Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Point Reyes National Seashore, My Happy Place

A firey sunrise over Inverness Ridge in Point Reyes National Seashore
The sunrise over Inverness Ridge in Point Reyes National Seashore.

The Point Reyes Peninsula is a very special place to me. It’s where I go to relax, it’s where I clear my thoughts, it’s where I feel so alive as the breeze touches my face or the scents of the coast reach my nose. When I close my eyes and let my mind drift to my happy place, it’s always Point Reyes.

There is something about the landscape there that captivates me. I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it is. There are so many amazing places in California, some well known and still spectacular (i.e., Yosemite National Park) and some under the radar that can be just as amazing (pick any beach along the Sonoma Coastline). But yet, as I realized that my time was running short in California, and that I would only be able to visit my favorite places or try out new ones just a handful of times, all else was forgotten and my eyes (and my heart) were set on Point Reyes.

I think the landscape is beautiful, and I know I’m not the only one (it was even recently recognized on ABC’s Good Morning America during their segment on the 10 most beautiful places in the country) – but when I take a step back, set my emotions aside, and try to think about what makes it so special, it’s hard to say exactly what it is. Sure, the coastline is spectacular with gorgeous bluffs and long beaches of soft sand, but you can find this in other places. And perhaps surprisingly, a lot of the land is agricultural pastures, and you’ll often see far more cows than anything else on a trip. But somehow, that just makes sense there. And the miles upon miles of old weathered fences pull me in every time. I once thought to myself, there are so many interesting fence posts here, that if I had the time, I could make a photographic book of just the beautiful patterns in the wood, the interesting mosses and lichens growing on them, the wildflowers that bloom along them, the raptors and quail that sit on the posts, and the songbirds that so elegantly perch along the wire, and maybe, just maybe a deer or elk leaping over one.

Old fence along the dunes at North Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore
An old fence stretches along the dunes at North Beach

But set into this speckled land of fenced-off pastures are the rolling hills, the large sand dunes, and the small coastal mountains that add amazing depth and life to the landscape. Perhaps though for me, it’s not just that landscape that has gripped me so deeply. I know what wild things are out there, and the chance to spot one, and hopefully photograph one, always keeps me coming back for more.

So many times in the past few years, as I’m getting my camera ready the night before an outing, my wife will ask me where I’m headed the next morning. And with much regularity, I’ll say “Point Reyes.” She’ll often chuckle and reply, “Did I even have to ask?” It’s funny to me to realize that it took us a year of being in California to even take a hike there, but I can still remember that trip in much detail. After parking under a typical summer morning of heavy fog, we saw a quail for the first time near the trailhead, saw some tule elk off in the distance on a hillside, and we even saw a coyote (or maybe it was a grey fox?) through the binoculars. We sat on a large log that had long since turned into a piece of driftwood to eat our lunch along the beach, and we watched the pelicans skim the tops of the waves under the quiet foggy sky. Then, when we were ready to move on, we got back onto the trail, and the fog lifted and the blue skies came out – and we were in awe as we walked along the coast and saw the crystal clear sky reflected in the beautiful blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Happy to be in Point Reyes
Me, excited to be in Point Reyes for the first time, but not yet knowing what this landscape would eventually mean to me.

While thinking about what I wanted to write in this post, I became curious about just how many times I’ve been to the park. A quick scan though my photo archives reveals that since our inaugural hike in 2006, I’ve been back to Point Reyes some 60 additional times. What is it that keeps pulling me back again and again? Shouldn’t I have gotten bored with walking the same trails, seeing the same sights, and driving the same roads?

A while back I read an interesting post on Greg Russell’s blog, which linked to a wonderful post about someone’s love of a specific desert landscape. In the comments, Greg replied back to me about how interesting it is that certain landscapes can capture the imagination and that he “thinks, perhaps, like choosing a mate; we need a fit with a complementary personality. Landscapes or people, it’s all the same…” This idea rang so true for me with Point Reyes.

Heavy fog over Kehoe Beach dunes in Point Reyes National Seashore
A foggy sunset along Kehoe Beach in 2007.

There is something in the personality of the park that just connects with me. I’ve been to many parks in California, and I’ve really enjoyed all of them. But there is just something so special to me about this one piece of land that it just keeps pulling me back. Perhaps it’s not worth my time to try to pinpoint what it is that I love about that park so much. But rather, just to enjoy the fact that I have a place that is so special to me, and that always makes me smile when I think of it. Point Reyes is my Happy Place, and I like to think that no matter how often or how little I’m able to visit throughout my lifetime, it will always give me that warm feeling of freedom inside my heart when thoughts of it cross my mind.

