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We are so fortunate to live in a place where we can enjoy nature year round. While birds and mammals in other parts of the country have migrated or are hibernating, winter here — between migrating gray whales passing by, elephant seals arriving and coho salmon returning to the creeks to spawn — is one of the most exciting times of year.
Watching bull elephant seals arrive and establish their territories at Point Reyes is one of the highlights of December, something I enjoy doing myself as well as showing out-of-town guests of all ages. When I first moved to Marin, I had to drive to Año Nuevo to see them, so I don’t take their presence for granted. As an added bonus, the drama of watching is something that can be enjoyed with little walking.
Elephant seals began arriving at Point Reyes from the colonies at Año Nuevo and the Farallones in the late 1970s and the first pup was born in 1981. The colony grew a whopping average of 32% each year from 1988 to 1993, a much-needed boost for an animal that had been hunted to the brink of extinction, before slowing down. Now we are lucky to have a local population of more than 2,500 elephant seals. Most importantly for people who want to view them, the colony expanded to Drakes Beach in the winter of 2019 during the government shutdown.
While staff would normally “haze” animals coming ashore by the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center to discourage them from pupping in an area used by the park’s human visitors, the shutdown allowed the elephant seals to make themselves at home not only on the beach but even in the parking lot. In the winter of 2020 to 2021, they continued to move from Chimney Rock toward Drakes Beach so that the Drakes Beach population accounted for more than half of the adult females in Point Reyes.
Starting Dec. 15, the southwest portion of Drakes Beach (to the right, facing the ocean) will be closed, but like last year there may still be opportunities to view the elephant seals from the sidewalk at the southern edge of the parking lot as long as staff or docents are available. Depending on where the elephant seals decide to plop down, the views can be much better than the views from the elephant seal overlook at Chimney Rock, but bring your binoculars just in case. There is no predicting where they might be on a given day.
Check on the handful of butterflies that are over-wintering in Marin at the Drown Road Trail at Fort Baker in the Marin Headlands.
There is no shuttle bus for the 2021-22 season, and the small parking lot at Chimney Rock fills up quickly on weekends, so Drakes Beach may be a better option for the weekends. Try calling the Visitor Center to find out if staff is available at Drakes Beach on a given day since the Drakes Beach Road may be closed if there isn’t adequate staff.
Monarchs have been in the news a lot in recent years. In 2020, the population of western monarchs that winter along the California and Baja coast dropped to less than 0.01% of the historic size. Volunteers counted under 2,000 monarchs, down from 4.5 million in the 1980s.
While there has been a small, though encouraging, increase from Santa Cruz to Ventura County, numbers so far are still low in the San Francisco Bay region. To check on the handful that are over-wintering in Marin, go to the Drown Road Trail at Fort Baker in the Marin Headlands. Trailheads are on East Road (dirt parking lot on left just above Bay Area Discovery Museum) or take the Chapel Steps Trail on north side of the Cavallo Point Lodge and turn right on Drown Road Trail. There’s a sign where you can dial a number to get information on monarchs. That’s a good place to start looking for small clusters or, on warm days, for flyers.
For more information on helping monarchs, go to savewesternmonarchs.org.
Wendy Dreskin has led the College of Marin nature/hiking class Meandering in Marin since 1998, and teaches other nature classes for adults and children. To contact her, go to wendydreskin.com