The safari day started as it usually does, very dark outside. I left my home at 5:20am for the drive to Harris Ranch, meeting the folks on my safari, and heading into the foothills with Pinnacles National Park as my final destination. After leaving Harris Ranch the moon was just setting over the western horizon, the first rays of light hitting the thin clouds high in the sky. The Coalinga area is pretty ugly, oil derricks and cattle worn pastures with no grass – but the mountains to the west are a treasure trove of wildlife. At 7:01am the first bobcat appeared in the dim light beneath an oak tree. Even at ISO 1600 the shutter-speed was just 1/20 second – I should have gone higher but the moment came and went in about 6 frames, then the cat took off in a blur and vanished.
As the split second with the cat ended, I cranked up the ISO to 3200 in hopes that the next bobcat would be in better light – and he was. Traveling down the road we saw a couple of coyotes out hunting, then at 7:40 we found our next bobcat, again stationed near an oak tree anticipating a squirrel hunt I imagine. The light was a bit brighter and I was getting reasonable shutter speeds. The cat didn’t run like so many others, but kind of sauntered along, giving me time to back-up and continue to compose images of him.
The first rays of sun had penetrated the canyon and were actually lighting up the cat just a little bit for me and the photographer sitting behind me. This was a pretty stocky bobcat that I assumed was a male. Many of the largest bobcats I’ve photographed didn’t seem to run as quickly as the smaller bobcats I’ve encountered. Also, the spot pattern between the first and second bobcats was striking, with the first animal heavily spotted.
The cat never stopped looking at me, but he had moved out of the light unfortunately. He kept moving along the treeline, giving us many opportunities to photograph him. It was a cool 40 degrees when we shot this guy, and only 37 degrees for the first bobcat.
Just before finally moving up the hill and into the brush, this was a nice clean look framed by some pine boughs above his head. As we moved along the sun finally shone brightly on the trees and shrubs. The California buckwheat was bright red, and the sycamores, cottonwoods, and poison oak were all various shades of red, yellow, and gold.
When we reached Pinnacles we toured the usual areas, chasing quail and songbirds before finally finding the resident Red-shouldered Hawks – one near the entrance station and one farther west about 3/4 of a mile. He was nice enough to land right above the vehicle and give us fairly clean shots. In the past I’ve got good flight images, but I still haven’t got a image of one after a successful hunt.
We made several passes along the parks roads, with some near misses on animals. The mule deer are entering the rut and were very active. Over the course of the day I counted 85 mule deer – which tells me that one day this is where I will encounter a mountain lion. Where there are mule deer in numbers there are mountain lions – and the time is coming. The last mountain lion I saw had killed an elk in the winter in Yellowstone and I watched him through my spotting scope from about 450 yards – too far for images. I spend a lot of hours driving the back roads here in California and feel I’m due for a good, close, wild mountain lion photography encounter. I just want to be on top of my game when it happens.
The day had warmed up into the low ’80′s. We stopped for lunch and relaxed for awhile – it had been a busy morning. A couple of hours later we found ourselves under a thick pine tree only about a hundred feet from the car. Up in the branches of that pine were three Long-eared Owls were peering down at us. It was my first encounter with these owls that migrate south into these mountains to spend the winter.
It was a lousy shooting situation with the pine branches twisting through the owl at just about every spot. We worked in circles trying to find a hole – and this was about the best I could do with one of the owls. Of course, they were sleeping initially, which doesn’t make for good portraits, but stomping my boots on the ground livened them up and they took some time to look us over. They are medium sized owls, smaller than great horned owls, but bigger than a burrowing or screech owl. Their ears give them their unique look and name. On the ground below the pine tree were about a dozen coughed up owl pellets, visual evidence to their hunting abilities. I look forward to shooting them again, but in a better place.
