Summer Day, Abbotts Lagoon

Our day trip to Point Reyes this week was another pure delight, a summer day on the coast. Fifty miles inland a hot and dry July day was forming, but our visit to the coast was one of fog and blessedly cool temperatures.

The fog was so thick it was actually billowing in clouds that blew across the road. The sky had a low cloud cover and sweeping skyscapes all day.

Summer at Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California. Migrating winter ducks and geese have not yet arrived, and it’s too early to look for migrating whales. But there’s plenty of color and beauty on this windswept coastal paradise.

It was still too early and too cold for shorts and sandals, so most visitors hadn’t yet arrived…just a few dedicated hikers quietly making their way down the trail to the sea.

The local denizens of Abbotts Lagoon, however, were busy with their day.

Upon arrival we noticed the lupine shrubs no longer have the yellow blossoms we saw last month. This is a snap of June.

And this (below) is a snap from this week, July. As you can see, this month the native shrubs have just the pods, the flowers are spent.

Coastal chaparral was colorful on this day, enhanced by the overcast sky, and was fragrantly herbaceous with the moisture.

Everything seemed to be hushed by the fog, including these Canada Geese.

The low-lying marsh area down by the boardwalk didn’t have water this time of year, but it had a thicket of marsh plants–docket (brown) and coastal hedge-nettle (pink).

Predictably there are almost always one or two black-tailed deer down at the marsh, grazing.

And sure enough, we spotted this fawn without its mother, who soon went bounding off.

Insects in the summer are different from the other seasons, and one of the stalwarts of summer is this beetle. We see them on the trail where their shiny black backs stand out against the sand. They’re about the length of a paper clip.

As we neared the sea, the trail turned to sand. It was too cold for the dragonflies who frequent this part of the trail, but a brush rabbit soon dove under cover.

Then we arrived at the shore and crossed the short walking bridge, always worth a stop to see if any creatures are underneath.

In the past we have seen river otters here, nesting swallows, a pelican carcass, and lots of different wading birds. That day it was a great blue heron hunting…and with success.

Since the spring, the beach plants have been flowering and they are different flowers every month. This month it is the gumplants that are in full bloom.

Robustly growing in large patches across the sandy beach, gumplants are named for the gummy white resin that grows in the center of each yellow flower. 

It was about a 45-minute walk back to the car, and then we were off to other parts of Point Reyes. I’ll tell you about that another time.

We were happy to spot this coyote as we drove slowly along the country road.

We also spotted a few female elk, aka cows, grazing. Point Reyes is the only National Park unit where tule elk can be found. A grassland elk found in just a few places in California, they live on a preserve in Point Reyes.

That day the cows were too far away to get a good photo, but here is a photo from another summer visit.

We see the elk every single visit on this road, Pierce Point Road. We look forward to seeing the elk next month, when the rutting (breeding) season typically begins.

There is much excitement when the bulls join up with the females. The males put on quite a show of territorial sparring with bugling and antler bashing. It lasts for a few months, so I’ll be sure to share the excitement with you.

Always a pleasure, my friends, to share Point Reyes with you.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

The Bobcat

On a visit to Pt. Reyes this week, we came upon this beautiful bobcat. One of my favorite wilderness haunts in northern California, Pt. Reyes did not disappoint.

When we came upon this bobcat, it was in a field where we had seen a bobcat about two years earlier. Since the pandemic curtailed travel two years ago, we have been visiting Pt. Reyes nearly every month and we always drive slowly at this spot, every single visit, searching, scanning, always looking to get lucky with another siting. And this time…bingo.

Lynx rufus is very territorial, so it’s probably the same individual we saw earlier.

This is a female. Her body was about three feet (a meter) long; sleek and muscular.

Unlike all the other times I have observed a wild bobcat, she did not disappear right away.

She continued to prowl in the grassy field. Then she was crouched and clearly stalking something.