If you're interested to see more of Point Reyes, please visit my Point Reyes National Seashore Special Collections.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Caspian tern taking flight, Point Reyes National Seashore

Tern taking flight - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

While strolling Limantour Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore earlier this month, I was disappointed to have not found any flocks of shorebirds. However, once I crossed over to the estuary-side, I was treated to a flock of 20 or so Caspian terns relaxing on the exposed mudflats. I've often had a hard time getting close to any terns, but I decided to go for it with these birds since they didn't fly away at the sight of my coming through the cut in the dunes.

We have liftoff - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

I did a lot of belly-crawling to get close to the flock. I decided that I didn't want to push it, so I started sliding along the wet mud from quite a distance away. The wet pants and sand in my pockets was totally worth it though, as I was able to creep close enough to get some nearly full frame images. For a while I just watched them nap and preen, but eventually they started to stir, and every now and then a bird would take flight. I tried my best to get the lens onto an active bird as quickly as possible, and while I missed a bunch I was lucky to be looking at this one as it took to the air, and it happened to call out while it did.

Tern passing by - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

Submitted to World Bird Wednesday -- follow the link to check out this week's posts.


To all of my local followers -- I'm trying to cut down on the stock of photos that I'll be moving with me to Boston. Thus, I'm having a 50% off sale of in-stock prints ($22 for 11x14 prints and $18 for 8x10 prints). To see a sampling of the availability and get more info, see my Craigslist posting.

Feel free to email me with questions or to make arrangements to purchase a photo. I'll be in the Berkeley area until next Wed.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Late summer sanderling, Point Reyes National Seashore

Late summer sanderling - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

Limantour Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorite locations to look for shorebirds. There are a few miles of beach balanced on a narrow spit of sand that has the Drake's Bay of the Pacific Ocean on one side, and Drake's Estero, a tidal estuary, on the other side. It's a perfect place for shorebirds to stop and feed during their migration, and many also winter there. Knowing that the migration would be picking up, I took a few trips to Limantour in early August hoping to find some shorebirds still in their summer colors. Unfortunately, I was mostly skunked on my trips, and only once did I find a cooperative flock to photograph.

On this day, there was a small group of maybe 25 birds that were feeding along the shoreline, and after gaining their trust, I walked for a few miles with them as they worked their way up the beach. The way it would work is that I would slowly walk and keep pace with the birds, then when they would find a place to stop and feed, I'd get just a bit ahead of them before dropping onto my stomach in the middle of the flock. I usually tried to have a few birds ahead of me and some behind, since I knew that those that were behind me would eventually run right past my lens to get back with the forward birds. I'll note that you really have to have a flock get used to you before you can get up and down with them around since they normally get spooked if you change your posture near them. It took quite a while of belly-crawling close to them, and just hanging out on the edge of their group to win over their trust. But once I did, it really didn't bother them to have me slowly dropping down onto the sand as they fed (moving in super-slow motion as you drop from standing to the ground is imperative as well). These are the kinds of interactions that I treasure on my photographic outings, when you can truly gain the trust of the wildlife, and have them accept you as part of their world.

So after walking down the beach with them, and lying down in the sand like this perhaps 20-25 times, they were really comfortable in getting close to me, and I was able to get some full-frame views of the birds. Unfortunately, as we made our way up the beach we eventually crossed over the invisible line that separates the dog friendly part of the beach from the protected area. Soon enough I could see an owner with her dogs off in the distance heading my way, and as they came closer, my encounter ended abruptly. Not that the dogs were that interested in the birds, but the sanderlings wanted no part of having two four-legged visitors near the flock.

See more photos of these adorable peeps in my Sandpipers Gallery

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Quail at sunset, Point Reyes National Seashore

California quail at sunset - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

A male California quail is kissed by the golden light of sunset as he sits on the old gnarled branches of a coyote bush near Abbott's Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore.

View more images of one of my favorite birds in my Quail Gallery.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big bull, bigger news

Bull tule elk - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

This has been a busy summer for me, as my regular readers may have guessed due to my infrequent posts, so it may come as no surprise that there is big news in my future. I will be submitting my Ph.D. dissertation in the next week or two (in environmental engineering, if you were curious), which will be the culmination of a wonderful six-year journey filled with hard work, great challenges and successes, fantastic friendships, and some very fond memories.