As the afternoon wore on we began our drive back towards Coalinga. At 3:48pm with the temp at 82 degrees we found our third bobcat, a gorgeous animal out in the full sun and on our side of the road (the drivers side with a photographer behind me) and close. Instead of running like so many do, it just stared at us for about 45 seconds, more than enough time to rip off about a hundred images. The grass and weeds were just back far enough to blur into a soft background, making the bobcat pop with sharpness. It’s eyes just glowed in the light – I don’t know if bobcats can squint, but I’m glad it didn’t. Also a good sized cat, like bobcat #2, and probably a male. Last year I saw over 80 bobcats, this year with fewer bobcat safaris my count stands at 44, but I still have 6 weeks and at least 3 more trips left – so we will see. It was hot when we stopped to shoot this cat, nullifying the belief that with a fur coat bobcats are mostly nocturnal – well, maybe some days, but here in the full sun and 82 degrees this cat was active and hunting.
The road winds along the San Benito River (really a creek, with only occasional water) and there is a spot where the road comes up to the edge of the bank and the river is only about 30 feet below and about 20 yards in, so I had a downward angle. There were cottonwoods along the bank that partially blocked my vision, but I could clearly see ripples in a pool ahead. We slowed and crept up to the edge of the embankment. Below us 8 large wild pigs were in the water, splashing around, and rolling in the mud. All of them were 200 pound pigs, and a number of them had small tusks. It took them several minutes to figure out that the idling engine and crunching of acorns wasn’t their doing – and when the did, they made a mad dash up the hill and onto the plateau level with the road – and it was nothing but muddy pig butts after.
Faces only a mother could love. The creek bank adjacent to the water was turned into a muddy bog as the pigs rooted and rolled in it. The pig, at left, had tusks sticking out from under his jowls and another pig had bigger tusks but he didn’t stare up at me like this guy did. The pigs were very stocky and would have proved a tough kill for any predator – and I think only a mountain lion or a large black bear would even have a chance at one of these pigs, and even then maybe only at a small one. The largest pig I’ve seen was about 300 pounds and it was huge, and I hear they get even bigger. They moved surprisingly fast once they realized that we were there. This was the third group of pigs we had seen, and the only group we had a shot at getting some decent images of.
Again, we moved on down the road at slow speed, just trying to blend in and make as little engine noise as possible. For many of you who know my vehicle, even at 335,000 miles it is dead quiet on a smooth road, and has got me very close to animals that were surprised by my sudden appearance. The shadows in this back road canyon were getting longer now, and temps were starting to come down. We cruised along scanning the brush and hill sides for a movement, a shape that didn’t belong, a color that didn’t belong – just anything out of the ordinary. Three weeks ago on a similar safari we saw 7 bobcats, but never got a good shot at any of them – many were running when we saw them. At 4:50pm a shape jumped out at me, a dark silhouette next to a wide, round bush – we had found bobcat #4.
It was a small bobcat, and not very close, maybe 40 yards away. That silhouette is typical of a bobcat find, just something the wrong color, the wrong shape, and out of place. I pulled over and shot some images, including this one. She (I think its a she) didn’t move, just maintained a steady gaze. I thought we might wait her out and see if she started hunting in the meadow but she wouldn’t cooperate, eventually laying down next to the bush. She won the staring contest and we drove on.
She was our last cat of the day. We did not see a single cat that was running away as we drove up – all four held their ground – at least momentarily. Not a single cat on a hillside or jogging across a meadow – I thought that was odd.
By the time I was re-approaching Harris Ranch the sun had just gone down behind the mountains and the moon rose right in front of me – it was 6:25pm. The moon that was in my face this morning before the sun rose and was in my face again tonight as I drove Highway 198 east to Highway 99 and then south to home, arriving at 7:30pm – a 14 hour day for me. Sometimes these shooting days blend together and I can’t remember who was with me for which bobcats or hawks, which owls or which bears I might have photographed – all I know is the images come home with me – and the grand experiences are never to be forgotten because they live on in the images. BRP