Friday, November 11, 2016

Three Days in Point Reyes

My day began at 5:30am and not wanting to disturb my hostel room mates, I quickly dressed and left the dormitory hopefully not waking them up in the process.  The hostel has a large kitchen area and I was able to make some fresh coffee for my flask before I took to the road.

The plan this morning was to visit Tomales Point with the goal of capturing some tule elk images in the early morning light.  The drive from the hostel took about 45 minutes arriving in the Pierce Point Ranch parking lot around 6:30am in darkness.

As I was about to turn down a hill toward the ranch, I had the most amazing experience!  A pair of large coyotes stood right in the middle of the road near a small group of tule elk.  My arrival seemed to upset them as they both began to howl!  I naturally stopped and watched them as they then took off into the surrounding brush.  I can only think they were maybe planning on trying to bring down an elk? From what I have read, they have been known to kill young or injured/frail elk.

I sat in my car until the sun began to rise as I did not want to take to the trail in the dark.  Mountain lions have been spotted, including one I saw here many years ago up on a distant hill.  As soon as it was light enough, I packed up my backpack with water and a snack and headed up onto the trail.  The trail to the point is 4.7 miles and my intent was to walk in about three of those, as the final 1.5 miles are officially unmaintained, overgrown and sandy.

Hiking along this trail is quite spectacular, especially on clear days, offering fantastic, elevated views over the Pacific Ocean to the west, and Tomales Bay and the mainland to the east - like walking across a high island!  Again, being the first person there was a wonderfully freeing feeling!  How lucky am I to be in such a beautiful place!

It did not take long for me to encounter more tule elk, this a group of females in beautiful golden light, so I slowed down and found a spot on the trail to watch and photograph them from. The elk here are accustomed to seeing people, so my presence did not totally spook them.  Each time I moved however, they were quick to look up from their eating, but settled back down once I remained still.

Female Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes)

While doing some online research about the elk, I came across a blog by wildlife photographer Jim Coda and I was surprised to read some of the issues relating to the management of the tule elk in Point Reyes, particularly at Tomales Point.  These include disease, lack of access to water during drought and fences which in essence have them "in captivity".  There certainly seems to be contention with the local farmers as far as grazing rights and it brought mind the ongoing crisis in regard to our beautiful, wild horses.  It seems wildlife ultimately and sadly ends up being the loser.

I continued my walk along the trail to high point where I could look out towards Tomales Point with the Pacific to my left and Dillon Beach on the mainland to my right.  Looking down I could see more elk including several stags.  This is typically the area one would be guaranteed to see elk on the trail, close to three miles in.  This is when I encountered my very first burrowing owl at Point Reyes.  I went off trail to access a view point and in doing so, stumbled on a burrow which in turn caused the bird to take flight.  I have made note of the GPS coordinates for a future visit.

Tomales Point Trail View
After my morning on the trail, I spent the afternoon at McClures Beach, which is accessible via a second parking lot and trail right next to the Pierce Point Ranch.  In all the years I have been visiting Point Reyes, I had never walked down to the beach, so decided this would be as good a time as any. So I made myself a sandwich, packed up my backpack and headed on down.

McClures Beach is a favorite with photographers because of the dramatic rock formations at either end, so I wanted to scout it out as a potential spot to return to at sunset.  I walked down the short and relatively steep trail arriving at this beautiful cove, empty except for a couple of people who left shortly afterwards. So once again, I had a stretch of stunning California coastline to myself. Although I did not stick around for sunset, it is definitely on my "must return to" list.

McClures Beach

Next stop was Kehoe Beach, yet another spot I have never visited.  Kehoe Beach is the northern end of the Great Beach or Point Reyes Beach, a spectacular stretch of undeveloped coastline totaling 11 miles in length. The drive to Kehoe from McClures was less than 10 minutes.  There is no parking lot as such, but ample areas to pull off from the road.  So I decided to take a walk to the beach without camera gear as it was still too early for the best light.  The walk is about 0.6 miles alongside a marsh and through sand dunes.  Once on the beach, to the left there is a stream that leads out to the ocean. Here there were lots of gulls.  To the right there were rock formations and a stretch of beach where dogs are allowed "on leash".  The beach area south and to the left is off limits to dogs as this area is protected habitat for the threatened Western Snowy Plover.

Kehoe Beach

I decided that this might be a good spot to stick around for sunset, so headed back to my car to get my gear and a quick snack.  As I was switching lenses and preparing my backpack I was paid a visit by a very curious California Scrub Jay.  California Scrub-Jays (Aphelocoma californica) are a common sight and sometimes overlooked as photographic subjects, but I think they are incredibly beautiful with their brilliant azure blue feathers. Assertive, vocal, and inquisitive, this fellow took an interest in me and I could not resist capturing this comical pose as he stared intently.

California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) 

I headed back to the beach and started to look for a good spot to catch the sunset.  Here is a favorite of silhouetted dune grasses against the darkening sky and crescent moon.

Kehoe Beach

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