I took a weekend trip to Point Reyes in order to have an outing with Daniel Dietrich of Point Reyes Safaris. I spent the first day on my own, before spending a day with Daniel.
Bear Valley Visitor Center
My first stop on the way up from the city was the Bear Valley visitor center. I’d seen Townsend’s Warblers on the Woodpecker Trail last year, so I wanted to take another look. This winter has been depressingly devoid of Townsend’s photographs for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any warblers. There were Black-Tailed Deer browsing in the field next to the forest. The light was pretty harsh, but I managed some decent shots.
My next stop was Drakes Beach to see the Elephant Seals. I expected I would just make a quick stop, but ended up spending three hours there.
It was an incredible scene. The seals started hauling out near the Drakes Beach visitor center during the 2019 government shutdown when there weren’t humans around to scare them off. This year’s storms pushed the seals off other parts of the beach and onto the section right near the parking lot. As a result, there are seals resting, birthing, nursing, and fighting just on the other side of a temporary safety barrier from a publicly accessible parking lot.
Other Elephant Seal gathering spots in Point Reyes have a large buffer zone during pupping season. I suspect the park is hoping a closer human presence will prevent the seals making the parking lot a regular pupping ground.
When I first arrived, a bull was mating a cow right up against the barrier. The light was too harsh for good photographs, but it was an incredible event to witness up close. This was not a very romantic affair, with the male holding down the female as her recently weaned pup scrambled out of the way. I was so close that I used my iPhone to make the video.
An elephant seal colony is a very chaotic place, with seals piled on and next to each other howling, flinging sand, nursing, mating, jostling for position, and fighting for dominance. The beach itself is off limits for everyone’s safety, so it can be tough to get just the right angle.
But, when everything lined up, the beach afforded a rare opportunity to photograph these unique animals up close. This photo shows the difference between a young bull and a mature, more dominant one.
Amidst all the chaos, tender moments would happen, as the pups enjoyed their brief bond with their mothers.
This photo of a scarred cow is a reminder of what a hard life these cuddly-looking mammals lead. While hauled out to birth and nurse their pups, the cows are unable to feed. The bulls are no help, spending their time fighting for the right to mate with newly fertile cows. As soon as the pups are weaned, the cows depart, leaving the pups to fend for themselves. Back in the ocean, the seals engage in a delicate balancing act between hunting smaller sea life and avoiding larger predators. This seal appears to have survived an attack, likely from an orca or great white shark.
Drakes Beach Road
As I was leaving the beach, I spotted a Coyote browsing next to the road. I found a safe place to park and doubled back on foot.
The Coyote surprised me by coming my way instead of moving off in the opposite direction. It wasn’t threatening, but it also wasn’t letting itself be intimidated by my presence.
This particular spot gave me a good opportunity to play with different foreground and background layers. Point Reyes has so many gently rolling hills, so I tried to bring out the the variation in terrain through the different layers I included in the photos.
I realized after following the Coyote for a bit that it was favoring one of its hind legs. It could walk on it, but when trotting it switched to a three-legged gait. The Coyote sat down to rest on the side of a hill, and I moved on to let it focus on hunting without worrying about avoiding a photographer.
My last subject was an American Kestrel. American Kestrels are the smallest raptor in North America. They’re also the prettiest, in my opinion. American Kestrels are more closely related to Peregrine Falcons than to the Eurasian and African true kestrels. As is common in nature, American Kestrels evolved from a different ancestor to fill a similar niche to the true kestrels.
While American Kestrels are one of the more common raptors in North America, I’ve yet to get a good photograph because they’re skittish and hard to approach. I happened to notice this one flying at the edge of the field in which I’d been photographing the Coyote. It turned out that it had caught a mouse and was search for a perch on which to savor its meal. Unfortunately (or fortunately for those blog readers who’d prefer an air of mystery around raptors’ diets), it wasn’t interested in eating in my presence, so after a brief pause on a fence post it flew over the hill.