Athena quietly jumped out of the car and huddled behind the vehicle, using it for a partial blind as she snapped these photos.

Another minute went by and then the bobcat pounced. She came up with a large pocket gopher firmly clenched in her jaws.

Instead of heading in the opposite direction to indulge in her prize, the bobcat surprisingly walked right past us.

Females solely care for the young who are typically born in April or May, so we determined she caught this pocket gopher for her kittens.

She was on a mission to feed some hungry mouths. Probably three or four waiting for her in their den, where they will depend on her for about a year.

This photo shows her pointy lynx ears.

Here you can see her short, bobbed tail for which the cat is named. And her big feline paws are prominent, as well as her exquisite markings.

We watched in silent reverence for five precious minutes, and then she, and her fresh gopher, descended down the hill and out of sight.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Sand Dunes at Abbotts Lagoon

A recent Valentine’s Day visit to Abbotts Lagoon took us past the lagoon, adventuring along the sand dunes.

Abbotts Lagoon is an area within Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California.

More info: Abbotts Lagoon Wikipedia.

Point Reyes is a unique place on earth because it is at the junction of two major tectonic plates: Pacific and North American. Located in the San Andreas Fault Zone, the Point Reyes peninsula has, as you can see from the map at the end, been slowly separating from the U.S. mainland over eons of tectonic movement. Wikipedia says “In the 1906 earthquake, Point Reyes moved north 21 ft (6.4 m).”

This ongoing plate movement has yielded many different land formations in Point Reyes.

Abbotts Lagoon, located on the northwest tip of the peninsula, has a two-stage lagoon, sandstone cliffs, and ocean beaches.

Link: U.S. Geological Survey on Point Reyes

The trail starts at the parking lot on Pierce Point Road and is 3.6 miles long–to the ocean and back. For the first mile-and-a-half, the trail is gravel and relatively flat and lies in a protected valley. The surrounding terrain is coastal chaparral.

There are always California quail, white-crowned sparrows, and black-tailed deer in this section.

But the closer we get to the sea, the more things change. The gravel under your feet turns to sand.

Then slight hills begin to lift the hiker out of the valley, the dunes come into view, and we are greeted by brisk ocean winds. This photo (below) shows the lagoon in the lower half of the photo, the dunes in the middle, and the Pacific Ocean just above the dunes revealing whitecaps on our February day.

Although the sand is loose, vegetation takes hold in some places.

The trail ends at the upper lagoon and ocean; there’s a short bridge to cross. At different times of the year we see otters frolicking beneath the bridge. There were no otters that day, but we did find recent otter prints in the sand. In a couple more months, swallows will start nesting on the bridge’s underside.

Foraging around the lagoon are a variety of waders and ducks. That day we saw common mergansers; some days we have seen large flocks of white pelicans here, also cormorants, gulls, herons and many species of shore birds.

This great egret was enjoying a fishy snack.

We also came across three piles of feathers and bones, presumably from a prowling coyote’s success the night before.

Turkey vultures partake in these events too.

Beach strawberries (Fragaria chiloensis), vines and flowers, were taking hold in the loose sand. Chilly February temperatures will eventually give way to warmer days when the strawberries will leaf out more.

This giant tree has been occupying the beach through all the decades I have hiked here. It is a popular place for hikers to stop and take a rest from the laboring loose-sand walk, and little kids climb all over it. We perched here and turned our backs to the wind, enjoying the fresh air and moody sky.

At this point, the beach starts to open up, leading to the ocean’s shoreline. Climbing the dunes yields ocean views.

This area of open sand is meticulously marked and roped off from Memorial Day to Labor Day to give the snowy plovers a safe, protective place to lay their eggs in the sand.

But on a gusty Valentine’s Day, there were no snowy plovers and few humans…and my heart was filled with the beauty and wildness that is Abbotts Lagoon.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Point Reyes map. Courtesy Wikipedia.

