Readers’ wildlife photos

Today we have the return of Bruce Lyon, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Bruce’s notes are indented:

Point Reyes National Seashore is a lovely area in the coast 30 miles north of San Francisco. I have lived in California for two decades but only recently began visiting this gem. It has diverse habitats great hiking, excellent wildlife, a few superb restaurants and some excellent local cheeses.

Point Reyes is a peninsula that is largely separated from the mainland by Tomales Bay, a long narrow and very beautiful inlet. One highlight of the area is a population of Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) on the north tip of the peninsula. This subspecies is only found in California, and in 1978 a population was established with two bulls and eight cows brought in from San Luis reserve to the east of Santa Cruz. The Point Reyes population, limited to a fenced-in 2600 acre enclosure, has grown rapidly and is now stable at 450 animals. I read online that a second population has recently been established at the south end of the Seashore.

Below: The trail through elk habitat at the north end of Point Reyes:

The trail affords lovely views of the rugged beautiful coast.

Elk have a harem defense polygyny mating system, which means that individual males fight to defend and control groups of females. Males spend a lot of their time corralling the females so that they do not stray from the herd (and perhaps defect!). At times they almost resemble cattle herding dogs. Here is a male with the females he is defending; we watched him deftly keeping these females together in a group.

From August to October is the ‘rutting’ season. During the rut, males (1) gather the females into harems, (2) wallow in dirt soaked with their urine to smell attractive to the females, (3) to intimidate other bulls the males, they bulge and drag their antlers on the ground and in vegetation, and (4) aggressively guard their harem from other males. In the photo below, a male bugles. The call is surprisingly high pitched, wheezy and somewhat haunting, particularly in the dense fog.

A video from YouTube of males bugling can be watched here.
Below. This male had been dragging his antlers through the vegetation. I assume the wet fur on his face is from rubbing urine-soaked ground and is not from facial glands. A Google search information about deer facial glands revealed that there should not be glands in the area in front of the ear that looks particularly wet. Perhaps some readers know more about this than what I could glean from the internet.
Below: A male and some of the females in the group, with the lovely Tomales Bay in the background.
Below: A female gives me an inquisitive look.
Below: Three females in the fog. This is a very foggy place, so much of the time this is how we saw at the elk. And sometimes it was so foggy that we could see nothing, but could hear a male bugling very nearby.
Below: a ghost (Great Egret, Ardea alba ) drifts by in the fog.

Below: A female elk grazing just outside an enclosure that is very likely part of an experimental study of the effects of grazing. In some parts of the world elk can have dramatic effects on the vegetation. For example, according to one set of studies in Yellowstone Natural Park, increases in elk populations after wolves disappeared dramatically decrease the amount of cover by aspen trees because the elk munched on the small sapling aspens. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has apparently flipped things back the other way (because fear keeps the elk away from some areas, which protects the growing aspens) and aspen are recovering. Thus study has, however, generated some controversy about cause and effect; but I do not recall if the controversy is about the role of wolves, or whether the effect of elk grading on the plants is also debated.

Below: Fencing shows the effects of another grazer—cattle. On the right side of the fence is cattle pasture. Not too many bushes. This would seem like overgrazing to me but I do not have expertise in range management so I will just comment on the fact that cattle dramatically affect the abundance of bushes.

Another grazer in this area is the Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus.  It seems that deer and elk might compete because a few different times we saw a bull Elk chase off Mule Deer. It is also possible, however, that male elk in rut are so pumped up that they chase off any large deer like mammal that is not a female elk. Rut rage!

Below: another Mule Deer, starting to grow out his antlers.

Below: Ending on a culinary note, the tiny settlement of Point Reyes Station has the Cowgirl Creamery which makes several excellent cheeses. Red Hawk, named after the Red-tailed Hawks that soar over the surrounding hills, is simply fabulous. The creamery says this: Aged four weeks and washed with a brine solution that helps to tint the rind a sunset red-orange, Red Hawk has a pungent, beefy aroma and a rich, creamy texture.


  1. BobTerrace
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Great pictures and thanks for the lesson.

  2. Colleen Milloy
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Had never heard of this region and knew next to nothing about elk. Thank you for sharing the beautiful photos with comments!

  3. Merilee
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Thsnks for the great Point Reyes pics. I hiked there a number of times in my Calif days but sadly missed the elk and the mule deer – and the egrets.

  4. Terry Sheldon
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Magnificent and informative. Thank you!

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink


  5. W.T. Effingham
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Excellent framing of the wildlife. I’m having cheese for breakfast.

  6. Karen E Bartelt
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Had a great visit at Pt Reyes last year. Sorry I missed getting the cheese!

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are available in supermarkets, I believe. Love me a good cheese!

      • Posted March 20, 2018 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        It is; and it is very good. Some of my locals have it.

      • revelator60
        Posted March 20, 2018 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        Cowgirl Creamery also has a store/eatery in the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco. You can buy cheeses or get grilled cheese sandwiches and more.

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Fascinating! Great pictures and stories to tell. Thank you for sharing these.

  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Those I suppose are Tule Elk? I’ve been reading up on the role of various cattle ranchers over the decades in saving that sub-species from extinction.

    The point Reyes website is a disappointment – not much science of any kind to be found there. Maybe I need to be looking at websites of nearby universities.

    It’s all your fault Bruce! For every bit of interesting info supplied by thee there’s at least three questions that pop out of the sedge & bite me.

  9. Richard Bond
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Very fine photographs.

    Interesting comment about the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone to preserve the habitat in the face of an expanding population of grazers. A few days ago, I was chatting with a woman of about my age (don’t ask!) about our experiences in Kenya. Her family used to have connections to the Kisumu area but they no longer visit Kenya because “elephants are now overrunning Tsavo East”, which is my favourite Kenyan wildlife reserve. This is ironic, because, about seventy years ago, Tsavo East was Acacia forest. Then about a quarter of a million elephants invaded, and basically ate the place. This led to a dramatic drop in the elephant population, but also to a much more varied flora, and a large increase in the variety and numbers of many other species. Ecology is complicated.

  10. Liz
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Wonderful. Nice shot of the egret.

  11. Richard Bond
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Off topic, but relevant to Kenya: on May 8th 2017, Jerry posted my photographs of early human activity at Olorgesailie. Several readers expressed interest, so I thought that they might like this item from the BBC:

    • Richard Bond
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Ugh! Delete everything between % and D (inclusive) in the address. I cannot get the hang of posting internet addresses. While avoiding embedding.

  12. Ken
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Marvelous, once again. Thanks!

  13. Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Elk in California? Wow. I knew California had a lot of biomes, but I associated elk with tundra type places. I see from Wikipedia that I’m actually wrong – maybe I’m thinking of moose.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      And this place is only 14 miles from Muir Woods which has sequoia trees! All just a short drive north from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge.

  14. Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Nice fence-line contrast photo. In official government reports, we might call the right side heavily grazed. “Overgrazed” offends people, and actually does depend on your goals. That pasture does indeed look heavily grazed, but you never know; maybe the rancher has removed the shrubs to allow more grass growth.

  15. Mark R.
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I always enjoy photos from lovely California. Thanks.

  16. Paul Doerder
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Great photo essay.

  17. Posted March 19, 2018 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful photos.

  18. Posted March 20, 2018 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I agree on Cowgirl Creamery: They make excellent cheeses, world-class in my opinion.

    If you have these locally (we do — Minneapolis-St. Paul area) do try them (if you enjoy French-style soft cheese anyway!).

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