Point Reyes Nature & Wildlife

Whales

Engaging in the longest migration of any mammal, the California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) swims 10,000 miles each year, spending about one third of its life migrating from the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Alaska, to the warm, shallow lagoons of Baja California. Along the way, these incredible animals can often be seen from the shores of Point Reyes. What drives the gray whale to undertake this incredible annual round trip from Alaska to Baja? Food and reproduction.

Jutting 10 miles into the Pacific Ocean, the headlands of the Point Reyes Peninsula offer one of the finest spots to view the gray whale. The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary provides a 20-mile wide “highway” along which the whales cruise; sometimes they travel in the close lane (nearer to shore), and sometimes they travel in the far lane (farther out to sea). The areas around Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse offer some of the best whale watching spots in the park.

Here at Point Reyes National Seashore, the peak of the southern migration usually occurs in mid-January and that of the northern migration in mid-March. Late April and early May afford the opportunity to see mothers and calves close to shore.

There is a mystery about these beautiful giants. Like humans, they breathe air, have warm blood and give birth to live young. However, their home is in the depths of the dark ocean where so much is concealed from our probing human eyes. As the gray whales migrate along the Pacific Coast, we may have a brief chance to view them before their return to a world that remains mysterious. 

Numerous ranger-led programs are offered during the Whale and Elephant Seal Season.

Tule Elk

The tule elk herds had virtually disappeared by 1860, 13 years before the state awarded them complete protection. In the spring of 1978, two bulls and eight cows were brought in from the San Luis Island Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos. The elk were contained within a temporary, three acre enclosure to allow for adjustment to their new surroundings. That summer, 6 of the cows bore calves. In the fall, 17 elk were released from the enclosure on Tomales Point to 2,600 acres of open grassland and coastal scrub. By the summer of 1988, the population was at 93 animals. The population census taken in 2000 counted over 400 elk.

The tule elk can be found in several locations within the park but the best chance of seeing them is in the Tule Elk Preserve at Tomales Point. They graze freely and are often seen near the road as you drive into the preserve. 

Tule Elk, cervus elaphal nannodesis, is a subspecies of elk which was once abundant in the Central Valley and along the coast of California. Exploited for their tallow (fat) and hides in the early 1880’s, the added pressure of market hunting for meat in the years of the gold rush caused the elk herds to diminish rapidly and to seek refuge in tule marshes, hence the name, tule elk.

The tule elk herd had virtually disappeared by 1860, 13 years before the state awarded them complete protections. In 1875 the tule marshes around Buena Vista Lake near Bakersfield turned up the final remnant of the tule elk, a single pair. They were protected by rancher Henry Miller, the owner of the land on which they were found, the herd began to expand very slowly at first and by 1905 there were about 145. The U.S. Biological Survey transported some of the herd to other locations to relieve the pressure of the herd on the land and to widen the occurrence in the state.

The slightly smaller stature and preference for grassland distinguish the tule elk from its counterparts, the Roosevelt and Rock Mountain elk. The antlers are found only on the males and begin to grow around April, and velvet which covers the antlers is shed in June and July. The velvet is comprised of blood vessels which nourish the bone. The velvet is rubbed off, the antler harden and are used in battles between males. Elk antlers are composed of a single beam from which smaller prongs, called tines originate.

Bulls enter the rut (breeding season) in late July and it continues until September. During the rut, bulls bugle, roll in wallows, thrash the ground with their antler, spurt urine on their under parts and rub on the ground and trees. Mating occurs only when the cows are receptive. One master bull assumes command which was established during the summer.

Primary and secondary bulls are responsible for 80% of the breeding. Bulls may have harems up to 60 cows. Calves are born in April and May after a gestation period of 8 months, they will nurse for four months and then begin to graze. Life expectancy for tule elk is approximately ten years. The diet varies — they graze on herbs, grasses, acorns, tule and reeds.

Tomales Point at the Point Reyes National Seashore was selected as the site for the re-introduction of tule elk because the habitat was deemed suitable, the impact on deer and cattle minimal and it appeared to be a relatively easy spot for containing the herd. 

Birds

At the bookstore located in the Headquarters of the Point Reyes National Seashore at Bear Valley, you can find a rucksack full of great birding books. While there pick up a copy of the Field Checklist of Birds for Point Reyes National Seashore, compiled by local naturalist Rich Stallcup. It’s 20 pages list almost 500 birds that have been viewed in the local area.

Using one of the many inns, cottages or hotels in the Point Reyes Lodging group as your base, you can easily journey south to Stinson Beach and the Audubon Canyon ranch for the egret and heron nesting season in late Spring. Some of the best viewing spots also include Bolinas Lagoon, Tomales Bay, Limantour Estero, Abbott’s Lagoon, Drakes Bay, Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney rock. These spots are likely to put you in contact with the many birds that make their home or living on or near the water. In addition check out these other locations: Five Brooks Pond, Limantour Road, Muddy Hollow, Olema Marsh, Tomales Bay State Park, Drakes Estero Trail, Mount Vision, Tomales Point. or any of the access trails along the east shore of Tomales Bay.

Wonderful birding takes place during all the seasons. Uniquely located on the conjunction of the north-south and east-west flyway, a vast array of aviary migration takes place right over our heads. One of the best times is to join the annual Christmas bird count where the species names are called out at the dinner following a full day of counting. Frequently 200 species have been observed, from ducks and gulls to raptors and owls.

Plan to make Point Reyes your home base for wonderful birding. Do it on your own or take advantage of workshops, seminars and group or private naturalist activities.

Elephant Seals

After being absent for more than 150 years, elephant seals returned to the sandy Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Since then, researchers have found that the colony is growing at a dramatic annual average rate of 16 percent. Fanning out from their initial secluded spot, the seals have expanded to popular beaches.

From December through March a breeding colony of elephant seals can be observed from Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock, above beautiful Drakes Bay. The males are the first to arrive here, in December, to stake out a claim on the beach. Then pregnant females begin to arrive and soon give birth to a single pup. Subadult and juvenile animals arrive and the colony can number close to one hundred animals.

From the Overlook you can witness the fascinating behavior of these animals, including male dominance contests, birthing of pups and the interactions of mothers and pups. You will hear the distinctive vocalizations of females, pups and the powerful trumpeting of the adult males (bulls) which can be heard for over a mile.

During weekends and holidays, highly trained docents staff the Overlook. They have binoculars, spotting scopes, and a wealth of information to share with you.

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