before our eyes

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If litter on the beach saddens me, which it does, the return of salmon and steelhead to spawn in our local creeks makes me happy.

Coho, party of two your gravel is ready. Coho party of two.

Red male and darker female coho salmon spawning on Lagunitas Creek, 9 Decmber, 2012 ©Richard James

Fish that were eggs three years ago are now returning to lay eggs, usually in the very same creek they themselves hatched in. Once this task is done, the fish will linger until they die. This could be a few days or a couple weeks depending on the condition of the fish, the presence of predators as well as water levels.

Female coho carry about three thousand eggs. If 2 percent make it to adulthood and spawn 3 years from now, that is considered a huge success.

The ten minute video you can watch below was shot on Lagunitas Creek near the Leo Cronin viewing pools in Samuel Taylor Park. I apologize for the intrusive title. I must be doing something right as my work is being used without my permission more and more. Marking it ensures I am credited for my efforts. If you’d like to license my work for your use, contact me at Financial support allows me to continue documenting our natural world and hopefully galvanize mindful action to protect it from us.

If you want to see spawning salmon in person, now is the time.

For the best chance at seeing fish here are some tips:

1) Quiet. Keep voices down, the fish can hear you and will spook off their redds (nests) if you are too loud.

2) Dress in neutral or darker colors, nothing flashy or bright, they can see you too.

3) Be still. Lots of movement will also scare them off the redd.

4) Bring polarized sun-glasses to cut the glare on the water. Binoculars are good too.

5) Leave pets at home. Barking dogs and lots of movement distracts fish from this most important task

6) Ideally, view fish from just downstream if you can, that way they are less likely to see you and your time to view them will be greater.

Click the full screen icon in the lower right corner of the video window and spend some time in nature.


Peregrine vs. peeps, etched in my memory forever

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Having previously hidden in the bushes a rather heavy and valuable item I dug out of the sand, a quick visit to Drakes was in order. Little did I know, in addition to recovering my treasure, I’d see another amazing moment involving birds in their natural environment, this was a top ten event for life. Maybe top fifteen.

Hustling down Drakes Beach, it was mostly as I’d left it two days prior, though now I was picking up many items I had skipped before. There is just too much trash on the beach for one person.

Two hundred meters into my journey I noticed a large flock of sanderlings and maybe a few western sandpipers were probing for invertebrates near the water. Two or three hundred birds scattered across fifty meters of shore, all pecking and moving, looking for food as the water lapped at the hard-packed fine sand. Suddenly, from the west the birds started to lift straight up. Though not the usual dance, where those at the back of a bunch fly over to become the birds at the front of the bunch, to get first tracks on new ground. This was a more chaotic movement, they were all moving in different directions, quickly.

For a moment I wondered why, then I saw it, dropping out of the sky from maybe a hundred feet up. Sharp, stout, pointed wings. Black mark through each eye. Wow I thought! A peregrine is making a high speed run through this flock of snacks. Many times I had found the remnants of one of these events on the beach. A pile of feathers. Once, while out with the Point Reyes plover person, we saw a peregrine sitting on a log, snacking on a recent kill. As we walked closer, it flew off with the body of a small bird clutched in its’ talons. We walked over to the log it had been on to find bright red blood dripping down the log and an even brighter red heart the size of a chick-pea, still glistening, having just been torn from the chest of this tiny shorebird. What A shame to leave the heart I thought. My grandmother always savored the heart, liver and kidneys from any deer that had been killed.

The falcon dropped fast, exchanging altitude for speed. As the peeps rose up and tried to steer clear, the falcon, now going 50-60 mph was 3 feet off the beach and looking to make contact. Again and again it dropped one wing, then the other, turning left and right. Instead of colliding, and killing, it was more like a slalom skier, passing gates, never catching a tip, always a fraction of an inch from striking.

Shorebirds continued to lift and scatter down the line from west to east as fans would raise arms in a wave at a football stadium. Wanting so to see skier impact a gate followed by an explosion of feathers, I was disappointed, but only a tiny bit as the falcon passed the end of the line of gates. A perfect ski run. A big fat zero in the dinner department. Over in 3 seconds. It flapped 5 or 6 times and shot back up into the sky.

The sanderlings and others headed out to sea. The falcon pulled a tight turn and flew back over me looking for stragglers, finding none it flapped off into the setting sun.

I must have said wow twenty times, replaying what I’d just witnessed as I walked another three hundred meters to see if my treasure was where I’d left it.