Point Reyes National Seashore is a national park in West Marin, about an hour and a half from San Francisco.
Point Reyes is the best place in the Bay Area to photograph elk, coyotes, bobcats, hawks, quail, river otters, and elephant seals, among others. There are better places to photograph some of these animals, but I haven’t found any other place where so many of them can be found and photographed so easily.
This page covers Point Reyes in general. I’ve covered Abbotts Lagoon in its own page. With a few exceptions, the same animals can be found throughout the park, so the Abbotts Lagoon page just covers the specific setting of the lagoon.
I’ve only just scratched the surface of what Point Reyes offers, so some animals are covered in more detail on one page or the other just based on the opportunities I’ve had over a dozen visits. In general, I’ve found Abbotts Lagoon to be better for many birds (with the exception of hawks) while I’ve had more luck with mammals in other parks of the park (with the exception of river otters).
Many animals can be found and photographed simply by driving along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the lighthouse up to the bridge over Drakes Estero, and along the length of Pierce Point Rd.
On your first visit to Point Reyes, a reasonable full-day itinerary could include driving to Drakes Beach, then retracting your steps back to Pierce Point Road, driving to Abbotts Lagoon, and walking the trail down to the lower lagoon, and then back up after sunset. Depending on what animals you find and how much time you spend with them, you might also have time to continue on to Tomales Point.
If you’ve never been to Point Reyes, I’d highly recommend booking a tour with Point Reyes Safaris. Daniel Dietrich will teach you quite a bit about the wildlife and natural history of the peninsula. If you’re new to tracking predators, he will be very helpful in finding and getting you into position to photograph coyotes and especially bobcats (which I’ve had sporadic success finding on my own, and much better results when working with Daniel).
Jim Coda’s blog is also a great resource to learn more about the ecology and challenges facing the park.
The only secret to finding badgers in Point Reyes is to spend lots of time in the field. Either that or take regular trips with Daniel Dietrich. It took me 40+ solo day-long trips to Point Reyes to four badger sightings. I’ve read that you can look for dark dirt indicating fresh diggings, but on two of those occasions I saw the badgers in old dens.
Coyotes are found throughout Point Reyes. If you’re looking, you’re nearly guaranteed to see at least one on every visit. Look for them in open fields or low scrub throughout the preserve. While they have a reputation as crepuscular (dawn/dusk) animals, at Point Reyes the relative lack of human activity gives them the confidence to be active all day.
Tule Elk are an elk subspecies found only in California. They were hunted nearly to extinction in the 19th century, saved by a single breeding pair discovered after they were believed to be extinct.
While Tule Elk can occasionally be spotted throughout the park, they’re most commonly found in the Tule Elk enclosure at Tomales Point and in the area west of Drakes Estero accessible via the southern end of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Drakes Beach Road. There is also a herd east of Drakes Estero, but it is much less easily accessible. Tomales Point is foggier and has fewer roads than the area west of Drakes Estero, so I’ve focused on the west Drakes herd for my photography.
Tule Elk are present year-round. The bulls start growing antlers in late spring, developing large velvety antlers by July. By August their antlers harden and the rut begins, lasting through late October. The bulls keep their antlers for a time after the rut. They’ll slowly degrade throughout the winter, and are all mostly shed by March. Calves are born in April and through early June.
The rut is an exciting time to photograph the elk, with lots of bugling, fighting, tossing of turf, and general displays of testosterone. Be careful during this time, as the bulls are very aggressive. Keep an eye on their behavior and avoid getting close enough to make them feel threatened. Never get between two bulls or between a bull and cows. If you haven’t photographed elk before, err on the side of caution or try an outing with a more experienced guide.
I’ve mainly focused on hawks and other large birds in Point Reyes. For suggestions on where to find a variety of birds, including songbirds, check the Marin Audubon Society’s guide to birding locations in West Marin (scroll down for the West Marin section).
Red-Shouldered Hawks are the least skittish hawks I’ve come across in Point Reyes. They can be so still and so unconcerned with my presence that I sometimes don’t notice them until I’m right next to them, and still got a photo. Most other birds I stumble upon in that way notify me of their presence by flushing. As usual, individuals will vary — pay attention to the bird, make sure you aren’t causing it stress, and move on if it’s disturbed by your presence.
Red-Shouldered Hawks can be found all over the park. They enjoy perching on fence posts, road signs, and even the occasional bush or tree. They appear to like hunting from low perches, unlike Red-Tailed Hawks which seem more likely to hunt from high up in trees or on the wing. As with all hawks, they’re happy to perch for quite a long time before diving down on prey, so there’s no guarantee that a perched bird will do anything other than exhaust your patience.
Great Blue Heron
A less commonly known behavior of Great Blue Herons is their taste for gophers and other terrestrial animals. While Great Blue Herons are most well known for hunting fish in shallow waters, they’re also happy to subsist on gophers, earthworms, and even the occasional bird. As a result, Great Bluer Herons are found throughout the park, not just alongside bodies of water.
A Great Blue Heron staring intently at a gopher hole or walking in a skulky fashion is likely stalking a gopher. A patient photographer may be rewarded with a unique shot of a heron clutching a gopher in its beak!
The photos below were taken from the cliffs north of Chimney Rock Rd. The Pelicans fish all along the coast of Point Reyes. At Chimney Rock, there’s a good vantage point looking across Drakes Bay towards Drakes Beach and Limantour Beach, which makes for an interesting background.
Getting low enough here can be a bit of a challenge depending on the season. The beaches near Chimney Rock are closed for the elephant seal pupping season from mid-December through the end of March (closure details on the NPS site). The southern end of Drakes Beach is closed year-round. The top of the cliffs aren’t low enough to get a good background on the birds when they’re actively fishing, but it’s workable.
On my only attempt so far, I got lots of birds flying too low. The occasional ones that flew high enough kept placing themselves too close to horizontal lines to provide great compositions. I managed a few I was pleased with after some post-processing.
With the right lighting and a bird placing itself just right, this spot could provide a really spectacular photo. It’s definitely worth checking if you’re already in the area.