Petaluma’s Shollenberger Park a peaceful wetland walk for early risers

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At 6:01 a.m. on a Thursday morning, shortly after sunrise, there are already two cars in the lot at Shollenberger Park, though admittedly, one of them is mine. The other is occupied by a soul figure, a man in a green coat, sipping from a to-go Starbucks cup, his window down despite the slight chill in the dawn air. He is leaning slightly into the open window, as if straining to hear something.

My guess? He’s listening to the birds.

“Good morning,” I nod, as I step from my own car.

“Yes,” he replies in a deep and somewhat thoughtful voice. “Yes it is.”

He returns to listening.

There’s certainly plenty to listen to.

Though few humans have yet to make their way here yet, the birds of Shollenberger, hundreds of them, are already wide-awake and singing loud enough to be heard clearly, even out here in the parking lot. The odd, high-pitched, metallic squeak of red-winged blackbirds dominate the ornithological soundscape, as tight little clusters of birds lift up from the grasses that separate the lot from the walking path and the large pond beyond. Insect-like, the birds seem to float up, darting quickly here and there as a group, then drop back down to hide in the grass.

Dawn at Shollenberger, even on a slightly foggy morning, is all about the birds, about solitude, about semi-silent contemplation and an unencumbered walking path down to and along the river, then around the large, shallow, meandering Shollenberger pond, and back to the starting point. It’s about 2 miles total, this walk, and within an hour or so, the place will be occupied with walkers, joggers, runners and people with dogs and/or children. There will be birders too, easy to spot as they tend to be the ones not walking. They carry binoculars or spotting scopes, and often perch at the edge of the pond, patiently gazing across the water, studying the varied wildlife that has made this place their home.

Originally created by the City of Petaluma as a dredge-spoils disposal site, the ecological landscape of this 165-acre wetland is formed from river mud deposited from a long ago dredging project on the river. Since it first opened to the public in 1996, the park has become a popular destination. Separate trails lead from Shollenberger to the Marina, and across to the Ellis Creek wastewater facility, with its own network of walking trails. The looping trail is often used for races and fundraisers, including this weekend’s Petaluma Footrace, a benefit for Mentor Me.

At the entrance to the trail, a small red child-sized jacket has been hung on a pole, the unofficial lost-and-found desk of Shollenberger Park. From a distance, it resembles a short-statured scarecrow. Just beyond it is the edge of the pond, where a solitary coot — its little white beak standing out against its dark, black-feathered body — is plaintively calling, calling, calling. It’s a sad, abandoned sound. Nearby are two swans, out for an early morning swim. Beyond them are a group of mallards lined up along the shore, conversing in duck-speech interrupted by the occasional splash of a bird or two entering the water. It seems that the lonely, calling coot is the only non-human creature out here that does not have a companion or two to share the morning with.

As I stand watching the coot and the swans, I hear another car pull into the lot, and a few moments later, an unaccompanied man with a fishing pole and some other gear takes the path to the right, heading down to the river.

I allow him a good head start, and then take the same trail.

Over the next hour or so, as I visit and read every single memorial plaque and bench placed by friends and family in honor of Shollenberger lovers who’ve died over the last 23 years, I see, pass or am passed by roughly a dozen people, one at a time. Mostly young-ish runners, making lap after lap around the pond, plus a few older folks, one woman with earbuds tightly in place, evidently choosing music or a podcast over the sounds of nature.

Every person I will see is alone.

A large number of swans congregate in the center of the pond. About a half-mile down the trail, an expanse of ground on the pond side of the trail appears. This is a spot my own kids long ago dubbed Watership Down, after the classic Douglas Adams book about rabbits. Sure enough, I soon spot the erect ears of a large brown rabbit, poking up among the grasses. He saw me long before I saw him, and he’s clearly hoping I’ll move along quickly. When I don’t, he decides to make a speedy sprint away and off into the bushes.

As I finally reach the river, the fisherman I saw earlier can be seen up ahead, already in place at the small observation deck built to overlook the river. His line is in the water, and he’s leaning against the railing, watching as a kayak approaches slowly from the direction of the Foundry Wharf.

“This is the best time to be out here,” he says, reporting that he often catches sturgeon and other hardy fish during his regular visits. “It’s quiet, this early, but there’s still a lot of life happening, if you know where to look for it.”

It’s now 7:12 a.m.

Back at the parking lot, the two cars have now become six. The man in the green jacket is gone, but from the lot, the lonely cry of the coot can still be heard. Another car pulls into the parking lot, and a woman with a pair of binoculars steps out.

“Anything good out on the pond this morning?” she asks, preparing for an hour or so of birding.

“Definitely,” I nod, telling her briefly about the coot in need of some company.

She smiles.

“Coots are best,” she says, adding, “I think I’ll go say hello … before too many more people show up.”

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