Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Grazing tule elk

Grazing female (1of2)

This lovely female was a member of the first group of tule elk that we found along Tomales Point Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore. She was fairly close to the trail which allowed for some great viewing, as well as the chance for some shots of her going about her morning routine. She was quite interested in her breakfast, and really didn't pay much attention to us as she browsed. Occasionally we would shift further up the trail to get a new angle on the scene, and she would raise her head to watch us in motion, but as soon as we stopped she went back to feeding.

Grazing female (2of2)

Since we started this hike early, there was still some fog in the air when we encountered this group on one of the higher ridgelines on the trail, and the speed at which the density changed was really something. One moment you could just make out their shapes in the grass, and then right before your eyes the details would emerge. These two shots came from one of the nicest breaks in the fog we got while watching this group, and in my haste to get off the shots with the new lighting, I nearly clipped off her ears. Fortunately, they just fit, even if I would have preferred a bit more space.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bull tule elk along Tomales Point Trail

Hiking the full lenght of the Tomales Point Trail (listed as 4.7 miles one-way) in Point Reyes National Seashore is something that had been on our list since moving to the Bay Area. This is a beautiful trail that stretches through coastal scrub and grasslands all the way to the the tip of Tomales Point with Tomales Bay on the east side of the peninsula, and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Perhaps the biggest attraction though, is that the trail runs through the Tule Elk Reserve, which hosts a reintroduced herd of tule elk, which now numbers ~440 elk. We attempted it once when we had family in town, but it was raining and fairly miserable, so after we saw a few tule elk far off the trail we decided to turn around only a few miles into it. However, two weekends ago the conditions looked great with a forecast of overcast skies and no rain, so we decided to attempt it again.

The bull emerges

As per my usual, we arrived right around sunrise and were the first car in the parking lot, meaning we were the first feet (of the human sort) on the trail. We had to go probably around 2 miles before we saw our first elk, and unfortunately it was at the top of a ridge that just happened to have fog rolling across it. However, we kept going a bit further and made it right into the heart of a herd of ~20 animals. While the females were quite beautiful, it was really the male who kept drawing our eyes -- and the shot of him above is from when he first came over the hillside and into view.

He doesn't look quite as tough though, with his tongue sticking out!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Elephant seal flippers

Flipper abstraction

While on the beach with these guys, I spent a fair amount of time at the longest range of my zoom trying to work for some intimate portraits. Mostly I was focused on the faces of the old males and their wonderful big nose and textured chest shields. However, their flippers have always intrigued me as well.


They have five fingers within their flipper and each ends in a tiny little "flipper-nail" (for lack of a better term). While at first glance it seems to beg the question of why they would still evolutionarily need nails at the end, it does appear that they are good for scratching an itch upon occasion (although, one would think there might be a better reason as well).

Scratch that itch

It's really interesting to watch them use their flipper, as you can see that their bone structure really must be similar to ours, where there are multiple knuckles in their "fingers".

Friday, January 15, 2010

Relaxing on the beach

A quick post for this shot of another smaller male elephant seal taking a break on the much quieter Cove Beach of Ano Nuevo State Reserve. This beach is outside of the official wildlife protection area, meaning that for the seals its much quieter since there are only a few of them, and for the humans, it means that you can go to this beach without a guide. On the times we've gone in the past two years, there have been a handful of males, most of them smaller than the beachmasters ruling the harems in the official area, that appear to be happy to have a quiet beach to themselves.

Photograph of a northern elephant seal relaxing on the beach

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Protecting the Harem

An elephant seal beachmaster defends his harem at Ano Nuevo State Reserve.

Chasing down the challenger

This was probably the largest alpha male that we saw on this trip, and he was a real brute. You can see how the chest shield of scar tissue that forms during their brutal battles extends nearly around the back of his neck, which means that he has done some serious fighting throughout his life. His reward for this is to be the chief protector and only mate of a harem of ladies.

In the above shot, he is moving at full tilt to fend off another male intruder. One of the females in the harem was calling loudly for a few minutes to alert the alpha male that she was uncomfortable with this newcomer, and once he decided to respond he moved quite quickly through the harem. The challenger was behind the dune from where we were standing, but apparently backed down since we didn't get to see a fight, and the alpha male then settled down for a nap where he stopped. Watching him move his huge mass so quickly was really awesome, he is surely a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, he was moving too fast for my shutter speed in the overcast light, and this was the only sharp frame I got of his burst.

King among his harem

This is a more traditional shot of the beachmaster, and why they call them elephant seals. It really shows off his long proboscis which is covered in scars from his battles and his serious chest shield. It is truly an awesome experience to be in their presence, and especially on the beach with them. A trip to Ano Nuevo State Reserve is a must for any wildlife lover in the area!