A Quick Explore of the Tule Elk Reserve at Point Reyes

The Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California is a dramatic landscape sculpted by powerful tectonic forces, fierce winds, and the constant bombardment of ocean waves. It is also a gentle place with rolling hills, drifting fog and tranquil bays. This is a great geography for families to explore and enjoy a weekend away from the hustle and bustle. It is also a great place to discover a success story, the return of the majestic tule elk.

California was once home to large populations of elk, but after the 1849 Gold Rush these populations were decimated and within ten years the elk had disappeared from the land. Fortunately, a very small population (possibly fewer than 10 individuals at the lowest level) survived in a remote area of central California. Eventually, a rancher in the area protected the elk with a refuge on his ranch and later land management groups relocated small bands of elk to other areas of the state, but with limited success. In 1978 a handful of elk were relocated to the Tomales Point region of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Today, the elk at Point Reyes number over 400 and enjoy over 2,600 acres of land to roam.

During my family’s visit, we started on a weekend day in January. The temperature was a chilly 48 degrees and the wind blowing off the Pacific Ocean was heralding a storm that would roll in that night. We wore multiple layers of clothing and some heavy knit hats to cover our ears to shield us from the cool air. Some might be uncomfortable here; but the experience of breathing clean air, seeing the open sea and the expansive land uncluttered by structures provided ample warmth for something deep and primal within our souls.

We walked up the great peninsula; along with a trail that is roughly 5 miles from our starting point to lands end. Tomales Point is surrounded by the mighty Pacific Ocean to the north and west while the tranquil Tomales Bay is visible to the east. It is a curious geography formed by the San Andreas Fault. Here we were witness to the results of two gigantic tectonic plates of the earth grinding together; the peninsula where we walked was part of the Pacific plate while across the mile-wide bay lay the plate of North America.

After thirty minutes we saw them, a small band of elk. Several sentinels watched us while the majority munched upon shoots of grass. Further beyond we saw more elk and over the next rise even more. On our return walk we saw another band, but this time we saw the bulls with their noticeable and very intimidating antlers. As with all the elk, we gave them plenty of room. For the rest of the day, we spotted the elk along various rises on the trail or as dots on the sides of the hills.

We were glad to have seen these creatures upon such an inspiring marriage of land and sea. We are wealthier because of the experience. As we left we said a ‘thank you’ to the people who over the decades worked hard so others could enjoy such a majestic sight and appreciate a success story.

To explore more:
http://www.nps.gov/pore/index.htm
http://www.nps.gov/pore/naturescience/tule_elk.htm

A Park with an Arch, a Beach, and Lots of Butterflies

blog_20101115_img2Along California’s central coast is a wonderful family destination called Natural Bridges State Beach.

The park derives its name from naturally formed arches that were carved from the sand and mudstone cliffs. In the early 1900’s three arches were visible, but over the years wave action undercut the formations causing two of them to fall. The third, and last remaining arch is visible today (shown).

Most people think of summer as being the best time to visit the coast, but November can offer clear skies, warm sunshine, very comfortable temperatures, and beaches generally free of crowds – even on weekends. At noon on this weekend day only two-dozen people were visiting this 65 acre park.

But the park was being visited by hundreds of non-human visitors.

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In just a quick five-minute walk inland were hundreds of monarch butterflies! A stroller accessible boardwalk near the visitors center leads to a monarch preserve hidden in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Here monarchs flit overhead and offer great opportunities for humans to see and photograph these beautiful butterflies. In the side photo is a winsome looking monarch that flitted down and landed near the boardwalk. An interpreter at the preserve said that an estimated fifteen hundred monarchs were currently visiting.

Every autumn, generally mid-October, the monarchs begin arriving at Natural Bridges State Beach. This is just one of several hundred locations along California’s coast where the monarchs stay for the winter. The coast offers them shelter from the cold inland temperatures of winter.

Especially fascinating is the monarchs arrive at the coast after traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles.

North America is home to two-distinct populations of monarchs. The continental divide along the Rocky Mountains provides a natural barrier that the monarchs rarely cross. The monarchs from southeastern Canada and the eastern United States migrate to their wintering home in Mexico while the monarchs in the southwestern Canada and the western U.S. migrate to areas along California’s coast. When they arrive they bunch together on branches sometimes forming large clusters. In the spring, as the weather warms, the monarchs begin traveling north looking for milkweed. The milkweed plant is the food source for monarch butterflies.

This year at Natural Bridges the monarch population is low compared to previous years when an estimated ten thousand would arrive. When I first saw these monarchs twenty years ago the branches were weighted down by massive clumps of monarchs. Although the number the monarchs are less this year they are still an impressive sight.

To learn more about the park visit the Natural Bridges State Beach website.

Here are some interesting Monarch mini-facts found on an interpretive display in the park’s visitor center:

• If a human baby grew as fast and as large as a monarch caterpillar, it would be about the size of a school bus and 2 ½ weeks old!

