2012 Pinnacles Nat Mon Safaris

Pinnacles National Monument on Hwy 25 north of Hollister, CA and northwest of Coalinga has become a prime destination for me.  Originally, I was doing a single half-day safari there as part of the first day, of the 3-day Big Sur safaris.  In the past month I’ve made a number of safaris to Pinnacles, both for the wildlife at the monument and for the wildlife and scenics around the monument.

Old house/school on Highway 25 near Pinnacles NM.

In past years it has been a great source for wild turkey images, especially in early April when the toms are displaying, but it has a myriad of bird species, including many hawks that are resident birds.  In late 2011 the trips through Pinnacles turned up coyotes and bobcats, but in 2012 its been mainly birds and raptors.

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk in Pinnacles NM.

The numbers of songbirds has been surprising.  While the oaks and pines seem to be the domain of the noisy Acorn Woodpeckers, there are actually dozens (hundreds by the bird list for the monument) of very active species, both in winter and nesting in spring.

A creek runs through Pinnacles, and with the Cottonwoods, Oaks, Pines, and Sycamores supplying cover – it is truly a birding paradise.  The other dominant bird is the California Quail.  Every single morning I’ve shot in the monument I have seen thousands of quail.  They seem to be everywhere, in every part of the monument, and on the roads leading to the monument.

One side road I’ve begun driving, instead of the usual Hwy 189 to Hwy 25 then north to the monument, a road that Dave Collins pointed out, is the old Coalinga Road that follows the old road to Hwy 25 via Los Gatos Creek.  Not only is it very scenic, but loaded with wildlife and birds.

Black-tailed Jackrabbits photographed on the Old Coalinga Rd.

Circa 1870's ranch buildings on the Old Coalinga Road.

On my most recent safari to Pinnacles we photographed Great Horned Owls in an old barn off the Old Hernandez Road, off Hwy 25.  And while returning to Hwy 25 stumbled across a badger digging in a meadow.  That same morning we caught a bobcat close to the road, but sadly he dropped into a ravine and we got no shots of him.  Moments later we spotted two Burrowing Owls near their nest in a pasture full of flowers.

Inside the monument the areas around the campgrounds have produced many of my best songbird images.  In winter and early spring these campgrounds are pretty empty, but on this last trip in mid-April they were starting to fill up.  The presence of so many people tend to push the wildlife back, away from the roads, but the birds don’t seem to care.

Spotted Towhee at Pinnacles NM.

Western Scrub Jay in Pinnacles NM







A tactic that we used on these safaris was to have the second person in the car ride in the back behind the driver, allowing both to shoot from the same car position.  A car is always your best blind and, when possible, shooting from it will lead to your closest photographic opportunities.  There have been very few situations when I’ve been closer outside the vehicle, when the opportunity existed to shoot from inside.

A female Red-shouldered Hawk dives out of an oak heading for its nest.

Near the bathrooms by the Visitor’s Center is a large oak with a nesting red-shouldered hawk pair.  Luckily the nest is only about half way up on an outer limb, giving us a chance to photograph the comings-and-goings of the adults.

Red-shouldered Hawk returning to her nest in Pinnacles NM.

Up the road from the Visitor’s Center, left at the junction, then up to the Bear Gulch parking lot is another great birding location.  Water, bushes, oaks and pines come together in another excellent area of birding habitat.

White-breasted Nuthatch with bugs for its young.

White-breasted Nuthatch with a caterpillar of some kind for young.

On the latest trip Allen Round and I were shooting the red-shouldered hawk when suddenly I saw Allen look down and begin shooting in the grass.  A Botta’s Pocket Gopher had appeared and was clipping plant material, then hauling it down inside its hole.  The vast number of hawks, falcons, and owls that inhabit this area must feast on these small rodents, as well as the rabbits, squirrels, and voles.

A Botta's Pocket Gopher appears from its hole, with large teeth, in Pinnacles NM.

Cottontails must lead a dangerous life in Pinnacles with all the raptors and owls, bobcats and coyotes.

The more I look, the more I find to photograph in California.  What I once considered to be a wildlife wasteland (as in no wildlife) has become an amazing puzzle of wildlife hot spots – and Pinnacles certainly adds to the list.

About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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