A Year of Abbotts Lagoon

As we reach the final weeks of 2021, here is a four-season review of a coastal lagoon in one of my favorite parks, Point Reyes, in Northern California.

There are 70,000 acres (300 sq. km.) of protected land on the Point Reyes Peninsula. Abbotts Lagoon is just one small section, located on the northwestern coast of the peninsula.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia and Abbotts Lagoon Wikipedia.

This year, like many people, we did less out-of-state traveling and stayed closer to home. We enjoyed day trips to Abbotts Lagoon almost every month.

It was enlightening to watch the flora and fauna shift as the seasons changed and gave us an intimacy with the lagoon area as never before.

The brisk months of early spring–February, March and April–brought displaying birds and a profusion of wildflowers.

An easy trail takes the hiker through northern coastal scrub, like this yellow bush lupine, where ground birds flourish. In spring and summer this bush is vibrant with blooms.

The gravel trail leads hikers between rolling fields and the lagoon, until eventually we reach sand dunes and the ocean. The seaside offers bracing coastal winds, frequent fog, and briny sea air. We often escaped inland heat waves here this past summer with the cool marine layer.

We discovered a pocket of land further down the road that almost always had mammals, and in May had the thrill of seeing this new fawn and mother.

By summertime the grass had turned brown, our usual summer look in Northern California. The coastal fog, however, provided moisture for native wildflowers. Hummingbirds could often be seen extracting nectar from this Coastal Hedge-Nettle.

Brush rabbits greeted us on every visit this year. One June day we observed this relaxed brush rabbit stretched out on the trail. At first we thought the rabbit might be injured, but it quickly dashed away as we approached.

Summer also brought the new generation of birds.

A white-crowned sparrow adult discussed the ways of life with his progeny.

Nearly a dozen immature quail chicks were a pleasant surprise; we watched this covey grow up. They were always skittish, with good reason.

Every Abbotts Lagoon visit this year (ten) we saw coyote. They had lustrous coats and full bellies from plenty of prey.

Dragonflies, butterflies, birds and bees punctuated all our summer visits.

A few miles north up the road is a tule elk preserve. By mid-August the tule elk males were bugling their dominance.

And as summer turned to fall, the new young coyotes were out on their own.

Late autumn rains returned the hillsides to verdant splendor, and ground-dwelling gophers and voles multiplied. This attracted more predators and raptors.

Winter birds greeted us, like this Say’s phoebe who is never here in spring or summer.

This molting elk’s coat is not at its finest in the winter, and he only had one antler, having shed the other one already.

There’s something sacred about watching the seasons change–the wildlife, the earth beneath our feet, the light, and temperatures.

Very soon the early spring will be upon us, and a new year of cycles will begin again.

I can hardly wait to get back to Abbotts Lagoon to see who will greet us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Taking a short holiday break, dear friends, see you in January.

Courtesy Wikipedia.

Spring at Point Reyes

Spring brings a riot of wildflowers on the pastoral hillsides of Point Reyes, and this year has been heavenly. Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California is a large peninsular park along the Pacific Coast.

It is a park with a rich and diverse history, picturesque beaches and trails, cliffs and bays, a lighthouse and several other interesting and historic features. We often go to the northern side of the park around Tomales Bay, where all photos here were snapped.

Last week we found wild purple iris in hundreds of spots.

During the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, approximately 300,000 people arrived in California and began settling. That is when dairy farms became a prominent part of Point Reyes. Fresh creamy butter, and later, cheese, became highly regarded.

Back then, Point Reyes farmers packed casks of freshly churned butter and loaded it onto schooners. They shipped it to San Francisco, 30 miles south, where it was distributed.

Today there are still 13 commercial dairies here. Although it is a federally designated recreational preserve, the dairies remain legal via grandfathered laws.

The dairy farms continue to supply millions of households with delicious organic dairy products; and farmers never hassle the daily parade of cars filled with tourists, hikers, and beach-goers driving through.