• A monarch tagged in eastern Canada was recovered in central Mexico after traveling a distance of nearly 3,000 miles.

• Monarch butterflies have been introduced to every continent in the world except for Antarctica. Only in their native North America do they engage in mass migrations.

Seeing Bears Along Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek

blog_20101020_img1Autumn at Lake Tahoe offers beautiful vistas, vibrant colors and the rare opportunity to see Black Bears along a creek catching spawning Kokanee Salmon.

Recently some relatives, visiting from overseas, made a trip to California and included a side trip to beautiful Lake Tahoe. We suggested they see the Lake’s sights in October during a tourist ‘down time’ when the weather is still warm and the summer crowds have disappeared.

The relatives were not disappointed by their visit. One trip in particular amazed everyone in the family from age 3 to 67.

blog_20101020_img2Walking next to Taylor Creek, at the southern shore of the lake, they saw vibrant red colors moving in the clear and cold water. These were spawning Kokanee Salmon. Then hearing some nearby splashing in the creek they looked up and saw a mother black bear and a young cub wading in the water. They were surprisingly close so everyone backed-off a little to allow the bears their space. The bears were catching fish to build up their fat reserves for the coming winter. Several good pictures were snapped including the picture of this young bear devouring a just caught salmon.

blog_20101020_img3Taylor Creek is a picturesque mountain stream that flows into the southern waters of Lake Tahoe. The nearby U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center at Taylor Creek is a great starting point to learn about the Kokanee Salmon and this wonderful area. The Rainbow Trail is a short hike and very good for families with young children. Make sure to visit the underground Stream Profile Chamber for an up-close and fish-eye view of Taylor Creek.

To continue your own explorations by car drive past the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe drive three miles north on Highway 89 to the USFS Visitor Center. To learn more about this area online, and an annual Kokanee Salmon Festival held at the area, visit the USFS website.

Whale Watching in Monterey Bay

Humpback Whale in Monterey BayA great family adventure is to go whale watching. Recently we heard the Blue and Humpback Whales were in large numbers in Monterey Bay off California’s Central Coast. The whales were feasting on the great population of krill, a shrimp-like a creature, that baleen whales love to eat.

Several companies in Monterey offer whale watching trips. We selected “Monterey Bay Whale Watch,” because they were recommended and have Marine Biologists and Marine Naturalists as guides on all trips. On the day we selected the morning trip was booked but we were able to reserve space for an afternoon 3-hour trip. The price was $36 per adult and $25 for kids – a price well worth the experience.

We boarded the 70-foot (21 meters) Sea Wolf II with about seventy other people. At first, this seemed to be a large number but we later found space not to be an issue. We had brought daypacks stuffed with hats, gloves, and extra jackets. At first, we felt awkward with our plump packs but once we entered the open water the wind became colder and we were glad to have the extra clothes.

The waves ranged between 2 and 4 feet (.6 -1.2 meters) that afternoon and the unpleasant sense of nausea was not felt – any suspicion of it was even forgotten when the whales appeared.

In the distance, we could see small geysers of vapor on the water. The whales were close!

We watched several groups of Humpback Whales before moving on to see the mighty Blue Whales. Blue whales are immense creatures – at 90 feet (27 meters) in length, they are the largest creatures ever on earth. These giants glided in the waves and apparently took no notice of us. At one point you could hear them breathe as they passed by.

Then we moved near a group of Humpback Whales. This group included a mother and calf that came within 40 feet (12 meters) or so of our vessel. The Calf was about 10 to 12 feet (3- 3.6 meters) long, the mom was possibly 45 feet (14 meters) in length. The mom made several dives to feed while the calf stayed near the surface. The calf seemed to enjoy frolicking, splashing and playing. Much of our video includes footage of this Humpback Whale Calf.

All too soon we returned to the harbor. Everyone in our family had a great time and no one had been sick. Even if we had felt sea-sick it would have been a treat to see these amazing animals – especially the Humpback calf who gave us great memories.

Enjoying Condors at Pinnacles National Monument

California Condor

I saw a young California condor. It was 40 days old – it was also the first condor to be hatched in Pinnacles National Monument in over 100 years!

During a recent hike at Pinnacles National Monument my family and I were blessed to see, just forty feet above us, a California condor with roughly a nine-foot wingspan glide over our heads. Whoa! It was over in several seconds but we were able to snap a picture (shown).

A few minutes later down the trail we approached a trail junction. At the junction were spotting scopes pointed at an impressive rock wall about half a mile in the distance. Manning the scopes were biologists and interpretive volunteers helping visitors to see a young condor.

Looking through the scope I could see a light grey, fuzzy looking young bird resting in the crevice of a ledge. According to the interpreters this youngster was about the size of a duck.

What is impressive about seeing these condors is that it highlights the work that has taken decades to accomplish.