In the beginning of September, my wife and I will be uprooting from California and embarking on a cross-country road trip to the Boston area, which will be our new home. While I do not yet have a position lined up, I am excited at the prospect of beginning my professional career in conservation there. I hope that I’ll be able to continue to find time to photograph wildlife in the Northeast, and I will definitely be keeping the blog as active as I can. I have plenty of images from California waiting to be posted, but I suppose I’ll need to come up with a new tag-line for the blog, since I’ll no longer be "seeking inspiration from the natural beauty of just northern California." Also, if you have any favorite bird or wildlife locations in Massachusetts (or the surrounding area) please let me know in the comments or by email. I’m definitely looking forward to finding some new wetlands, forests, and beaches to explore!

On our travels to the east, we’ll be spending around a week in Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks – two places that I have never visited, but that have been on my wish list for a long time. I’m looking forward to the wildlife photography opportunities there, and my wonderful bride has already agreed to wake up well before sunrise each morning so we can seek out wildlife during the golden hours. I probably won’t have too much of a chance to blog while we’re on the road, but hopefully I’ll come back with plenty of images to post throughout the fall!

For the next few weeks, I’ll continue to post new images whenever I get the chance while I wrap up many loose ends here before the move, including squeezing in as many trips to Point Reyes National Seashore as I can! As always, thank you for taking the time to read my blog and for your comments and support over the past few years!


Friday, August 12, 2011

Bugling bull tule elk, Point Reyes National Seashore

Bugling bull tule elk in the tall grass of Point Reyes National Seashore

The tule elk rut is in full swing in Point Reyes National Seashore. I started my day with an early morning hike along Limantour Spit, but I again saw very few shorebirds. So since it was still early by the time I was back in my car, I decided to take a trip up to Tomales Point to check on the tule elk. Unfortunately, the fog was so thick that I could barely see the bushes just a few feet outside my window. So instead of taking a hike through pea soup (I've done that enough times in the elk reserve to know that it's just not photographically worth it), I decided to take a drive out to the outer peninsula. I saw some elegant terns on Drake's Beach last week, so I thought perhaps I could find them (or maybe some shorebirds) there as a consolation prize. Instead, I was treated to a fantastic display from the free-ranging tule elk herd. There are often elk near the turn off to Drake's Beach, but they are not often so close to the road. It was a real treat to park the car and spend some time watching three separate harems on the hillside.

The largest harem belonged to this very large bull, and although he was moving with a substantial limp from one of his back legs, he was still bugling loudly, chasing off rivals (no antler-locking fights while I was there though), and mating with his females. He was a truly impressive specimen, and it's always fun to see that slightly crazed look in his eye that you see this time of year. In this shot, he is bugling loudly across the valley, and it was fun to hear the other bulls answer him back. Since I was hearing multiple responses to his calls, it was also nice to know that there were more elk just down the road.

View more images of these majestic animals in my Tule Elk Gallery.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ruffled willet at Pillar Point Harbor

Ruffled feathers - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

My past three posts have included shorebirds looking quite relaxed while tucked into their classic resting pose. To change things up a bit, here's a willet shaking out its feathers, and looking a bit more unkempt.

View more willet images in my Willets Gallery.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

American avocets at Radio Road Ponds

Flock of Avocets

On my way back from Pillar Point Harbor last month, I decided to take a slight detour to Radio Road Ponds in Redwood City. I was delighted to see a large flock of American avocets resting in the shallows near a convenient place to set up a tripod. While they were far enough away that making a compelling image of a single bird was difficult, it was a fun challenge to find some pleasing compositions within the flock.

Avocets tucked in

Many of the birds were busy preening, but occasionally they would all tuck their bills into their feathers to rest. I really love the shape of a shorebird in this pose, and it's always nice to photograph such a relaxed subject. The rippled reflections were a nice bonus too.

American avocets

More photographs of these elegant shorebirds in my Stilts & Avocets gallery.

Submitted to World Bird Wednesday -- follow the link to check out this week's posts!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Resting willet, Pillar Point Harbor

Resting willet at Pillar Point Harbor - Pat Ulrich Wildlife Photography

A lot going on right now for me that has kept my hands off of the camera and away from the blog for a couple of weeks, but this shot is from my last outing in mid-July. I headed down to Pillar Point Harbor hoping to find shorebirds in summer colors. There were only a few sandpipers around that never stayed in front of my lens for long, but I did get to spend some quality time lying in the harbor sediments photographing a group of 15-20 willets as they rested and preened on an exposed rock outcropping. Some birds were already in their plain basic plumage, and a few were quite striking in their breeding colors -- and this particular bird was somewhere in between.

More photographs of these charismatic shorebirds in my willets gallery.