California Winter Wildlife Are Here

Elephant seals

Anyone who’s traveled to Point Reyes more than once realizes that the weather is completely unpredictable. This is my fourth year as a docent, and still can’t predict how the weather will play out during the day. I always bring four layers of clothing, including long underwear, fleece, my Gore-Tex jacket and some mittens.

Sign at the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse
Sign at the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse

But January 4, my first day of being a docent, was incredibly clear and warm. We saw 28 whales in the morning shift at the lighthouse. Seeing whales is kind of an exaggeration, as anyone who has been up to the lighthouse knows.

Mostly what we see is a faint view of a dark back and maybe a fluke (tail). We often see a light blow of air every once in a while.

kingtides-oceanBut even that slight indication that there’s a forty-ton mammal beneath the surface excites visitors from around the world.  Some complain that they don’t see more. “That’s it?” they exclaim, imagining that they’d see a whole body coming out of the water instead.

Peregrine Falcon on his rock.
Peregrine Falcon on his rock.

The local Peregrine Falcon has a rock that he stations himself on, scanning the landscape for intruders into his territory. We watched him attack a juvenile Red-tailed hawk. He was vocalizing loudly and then swooped the bird, which was sitting on a cliff about 200 feet from the Peregrine.

He circled around and swooped the Red-tail again, vocalizing loudly the whole time. A scene better than any National Geo special I’ve seen online. The crowd was transfixed by the beauty of the Peregrine. The ranger later told me that this conflict had been happening for at least three weeks, and that they had seen the Peregrine tackle the Red-tail on the ground. They rolled over together. But that hawk keeps returning to the Peregrine’s territory, where they have a nest.

Meanwhile, a sea lion in the ocean below had a large fish or shark that it was trying to break apart by bashing it against the top of the water. Bash, bash. Parts of the fish flew around him and the gulls and pelicans dove for those pieces. Bash, bash. Eight or nine gulls hovered over him to grab the scraps. This went on for about ten minutes. (More drama for the visitors.)

Visitors walking down to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse.
Visitors walking down to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse.

That’s just some of the morning excitement. I missed the long-eared owls that another docent saw on her way over to our next station.

We moved over the Chimney Rock overlook, where we found the Northern Elephant seals, primarily males with some females and newborn pups. It was slow and quiet among the crowd of mammals on the beach, though we knew in a few weeks that the beach would be noisy with new-born pups, vocalizing females and bellowing males.

Elephant seals
Elephant seals

On our ride home we witnessed a full radiant moon, reflecting on the reservoir as it rose into the darkened sky.

moon