One of the ranches had this mellow horse near the house.

More info: Point Reyes Wikipedia

Pt. Reyes map, courtesy Wikipedia.

In this area of the park there is also a tule elk preserve.

Cervus canadensis nannodes live only in California, and can be seen here in every season.

Last week we came upon this harem, or herd of females, lazing in the sun.

The Point Reyes elk species was extirpated in the 1800s, but the population was revived in the 1970s with a successful reintroduction project. There are about 300 individual elk here today.

We spotted these three male elk grazing in the distance.

With the proximity of the ocean, fog is a common feature at Point Reyes. Heavy winds too. There have been times when I was hiking on a trail and could hear the elk calling very near, but could not see them, obliterated by the thick fog. A few times when the fog cleared, we would be surprised, humans and elk, at how close together we were.

But this April day we were enjoying clear visibility and mild temperatures.

From the car, Athena photographed the three elk, while I was having a stare-down with this bull.

We regularly hike at Abbott’s Lagoon. It is named after two brothers, 19th-century dairy farmers.

There is a three-mile hike through chaparral and sand dunes to the ocean. No dogs are allowed here, and there are no food establishments within 15 miles. It is simply land and sea and walkers.

Quail, white-crowned sparrows, ravens, and raptors always join us.

Last week the male red-winged blackbirds were displaying for the females.

Mammals greet us too–usually deer, bobcat or coyote. We saw this coyote last week.

There is a patch of bare brown sticks along the trail, it’s taller than all the hikers, and nondescript. In spring the foliage and flowers come alive, revealing it as salmonberry.

When we’re not hiking, we’re driving the roads spotting wildlife. I drive slowly on the windswept hillsides, pulling over to allow fast cars to pass, while Athena’s camera clicks away.

Since the pandemic has curtailed our travel, we’ve been staying local. We visit Point Reyes for a half-day, just an hour or so from home, and it feels like a vacation.

And now I can’t think of a better place to vacation.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Point Reyes

Point Reyes, Tomales Point, Pacific Ocean side

 

Tule elks (male), Point Reyes

 

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail. McClure’s Beach.

 

About a two-hour drive north of San Francisco is an expansive park called Point Reyes. Geologically it is a large cape that extends off the Pacific coast. Technically it is Point Reyes National Seashore…locals call it Point Reyes.

 

It is an entire peninsula with ocean coastline, beaches, and dunes; rolling hills; forests; dairy ranches; hiking trails and more. The land area is 70,000 acres (283 sq. km). It is my favorite of all places to hike in Northern California.

 

Point Reyes Wikipedia

 

Point Reyes is home to 490 bird species, 40 species of land animals, and a dozen species of marine mammals. Pods of California gray whale migrate through here. Two resident mammal species nearly went extinct: tule elk and elephant seals.

 

A breeding colony of elephant seals can be seen from December through March.

 

Elephant Seals on the beach, Point Reyes near Chimney Rock

 

The coast is rocky and often foggy, typical of Northern California, and this peninsula juts ten miles into the ocean…so far that it is notorious for hundreds of shipwrecks.  See map below.

 

Sir Francis Drake’s ship is said to have hit damaging rocks here in 1579. The crew hauled The Golden Hinde up to the beach for repairs.

 

Centuries later, but in the same general vicinity, we came upon this tiny cemetery in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Experienced life-savers succumbed to treacherous waves while helping passengers of shipwrecked boats.

 

Life-saver Cemetery, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Today the Coast Guard cruises overhead, maintaining public safety.

 

Coast Guard helicopter at Point Reyes

 

On the craggy mountain ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tule elk herds graze on protected land.

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Hikers share the trails with elk herds. Sometimes when the fog is very thick you can hear their impressive bugling without actually seeing an animal. The first time this happened I was nervous, didn’t like not knowing where they were. But now when I’m there I hope for it, I like the mystery.

