I’d heard that the best place to photograph bobcats in the US was at Point Reyes National Seashore. This lesser-known national park is just north of San Francisco. I immediately put it on my ever-expanding travel list. I’ve never been to northern California, but San Francisco, Monterrey, the Redwoods – they’re all on the list. They’ve been on the list for a long time. I can probably see and photograph a wild bobcat, too? It moved to number one on the list.
I thought a long weekend in October would work. Since it would be a short trip, I contacted Daniel Dietrich of Point Reyes Safaris. Daniel is a well-known wildlife photographer and conservationist who lives at the edge of the park and has been guiding photographers for years. If I were going to find a bobcat in just three days, I’d need his help.
Part of the delight in traveling is the experience of new places, getting to know the landscape, the animals, and the people. I’ve never hired a photography guide before. I like to figure out the habitat and routines of its residents through exploration, observation and immersion. That would take more than three days is a place the size of Point Reyes.
I spoke with Daniel. October would be favorable for photographing bobcats, he said, because the grass is short that time of year. I booked the trip. Flying into San Francisco on a Thursday night, I’d have three full days for exploring the park before flying back home Monday afternoon.
Driving through San Francisco and across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in Friday morning rush-hour, I was immersed in the congestion of people, buildings, motorists and noise.
Just past the scenic overlooks at the Golden Gate Bridge, is a rainbow-arched tunnel. “That’s the magic tunnel!”, I exclaimed.
On the one side is the hustle and bustle of the 800,000 people; on the other is Muir Woods National Monument, The Golden Gate Recreation Area and a state park. No people, just space. Magic indeed. It turns out that is the Robin Williams Tunnel. And on the other side is a two-lane mountain road winding through redwoods, chaparral, and seaside cliffs that will bring me to Point Reyes.
Friday, Rob and I drove through the park and hiked the Earthquake Trail and the Kehoe Beach Trail. There are a shocking number of expansive cattle ranches and ranges here. I’d always thought that domestic livestock and wildlife tended to avoid one another. This turns out to be false.
Saturday morning, we met up with Daniel just before dawn. We would spend the next six hours in the park together looking for bobcats and other wildlife. Daniel showed me the places to look and gave me a clear idea of what I was looking for. Sizes across distances are deceptive. How big does a relatively little bobcat look across a big grassy field? They’ll probably just be sitting waiting by a gopher hole, although anything can happen. We saw coyotes, great horned owls, white-tailed kites, a ferruginous hawk, river otters (!!), mule deer, quail, kestrels and tule elk.
But the bobcat remained elusive. At noon it started to rain. It’s California. It doesn’t rain here. Cats don’t like rain and are unlikely to be out and about in this weather.
Daniel took the opportunity to show us one more section of the park where he sometimes finds bobcats, and we parted ways. I love hanging out with naturalists like Daniel. He shared a wealth of information about the park, the politics of conservation, the animals and wildlife photography. It was a morning well-spent.
After lunch and a nap, Rob and I explored on our own. We watched more elk, coyotes and pelicans riding the surf at Drakes beach.
The next morning, we started before sunrise again. It was foggy and crisp as the sun broke the horizon. We drove and glassed and drove and glassed. We found the family of river otters again and watched them for a good hour.
We saw many, many coyotes and a great blue heron hunting gophers in a cattle pasture.
At high noon under a cloudless sky, we crested a hill to see Daniel parked along the side of the road, frantically waving us toward him. There, on the hill, sat a bobcat patiently waiting by a gopher hole.
He’s bigger than I expected and more beautiful than I could have imaged. He’s too far away, even with my rented 150-600mm lens, for a quality image, but I got to watch a wild bobcat hunting without regard for his fans on the roadside. Of course, I took pictures. Pictures that you’d recognize as a bobcat, but not that I’d hang on my wall. We watched him for almost an hour, long after Daniel’s tour moved on. He came closer to us and disappeared on some bushes.
We hoped he’d keep coming and cross the road. He reappeared some time later, hunting along a ravine perpendicular to the roadway but moving away from us. I was giddy. I loved watching him.
Another midday break; food, but no nap, I was too excited to sleep. Then we went back into the park. We took a side road recommended by another photographer that we’d met earlier. After almost getting stuck at the bottom of a hill, we spotted a big, handsome male bobcat walking through the grass in the warm late day sun. He ambled along a bit, a distinctly feline gait, and now that I’ve seen it, I would never confuse a coyote with a bobcat. He chose to stop and sit on the top of a rise in full sunlight. With the patience only a cat has, he waited by this gopher hole.
I had been out of the car for a while, and when he sat down, I moved closer. Observing for any change in his posture that would indicate concern, I zigged and zagged slowly, avoiding a direct approach and stopping when I got close enough for this (with my 600mm lens).
A car drove by, the driver oblivious to the cat just off the road. The bobcat hunkered down, giving us a glimpse of how well they hide in plain sight.
I have a photo that hangs on a wall in my home and a memorable encounter with an elusive wild cat. The picture makes me smile every time I pass by it. Somehow, the work involved makes the experience and the images more valuable to me. If anyone could go to the park any day and find a wild cat to photograph, that wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding. This bobcat chose to accept me in his environment. That’s not a gift he gives every day. What a blessing. I’m hooked.