It was a beautiful, balmy February morning in Berkeley, and I had a plan: I would head to the Department of Motor Vehicles and take care of some long-overdue tedium that could only be handled in California.
But why rush? I made cinnamon toast and absorbed sunlight in my mom’s back yard. I tried to forget that tomorrow, I had to fly back to Baltimore, where it was snowing and I would see nothing green until April.
Wait a second. Why the hell was I spending my last day in California at the DMV? In a panic, I grabbed my camera and headed to Point Reyes.
Why the hell was I spending my last day in California at the DMV? In a panic, I grabbed my camera and headed to Point Reyes.
My last trip to the iconic Bay Area nature preserve was in 1994. It was a weekend-long school field trip with Randall Sequeira’s 5th grade class at Harmony Elementary in Occidental, a small town just north and inland from Point Reyes.
When I wasn’t suspended for kicking boys or showing off fake joints, I could be found playing in the mud at the back of the school yard, poking at bugs, and occasionally writing poetry. I always had a fondness for mud, and on our big trip to Point Reyes, the memory that sticks out most clearly is one of mud. There was a soggy mudflat in the wetlands, just off of a trail, and some of the kids (myself included) couldn’t resist jumping in it. We were all sucked in up to our waists. At least one kid lost a shoe. I savored the silky feel of the mud on my hands, and thrilled at the resistance it gave my tiny legs as I slogged through it. In all likelihood, I was the one who lost their shoe, but I don’t remember it. All I remember is the warm, engulfing mud.
We were all sucked in up to our waists. At least one kid lost a shoe.
Twenty years later, I remembered little else of my first visit, but I had been told it was elephant seal season. The memory card in my Olympus is always short on mammals, so I looked up where to find them and plugged the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center into my phone. I hoped for a grisly mating season battle, or a touching mother-and-calf scene. Maybe a whale would even be spotted; it was migration season, after all.
On the drive in I saw hawks, two quails and countless songbirds, but February is short on sunlight and I didn’t want to miss those mammals. I wish I’d captured a quail, but the menagerie that did make it onto my memory card was worth it.
As I pulled into the parking lot I could already see a seal-like lump on the beach. As I got out of the car I noticed a second. Careful to keep the mandatory 100-foot distance between myself and the elephant seals, I made my way down the beach with my camera. I found a log to sit on within good shooting distance of both animals and waited for them to do something. After awhile, I wondered if they were alive.
They were alive, but they didn’t do much. I ate a snack and took some shots but quickly got bored and walked east.
An outcrop of seaweed-covered rocks hosted a seagull (big surprise) and as I got closer I saw a tiny brown and white bird, which I later learned was a semipalmated plover, pecking at the seaweed and skittering between the outcrops.
A small band of black turnstones made an appearance, and after I was sure I had several beautiful shots of them I walked on. Vultures circled overhead, and I found a sparrow resting on a pile of driftwood. The whole beach was short on invertebrates, but after turning west and heading back past the parking lot, I witnessed one of the many harrowing experiences an animal must have as the only living echinoderm in sight.
Past a group of surfing surf scoters and a flock of mixed gulls, I saw one lone juvenile gull with a terrible Lovecraftian face full of multiple tentacles where a beak should have been. On closer inspection, it was a half-swallowed starfish protruding from an otherwise normal beak. After several attempts to swallow the starfish, the gull was interrupted by a bigger full-grown gull who seemed convinced he could do a better job. He couldn’t. I watched the adult seagull struggle with the starfish for several more minutes before finally giving up and flying off.
I saw one lone juvenile gull with a terrible Lovecraftian face full of multiple tentacles where a beak should have been.
I felt bad enough for the starfish at this point that I decided to go over and see if I could help it out. It was still alive, upside-down, with hundreds of miniature feet waving futilely in the air.
I picked it up and walked down the beach to a small tide pool where it looked like it could hide under a rock until the tide came in. In retrospect, I should have just tossed it into the waves, because I saw it later in the beak of another gull, this time in the air. I assume it was the same starfish, since it was, after all, the only invertebrate on the beach.
It was at this point, just after hiding the starfish from its seagull tormentors, that I saw the otter. It was just blob at the edge of waves, back-lit against the lowering sun, but it moved like a mammal and I thought it might be a seal pup. I lifted my camera and saw through the telephoto that it was an otter! I was thrilled. I had always wanted to see an otter in the wild but I hadn’t even been looking for them this trip. I walked up just close enough to capture some shots as it dragged a dead surf scoter across the sand into the reeds. I was elated and a little horrified; I had lived my life up to that point believing that sea otters were gentle floating mammals that only ate frutti di mare. Here was one with the neck of a drowned bird between its teeth.
I had lived my life up to that point believing that sea otters were gentle floating mammals that only ate frutti di mare. Here was one with the neck of a drowned bird between its teeth.
After squealing and dancing at my otter sighting like the crazed fourth-grader I’d been on my first Point Reyes trip, I decided the beach had peaked for the day and I wanted to see what was on the trail that went up to the top of the cliff to the north. I found one sparrow and a sense of eerie, windy peace. Then I remembered the quail I missed on the drive in and decided to head out while there was still light, just in case they showed up again.
With my eye scanning for birds and the narrow road weekday-empty, I caught sight of a songbird perched on a barbed-wire fence and pulled over. It was a bluebird–my first. I shot until it flew off.
When I spotted of a herd of elk grazing right next to the road, I pulled over again. I’d heard tales of rare tule elk roaming Point Reyes, but had never seen them, and just like with the otter, I certainly didn’t expect to find them on this trip. But there they were, mingling with dairy cows, grazing in the golden hour. I shot the cows and the elk until the light was gone.
I drove back to Berkeley thinking how glad I was that I hadn’t spent my day at the DMV.