 

Point Reyes Tule Elk

 

At this time of year, late summer, the grass has turned brittle and brown. Wild amaryllis flowers, common name “naked ladies,” can be seen clumped in the grass. They have a heady fragrance–sweet, like bubble gum.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

 

While hiking along the grassy trails to Abbotts Lagoon, we came upon California quail, brush rabbits, and many sparrows.

Abbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes

 

California Quail (male) in lupine

 

Last summer’s visit yielded a coyote.

 

Coyote, Point Reyes, California

 

Every spring we find nesting swallows.

 

Barn Swallow nestlings, Point Reyes

 

One summer a few years ago, Athena and I decided to go out after dark in search of a rare owl known to live here, the spotted owl.

 

We knew the trail well enough that we walked without light. Our reasoning for walking in the pitch black dark–which in retrospect doesn’t seem quite so wise–was that we would come upon the owl and hear it, without it being frightened by us. Once we located its hoot, we could use the light to see it.

 

But as we tripped along the trail, we heard the unmistakable breathing of a big mammal…very near. When we switched on the light, we came face-to-face with a really big buck.

 

We were all three very startled.

 

We backed off, gave him some room, and he continued to graze. We never did hear or see the owl.

 

I could fill a book with the outdoor adventures we have had in our 30 years exploring Point Reyes. You may know that feeling: when you realize you have spent most of your life in a place…and loved every minute.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Header photo, also Point Reyes: Tomales Bay. You would never guess that below Tomales Bay lies the San Andreas Fault.

 

Point Reyes, California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Tomales Bay, California

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail

Pt. Reyes from Tomales Point Trail

A long, narrow inlet along the coast of northern California, Tomales Bay is 15 miles long and one mile wide.  On the west side of the bay is Point Reyes Peninsula, on the east side is the mainland.

 

Lesser Goldfinch, Pt. Reyes

Lesser Goldfinch, Pt. Reyes

The two land areas flanking the bay lie on different tectonic plates.  Over millenium they have been separated by the frictional movement of the Pacific Plate and North American Plate.

 

After the big earthquake that destroyed San Francisco in 1906, Point Reyes moved 21 feet north (Wikipedia).

 

Point Reyes. Courtesy Nat’l Park Service, Wikipedia

See map below.   More Point Reyes info here.

 

Original Coast Miwok inhabitants  hunted and lived here; eating seaweed and acorns, hunting rabbit, deer, and seasonal salmon.

 

Thousands of years later, after European seafarers, Russian fur traders, and settlers of all kinds have come through, the area is now a compatible combination of residents, visitors, and ranchers.

Pt. Reyes Tule elk, cow and calf

Pt. Reyes Tule elk, cow and calf

 

Bobcat, Point Reyes

Bobcat, Point Reyes

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a national park there is no hunting, but visitors still enjoy observing deer, rabbit and small game like the Miwok did, as well as 490 species of birds.

 

As featured in my previous post, tule elk live in large herds on a protected landscape.

 

Pt. Reyes, doe and fawn

Pt. Reyes, doe and fawn

Seasonal migration of whale can be spotted at certain times of the year, and northern elephant seals and other marine mammals live here too.

 

In addition, the Tomales Bay waters are home to small bioluminescent organisms called dinoflagellates.  Info on bioluminescence here.

 

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

Wild Amaryllis, aka Naked Ladies

The Tomales Bay area has public beaches, numerous trails, kayaking, and many other opportunities for outdoor adventures.

 

Click here for National Park Service trail guide.

 

Barn swallow nestlings, Pierce Point Ranch, Pt. Reyes

Barn swallow nestlings, Pierce Point Ranch, Pt. Reyes

Bugling elk, sparkling waters, and the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean…can’t beat that.

 

Towns of rural western Marin County. Inverness Park is in violet.

