Why winter is the best time for animal sightings in the North Bay
From elephant seals to eagles, salmon to sea slugs, the North Bay area teems with wildlife this time of year. And in our region, with a little advance planning and a sense of adventure, you can observe these animals in their native habitats.
Whether you’re looking for an easy stroll, a learning opportunity for your kids or a strenuous trek into new territory, our local, state and federal parks have wildlife offerings aplenty this winter and spring.
Visiting animals in their native habitats requires a patient and ethical approach. Tread lightly, speak softly and when you do encounter critters, respect their space and follow all posted rules and guidance from the experts. It’s also best to leave dogs at home. They can harass wildlife and may literally “put them off their lunch,” even from a distance.
Of course, there are no guarantees you’ll spot a particular species, but with many animals on the move, breeding or nesting at this time of year, chances are better than average.
Here are some of the best places in the North Bay to spot animals. Some parks offer guided hikes, with the added advantage of hearing about species from the experts.
Point Reyes National Seashore
What you might see: Elephant seals and gray whales.
Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the few places in California to see northern elephant seals in their natural habitat. These champion long-distance swimmers spend most of their lives out of sight, deep in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately for us, nature compels them to come ashore for brief periods to breed and later, to molt. And, of course, to sleep in the sun.
Elephant seal breeding season extends from late December to early March, with most pups born in January. Listen for the belligerent trumpeting of males and watch for their aggressive chest bumps as they protect their harems from rivals.
The females typically give birth to a single pup, weighing between 60 and 80 pounds. Once their pups are weaned, the females mate again, then head out to sea for several months for some well-earned feasting. Left to fend for themselves, the pups must teach themselves to swim, gradually venturing into the surf when they get hungry enough.
Once driven to near extinction by commercial hunting, the northern elephant seal has made a remarkable comeback. From as few as 100 in the early 1920s, the population has rebounded to about 150,000. About 124,000 of these are found in California waters. So important is Point Reyes to the recovery of elephant seals that Park staff are very careful to prevent disturbance. Key beaches may be closed and vehicle traffic is limited. On weekends and federal holidays, you can catch a shuttle bus from Drakes Beach to the Elephant Seal Overlook at Chimney Rock (the road is open during the week).
About the same time the seals are busy breeding on the beach, gray whales are on their way south from their Artic feeding grounds to the warmer waters off Baja California to give birth. From late December through January, some 20,000 gray whales make this southern migration, the longest round trip of any mammal, right past the Point Reyes peninsula.
Miss your chance this month? Come back in March when the whales pass Point Reyes again on their way back north. The return trip offers even better whale watching opportunities — the mothers and calves swim very near the shore.