adventures in nature

Pt Reyes National Seashore pt 1 – elk and badger show

Any day at Pt Reyes National Seashore is a good day. So it was on Sunday.

This day started with some friends at a tracking club at Tomales Point, the place where in 1978 native Tule elk were reintroduced onto the land. The cold wind belied the sun that would eventually heat up the land to feel like a day in April, not the end of January. As the elk (aka wapiti) have grown in numbers, so has the success of the native plants and the entire coastal sage scrub ecosystem where they live. Because the elk are separated from the dairy ranch land to the south by a fence, it’s easy to see the stark difference between the land where dairy cows roam versus where the elk roam. Whereas the cows depend on non-native annual grasses for grazing, leading to the typical closely cropped pastureland with little vegetative variety, the elk’s feeding habits compliment the coastal sage scrub ecosystem and promote biological diversity. In the 30 plus years since their reintroduction the landscape has come alive, a lot of it now covered in low growing scrubby plants and bushes that provide habitat for creatures of all sizes. The dairy ranch land does however provide a lot of habitat for gophers, voles and other small mammals, making it a feasting ground for raptors and other predators like coyotes and bobcats.

And I do like cheese. On my pizza. So it’d be nice to make space for both cows and elk.

Last time that I had been to the area was in October (the elk pictures below are from October 2011) – it was during the mating season when the big males are protectively herding their harems of females away from rival males, with whom sometimes they clash with their giant horns. That time of year they are also bellowing out their haunting whale-song-like calls, a sound that reverberates across the landscape and instantly emphasizes being in the presence of wild giants. I feel instantly transported to an ice age meadow with giant elk, mastodons, and wooly rhinos meandering around. How they hold their heads up with such adornments on top is mind-boggling. And a testament to their strength. They are one of the largest deer in the world.

bull elk Oct 2011 / Pt Reyes National Seashore

bull elk Oct 2011 / Pt Reyes National Seashore

That day in October the elk came very close to me and I was able to watch them for a long time. As the males were playing the rut game, females with young were taking good care of their “little” ones.

female grooming young male elk / Pt Reyes National Seashore Oct 2011

female grooming young male elk / Pt Reyes National Seashore Oct 2011

female elk / Pt Reyes National Seashore Oct 2011

female elk / Pt Reyes National Seashore Oct 2011

juvenile male elk / Pt Reyes National Seashore Oct 2011

juvenile male elk / Pt Reyes National Seashore Oct 2011

But this day was not about the elk, it seemed. Their tracks and sign was everywhere, but it seemed that the high energy of the rutting season was behind us and the herds lingered in a seemingly relaxed manner far from the roads and people. Instead, our attention was drawn almost immediately to a large amount of badger sign, including recent digs and burrows complete with a few fairly clear badger tracks. No badger sightings, but it’s exciting to know that they are there. The fresh dirt around the burrows/digs also made great substrate to see other tracks from creatures such as gray foxes, bobcats, and coyotes which had come to investigate the holes.

The search goes on for a sighting of a wild badger, long-tailed weasel and mountain lion (I’d settle for seeing them separately, I suppose) …

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