Point Reyes Peninsula, California. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

 

Tule Elk

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

California’s only endemic elk, Cervus candensis nannodes can be found at Point Reyes National Seashore and 21 other areas of California.  This is remarkable for a species that was once thought to be extirpated.

 

Family structure for the tule elk, the smallest of all American elk, is based on the bull commanding a herd, known as a harem, of cows and calves.  From July through September is the rutting season, when males are competing by rounding up large harems of females and calves.

 

Tule elk bull bugling

Tule elk bull bugling

In the early morning hours it is easy to hear their bugling calls through the fog on the Point Reyes grasslands.

 

Point Reyes is located  30 miles north of San Francisco, a coastal wilderness park of 100 square miles.  It is my favorite place to hike in the Bay Area, and is the only U.S. National Park that has tule elk.

 

The best place to view the elk is at Pierce Point Ranch, and after many, many years of hiking this picturesque area, I have found early mornings are best for finding the elk.  As it is a stunning place, I will post more on Monday, featuring other wildlife we have enjoyed there.

 

Bull, cow, calf tule elk

Bull, cow, calf tule elk

Photos here are from two weeks ago.  We were rewarded with incredible views of bull, cow, and calf groups.

 

We had been watching and photographing for about a half hour, when the additional excitement of four angry bulls converged in front of us.  An elk showdown.

 

Three bulls in conflict

Three bulls in conflict

There was a lot of bugling, pacing, trotting, and flared nostrils; but no sparring.

 

Bugling starts out as a bellow and escalates into a squealing whistle.  It is the bull attracting cows as well as advertising dominance to other bulls.

 

Once numbering 500,000 in California, the species declined drastically due to cattle ranching and hunting.  The species population had reduced to 29 individuals by 1860.

 

Bull tule elk

Bull tule elk

They were thought to be extirpated when a rancher, Henry Miller, found a herd on his ranch in 1874.  Mr. Miller protected them and is credited for the survival of the species.

 

Named for a sedge grass called tule, the elk have had a series of successful reintroduction programs, and number at about 4,200 today.

 

More about tule elk at Point Reyes here.

 

Usually quietly grazing, the elk are a joy to observe any time of year, but right now it is especially animated with bellowing and squealing, pacing and competing.  And with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, it is a true splendor.

 

Jet on Tomales Point trail

Jet on Tomales Point trail

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Molting Bluebirds

Western Bluebird in Spring, Pt. Reyes, CA

Bluebird, April, full plumage, Pt. Reyes

A bird’s natural process of seasonal molting can be confusing for birders and frustrating for photographers.  The birds take on a very different look, something less than perfect.

 

It’s a similar process to a snake shedding its skin, mammals losing hair, or insects outgrowing their exoskeleton.

 

As one feather comes out, a new one grows in.  Birds usually lose a few feathers at a time so they can still fly, but this is not always the case.  It is cyclical and variable, depending on the species and other factors.  To read more about molting click here.

 

As a good example, the bird photographed here is the same species (western bluebird) in the same area (Pierce Point) in the same park (Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.) at different times of the year.  You can see how different they look.

Western Bluebird, late August, molting, Pt. Reyes, CA

Bluebird, late August, molting, Calif.

 

Two of my blogging friends recently published informative posts and photos about molting too: Avian 101 and Birder’s Journey.

 

On my morning walks at this time of year I almost always find at least one feather on the ground.  I used to collect them, but then I just had a jar full of fading feathers.  Now I leave most of them on the ground and see them on the next walk, or I bring in the really pretty ones and enjoy them for a week or so.

 

Western bluebird, late August, molting, Pt. Reyes, CA

Bluebird, late August, molting, Calif.

I have a handsome feather next to my desk right now, I found it a few weeks ago.  I think it’s from an acorn woodpecker, because he or she frequents the area where I found it.  The top half is black, the bottom half is white.

 

It reminds me that the nature of life is ever-changing.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander