A Day in Point Reyes

Located only an hour from San Fransisco, with over 70,000 acres and an astounding array of wildlife, Point Reyes National Seashore is truly one of the greatest marvels of California. One can find over 1000 species of animals and plants, watch 45% of North American avian species, and discover almost forty threatened and endangered species. And the views? A seemingly endless panorama of clear blue sky and ocean, just beyond green fields ripe with deer, elk, coyotes, and ever-elusive bobcats.

As such, I was ecstatic when Amy Shutt, the director of The Canid Project (and an amazing photographer in her own right), invited me to join her and Daniel Dietrich for a day of photography at Point Reyes. Daniel is also an incredibly good photographer, but what is truly astounding is his knowledge of Point Reyes and its wild inhabitants.

We started our day at 6:45 am, and we had barely just entered the boundaries of the park when Daniel spotted a juvenile Great-Horned Owl being harassed by ravens. It was sitting on a fencepost, silhouetted against the rising sun, but it was far enough away that I was unable to get a decent picture.

We spent the next half-hour driving through the park, and spotted several coyotes, but most of them were obscured by long grass and all that could be glimpsed were their ears, poking out of the grass. And then, Daniel spotted it.

I still don’t know how he did it. While talking and driving, without binoculars or anything, from a distance of several hundred yards, he somehow found it. Above a set of fenceposts, several hundred yards away, crouched low in the grass and waiting patiently, was none other than a gorgeous specimen of Lynx rufus. It was a bobcat.

After a minute or so of fruitless searching, Amy and I finally found the bobcat and I got out my video camera and set it up on a beanbag. We sat there, watching and waiting, until the bobcat finally pounced and received a well-earned trophy—a gopher. We began to drive forward, in hopes that we could make it towards the bobcat without disturbing, but suddenly Daniel eased the car to a stop and pointed out yet another coyote, wandering by a set of telephone poles across the road. Slowly but surely, it was making its way towards the road.

“There’s going to be a chase,” Daniel said. I asked him what he meant, and he predicted that the coyote would cross the road, smell the gopher, and fight the bobcat for its prize. Sure enough, the coyote crossed the road.

I held my breath and readied my camera, making sure I had focus squarely on the bobcat.

Sure enough, the coyote pointed its nose into the wind and smelled the gopher. The coyote began slinking towards the bobcat, a hundred or so yards out into the field and eating its prey without a clue. Then, the coyote broke into a run.

What happened next was one of the greatest wildlife memories of my life, and an unforgettable experience, within two hours of entering Point Reyes!

Once the bobcat had slinked off, we made our way out into the field and succeeded in capturing a few shots of the bobcat. Soon after that, we hit the road again. And within thirty minutes, Daniel spotted a second bobcat!

This one was much closer to the road, resting in a ravine to our left. We took a few shots and waited quietly for it to begin hunting. Much to our chagrin, it did no such thing!

It sat there, resting for minutes on end, occasionally pausing and looking up as a car came by, or stopping to groom itself. After about twenty minutes, it trotted off into the underbrush, and I silently wished it good luck. :)

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After that, we drove around in search of some more bobcats, but they proved to be scarce. For some reason, Point Reyes is also home to an absurdly large population of kestrels, to the point that we would see a different kestrel every few hundred yards! We tried in vain to get a shot, but invariably the little guys would fly off the second we began to slow down.

Daniel then led us to certain tree, and imagine my excitement when, after a minute of searching, we discovered not one but TWO Great Horned Owls! Not only were there two, but they were sitting right next to each other! Fifteen minutes later, I had taken some of my all-time favorite owl images of my life:

Not to be outdone, we spotted three more coyotes until shortly after noon, at which point Daniel had to leave, and Amy and I renewed our search on our own. We had only been driving for ten or twenty minutes (during which we talked nonstop and almost nearly forgot we were supposed to be looking for bobcats) when we spotted a coyote in the distance.

The coyote looked different, almost as if its ears were folded. We got out of the car, and to our surprise the little guy came trotting forward. On closer inspection, his ears weren’t folded—they were gone, halved by mange.

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Not soon after, we spotted another coyote, his coat ragged and torn, also from mange. And farther out in the distance, we spotted a third coyote, who was also suffering from mange. Coyotes have a tragic history in the United States, especially in Point Reyes, and a horrific form of coyote control is to introduce mange into the coyote population, the effects of which we were now witnessing. Amy said that they must have been a family group, which would explain their proximity and their condition.

With the few remaining hours, we explored the southern parts of Point Reyes. Along the way, we spotted some more coyotes and a jackrabbit, which was a first for me.

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With sunset fast approaching, we ventured out to a location that Daniel had taken us to earlier that day, in which we had glimpsed a barn owl. Sure enough, the barn owl was still there. I set up my tripod and used a slow shutter speed in the darkness, just in time for the sun to sidelight the owl.

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It was truly a memorable conclusion to an equally memorable day! I was a little astonished as we drove back to my hotel, checking the species count that I’d maintained during the day. Over the course of one day, we had seen four Great Horned Owls, two barn owls, five bobcats, 12 coyotes, one jackrabbit, innumerable elk, several harriers, one merlin, and a ridiculous amount of kestrels.

Of course, all of this couldn’t have happened without the insane eagle eyes and unparalleled knowledge of Daniel Dietrich — if anyone is ever considering a trip to Point Reyes, book a trip with Daniel and Point Reyes Safaris! I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

Max Nichols