After years of over hunting, Lead and Strychnine poisoning and habitat loss the condor population plummeted. In the mid 1980’s only 22 condors remained. The last condors were captured and placed in a captive breeding program to increase their numbers. In the mid 1990’s releases began in California ad have now expanded into Arizona and in Mexico. As of today the total condor population is about 500 individuals; roughly 350 are in the wild while another 150 remain in the breeding program. Slowly the condors are returning to their historic territories, including Pinnacles.

We inquired about the condor that flew over our heads a few minutes earlier. According to the scientist this was the hatchling’s Dad.

To learn more about the Pinnacles Condor Program visit:
http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/condors.htm

Coyote is Still Teaching – Lessons from the Trail

coyote is still teaching

It was springtime in California’s Henry Coe State Park. The hillsides were sprouting green and rugged looking oaks dotted the hillsides.

My family enjoyed a day of just being outside. My six-year old daughter enjoyed hiking but would sometimes be so engrossed with her surroundings that she would not see sticks or rocks on the trail. After a near tumble she was heard to comment, “I don’t need to be aware of where I’m going.” That same day my wife had asked me to ‘check the camera’ and I was heard to say, “I don’t need to check my camera.” After all it was ‘my’ camera and when I last used ‘my’ camera there were plenty of pictures, though I had noticed the picture count did seem higher than it should be.

I don’t need to be aware of where I’m going.

I don’t need to check my camera.

We were hiking back to the car when my wife noticed a coyote several hundred feet in front of us on the trail. We were downwind, so the coyote (apparently) had not noticed us. The coyote had rich colorful fur. She was looking at something in the grass. I could count on two hands the number of times during my life I seen a coyote in the mid-day sun. Possibly this was a mother coyote with a litter of pups and she was gathering food.

Seeing the coyote reminded me that some people fear and even demonize these animals because they might venture into suburbs to scavenge for food. Coyotes are sometimes lumped together with dark creatures that few appreciate like bats, snakes and rats. On the contrary coyotes are interesting animals. In some Native American oral traditions, the coyote is a creature of power and influence; the coyote could choose to teach valuable lessons to people, and sometimes those lessons were taught through trickery.

After a short time the coyote lost interest with the something in the grass and looked unconcerned over her shoulder at us. She moved down the trail and rounded the bend. We also continued on the trail making sure to keep a distance between us. Just before every curve in the trail she would turn and pose in the sun. I would carefully take a picture but she always moved out of sight. I felt as though I was being teased.

This ‘teasing’ continued for twenty minutes until the coyote became very distant on the trail and then disappeared. My young daughter was so intent on looking for the coyote that she did not see a trail hazard, a very fresh pile of poo. After stepping in it the awkward grimace on her face spoke volumes – that from that day on she would be more aware of where was going.

My young daughter was so intent on looking for the coyote that she did not see a trail hazard, a very fresh pile of poo.

At that moment the coyote appeared, up the hillside from us some thirty feet away. She looked at us then gracefully turned and stood sideways along a rock outcrop. Her head was slightly raised as she sniffed the air. It was a picture perfect moment: the green grass surrounding the rock, gray rock underfoot and the deep blue-sky overhead accentuated the tan and golden brown of her fur, the late afternoon sunlight was soft and offered no harsh shadows.

I could not believe this opportunity for a photograph. I slowly raised the camera and pressed the shutter button…it was to be to be my best photo of the year! The camera made an annoying electronic peep-peep noise. I raced to look at the camera screen, it read, “Memory Card Full”

“What?!” I was shocked, angry and confused. I glanced at the coyote; she was still posing but she was looking at me and ‘my’ camera. She appeared to grin at my situation.

I quickly looked at the pictures in the camera’s memory. My family had used the camera to take photos of a school event, the pet guinea pig, and some relatives. “AAArrggh!” Within my mind I heard my carefree comment, “I don’t need to check my camera”. …I should have checked the camera!

“AAArrggh!” Within my mind I heard my carefree comment, “I don’t need to check my camera”.

I glanced again the coyote – now she seemed to raise her eyes as though mocking me.

I fumbled with the camera and erased a guinea pig photo. The coyote was shifting her weight as though readying to walk – she was turning. Quickly I raised the camera and snapped the photo…the coyote was gone. I checked the photo in the camera’s memory – it was a well-focused, perfectly visible picture of the coyote’s posterior. The messaging was not lost.

My daughter and I looked at each other, we both felt tricked, we both felt like posteriors. Neither of us talked much while returning home.

During dinner we talked about what had happened on the trail. At first we blamed the coyote for our own shortcomings, then we correctly blamed ourselves. Although we had made mistakes those mistakes would not happen again; my daughter would watch the trail better, and I would check my equipment before another trip.

Perhaps the stories about coyotes playing tricks are true – the encounter on the trail provided us with several valuable lessons.