2011 Big Sur Safari (#1)

For just being a few days this was an extraordinary shoot.  I’d only been back from the Southern Utah Safari since Monday when on Thursday I headed back out, this time to work my way through Pinnacles National Monument, on my way to shoot the Big Sur area the following two days.  While the weather was difficult and wet, it made for great pictures.

Dave Collins and I met up in Coalinga and traveled Hwy 198 west until turning north on Hwy 25, which would lead us to Pinnacles.  This twisty highway is always a slow drive but we found the local bird life out in force.  Hawks, falcons, and golden eagles were actively hunting in the adjacent pastures and hillsides, while wandering tarantulas were crossing the highway at various spots.

Face shot of a wandering tarantula.

Dodging the cars was the most difficult and dangerous part of shooting the tarantulas.  The one pictured above was about 6-7 inches wide when its legs were extended.

Once we were in Pinnacles we photographed a couple of coyotes, wild turkeys, numerous songbirds, while high above us condors floated on the thermals.  Pinnacles has a large, diverse population of birds and walking the trails allowed us to get some decent shots of some of them.  Acorn woodpeckers, Bewick’s wrens, canyon wrens, nuthatches, sparrows, brown creepers, Western and Steller’s Jays, and many others flit about the trees that shade the bottom of the canyon.

Western Scrub Jay with Acorn

The oak trees and large pines provide a great habitat for all the birds.  It was very difficult photography though – the birds always seem to stay just out of range and move incessantly through the brush.

We photographed a couple of different coyotes, one that looked more like a dog/coyote mix than a straight coyote.  They were hunting parallel to the roads and didn’t seem the least bothered by us as slowing down and shooting them from inside the vehicles didn’t stop them from hunting.  At one point I was shooting face shots right at the 500mm lens minimum focusing distance.  But there was a lot of possible prey, including lots of mule deer, rabbits, quail, and the previously mentioned turkeys.

BeWick's Wren in Spanish Moss

We found the most activity in the Bear Gulch Day Use area near the end of the road.  Trails go off from this location in various directions leading to prominent areas of the monument.  Many of the oak trees are covered in Spanish moss and provide interesting backgrounds to the bird photography, some of the larger pine and sycamore trees have hundreds of acorn woodpecker holes drilled in them.

Late in the afternoon we made the short run to Monterey, maybe about 70 miles away or so.  The clouds started to close in and there was a light drizzle that night.  The storm was a few hundred miles off-shore but it was the source of energy driving the unusually high waves against the Big Sur coastline area, as well as regular bands of rain.  In the morning we traveled down towards Big Sur and a few miles beyond, to a point just north of the Point Sur Lighthouse, to photograph large rollers as the crashed ashore.  It was an amazing spectacle.

Waves coming ashore just north of the Point Sur Lighthouse

Every set of waves had its own unique curl and dynamics as the waves crashed ashore.  The off-shore breeze kept the foam and spray behind the curl, making the photography much easier.

Crashing waves north of the Point Sur Lighthouse

These waves were pretty far away and we used our long telephoto lenses to get reasonably close to them.  Typically, my exposure for these waves was around f4 to f8, with shutter speeds ranging from 1/350 down to 1/150 second at ISO 400.  The dark sky required the higher ISO settings and due to the distance, depth-of-field wasn’t a real issue.

More waves north of the Point Sur Lighthouse

After the waves we moved up and down the coast, traveling some of the local dirt roads back into the Los Padres National Forest looking for landscapes and wildlife.  Much of the ground surrounding the LPNF is privately owned and fenced, making photography of scenic areas very difficult.  But on the old coast road we found some waterfall landscapes.

Los Padres National Forest waterfall and ferns

The wind was blowing in these tight canyons and on the hillsides and there were times when the rain ended our shooting opportunities.  Sometimes we never left the car.  During one hard rainfall we drove up on a beautiful red-shouldered hawk enduring the rain on a power line right above a flock of wild turkeys.

Red-shouldered Hawk

They didn’t seem to mind the rain as much as we did.  The next day we again headed south from Monterey and wound up on the Saberanes cliff and beach south of Monterey but north of Big Sur.  The gray sky was a good balance for the gray-green waves that pounded against the stacks of rock just off-shore.

The shoreline here was very rocky with almost no sand at all, just nicely round gray granite rocks covering the entire beach.  We climbed down to the beach and set up to shoot north up the shoreline.  Initially, I was more intrigued by the rocky beach rather than by the crashing waves farther up the coastline.  There was a nice waterfall leading down through the cliffs, emptying out onto the beach we were on.  We shot these more obvious subjects before I started shooting the waves hitting the rocks.  I bracketed the first exposures, figured the best setting, and then set my camera on manual, not wanting my exposures to be changed by the exploding water, going from dark gray-green to white almost instantly.  I normally wouldn’t have gone to manual, but I wasn’t going to change the composition much so a manual setting was fine.

The Soberanes Beach and sea stacks.

As I shot the wider shots I began to notice the pattern of spray on the small rocks closer to the shoreline.  Its interesting that the longer we stayed to shoot the beach the more subjects just seemed to appear.  Maybe our vision was just getting better.

Crashing Wave Spray

Past Big Sur we drove the Pfeiffer Beach road and photographed the rainforest effect of the forest and ferns.  The beach road itself was blocked by fallen trees, so we spent our time working the areas along the road.

Rainforest effect of trees and ferns

As we moved south down the coast we also spent a lot time at McWay Falls, not shooting the falls (really a sunset shoot), but shooting the creek and its waterfalls that led down the hillside from the picnic area to the large waterfall above the beach.  Under these coastal redwoods the reddish/brown bark and limb branches made for a bright red foreground around the waterfalls.

McWay Creek and waterfall

The trails along the creek made for great compositional elements.  Water was really the subject of this photo safari.  There were waterfalls, crashing waves, rain, swollen creeks – all great subjects for photography.

We finished the last day down near San Simeon.  The coastline was just crowded with raptors of one species or another.  We tried shooting them from the vehicles but that is always a tough chore.  At the elephant seal overlook at Piedras Blancas I had more luck photographing the shore birds moving along the beaches.  They were my final subjects of this great safari.  December 17-18 is Big Sur Safari #2 … sign up and come along.

Curlews babysitting Sanderlings at Piedras Blancas

About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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